Why mandatory reporting must be enshrined in child protection legislation.
In a week which has seen Rolf Harris convicted of 12 counts of indecent assault and sentenced to over 5 years in prison alongside the ‘loss’ of the Dickens’ dossier which exposed alleged paedophiles in Westminster, the same question keeps being asked: why has it taken so long for these disturbing events to come to light?
One reason is surely that there has never been a legal obligation for staff working in schools, hospitals and care homes to report incidents of suspected abuse.
Whilst the current statutory guidance urges professionals to disclose child abuse to the police or Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO), there are no legal repercussions if they fail to do so. This means that other factors – concerns about the institution’s reputation, confusion as to what was witnessed and connections to the alleged perpetrator – can result in early signs of abuse being brushed under the carpet.
Mandate Now, a coalition of groups which represent abuse survivors, is calling for the introduction of mandatory reporting of child abuse. This would require professionals working in ‘Regulated Activities’ (schools, hospitals, care homes and similar institutions as defined in the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006) who know or suspect child abuse to inform the LADO or children’s services, or face a criminal prosecution.
It is clear that discretionary reporting does not adequately safeguard victims. A legal requirement to disclose abuse should be as normal a component of the UK’s child protection framework as CRB checks, alongside appropriate training for the professionals concerned.
Jonathan West, a child protection campaigner who helped to uncover child abuse at Ealing Abbey & St. Benedict’s School, has stressed that, alongside the introduction of mandatory reporting, schools and other institutions must review their individual safeguarding policies to ensure that staff are properly equipped to identify and address suspicions of child abuse.
Arguments that mandatory reporting will not better protect children, or that social services will be deluged with an unmanageable caseload, fail to recognise the vast difference that it could have made to some abuse survivors. From the cases I work on, it is clear that time and time again a blind eye was turned to the abuse that was occurring. Had mandatory reporting already been in force, there would have been a non-negligible duty to ensure that suspicions of child abuse did not remain within the institution’s walls.
In this regard, it is encouraging that the NSPCC appears to be reviewing its hitherto held position against mandatory reporting. As a leading child protection charity, I urge it to add its very powerful voice to the campaign for this to be a key component of child safeguarding.
Mandatory reporting alone cannot ensure that child abuse in Regulated Activities is brought out into the open, but, coupled with careful training, it can stop professionals from hesitating to act upon suspicions of child abuse and prevent a culture where eye-brows are raised, but nothing is done.
Alison Millar is a Partner at Leigh Day and head of the firm’s abuse team. She represents survivors of child abuse and campaigns for reform in order to safeguard children and vulnerable adults. Follow Alison on twitter at @AllymMillar.