Safeguarding children requires creating a culture where people can report concerns - expert

Existing legislation already quite strong, former senior garda said, but poor practice cannot be tolerated

Safeguarding children: People should feel comfortable with reporting any concerns about child safety, senior garda says. Photograph: iStock

A safeguarding consultant has said it was important to make people feel comfortable with reporting any concerns about child safety, in the wake of the jailing of swimming coach Matthew Coward (32) for sexual exploitation.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio 1’s Morning Ireland, former senior garda, Michael Lynch said that the existing legislation was “quite strong” and it was really about implementing it and building up a safeguarding culture.

“I heard a speech a long time ago, and it’s something I repeat to a lot of people, that what we need to do is to stop fearing regulation and legislation in this area and build a safeguarding culture where people won’t accept poor practices. I would question poor practice so children can be safe.”

It was important for organisations that work with children ensure that children and their parents feel comfortable reporting any concerns they have.


“That’s a very important step in safeguarding that people feel comfortable with reporting to the organisation. And once the organisation receives a report like that, it must report those concerns to An Garda Siochana and Tusla as soon as possible and ensure that the welfare of the child is protected, as happened in this case with Swim Ireland.”

Mr Lynch paid tribute to the girl who raised concern about swimming coach Matthew Coward who set up cameras in a pool in Dublin and recorded young girls over a 12-month period as they were changing into their swimsuits. Coward has been jailed for three year after pleading guilty to the sexual exploitation of children and producing child abuse images and videos between September 2021 and September 2022.

When asked about garda vetting, Mr Lynch said that vetting only worked if the person had a history.

“If someone has an interest in abusing children or wishes to abuse children I don’t know of any amount of child safeguarding training an organisation can provide that would stop them doing it. But it is possible for the people in the organisation to notice things. It’s never one hundred per cent. You can’t ever guarantee that someone isn’t going to manipulate a way of abusing a child. There’s no such thing as a no risk. You can create a low risk of abuse in your organisation. And that’s all about developing the organisation’s safeguarding culture.”

The safeguarding of children required constant vigilance and it was not enough to put vetting procedures in place. Safeguarding was everyone’s responsibility not just the safeguarding officer or safeguarding organisation.

“Someone like the person who wants to abuse a child will do their best to manipulate people in the organisation, the environment of the organisation and different situations to try to isolate a child to facilitate that abuse.

“So some things that people in organisations, the staff and the volunteers, even the parents who are attending with the children, in fact, all adults who are around should question anyone who they see taking a child, for example, away from normal supervised activities. It doesn’t have to be that confrontational. If it was just a curious question like ‘are you sure you should be doing that on your own?’ And if they persist in the activity or become confrontational, then it’s important to report it. Some staff or volunteers might make a mistake or forgets the rules, but they need to be reminded over this.”

It was important to empower children and give them the confidence to know that they can question any situation where they were not comfortable, he said.