Practitioners to be mandated to report child sexual abuse

Home secretary Suella Braverman accepts Independent Inquiry into Child Seuxal Abuse recommendation for mandatory reporting duty

Suella Braverman
Home secretary Suella Braverman (credit: HM Government)

Social workers and other children’s services staff and volunteers will be mandated to report child sexual abuse (CSA), Suella Braverman has pledged.

The home secretary said the government would introduce a mandatory reporting duty, subject to consultation, in response to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse’s final report, published last October.

This was one of IICSA’s central recommendations, which it said would combat systemic under-identification of CSA.

Proposal for mandatory reporting

IICSA recommended that the UK and Welsh governments legislate to require “mandated reporters” to report child sexual abuse to the relevant local authority or to the police, whenever they receive a disclosure from a victim or perpetrator, witness CSA or observe recognised indicators of the crime. It said the latter included sexualised or sexually harmful behaviour, physical signs of abuse or consequences of sexual abuse, such as pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.

It would be a criminal offence for them not to report after receiving a disclosure or witnessing CSA. Abuse should be defined as any offence under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 committed against a child, except cases where the child is aged 13-16 and has not been harmed, the relationship appears consensual and there is no difference of maturity or capacity between the child and alleged perpetrator.

Mandated reporters should be comprise any police officer, anyone defined as carrying out a regulated activity with children under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 or anyone defined as being in a position of trust with a child under the Sexual Offences Act 2003. The latter two categories include social workers, Cafcass family court advisers, foster carers, children’s home staff, teachers and healthcare staff working with children, among many other groups.

Currently, in England, Working Together to Safeguard Children says anyone with concerns about a child’s welfare “should make a referral to local authority children’s social care”, doing so immediately in cases of suspected significant harm, such as child sexual abuse.
However, this is not a legal requirement, with the agencies bound by Working Together, such as councils, the police, NHS bodies and schools, being able to depart from it in exceptional circumstances.

There is a legal duty in Wales – under section 130 of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales Act) 2014 – on specified public bodies to report suspected abuse, neglect or harm of a child to the relevant local authority. However, the inquiry pointed out that the Welsh approach left gaps in relation to who was required to report – leaving out independent schools and voluntary and religious organisations – and involved no criminal sanctions for a failure to do so.

Pledge to address failings

Braverman did not commit the government to implementing IICSA’s specific proposal, instead saying it would issue a call for evidence shortly to start an “extensive consultation to ensure everyone’s views are represented ahead of implementing the new duty”.

She said: “The protection of children is a collective effort. Every adult must be supported to call out child sexual abuse without fear.

“That’s why I’m introducing a mandatory reporting duty and launching a call for evidence. We must address the failings identified by the Inquiry and take on board the views of the thousands of victims and survivors who contributed to it.”

Response awaited on call for expert child protection bodies

The government will publish the call for evidence alongside its full response to the inquiry, whose other recommendations included:

  1. The creation of Child Protection Authorities (CPAs) for England and Wales, independent statutory bodies that would be repositories of expertise on child protection and tasked with improving practice, advising governments on policy and, where necessary, inspecting institutions. It said this would fill gaps in current inspection arrangements by subjecting non-statutory or unregulated organisations where children spend time and multi-agency child protection arrangements to checks. It also said the CPAs should be able to direct existing inspectorates, such as Ofsted, to carry out checks in certain cases.
  2. Introducing the regulation of care staff working in children’s homes in England and young offender institutions and secure training centres in England and Wales. After the inquiry recommended registration of children’s home staff in England by an independent body in 2018, the Department for Education commissioned a review of the issue, which was inconclusive, though it told the inquiry it would keep it under review. The inquiry said this response was inadequate, and that workforce regulation was necessary to better protect children in residential settings. The Independent Review of Children’s Social Care also recommended extending workforce regulation for children’s home staff, starting with managers, and the DfE is currently considering its recommendations and is due to report before the end of the year.
  3. A single redress scheme for victims of CSA and child sexual exploitation (CSE) connected to institutions in England and Wales, which would run for five years.
  4. Giving children in care, or others on their behalf, the right to apply to the family courts to rule on whether they are at experiencing, or are at risk of, significant harm, with the court able to make orders mandating or limiting the local authority’s exercise of its parental responsibility. This would apply both to children experiencing harm in their placement or those who experience abuse or exploitation as a result of an inappropriate placement or inadequate supervision.
  5. A guarantee of specialist therapeutic support for child victims of sexual abuse.
  6. A ban on the use of pain compliance techniques on children in custodial institutions.
  7. The creation of a cabinet-level minister for children in the UK government.
  8. Improvements in the availability of data on CSA through the creation of a single dataset covering England and Wales, including information on the characteristics of victims and alleged perpetrators, factors that make victims more vulnerable to CSA or CSE and the settings and contexts in which abuse occurs. The data should be published regularly and collated nationally, regionally and locally.

Sarah’s Law update 

Alongside its announcement on mandatory reporting, the government also unveiled measures designed to ease the process of disclosing information on child sex offenders to concerned members of the public.

Under the child sex offender’s disclosure scheme (CSODS), people can make an an application to have information disclosed about a person (subject) who has some form of contact with a named child or children (‘the right to ask’).

If the subject has convictions for sexual offences against children, poses a risk of causing harm to the child concerned, and disclosure is necessary to protect the child and is a proportionate response to manage that risk, there is a presumption that the police will disclose the information.

