A new mandatory duty on social workers to tell the police about cases of female genital mutilation among girls will come into force next week, the Home Office has announced.
From 31 October, registered social care and healthcare professionals and teachers in England and Wales will have to report to the police if they know a girl aged under 18 has undergone FGM, either if they have visually confirmed it or it has been verbally disclosed by an affected girl.
However, guidance published by the government states that social workers should not under any circumstances examine a girl for signs of FGM.
The guidance also highlights that, for the purposes of the duty, the relevant age is the girl’s age at the time of the disclosure or identification of FGM – it does not apply where a woman aged 18 or over discloses she had FGM when she was under 18. Also, the duty does not apply in cases where professionals only suspect a girl is at risk of undergoing FGM.
The duty only applies to cases directly disclosed by the victim; if a parent, guardian, sibling or other individual discloses that a girl under 18 has had FGM, the duty does not apply and a report to the police is not mandatory.
However, any such disclosure should be “handled in line with wider safeguarding responsibilities – in England, this is likely to include referral to children’s social services”.
Sanctions for failure to comply
Cases of failure to comply with the duty will be dealt with “in accordance with the existing performance procedures in place for each profession”, meaning social care and health professionals may be referred to fitness to practise proceedings.
Complying with the duty “does not breach any confidentiality requirement or other restriction on disclosure which might otherwise apply”, the guidance says.
“The duty is a personal duty which requires the individual professional who becomes aware of the case to make a report; the responsibility cannot be transferred. The only exception to this is if you know that another individual from your profession has already made a report; there is no requirement to make a second.”
It adds: “Where there is a risk to life or likelihood of serious immediate harm, professionals should report the case immediately to police, including dialling 999 if appropriate.”
‘FGM is child abuse’
Karen Bradley, minister for preventing abuse and exploitation, said: “FGM is a crime and it is child abuse, and this government will not tolerate a practice that can cause extreme and lifelong physical and psychological suffering to women and girls.
“The duty is an important step forward in tackling this practice, and we believe that it will make sure professionals have the confidence to confront FGM.
“There is clear evidence that existing systems are not yielding appropriate referrals to the police. We need to ensure that where a serious crime has been committed, the police are informed and can instigate an appropriate multi-agency response to protect girls and bring perpetrators to justice.”
Celia Jeffreys, head of the National FGM Centre, which is run by Barnardo’s and the Local Government Association, said: “FGM is child abuse and no girl should ever have to deal with the physical and emotional consequences of this harmful practice.
“Mandatory reporting is one element in driving cultural change, but the key to addressing the problem is supporting communities to change their approaches to FGM.”
Poor understanding of duty
A Barnardo’s survey found, however, that many practitioners are unclear about the duty. More than half of 340 social care, education and healthcare professionals surveyed online said they needed more information about the duty, and 17 per cent said they did not understand it at all.
There were 1,036 newly recorded cases of FGM in England from April to June this year, according to official figures, and nine of those identified were aged under 18.
The new duty is one of a range of measures the government has introduced to tackle FGM. These also include new FGM Protection Orders for victims or potential victims, which came into force in July and may include a requirement for a passport to be surrendered to prevent a girl being taken abroad for FGM.