The mother of a girl who attended a childcare centre in Sydney’s south where a worker was jailed for child sex offences has told an inquiry children need to be trained to detect “grooming” behaviour.
The Royal Commission into child abuse is examining the case of Jonathan Lord, who is now behind bars for abusing 12 boys during his time at the YMCA centre at Caringbah.
The inquiry has heard Lord would play favourites with boys and allow them to sit on his lap, but the children and staff did not find the behaviour suspicious.
The mother, identified in the commission as “AW”, said today that children as well as adults need to be aware of child grooming.
“It’s very vitally important that children be empowered to learn the skills that they need, and for parents to be aware that grooming does occur and there are inappropriate things that may happen in an institution,” she said.
AW also told the hearing parents were left out of the loop after the allegations surfaced.
She said she attempted to contact the principal of the school attached to the centre but her calls were not returned.
AW organised a forum on November 24, 2011 to discuss her concerns.
“Parents were distressed. We didn’t know where to go, who to go to, to get support,” she said.
“No-one knew anything, and no-one could tell me anything.
“I didn’t know who Jonathan Lord was.”
The hearing heard that parents were in shock and were left in the dark for two weeks.
“It’s not every day that you come to the understanding that your child may have been sexually abused by someone in an institution,” AW told the hearing.
AW told the hearing she does not believe her daughter was abused by Lord, and the girl was in the care of another male staff member at the centre.
Counsel assisting YMCA NSW, Gregory Sirtes SC, challenged AW about her apparent refusal to meet with the organisation’s state chief executive, Phillip Hare, during the Lord investigation.
The inquiry was told Mr Hare contacted AW asking to discuss her concerns face-to-face in a letter dated November 15, 2012.
AW said she suggested meeting in the New Year but it never eventuated.
Mr Hare wrote to AW again in a letter dated March 19, 2013, but received no response.
“I was considering it, but I didn’t ignore it,” AW told the hearing.
AW has called for a greater emphasis to be placed on child protection training, saying every childcare worker should receive training annually.
In a damning statement, she told the inquiry “I began to doubt my trust in the YMCA”, saying she believed Mr Hare lied about the fact staff were required to sign confidentiality agreements.
“I felt that the YMCA was more interested in obtaining information than changing any practices that needed to be, or that would make the care of our children safer,” she said.
The YMCA has previously said it had never dealt with a similar case before, and did not want to jeopardise the criminal proceedings.
Detective Senior Sergeant Glyndwr Baker from the NSW Child Abuse Squad told the hearing a phone hotline was set up for concerned parents at the Caringbah YMCA, but only after more than one victim came forward.
He acknowledged the hotline could have been implemented sooner.
“That may have started to address concerns of parents and caregivers,” he said.
The hearing was told that police “provided advice” to the YMCA during the early stages of the investigation, including a recommendation not to disclose the identity of Lord.
“We have a duty of care to everybody,” Sergeant Baker said.
“That duty of care extended to Mr Lord as well.
“He received conditional bail on Friday and he was walking around the community at large.”
Senior counsel assisting the Commission, Gail Furness, questioned the officer about his comments that the YMCA was “running scared” when the abuse allegations were revealed.
“That was my opinion, that they were trying to manage a very difficult situation,” he said.
“They had sought an urgent meeting with us and they wanted advice and guidance.”
Issues remain after Lord incident
The inquiry has heard evidence that the YMCA Caringbah centre was not compliant with a range of issues as recently as this year.
The director of the Early Childhood Education and Care Directorate within the New South Wales Department of Education and Communities, Ruth Callaghan, says a “monitoring inspection” was carried out May 30, 2013.
It found that one staff member had not completed a Working With Children check, emergency evacuation instructions were not displayed and some staff records did not include evidence of training.
Lord was first arrested in 2011 and sentenced in January this year.
An inspection was also carried out during the Lord investigation in January 2012, which Ms Callaghan says was a routine procedure not directly related to the incident.
She said that, based on the findings, the evidence did not indicate “best practice”.
Former colleagues speak out
Six staff members have given evidence at the hearing with similar sentiments about the way the YMCA handled the matter.
Sheree Ockwell was critical of the way she was kept “in the dark” after the allegations surfaced. She told the inquiry she was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement and felt like she had no choice.
Counsel representing YMCA NSW, Gregory Sirtes SC, challenged Ms Ockwell’s credibility after it was revealed that her own handwriting was on a telephone reference check. She had no memory of why she conducted a “self-assessment”.
Another former colleague of Lord’s, Michelle Bates, acknowledged that the chief executive of YMCA NSW, Phillip Hare, later apologised and told the team to “rip up” the confidentiality agreements. But she said the support ended there and she is “still waiting” for a follow up.
The YMCA says it had never dealt with a similar incident before. Ms Bates told the hearing that was clear, saying she felt like a “guinea pig” during the ordeal.
A lack of training
Carine Beer says during her time working with Lord, it had not occurred to her that he was “grooming” young boys.
Lord told her he had “favourites”, but she told the hearing that did not appear suspicious at the time.
When centre co-ordinator Chloe Starr was questioned about her knowledge of YMCA policies, she responded “I know the gist of the important ones”.
Ms Starr considered Lord a “role model” who was simply enthusiastic about his job.
The enthusiasm seemingly spread to weekends, when Lord would babysit children who attended YMCA care during the week – a violation of YMCA policy.
The inquiry continues.