‘Mandatory reporting of abuse would improve child protection’

Proposals for mandatory reporting have split opinion. Ahead of a much-delayed consultation on the measure, Tom Perry explains why he backs MR.

Picture: colors0613/Fotolia

By Tom Perry, founder of Mandate Now

The government has deemed child sex abuse “a national threat” yet has dragged its heels on consulting on a proposal to help tackle it and improve child protection – mandatory reporting.

It is approaching two years since ministers promised a public consultation on the measure. There have been murmurings we could finally see it launched before the parliamentary recess on 21 July. Even this isn’t guaranteed given the slowdown in government business in the wake of the EU referendum and the appointment of a new prime minister.

The repeated delays are concerning. Mandatory reporting, for the reasons expressed in this article, is a vital component of a functioning child protection framework. It is also very misunderstood.

From the two words alone, many people mistakenly think they know all they need to about it. Yet until the last four years, most people were convinced law requiring reports of known or suspected child abuse already existed. This included two former ministers at the Department for Education to my personal knowledge.

A complex proposal that’s misunderstood

MR RoW 2

Mandatory reporting is a complex and nuanced subject. The means and model for introducing the measure varies in different countries. When the consultation is eventually launched, it is most likely to seek views on the introduction of mandatory reporting for those who work in Regulated Activities as defined by the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006.

These include employees working in positions of trust in roles such as healthcare, education, children’s homes, sports organisations and faith settings to mention a few. The law would place a legal requirement on staff to submit a report to a local authority when abuse is observed or suspected on reasonable grounds.

Social workers are not specified as ‘mandated reporters’ because they are the recipients of referrals from those employed in Regulated Activities. The legislation is designed to support and protect Regulated Activity employees in fulfilling their challenging and important child protection roles. Once referrals have been triaged by an enhanced version of the Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO), those reports which are deemed appropriate are passed onto social services and others as required. The Local Authority’s existing statutory duty to investigate child protection concerns then applies.

Wilful neglect

However, social workers will want to pay attention to the consultation. Why? Because the government may well use it to include proposals to introduce a new offence of ‘wilful neglect’ for social workers and other unspecified professionals who fail to protect children from abuse.

This proposal was first mooted by the Prime Minister as part of a response to the serious case review into the Oxford child sexual exploitation case. He did so despite there being no suggestion of wilful neglect in those cases.

Could wilful neglect make any difference to child protection in Regulated Activities? Yes, it will preface confusion, provide the occasional scapegoat, but fail to deliver improvement through long needed culture change to child protection in these important settings.

By contrast, there is evidence mandatory reporting has an important role to play in Regulated Activities. Some form of the law operates in most European countries. In many it is centred on ‘mandated reporters,’ people in jobs similar to those we define as Regulated Activities. It delivers clarity of purpose and legal immunity to employees when making a report in good faith.

Research has found that well designed mandatory reporting places more children into safety earlier.

In April, Child Abuse and Neglect published an article by Professor Ben Mathews on the impact of mandatory reporting in the single jurisdiction of Western Australia. Mathews’ overall conclusion was: “The results of this research suggest a mandatory reporting law for CSA [child sexual abuse] is associated with a substantial and sustained increase in identification of cases of CSA.”

“Societies which are considering the introduction of a mandatory reporting law for CSA should find support for this policy intervention from these findings, while recognizing the associated needs for reporter education, investment in agency capacity and service provision, and the need to implement responses to reports with sensitivity.”

Will councils be swamped with referrals?

substantiations

A frequent argument made against mandatory reporting is that local authorities might be overwhelmed with referrals of poorer quality that divert resources and attention from other alerts that are somehow more valuable. But where is the research on which this claim is grounded?

As mandatory reporting was gradually introduced in each state in Australia the number of referrals increased, but then so did substantiations which mirrored pre-mandatory levels.

Judicious amendment to law, improvements to training, and the removal of duplicate reports very quickly saw post mandatory referrals drop to below levels that existed prior to the policy’s introduction as the graphic below shows. The number of substantiations per 1000 referrals has risen significantly.

The figures show total referrals, of which mandated reporters account for just over 50%. A key component of mandatory reporting is effective triage. Think of it as an enhanced version of the current Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO). Effective triage avoids unnecessary burden being placed on social services departments.

Evidence indicates mandatory reporting is a vital component of an effective child protection system. But politicians don’t seem to like it much, and this government has spoken repeatedly against it by placing reliance on evidence that falls apart under scrutiny.

2 Responses to ‘Mandatory reporting of abuse would improve child protection’

  1. Terri July 17, 2016 at 1:22 pm #

    I agreed about the need for a mandatory requirement to report suspected abuse. Perhaps I have missed the point in the article but I don’t understand this talk about an enhanced LADO type role and triage, it confuses things. Surely if there is a concern about a child that needs reporting it goes through a duty/MASH type front door to triage and then for there to be child protection enquirers if needed. LADO deal with allegations and concerns about professionals. If a professional fails to report that may possibly come through to the LADO if a serious enough failure but would be a disciplinary issue and potentially a criminal issue if the conservatives have their way.

  2. Tom July 19, 2016 at 4:16 pm #

    The position of LADO was dropped by the Coalition Government to the great concern of Regulated Activities. Fortunately, many local authorities have retained LADOs who work closely with/within the MASH. Of necessity LADO protocols are truncated. LADOs currently deal only with concerns raised about adults who work with children within, or associated with a Regulated Activity. Mandate Now website indicates it wishes to see an enhanced LADO role that will deal with ALL child protection concerns arising within Regulated Activities. This would include child/child concerns, and adult/child concerns which come to the attention of the Regulated Activity but which arise outside the setting. In Australia this is helpfully defined as ‘sentinel reporting.’

    Professional sanction has been failing for decades and has in part contributed to the establishment of IICSA.

    The introduction of law / criminal sanction delivers legal immunity to staff who fulfil their MR obligations. Currently the occasions when staff are bullied, isolated and squeezed out of their jobs for doing the right thing is commonly reported. And what happens to the child in known cases that go unreported?

    The Serious Case Review of abuses perpetrated on >30 primary school girls over 15 years by Nigel Leat at Hillside First School, Weston Super Mare is an object lesson. He was arrested in 2010. During his time at the school over 30 concerns arose about his behaviour, only 11 were reported to the principal who in turn reported none of them to the local authority. None of the staff who saw their 11 concerns unreported felt unable to approach the LA directly and so abuses continued uninterrupted and ‘gaze aversion’ took hold. A BBC report of it is here: http://goo.gl/nUgxV4

    It is the current discretionary reporting regime that permitted this and many other failures to occur. By comparison mandatory reporting law influences culture change, just as law has done in so many parts of our lives from seat-belts to smoking and drink driving. The results of well designed MR law are reflected in the data graphic in the article. The latest research by Professor Ben Mathews is reviewed here: http://goo.gl/ScSKRw