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Would mandatory reporting help stop child abuse?

Posted on 6/06/2016 by Aminul Hoque

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The proposal to introduce mandatory reporting in the victims of crime bill has divided opinion – an objective discussion is needed

When a child dies or is catastrophically harmed because of abuse, there is often a knee-jerk political response. Perhaps the most chilling example for social workers was David Cameron’s announcement last year that they could find themselves jailed for five years for failing to act on evidence of child sexual abuse. 

This raises concerns that professionals mandated to report reasonably-held suspicions of child abuse could be criminalised for failing to prevent it.

Despite this, proposals for mandatory reporting are included in the victims of crime bill designed by Keir Starmer MP, former director of public prosecutions. The measure was prompted, Starmer says, because “there [have been] too many historic examples of institutions choosing not to report when they have balanced that duty against other interests, such as their reputation.” 

Now out of time for this session of parliament, Starmer must decide whether to reintroduce his bill next time or butcher it and create amendments to other legislation. Whichever option he chooses, campaigners for mandatory reporting are unimpressed at what they say is a lack of scope and detail in the proposed law.

At a time when the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has just launched its initial investigations, they are also angry that a promised government consultation on mandatory reporting has failed to materialise, despite a mooted start date of last December.

On this, at least, campaigners are at one with the British Association of Social Workers. President Ruth Allen is keen for consultation to begin, and urges the government to consult widely. “Social workers working directly with children and families have many clear and evidence-informed ideas about what would improve the protection of children that do not require the risk of criminalising practitioners.”

But at campaigning organisation Mandate Now, abuse survivor Tom Perry believes that putting a statutory duty on those responsible for children outside the home is the only effective way to change a culture of non-reporting that has seen professionals reluctant to “tell tales” of colleagues or end up stigmatised as whistleblowers.

Such failures, he says, can be observed in cases such as that of teacher Jeremy Forrest who abducted a student to France despite considerable disquiet about his behaviour among fellow teachers, the non-reporting to the local authority of concerns about the now convicted paedophile Nigel Leat, and the abuse of girls by other pupils at Stanbridge Earls boarding school. In such situations, says Perry, the proposals in the victims of crime bill will make barely a scrap of difference to protecting children from harm. 

“Why are so few categories of people mandated to report – and nobody from the medical profession at all, when we know where [Jimmy] Savile preyed on vulnerable children?”, he asks with evident frustration. “Why are so few settings included, so that children in nurseries, youth offenders institutions, church activities and leisure clubs miss out on this protection? And why only a requirement to report sexual abuse, not physical abuse and neglect?

“It’s disappointing, because in its present form, it’s simply not going to deliver the major culture change that’s needed.”

Starmer says he envisaged the measures in his bill as a starting point, but emphasises that the decision not to mandate all professionals was made in an attempt to prevent police being inundated with reports, something he claims has happened in other jurisdictions where mandatory reporting operates.

But there is evidence from Australia to show that while reporting levels do spike immediately following the introduction of such a law, the increase is never sustained – and may even fall to levels below those previously experienced.

Meanwhile, the success rate in proving abuse allegations has often risen. Australia’s states’ and territories’ varying mandatory reporting protocols have been subjected to longitudinal study over a 10-year period by Prof Ben Mathews, co-director of the children’s health programme at Queensland University of Technology. Data from Western Australia show that due to improved reporting after the introduction of the law, the number of cases of substantiated sexual abuse doubled.

Mathews believes that a statutory, sanctionable duty to report suspected abuse changes the dynamic within institutions that may make people reluctant to come forward.

“The laws overcome gaze aversion, which is the tendency for people to avoid uncomfortable phenomena and turn the other way,” he says. “They … set a social norm about what must be done instead of ignoring the child’s situation.

“Together with good education about child sexual abuse and the reporting duty, the laws increase professionals’ awareness of just how serious sexual abuse is, and its nature, frequency and indicators. The laws say what professionals must do. The education [that goes with it] explains why.”

Importantly, he says, the laws in Australia also give anonymity and legal immunity to anyone who reports – important if people are afraid of repercussions. “The fear of whistleblowing is a non-issue here. The best evidence indicates [these laws] are probably the best public policy innovation we have to help identify cases of child sexual abuse.”

However, Allen holds that there is little international evidence mandatory reporting has the desired impact of increasing protection of children.

“There is evidence it can indeed drive abuse further underground and reduce cooperation of families with child protection services,” she says. Allen believes effective professional standards, regulation and capability processes “should be sufficient to drive good practice and uphold public confidence.”

Perry disagrees: “Relying on professional bodies to hold people to account, given the evidence of widespread, serially ignored and wilfully overlooked abuse over decades, is complacent and risible.”

Australia has reflected on the efficacy of its mandatory reporting over the years, with five government inquiries in four different states since 2003. Each time, explains Mathews, the recommendation has been that the law be retained.

“The only key change has been, in some states, to supplement mandatory reporting of severe child abuse and neglect with differential reporting for less serious cases – where you report significant cases to child protection and less significant cases to welfare agencies,” he says.

However, he also notes: “Queensland recently did make a change to remove mandatory reporting for neglect and psychological abuse – even for severe and life-threatening cases – which to many was a very bad move.”

The Home Office could not say when the promised public consultation on mandatory reporting would be launched. When it is, will both sides of the argument be able to come to any greater understanding of their respective fears and examine the evidence objectively?

 

 

Source: Community Care