Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Mandatory Reporting – the need for caution

I remain deeply sceptical of the need for mandatory reporting of child abuse. I wasn’t persuaded by the arguments of broadcaster, Esther Rantzen [1], or former Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer [2], who have now joined the ranks of those speaking out in favour of its introduction in England and Wales.

Like other campaigners they point to the existence of mandatory reporting in other countries, such as Australia, Canada and some US states, but they do not point to any clear evidence that mandatory reporting results in safer children. And they do not point out that child protection in some places with mandatory reporting is manifestly no more effective than in it is in Britain; and in some of those places it is worse.

I am instinctively against recourse to legislation and criminal sanctions unless there is very clear evidence that to do so would make children and young people safer; and I think the evidence for mandatory reporting is scant.

Mandatory reporting is not a magic bullet. Indeed it has potential to do some real harm. There is the risk of over-reporting resulting in scarce resources being devoted to investigating ‘false-positive’ cases instead of being spent on providing services to those who actually need help. That was found by at least one Australian study [3].

Then there is the issue of blame. If professionals believe that they are likely to be punished – even sent to prison - if they make errors by not reporting abuse, then they will not confess to those errors but will seek to cover them up. Perversely a measure designed to make children safer, results in systems that are less safe.

However, I did sit down to watch last night’s BBC Panorama programme [4] with at least a partially open mind. The first thing that struck me was that the cases discussed were exclusively ones in which sexual abuse had occurred in institutional settings, such as boarding schools, hospitals and religious institutions. The other striking thing was that in all the cases people had very deliberately conspired to protect abusers or institutions and to allow children to be at continued risk of abuse.

That is very different to what appear to be the circumstances of the Daniel Pelka case, where school staff and other professionals misjudged the position and lost situation awareness. Yet it is because of Daniel’s tragic death that a campaign for mandatory reporting has grown, some campaigners even speaking of ‘Daniel’s Law’.

As I have already said, I would tamper with the law with extreme caution, but I can see a case for invoking criminal sanction where a person deliberately and with malice aforethought covers-up the abuse of a child and knowingly allows that child, or other children, to continue to suffer at the hands of an abuser. That is clearly wrong.

To begin to convince me, campaigners for mandatory reporting would need to distinguish clearly between mistakes which, however regrettable, were made in good faith, and which should not be the subject of criminal sanction, and cover-ups and deceptions designed to protect an individual or institution while placing a child at risk. I would suggest that the way any law is framed would need to include words such as ‘intentionally’, ‘knowingly’ or ‘recklessly’ to distinguish the activity to be criminalised from genuine errors or poor practice.

Those who intend to do wrong are a legitimate focus of the criminal law. Those who do not get it right should not be punished, but helped to get it right next time.   


[3] Ainsworth, F. “Mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect: does it really make a difference?” Child and Family Social Work 2002, 7, pp 57–63