Known as Sarah’s Law, after eight-year-old Sarah Payne, who was murdered in 2000 by a convicted sex offender, the CSODS also allows the police to disclose without request where they find children are at risk (‘the right to know’).

Under the update to Sarah’s Law guidance, people will be able to make online applications and the timeframe for dealing with applications will be cut from 44 to 28 days.

The revised guidance also advises the police to consider making a ‘right to know’ disclosure under Sarah’s Law or the domestic violence disclosure scheme (DVDS), where relevant, where a person makes an application under the other scheme. The DVDS, otherwise known as Clare’s Law, works similarly to the CSODS, but in respect of disclosing information about past domestic abuse by a perpetrator.

Grooming gangs controversy

Alongside Braverman’s announcements on CSA, prime minister Rishi Sunak unveiled the creation of a “grooming gangs taskforce”, under which specialist police officers will be brought in to help forces investigate CSE cases, including through improved use of data.

This was mired in controversy, after Braverman, in an article for the Mail on Sunday, claimed that “almost all” perpetrators of CSE carried out by grooming gangs were British-Pakistani, that the victims were overwhelmingly white and the authorities had “often looked the other way”, due to fears of being labelled racist.

The latter point was echoed to some extent in Sunak’s announcement as he said that, “for too long political correctness has stopped us from weeding out vile criminals who prey on children and young women”.

However, a 2020 Home Office paper found that, while a number of high-profile CSE cases had been perpetrated by men of Pakistani heritage, the research literature showed “significant limitations to what can be said about links between ethnicity and this form of offending”.

“Research has found that group-based CSE offenders are most commonly White. Some studies suggest an over-representation of Black and Asian offenders relative to the demographics of national populations,” it said. “However, it is not possible to conclude that this is representative of all group-based CSE offending.”

On the back of Braverman’s remarks, NSPCC chief executive Peter Wanless said: “Sexual predators will target the most vulnerable and accessible children in society, and there must be a focus on more than just race so we do not create new blind spots that prevent victims from being identified.”

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4 Responses to Practitioners to be mandated to report child sexual abuse

  1. dk April 4, 2023 at 9:39 am #

    It may well be to come, but it is disappointing to see Community Care omit from its reporting on this issue the dog-whistle racism Braverman and Sunak have employed to essentially use vulnerable girls as a political football. The rhetoric around this policy, and nobody should be under any illusions that the policy is driven by rhetoric and an attempt to position Labour as woke/leftie soft-touches, flies completely in the face of the Home Office’s own research into who perpetrates CSA, and against who. The Conservative Party’s pushing of this issue into its agenda has nothing to do with a desire to protect girls. It has everything into goading one of Starmer’s less well-trained MPs into calling out racism, and hence losing the (let’s face it) racists the Labour Party now actively courts. If this was anything to do with protecting girls, the policies would be founded on research and what the organisations and people with expertise, some of it lived, have been clear would actually help.

    My gut and professional experience tells me that it is only a tiny minority of professionals who are told about or who directly witness CSA who are not reporting this to the police and their LA. What I’m much more concerned about is the possibility that the reporting of “indicators” of CSA will be made mandatory, or more so that the failure to do so (which will only ever be identified with the benefit of hindsight) will be criminalized. As I see it, there is absolutely no ethical justification for not reporting something you know to have happened. Reporting that you have observed behaviours that are congruent with CSA, but also congruent with countless other non-harmful experiences, is a much more nuanced matter.

  2. Chris Sterry April 4, 2023 at 2:26 pm #

    Whether it be mandatory or not there is a ‘Duty of Care’ and any areas of any possible alerts of abuse should be reported and not just those of a sexual nature. Also not just in respect of girls, but for any persons who is deemed to be vulnerable, be they be girls/boys, elderly, persons with disabilities, etc.

    This is a duty of everyone and not just professionals.

  3. Tracey Coulthard April 8, 2023 at 9:47 am #

    I hear the low murmur of the academics and self promoting experts coalescing in creating a din about how if there were dedicated “investigators with specialist knowledge and skills” this would enhance safeguarding strategies and elevate status of social workers. 3 months and CC will feature above. Guaranteed.

  4. Annie April 12, 2023 at 11:02 pm #

    Enquiries have identified that professionals in the police force, social services and health all failed to act on repeated referrals by community workers and others of children suffering or likely to be suffering child sexual abuse in a number of high profile cases. These children were subsequently identified as victims of highly organised grooming gangs (Rochdale,Telford, Oxford amongst others). Responses and prevailing views at the time included ‘the girls would make poor witnesses’ or ‘the girls were making life style choices’.
    It is crucial that action does not end with the reporting. But unless the law is clear, there will be some who holdback from the first step. How many serious case reviews/child safeguarding practice reviews have identified that the indicators of csa were missed, or physical abuse was reported but the signs of sexual abuse were ignored.
    it could be argued that most politicians have one eye on the ballot papers, it was ever thus but what is the point of cynicism when a law that will help protect children is proposed. I wish this guidance had existed when I was in practice – I recall cases where it seemed authorities were powerless to do anything and this fed down to disempower practitioners. Also cases where professionals (and their managers) covered up what was happening – from various motives.
    I would hope the process of consultation will facilitate sensible contributions from experienced workers across professions and finally achieve some protective legislation/guidance – along with improvements in training.