Children's Commissioner lobbies for mandatory police vetting

Author
Newstalk ZB / NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Tue, 30 Jun 2020, 11:01AM
Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Becroft says the case has highlighted serious flaws in the current system. Photo / File

Children's Commissioner lobbies for mandatory police vetting

Author
Newstalk ZB / NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Tue, 30 Jun 2020, 11:01AM

The Children's Commissioner is lobbying for mandatory police vetting for anyone who works with children following revelations a convicted paedophile landed a job on kids' TV show What Now.

Judge Andrew Becroft said the shock news, revealed last week by the Herald, was "a deeply concerning situation and a salutary reminder of the high duty of care those who work with children have for ensuring their safety".

The man who was jailed several years ago for sexually abusing underage girls had access to at least 10 schools in his role on What Now, the Ministry of Education confirmed today.

No one carried out a police vet before hiring him on the show after his release from prison. His criminal past was only revealed when he was arrested last year on serious child sexual abuse material charges as part of a Customs investigation.

He was hired by production company Whitebait Media, which is co-owned by former What Now presenter and children's entertainer Jason Gunn.

The company has apologised for the vetting failure and the screen industry is now working to draft urgent vetting guidelines to ensure children are safe.

NZME, which publishes the Herald, has launched its own investigation after it emerged the media company had also contracted the man.

Judge Becroft told the Herald that under current legislation only "approved agencies" were legally required to vet employees, mostly government agencies.

The What Now case had exposed a serious flaw in the system and he wanted child protection laws strengthened to keep kids safe from predators.

"The time has come to review whether those obligations shouldn't be extended and made mandatory.

"Every organisation that works with children, either directly or indirectly, should ensure every employee has been police checked.

"It is not good enough to do the minimum – we expect high standards where children are involved."

Children's entertainer Jason Gunn is the co-owner of Whitebait Media which contracted the convicted paedophile to work on What Now. Photo / File
Children's entertainer Jason Gunn is the co-owner of Whitebait Media which contracted the convicted paedophile to work on What Now. Photo / File

Judge Becroft said many non-approved organisations such as sporting clubs and church groups already vetted their employees and volunteers, but the requirement must be enshrined in law.

"It leaves too much to a technical interpretation and it leaves too much to chance. I think children deserve better.

"I support the urgent adoption of industry-wide best practice guidelines to help keep our children safe.

"As parents, we would rightly expect those working directly or indirectly with our children to have been safety checked."

Judge Becroft said clever and manipulative sexual predators were skilled at grooming vulnerable children for abuse.

He intended to raise the matter with Children's Minister Tracey Martin and Police Minister Stuart Nash, and make a submission to the Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse.

But making police vetting mandatory across industries meant the service must be provided free by the Government to organisations like church groups and charities which often had little money, Judge Becroft said.

In a statement, NZME said it was investigating the circumstances surrounding the engagement of the contractor.

"Initial inquiries have established that the company owned by the individual you have referred us to was contracted on several occasions to provide services for events supported by NZME. One of those events involved children and we have confirmed the individual did attend that event."

Risk assessments were carried out whenever NZME teams supported external events, including the requirement that no team member was left alone with children if an event involved minors.

"We have confirmed that in regard to the event you have referred us to the contractor was accompanied by an NZME staff member as directed by our risk assessment conditions.

"We fully support industry bodies on the efforts underway to establish industry wide protocols to ensure the ongoing safety of children and look forward to working with them on this."

What Now is produced by Whitebait Media under contract to TVNZ. Photo / File
What Now is produced by Whitebait Media under contract to TVNZ. Photo / File

Auckland Primary Principals Association president Stephen Lethbridge said his organisation would be contacting Auckland schools visited by What Now to see how they were affected and taking guidance from the Ministry of Education.

He backed the commissioner's call for mandatory vetting.

Schools had strict vetting policies around staff and contractors, Lethbridge said.

"You would assume there was some due diligence on the part of the production company to ensure their employees were appropriately vetted."

NZ Principals Federation president Perry Rush said the key concern for schools was whether the What Now worker had access to young people alone, in which case "you would absolutely expect them to be vetted".

"That doesn't preclude responsibility on the production company to ensure they're employing someone who is safe."

Rush was concerned that neither Whitebait Media nor TVNZ had alerted the ministry or schools after learning of the man's background.

Ministry of Education deputy secretary Katrina Casey said Whitebait Media had confirmed the man accessed 10 schools in two regions during his time on the show.

"When we contacted the schools, they said they had no concerns as the film crew were never alone in the company of any children. However, we advised them to contact the police if in any doubt."

Schools made their own decisions about who was allowed access to school and were required to have a Child Protection Policy in place.

NZ On Air, which put taxpayer money into What Now, has labelled the revelations "deeply disturbing".

It has now asked Screensafe to draft urgent guidelines to ensure all industry staff working with children undergo police checks.