The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) has been listening to arguments about whether failing to report known or suspected child sexual abuse should be made a criminal offence.
The background to this (and in part why the Inquiry was set up) was institutional failings in protecting children, and even covering up known abuse or deliberately keeping known abuse from the authorities. A significant part of the job of the Inquiry is to make recommendations on how to better protect children and one suggestion that has been promoted by some over the years has been to make it a criminal offence not to report a suspicion of child sexual abuse. The result therefore would not just be professional sanctions, but criminal charges could be brought as well.
Existing obligations to report child abuse
At the moment the duty to report is contained within various statutes and Department for Education statutory guidance such as ‘Working Together to Safeguard Children’ and ‘Keeping Children Safe in Education’. There are other guidance documents as well. This guidance is the starting point for the policies and procedures that organisations should have in place and also provides details of when a professional should report suspected abuse and how they should go about doing that. Such policies and procedures are expected to be in place for all organisations that work with or have contact with children. If they do not then their functions and services can be removed and sanctions or conditions can be placed on the organisation concerned. Criminal sanctions are only available if someone deliberately withholds information or if they protect the suspected perpetrator of abuse. The obligation in Wales is slightly different and imposes a legal duty on certain professionals to report, although no criminal charges can flow from breach of this duty. Sanctions are much the same as in England. In addition, female genital mutilation (FGM) is subject to mandatory reporting since 2015 and any known cases must be reported to the police.
The UK Government continues to monitor reporting systems for child abuse and whether procedures can be improved. One suggestion has been to make it compulsory for professionals that work with children to report known or suspected abuse to children. The criticism of guidance over the years is that it has been ineffective and has allowed perpetrators to go undetected in various institutions, particularly the Church. It is also said that unless the duty is compulsory it can lead to professionals who have suspicions having to make a decision whether or not to report; some may and others may not. There is also a training issue which means that professionals are unclear of the guidance and how to apply it. The use of the word ‘should’ within the guidance over the word ‘must’ is thought to be particularly problematic and which could result in less reports of suspected abuse being made. It could also be said that failing to have a legal duty to report abuse sends the wrong signal about how we prioritise and protect children. Having a legal duty, on the other hand, sends a powerful signal to everyone (including the perpetrator of abuse) about what is expected of them and the importance of protecting children within the work they do
There are, however, some criticisms of mandatory reporting which include concerns that it may have the effect of discouraging disclosure. For example, a child may not want to disclose for fear of the consequences. However, I am not sure that vulnerable children would have a sufficient grasp of the legal framework to be able to make such an informed decision. Others have said that improvements should focus on training of professionals and making sure that children feel able to disclose abuse where it is happening. In that sense, focusing on mandatory reporting may distract from other problems that should be addressed. There may also be some who feel that mandatory reporting could undermine the judgement of professionals.
Research has been undertaken to look at inconsistencies in reporting and there is evidence to suggest that not all organisations are reporting abuse in the same way. This is something that mandatory reporting could assist with in that it would standardise when a report must be made.
While mandatory reporting may not be a silver bullet that will mean that all abuse against children will be reported and punished, I think it is an important part of improvements and I hope that IICSA will make this recommendation. The terrible legacy of abuse and cover up by many institutions does need acting upon and this would be a powerful message that what happened in the past was wrong, as well as clarifying for all involved with the care of children what their duties to report abuse are.