Hunter Surf Life Saving case a warning for sport and community organisations

Jailed: Robert John Beavis was jailed in December after he was convicted of child sex offences against a 10-year-old girl in 2005.
Jailed: Robert John Beavis was jailed in December after he was convicted of child sex offences against a 10-year-old girl in 2005.

A SENIOR Hunter surf club official said he was unaware of policies that should have been followed after child sex allegations against prominent Hunter surf lifesaver Robert Beavis were first raised.

The official, who did not want to be identified, said he had no knowledge of a Surf Life Saving Australia policy that specifically deals with what clubs should do when they become aware of police investigations against members, or where members are charged with offences or convicted. 

Statements alleging child sex offences by Robert John Beavis were first made to police in 1998 and 2005, but criminal proceedings were not pursued because of the age of the children, who were 8 and 10. Beavis was convicted of child sex offences against the 10-year-old Kassandra Long in 2005, after a trial in 2017 when she was 23.

He was jailed for eight years, with a minimum sentence of four years and 10 months after acting as an official for Surf Life Saving at local, regional, state and national events. 

The senior Hunter official said he was aware of the organisation’s member protection policy, but wasn’t aware of the police investigation policy “and I don’t think anyone else is aware of it either”.

“I think clubs need to be. I think all sport and community groups need to be much more aware of child protection,” he said.

His comment is in line with a review of Surf Life Saving in 2016 that found the organisation had “no centralised, regular or systematic overview of child protection-related incidents or allegations”.

While national and state policies existed “clubs either choose not to adopt them, and/or were unaware of their existence”, the Australian Childhood Foundation review commissioned by Surf Life Saving found.

The damning review found Surf Life Saving Australia had “no robust national strategy to support child protection” across the organisation despite its “high risk” operating environment.

Volunteer members and SLS staff had a limited understanding of what constituted reportable behaviour and “a lack of confidence in a culture existing within their club/SLS entity to make such a report”, the review found.

The report, compiled after a national survey of SLS volunteers and meetings with national, state and regional representatives, found there was only limited compliance requirements for clubs to report incidents or outcomes.

“The only reporting requirement is that any member charged with a criminal conviction has their membership expelled, and their profile updated in SurfGuard to reflect this,” the report found.

“As a result there is a general inconsistency between clubs in the handling of child abuse incidents and the extent of documentation maintained.”

The review recommended Surf Life Saving Australia and the organisation’s state bodies take a stronger leadership role on child protection, in an organisation with more than 77,000 members under 18 years of age.  

“Surf Life Saving Australia must take a stronger role in providing guidance to the SLS movement about safeguarding children and young people, and promote a shared and open culture,” the review said.

It also recommended that state centres take “a stronger role in promoting and disseminating communication to regions and clubs, to ensure safeguarding children awareness is raised and maintained across the member and staff population”.

The review was tendered to the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse before Surf Life Saving joined other sporting organisations in giving evidence in 2016 about steps they had taken to assess and respond to child protection risks in their organisations.

When the Newcastle Herald requested a copy of the review last week after Surf Life Saving Australia said its board had endorsed the review’s 15 recommendations, SLSA declined to provide a copy, saying it was not appropriate to release the review “due to the privacy of members who participated”.

While the review lists the names of state and national representatives who took part in discussions with the Australian Childhood Foundation while preparing the review, it does not identify SLS members who responded to a national survey, or identify any incidents, allegations or clubs.

In a statement to the Newcastle Herald Surf Life Saving Australia said its board endorsed all 15 recommendations of the ACF report.

This included “updates to the Member Protection Policy specific to the movement’s commitment to the protection of children and young people”.

“The updated policy was communicated via circular, and published on our membership portal, an online system for all current Surf Life Saving members Australia-wide.”