'Working with children' loopholes leave students at risk

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School child abuse whistleblower Fiona Barnett concludes her two part series on her hearing before the Royal Commission, where she discusses the urgent need for the 'Working with children' check to be reformed.

[Read Part One: Child Abuse Royal Commission ‘at risk’]

Having given evidence to the Royal Commission, Fiona Barnett now fears for  her family's safety. (Image courtesy / John Gass)

ON 26 JUNE this year, as previously reported on Independent Australiamy husband and I attended a private hearing of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse. On our agenda was the alleged Tweed Shire paedophile ring.

The front man of this alleged paedophile ring was Gary Willis. He is a primary school teacher who, according to our investigations, indulged in a virtually unbridled 18-year child abuse spree. In 2006, the NSW Education Department placed a life ban on Gary Willis working for them in any capacity.

[Read NSW Education Department covers up teacher’s alleged 18-year child sex abuse spree]

Shockingly, on 3 June this year he was found to be working for the Queensland Education as a groundsman at a Gold Coast school.

When contacted, Craig Allen, Assistant Director-General of Human Resources at Queensland Education, stated that Gary Willis isn't a teacher and does not have any classroom contact with children. Mr Allen failed to acknowledge he has playground contact with children.

Upon hearing of the child abuse allegations against Gary Willis, Mr Allen and his department took immediate action and stood him down. As a consequence, Gary Willis currently receives a departmental salary, pending their investigation into the allegations. It is possible Gary Willis could be reinstated — as repeatedly happened in NSW over 18 years.

National working with children check

These developments highlight failure in the current, state-based 'Working with children' check system. His case demonstrates that, despite a teacher having incurred a lifetime ban from teaching in public schools in one state, they are free to teach in the public education system in other states and territories.

Willis would also be able to teach in any private school in any state.

Based on our extensive investigations, if the NSW Police had properly investigated and charged Gary Willis, it is very likely he would have been convicted. Any such conviction would have prevented Gary Willis from teaching in Queensland for the past eight years. This would have prevented him from allegedly abusing unknown numbers of Gold Coast children.

[Read NSW police protects alleged Tweed Heads paedophile ring]

Rather than ban a convicted Ballina teacher, he was moved to another school. (Image courtesy

History shows, as in another Tweed Shire case, that even convictions don't stop some predators. A Ballina high school teacher had his conviction for sexually abusing a female student overturned on a technicality in the Supreme Court. Consequently, this teacher was reinstated in his teaching position at Ballina. When fellow teaching staff protested, refusing to teach with the man, NSW Education simply transferred him to the Tweed River High School.

Another Tweed Shire case I'm aware of involves a male Kingscliff High School science teacher. He allegedly had an extensive history of grooming and having sex with female students. This married teacher was finally banned from teaching in NSW. This occurred after parents of a grade 12 student caught him having sex with their daughter in a backyard caravan.

He, once again, escaped prosecution on a technicality. The victim was not a student at the time of the offence. This was deemed to be so due to the facts she and the rest of her grade were studying the Higher School Certificate while not physically attending classes on campus.

This legal technicality appears to directly contradict NSW Education departmental policy, which dictates that a teacher is not to have a relationship with a student within two years of the student leaving school. Like Willis, this alleged perpetrator crossed the border and is now teaching in Queensland.

The obvious need for a 'Working with children' check reform was raised during my Royal Commission hearing.

The Royal Commission has released its first Issues Paper on the 'Working with children' check.

Submissions close 12 August 2013, if any readers would like to air their opinions about the existing systems and this apparent loophole.

Royal Commission witness protection

Paedophile rings don’t like public exposure. My Royal Commission testimony and the publication of my original articles immediately sparked a fresh wave of personal threats from multiple sources.

My husband and I anticipated this backlash. During our hearing we insisted the Royal Commission take immediate action to secure the safety of our family. My case worker subsequently informed me the Royal Commission does not provide witness protection.

On 16 July, the Royal Commission website posted an announcement. They were commencing a free legal service called ‘Know more.’ The site says:

‘The service will also advise people about other important legal issues such as witness and informant protections, the availability of compensation or other forms of action or redress, and the implications of existing confidentiality agreements.’

To access this service, you can call 1800 605 762 between 9am-5pm, or visit

At the hearing I also asked whether the federal government were going to provide free legal aide to victims. What’s the point of providing free legal advice if witnesses can't financially afford to act on the advice?

Support for Tweed Shire victims

Following my Royal Commission hearing, the mainstream media picked up the Tweed Shire paedophile ring story. It headlined our local newspaper, and made ABC News Radio and Channel 9 on the Gold Coast. A local TV guide distributed the story to 26,000 Tweed Shire homes. My goal of informing the local community was achieved.

Due to this publicity, further witnesses have identified themselves to me. Witnesses have also commented on Facebook and in the comments of my  articles on this site. Some witnesses even provided me with the names of potential victims and perpetrators.

Geoff Provest, Coalition Member for Tweed. (Image courtesy

On Monday, 1 July, I approached Geoff Provest, Member for Tweed, and state Parliamentary Secretary for NSW Police and Emergency Services.

I requested his assistance with three things.

Firstly, I asked for assistance obtaining police cooperation to secure my family’s safety. Secondly, I asked the Minister to ensure that NSW Police re-open and properly investigate the Tweed Shire paedophile ring. It is the responsibility of state authorities to investigate and prosecute state crimes. Finally, I requested assistance with the provision of advocacy and support for Tweed Shire child abuse victims. To illustrate the need for such a service I provided him with the same statistics I mentioned at the Royal Commission.

The average number of victims confessed to by incarcerated paedophiles undergoing treatment in Brisbane prisons are 300. In my opinion, this figure is possibly a poor indication of the length of Gary Willis’ victim list.

One paedophile, who worked at a Brisbane court, diarised the sexual abuse of well over 2,000 victims.

Gary Willis had unlimited access to children over an 18 years. Just how many Tweed Shire children could he potentially have sexually assaulted?

How many of these victims need urgent counselling? How many numb their pain with drug abuse? How many suffer mental health issues and how many have committed suicide?

I told Geoff Provest that the recent publicity surrounding the Tweed Shire paedophile ring has resulted in new witnesses coming forward. Some witnesses are not computer savvy and need assistance making submissions to the Royal Commission.

Mr Provest suggested the involvement of Bravehearts founder Hetty Johnston. Bravehearts subsequently informed me they were awaiting funding from the NSW Attorney General’s Department. Upon receipt of the funding, they said they would be happy to meet with me and Geoff Provest to discuss the provision of advocacy and support to Tweed Shire child abuse victims.

Bravehearts have asked me to represent them in the Tweed Shire on White Balloon Day (September 6) during Child Protection Week. It is anticipated this event will coincide with the launch of a Bravehearts service in the Tweed area.

Bravehearts offer Tweed residents the following support:

We understand that completing a submission can be a personally difficult process. If at any time people wish to speak to a counsellor/support person, please contact Bravehearts on our Crisis, Support and Information telephone line on 1800 272 831 (Monday-Friday, 9am-4:00pm) or outside of these hours 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732, 24hr sexual assault support line).

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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