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Work culture could be why detention center staff have ‘unfavourable views about children’, commission hears

“Negative socialisation” could explain why the behavior and attitudes of Ashley Youth Detention Center workers might reflect attitudes of “years past”, Tasmania’s child sexual abuse commission of inquiry has heard.

University of Tasmania criminologist Michael Guerzoni gave evidence to the commission on Wednesday about organizational culture, speaking about how it may be affecting the attitudes among the Ashley Youth Detention Center staff.

“Within an organizational setting… there’s a process of socialization and that can be both formal and informal,” Dr Guerzoni said.

He said informal socialization included things like “water cooler conversations” and lunchtime conversations.

He said that was where informal tips on how to do the job, and ways of seeing problems and situations that arise were given.

“In the case of Ashley [Youth Detention Centre] from the reports I’ve read… each of those to my understanding reference a culture which is unfavourable, and so it’s my assumption, based on those facts within these documents, that there would be a negative socialization taking place.”

Dr Guerzoni said this “negative socialisation” would explain why successive generations working at Ashley might behave and continue to exhibit behavior and attitudes of years past.

He said organizational culture could influence people coming into an organization with different views.

“An individual can come into an organization and over time be battered and worn away, and be socialized to go from being pro-children to having these unfavorable views about children over time.”

Associate Professor Tim Moore, of the Institute of Child Protection Studies at the Australian Catholic University, said one young person his team spoke to said this was happening at Ashley.

He said that young person said that even when new, good workers came in, sometimes they felt like those workers were being bullied or brought into a culture that Dr Moore said “wasn’t child-safe”.

The commission heard that culture also played an important role when it comes to an organisation’s policies.

“Organizational culture determines the value of policy and procedure… policy can be seen by some as important and valuable, it can be seen by others as a hindrance to the core things that are part of their job,” Dr Guerzoni said.

He said individuals within an organization also had an important role to play when it comes to child safety.

“Individuals every day, in my view, have to be looking out for the signs of grooming; they have to be looking out for things which are odd amongst their colleagues and they have to be aware of the requirements at law within this jurisdiction and the policies and procedures in respect of child protection within their organization and be willing to make a movement rather than have a denial of responsibility.”

The Commission of Inquiry is holding six weeks of public hearings over the coming months.(ABC News: Maren Preuss)

University of California professor Donald Palmer, who studies organizational wrongdoing and corporate decision-making, told the commission risky situations should be identified before they escalate to being a police matter.

He said if a relationship between a worker and a child that was unnecessary for the job at hand was developing, there should be discussions at that stage.

Helen Milroy 2020
Helen Milroy is a professor at the University of Western Australia.(Supplied: Telethon Kids Institute)

Child and adolescent psychiatrist Helen Milroy, a commissioner for the national child sexual abuse royal commission, said society had not “come to terms yet with the fact that this happens to our children and we need to be more open to talking about it and preventing it in the first place”.

“What we need to be able to do, without feeling like we’re hyper-vigilant all the time and accusing people… is express concern.

“So, if we’re concerned that something doesn’t feel right… it’s better if we have an open culture of being able to express concern and maybe increasing education and training or support and supervision.”

The Commission of Inquiry into the Tasmanian Government’s Responses to Child Sexual Abuse in Institutional Settings is holding six weeks of public hearings over the coming months.

Its particular focus areas are the education and health departments, Launceston General Hospital, Ashley Youth Detention Centre, and out-of-home care.

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