Sunday, 24 July 2016

Mandatory Reporting

The consultation paper has just been published and I am working my way through it slowly and carefully.

There is a summary in Community Care. What follows is based on my own first read-through.

The paper proposes two alternative ways forward in addition to the status quo: introducing mandatory reporting with sanctions for failing to report or, alternatively, a duty to act - either placed on individuals or organisations - which would require certain practitioners or organisations to take appropriate action (which could include reporting) if they knew or had reasonable cause to suspect child abuse or neglect was taking place.

My starting position is as follows. I am in favour of all professionals, practitioners and other people, including members of the public, being advised that they should always report child abuse and neglect. I am not, however, in favour of sanctions, including the possibility of criminal convictions, when people fail to report. Likewise, I believe we all have a duty to act to protect children, but I don’t think punishing people who fail in that duty is likely to have any positive effect.

Let me explain why.

The vast majority of people who work with children do not want to see them abused and neglected. It is only a very small minority of people who work with children who either do not care or who are active participants in abuse. Often these people are already committing offences, such as assisting offenders, misconduct in a public office, conspiring to pervert the cause of justice or offences of actually harming and abusing children themselves. The vast majority of people who fail to report abuse or neglect do so not because they are wicked or negligent, but because they make genuine mistakes or misjudgements, sometimes convincing themselves in the face of apparent evidence to the contrary that the abuse or neglect is not happening. Failing to report abuse is usually not an egregious act – it is usually an error albeit sometimes a very serious error.

I do not believe that people who make errors – no matter how serious the consequences – while acting in good faith should suffer punishment or sanction. They may need advice or guidance or re-training or even moving to different duties, but they shouldn’t be sent to prison.

Inevitably introducing offences surrounding failing to report abuse and neglect, or failing to act to protect a child, would result in a climate of fear among those who were covered by the legislation.  That would not make them safer employees, because it would make them practice more defensively, to be less likely to discuss why things have gone wrong and be more likely to refuse to co-operate with enquiries or investigations because they might incriminate themselves. As a result, the organisations for which they work would become more opaque. People would be less likely to be open about error, they would be less likely to discuss their mistakes, they would be less likely to learn from them or the mistakes of others. In short practice would become less safe. Children would be at greater, not lesser, risk.

I was pleased to see that the consultation paper states clearly some good reasons why legislation introducing mandatory reporting or a duty to act might not be a good idea. Of course it also considers the possible benefits as well, but, as there will be no shortage of people queuing up to rehearse these, I am going to make no apology for just listing the following risks of introducing a mandatory reporting system identified in the document (I have marked those that the document argues also apply to a Duty to Act with an *):

  1. A possible increase in unsubstantiated referrals*
  2.  A possible diversion of resources from services for abused and neglected children to assessment and investigation of allegations
  3.  Poorer quality reports because those covered by the duty may be tempted to pass the buck
  4.  Professionals’ attention focused on reporting rather than on improving the quality of interventions
  5.  Those who are bound by the duty feeling less able to discuss cases openly because of fear of sanctions*
  6.  Harder to recruit new staff*
  7.  Valued experienced staff members leaving their positions*
  8.  Dissuading children from disclosing incidents for fear of being forced into hostile legal proceedings
  9.  Undermining the confidentiality of those contemplating disclosure of abuse
  10.  Victims being more reluctant to make disclosures if they know that it will result in a record of their contact being made

The document also points out that the current referral rate in England (54.8 per 1,000
Children) is substantially higher than the rate in some countries which have mandatory reporting systems:  USA (47.1 per 1,000 children); Australia (37.8 per 1,000 children).

All of this seems to me to signal the need for very great caution indeed. To my mind risks 4, 5, 6 and 7 make the case for not introducing mandatory reporting unassailable. In particular risk number 5 is my main concern – the risk that organisations and practice will become less safe, because people fear that they may be punished if they admit to making mistakes and so will not speak openly about error nor learn from it.

Some parts of the consultation paper seem to be carefully drafted. Others I thought were sloppy and illustrative of how a mandatory reporting system could easily become arbitrary and illogical. For example, Table 1 on pages 19-20 lists local authority social workers as a group who could be covered by legislation, but it makes no mention of their managers, some of whom may not be professionally qualified social workers.  Nor does it mention social workers employed by other organisations such as CAFCASS or adoption agencies. The same table suggests that the only doctors to be covered by the legislation would be GPs and Paediatricians and makes no mention of other doctors who clearly have key roles in child protection, such as child and adult psychiatrists, A&E doctors, orthopaedic surgeons, dermatologists, urologists etc. etc. Dentists are not mentioned at all. Nor are child psychologists. Nor are psychiatric nurses. People such as prison governors and prison officers, who may hear about child abuse from prison inmates, receive no mention either. Domestic violence support workers probably hear quite a lot about child abuse and neglect in the course of their work, but they are not mentioned. Housing officers are mentioned, but not public health officers. What about border force officers or school bus drivers or scout leaders? There is no mention of the military. And surely the sad history of the Jimmy Savile case should signal a need to include people involved with children’s involvement in entertainment being included, if anybody is. People go to their MPs with allegations of child abuse, so shouldn’t MPs be required to report as well?

The real danger here is that once the logic of a mandatory reporting system is explored, there seems to be an almost inevitable pressure to include more and more groups. Indeed, the end point of the argument may be that if anybody is to be made a mandatory reporter than everybody should be. The effects of that are anybody’s guess.

This consultation paper is very important. Everybody concerned with safeguarding and protecting children from abuse and neglect should read it and make an individual response or contribute to a collective one. The very last thing we want is for Government to introduce unnecessary changes which have negative unintended consequences and which result in services, and most importantly children, who are less safe as a result.