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Lexis+ AI
Alan Collins

Partner, Hugh James Solicitors

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Until victims can hold the system to account, there is little incentive for those charged with safeguarding responsibilities to drive through the cultural changes that are needed

The urgent need for mandatory reporting in child abuse cases

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The urgent need for mandatory reporting in child abuse cases

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Alan Collins argues that mandatory reporting laws are essential to drive cultural change and ensure accountability in child safeguarding efforts

When we hear the term ‘grooming gang,’ we are unconsciously tempted to turn away because of the depravity we know that lies behind it. This is a natural reaction in all right-minded people who find it incomprehensible that anyone, let alone groups of men, would want to prey on vulnerable young people for sexual gratification.

The Home Office recently announced that hundreds of suspected child abusers have been arrested by the Grooming Gangs Taskforce, more than one year after its establishment in April 2023. Yet while these efforts to crack down on organised crime and child exploitation should be commended, more needs to be done.

It is a subject we often prefer to ignore or assume happens elsewhere. This natural reluctance to confront the unpleasant reality can hinder an effective response, resulting in too many vulnerable children being let down by the system that is supposed to protect them.

Child sexual abuse and exploitation is linked with other areas of crime such as drug and human trafficking. Victims are often vulnerable and already known to the police and social services. Those who misuse drugs are unlikely to associate their ‘recreational’ use with complex organised crime that uses children often as couriers ‘employed’ through coercion, due to their vulnerability.

While we have criminal prohibition, there is also a lack of accountability in the safeguarding system, along with little societal acknowledgment of the cost of child exploitation. Until this changes, it will be difficult to drive through the culture and attitudinal changes that are needed.

The inevitable enquiries and investigations that follow the exposure of the organised grooming of vulnerable children have a certain commonality which embrace victim blaming. In other words, children known to be at risk falling off the radar, and show signs of being victims of exploitation, are often ignored. We see these failings in other areas of safeguarding for example in the probation service where it has been said on numerous occasions there has been a lack of ‘professional curiosity.’

It has been argued that a mandatory reporting law, that makes it compulsory for child abuse to be reported to the police, is necessary. The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) recommended that there be such a law. Rishi Sunak's government said it supported a mandatory reporting law but its proposals were arguably vastly different. All it does is say that those who should report child abuse have a duty to do so and if they don’t, they may be barred from working with children. That is not mandatory reporting.

The rationale behind a mandatory reporting law is not to punish those with safeguarding responsibilities but to shift cultural norms that have allowed sexual exploitation to flourish.

Those who have with safeguarding and child protection duties should, as a minimum, be legally obliged to report child abuse concerns. This should include teachers, youth leaders, youth workers, and dare it be said, politicians who sit at the top of the pyramid?

We can see a reluctance to accept accountability in the Victims and Prisoners Act 2024, which puts the Victims Code on a statutory footing. The Code is designed to give victims greater influence in the criminal justice system through the provision of assistance, support and the right to be advised and consulted.

Such a measure is to be welcomed, but explicitly, the act precludes accountability if the Code’s provisions are not observed. That begs the question: why?

Future child safeguarding failures, resulting in prosecutions that fail due to police shortcomings—for example, a lack of adherence to the Victims Code—would mean that victims, who argue their 'right' to see their abusers tried for their crimes, may seek accountability for the consequences.

Ultimately, to stop exploitation, there is a crucial need for a mandatory reporting law, and that will be a task for the next government. Until victims can hold the system to account, there is little incentive for those charged with safeguarding responsibilities to drive through the cultural changes that are needed. Until victims can hold the system accountable, those responsible for safeguarding have little incentive to drive through the necessary cultural changes. Why should victims be unable to hold accountable those who fail to deliver on their promises?

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