Plans to compel professionals to report their concerns that children are being abused have been rejected by the UK’s leading child protection charity, provoking fury from a victim support group.
A proposal to introduce “mandatory reporting”, which is observed in many other countries, has exposed a schism among groups representing doctors, nurses, police and social workers, with some expressing fears that they would struggle to cope with the increase in abuse investigations that it would generate.
The government’s consultation on reporting and acting on child abuse and neglect was launched amid concerns about past abuse in some of the country’s major institutions. High-profile inquiries, such as that into the paedophile Jimmy Savile, revealed how many people suspected abuse but failed to report their fears.
Under the new proposal teachers, doctors and other employees in regulated professions who work with children would be legally obliged to report suspicions that a child was being abused.
However, the plan has been rejected by the NSPCC. It warns that victims might be deterred from opening up to adults if they know what they say will automatically trigger an investigation. The charity gives the hypothetical example of a teacher who is worried about a child because he or she is turning up to school hungry or unkempt, a sign that the child is at risk of neglect.
According to the NSPCC, under mandatory reporting teachers would be bound to raise their concerns with the local authority immediately. This would trigger a child protection investigation, one that might be unnecessary if the teachers had been able to use their professional judgment and talk to the children and their parents to establish what was happening.
The NSPCC is in favour of mandatory reporting for “closed institutions” such as hospitals and boarding schools, on the grounds that they have smaller networks of adults for children to confide in and are likely to place greater pressure on their employees to protect their reputation. But for other institutions the NSPCC backs a proposal for a duty to act, which would allow professionals not to automatically report their concerns but to consider “appropriate” action that they believe to be in the best interests of the child. In all cases, however, the decision would be recorded and the professionals would be held accountable for their actions.
“We think that this may make it more likely that children are given the support they need according to their circumstances and it leaves professionals with some discretion to decide what action is appropriate,” the NSPCC says in a briefing that accompanies its submission to the consultation.
The issue is becoming deeply divisive. Submissions to the consultation reveal that the children’s commissioner is against mandatory reporting, as is the National Police Chiefs Council, the British Association of Social Workers and the Royal College of Nursing. But both the National Association of Head Teachers union and the British Medical Association say they are broadly in favour.
Tom Perry, founder of Mandate Now, a victim support group that campaigns for a change in the law, branded the duty to act option, favoured by the government, “unworkable”.
“It suggests a legal duty should exist at all points in the child protection system to act in an ‘appropriate’ manner,” Perry said. “It doesn’t define what it means by ‘appropriate’ and acknowledges it will vary from case to case. The government then suggests most cases would be addressed by disciplinary rather than criminal sanctions, meaning there would be no change since disciplinary sanctions already exist and don’t work.”
Perry said mandatory reporting had been shown to work in other countries. “People faced with having to report suspicions of abuse naturally ask themselves, ‘What if I’m wrong?’ Gaze aversion is a significant challenge. The culture of child protection has to change and mandatory reporting in institutional settings will help make that happen. It has in the majority of countries on all four continents which have some form of the law.”
“NSPCC rejects plan for ‘mandatory reporting’ of suspected child abuse”