Saturday, 18 March 2017

Corbyn on Mandatory Reporting of Child Abuse

I was sorry to hear what Britain’s Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, recently said about the need for mandatory reporting of child abuse, albeit focused on child protection in sport.

I agree that anyone who suspects child abuse and neglect should always report it. And I agree that this should be reflected in policy and guidance. But that is very different from the arguments of those who support mandatory reporting, who want to see a criminal offence of failing to report, backed by criminal sanctions, probably substantial sentences of imprisonment.

The most likely impact of introducing criminal sanctions for failing to report, targeted at people who work with children, will be to heighten the already prevalent culture of fear and blame surrounding working with child abuse and neglect.

I want people who have concerns about a child to feel free to discuss those concerns with colleagues and managers to determine what should be done in the best interests of the child. I don’t want professionals to be faced with a situation in which they feel that their first priority is to ensure that they themselves are protected from prosecution.

The reality of child abuse and neglect is that usually those who first notice it in a particular family or situation are never quite sure about what they are seeing. Can it really be that this child is being abused? Our natural first reaction is often “surely not”. At that point what is required is not the threat of prison if you happen to make the wrong decision. What is required is the right kind of support from people with more experience and insight to reflect on, and tease out, what is really happening. If then abuse seems to be likely, a referral can be made with confidence.

Imagine a teacher who discovers that a child in her class, about whom she has had no previous concerns, is being assessed for abuse and neglect. Will she feel free to speak openly about her past dealings with the child and family if there is a realistic prospect of her being prosecuted, especially if, as is often the case with the benefit of hindsight, things that appeared to have had an innocent explanation now turn out to be sinister? More likely she will resort to taking legal advice and where possible exercise her right to silence and, of course, that will do nothing to help the child.

And, if there is an inquiry into what went wrong in that case, will that teacher feel confident in cooperating fully with that inquiry and openly talking about what may be seen as her own mistakes and failings? If she risks punishment, I think not. The outcome will be that she will remain stumm and, as a result, important learning will not take place, the inevitable consequence of a culture of blame and fear.

Mandatory reporting, backed by the threat of criminal sanction, does not make children safer. It just gives those who want someone to punish when things go wrong some easy targets.