Governing vulnerable people

A blog by CEO, Ingrid Stonhill, Bawinanga Aboriginal Corporation

The Royal Commission into Child Sex Offending has produced many essential recommendations to protect those unable to defend themselves.

This has significant implications for the not-for-profit sector, particularly those delivering on government contracts. Most noticeable is the increased compliance requirements for those working with vulnerable people.

A vulnerable person is defined as “a child, being an individual under the age of 18 or an individual aged 18 years and above who may be unable to take care of himself or herself against harm or exploitation because of an illness, trauma or disability or any other reason.”

Trauma, vicarious trauma, homelessness, poverty, hunger, lack of jobs, lack of access to support services, no public transport and limited health services – these and more are common factors faced by people living in remote, indigenous communities and contribute to a person being classed as ‘vulnerable’.

The definition of vulnerable and those most disadvantaged could well describe almost everyone brought up in a remote indigenous community.

So what does this change in compliance really mean for a very remote, complex, not-for-profit, Aboriginal Corporation?

The new compliance regulations have huge ramifications on those holding management, governance and fiduciary duties, both legally and ethically. As such, I thought it essential for our organisation that we were as up-to-date and skilled as possible.

I attended a course in Darwin titled “Governing Vulnerable People”.  The course was a great reminder of a Board’s responsibility and investigated many poignant examples of what processes should be adopted in different scenarios.

It addressed the importance of a comprehensive organisational risk assessment, which in this context, is an evaluation of the extent that relevant staff and third parties within our organisation and funded activities, meet the requirements of applicable Territory legislation to work with vulnerable people.

However, halfway through the course, I had more questions than answers.    The course content assumed the Board governing the so-called vulnerable people were not vulnerable themselves.

The unstated assumption was that Board members are from mainstream Australia, experienced in many aspects of life and business, well educated, with a clear understanding of roles and responsibilities required for good governance.

So what happens when vulnerable people make up your governance structure?  What they recognise as their cultural norms have been defined by legislation as contributors to vulnerability.

But perhaps they don’t identify themselves as vulnerable, in our context.   How do we advise and guide vulnerable people tasked with the responsibility of governance and compliance for a community of vulnerable people?  I suggest this is necessary and significant work still to be completed.