Does mandatory reporting go far enough?
Those who fail to report or follow up on suspected child abuse must be subject to professional sanctions and civil claims, writes Kathleen Hallisey
The government consultation ‘Reporting and acting on child abuse and neglect’ states: ‘The main objective of child protection policy is to create a child protection system which works as effectively as possible to keep children safe from abuse and neglect. Where abuse does occur, the aim is to ensure that this is identified as soon as possible and that the right action is taken to protect the child or children involved and prevent further harm from occurring.’
The consultation outlines three options for achieving this objective. First, wait until the current widespread reform of the child protection system is completed. Second, introduce mandatory reporting of known or suspected child abuse or neglect for particular agencies and organisations. Third, create a duty to act for specific agencies and organisations when there is known or suspected child abuse or neglect. The duty may include reporting but would not be limited to it.
While it is admirable and necessary that the government is reforming the current child protection system, waiting for that process to be completed before instituting mandatory reporting or a duty to act is simply not good enough.
We need only look at the roadblocks and delays encountered by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse to realise that waiting for the outcome of government reform could take years, if not decades. Children need help now, not ten or 20 years down the line.
Under current UK law, there is no legal requirement for those working with children to report known or suspected child abuse. Mandatory reporting exists in several other jurisdictions, including the US, Australia, and Canada, and has proven effective in preventing child abuse.
But mandatory reporting laws and the UK proposals apply only to local authorities, education and childcare, policing and law enforcement, health and social care, and probation services. It does not include those working in organisations acting in loco parentis, such as coaches or Girl Guides, religious instruction for children, military service, and information technology.
Consider the hundreds of boys who were abused by Scout leaders, children abused by their parish priest, minister, or other religious leader, and cadets abused by military personnel. Without a requirement that voluntary and religious organisations report known or suspected child abuse, who will protect the children in their care? Isn’t it obvious that the law should require anyone, including those working in IT, who uncovers abusive images of children – one of the most horrific crimes – to report it to the police?
A duty to act, the third option, would require those working with children to determine what action is necessary to protect a child from harm and to then take those steps. Appropriate action could include mandatory reporting but would require consideration of the specific circumstances of each case.
It would seek to avoid a repeat of the Rotherham and Rochdale scandals, where some professionals reported their concerns but did not and had no legal responsibility to follow up on their reports. As with mandatory reporting, the duty to act would apply only to specific organisations and would not cover voluntary, military, or religious groups.
The first option – to do nothing for now – is clearly unacceptable. But the second and third options are also not enough. To truly protect children from harm, we must create a legal requirement for all those who work with children, whether in a professional or voluntary setting, to report known or suspected child abuse.
And the requirement cannot end there. There must also be a duty to act by reporting abuse and then following up by taking appropriate action. Those who fail to either report or to follow up the report must also be subject to professional sanctions or civil claims. For too long, we have failed to hold to account those who care for children. To achieve its objective of creating an effective child protection system, the government must require all who work with children to report abuse, to take appropriate steps thereafter, and to face real consequences for failing to do so.
Kathleen Hallisey is a senior solicitor in the child abuse team at Bolt Burdon Kemp