The largest provider of outside school hours care in New South Wales has defended the support that was given to former colleagues of convicted paedophile Jonathan Lord after allegations emerged against him.
In January, Lord was jailed for a minimum of six years for abusing 12 young boys during his time as a child care worker at the YMCA at Caringbah in Sydney’s south.
The case is the focus of the second public inquiry as part of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
A child care worker at the centre, Michelle Bates, has told the Royal Commission she could not pinpoint one thing YMCA management did right when the allegations surfaced.
Ms Bates says her request for group counselling was refused.
Counsel representing the YMCA New South Wales Gregory Sirtes SC has challenged Ms Bates about her comments that staff were treated like “guinea pigs” during the investigation.
“The fact that the CEO came to see you and other childcare workers, and confessed to you that the way in which the organisation had handled its relationship with its staff was wrong, yet despite that, you are unwilling to acknowledge that was even one
step in the right direction,” Mr Sirtes said.
Ms Bates agreed it was a step in the right direction, but there was, “pretty much no support after that.”
The hearing was told YMCA NSW paid for Ms Bates’ counselling bills.
Ms Bates also conceded she ignored policies listed on a child care induction checklist until the Lord incident.
She is one of a number of YMCA child care staff appearing at the inquiry.
Alicia Dellaca has told the hearing that the YMCA centre at Caringbah was the first point of contact for distressed families, and parents were, “very emotional and sometimes abusive.”
Ms Dellaca says despite the investigation, the organisation did not provide staff with enough support.
The hearing was told staff were forced to sign confidentiality agreements and urged to notify families that Jonathan Lord was on annual leave.
Danielle Ockwell worked closely with Lord and, in a tearful admission, told the inquiry she feels “devastated” and blames herself “every day” for what happened.
Ms Ockwell confessed to seeing warning signs of Jonathan Lord’s abuse, but she did not view it at the time as “grooming” behaviour.
She also admitted being told by Lord that he was sent home from a summer camp in the United States in 2009, because he was caught alone with a young boy. She chose not to act, saying it seemed innocent.
Alicia Dellaca felt the same way about Lord’s treatment of the children in his care, saying the fact children were sitting on his lap in a “such a public forum” made her think the behaviour was appropriate.
During a candid testimony, Ms Dellaca admitted that the required child-to-adult ratios were routinely disobeyed until the Lord incident and that children were allowed alone with a single adult worker on a “daily” basis.
She said she learnt the policies of the YMCA centre to tell them to an accreditor, but conceded that at the time, she did not understand the concept of a code of conduct “in an employment context”.
A YMCA co-ordinator Carine Beer conceded that until Jonathan Lord was being investigated, she had not read the YMCA Parent Handbook.
“What do you recall from the Child Protection Policy?” asked Senior Counsel Assisting the Commission, Gail Furness.
“Nothing,” Ms Beer responded.
“What do you recall from the Childsafe Policy?” Ms Furness asked.
“Nothing,” Ms Beer responded.
The inquiry has also been told that Jonathan Lord was so enthusiastic about his job that his co-workers were not aware he was “grooming” young boys.
Senior Counsel-Assisting has asked Chloe Starr about her knowledge of YMCA policies.
“I’m trained to read them and I know the gist of the important ones,” she said.
“So if a child is bullying, I would be referred to read the bullying policy and go from there.”
Ms Starr said she considered Jonathan Lord a “role model” before the allegations and had no idea his behaviour was cause for concern.
“I just thought he was a great worker and he was very enthusiastic about his job,” she said.
“He had a great passion for his job.
“But now, when I look back, and I have learnt about ‘grooming’, I see that may have been ‘grooming’.”
Chloe Starr was also questioned about the policy that no YMCA child care worker can babysit a child that attends the centre.
Ms Starr says she was aware Jonathan Lord was looking after children on weekends.
“That didn’t occur to you at the time – a 24-year-old young man who was spending his weekends babysitting young boys?” Ms Furness asked.
“At the time, no,” Ms Starr responded.
“He was so enthusiastic about children, I just assumed that that’s what he enjoyed doing.”
Lessons being learned
The YMCA admits it was a steep learning curve. NSW CEO, Phillip Hare, says the organisation had never dealt with a similar case before.
He says the YMCA did not want any actions to “jeopardise” the criminal investigation, potentially leading to a situation where Lord would be allowed to walk free.
Phillip Hare says the YMCA was “definitely learning” during the incident, and allowed the organisation to “reflect” on how to better support parents and staff if the incident happens again.
The YMCA says it is “devastated” about Jonathan Lord’s “devious and perverse conduct”, and it welcomes the public inquiry.
The organisation says Lord lied on is resume and did not provide contact details, making his background “not readily available to check”.
In a statement, YMCA New South Wales admits it could have had “more robust processes for identifying potential sexual predators” and staff have now undertaken further training.
“However, YMCA NSW considers reports to the effect that grooming conduct and identification of paedophiles is simple or easy dangerously underestimates the difficulties that organisations face in dealing with this conduct,” the statement reads.
Areas for improvement
The YMCA centre at Caringbah was inspected numerous times in the wake of the Jonathan Lord allegations.
The General Manager of the Early Childhood Education and Care Directorate with the New South Wales Department of Education and Communities, Ruth Callaghan, told the hearing a ‘monitoring inspection’ took place in January 2012.
It was described as an ‘unannounced visit’ in the wake of the Lord matter, but was also a routine inspection to ensure compliance of child protection issues and policies.
Concerns including the use of private cars were raised, and the assessment and compliance officer identified areas for improvement.
“Based on what I know of the monitoring visit, I would not say that the evidence I have would indicate best practice,” Ms Callaghan said.
After Lord was jailed, a further monitoring inspection was conducted on 30th May 2013. The hearing was told that a range of non-compliance issues were detected.
One staff member had not completed a Working With Children check.
“The first non-compliance was in relation to emergency and evacuation instructions not being displayed, and various other matters in relation to emergency and evacuation procedures,” Counsel Assisting the Commission, Gail Furness said.
“That’s right,” Ms Callaghan said.
“And the next matter concerns staff records not including other things, among them, evidence of training?”, Ms Furness asked.
“Yes,” Ms Callaghan said.
The inquiry continues.