The idea for a new law placing a duty on all professionals working with children to report child abuse when they come across it, has raised its head again. Paula Barrow of Manchester has started gathering signatures to get a debate in parliament on the subject http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/change-the-law-to-better-protect-vulnerable-children-like-daniel-pelka.
Teachers, youth workers, probation officers and others would be obligated to report any child abuse concerns they come across to the police or local authority Children’s Services. Meanwhile the NSPCC has come up with the idea of an additional new law to criminalise anyone who covers up child abuse they knew about (see http://www.nspcc.org.uk/news-and-views/ceo-news/reporting-abuse-policy/covering-up-abuse-crime_wda103339.html.)
All this has been played out against a back-drop of missing files listing paedophiles in high places and popular entertainers going to prison for ‘historic’ offences. But do we need such ‘mandatory reporting’ as it is known?
We have considered such laws before and some people wanted ‘mandatory reporting’ to be written in to the Children Act 1989. A preliminary discussion paper looked at the idea but ruled it out seeing reporting on a legal basis as being unnecessary because we could depend on the professional judgement of the workers concerned (1).
Practitioners and professionals have always prided themselves on providing a confidential service to members of the public, qualified only by the need to breach that confidentiality when someone was seemingly at risk of harm. The interaction between worker and service user was accorded a form of ‘confidential space’ where the boundaries were known and crossed only if necessary. Mandatory reporting will arguably reduce the size of that ‘confidential space’.
One of the problems of reporting child abuse has always been how you define child abuse. No problem when it is extreme and obvious but often it is not. The recent inclusion of ‘emotional abuse’ as child abuse for example is going to need some defining. Child abuse is not a legal term. If reporting becomes an obligation then more reporting is likely to take place just ‘to be on the safe side’ and to avoid any possible prosecution. Who would want to be the first practitioner prosecuted for not reporting?
The police and local authorities could find their workload in this area growing rapidly. That in turn could mean investigating a flood reports which will overwhelm both agencies already hit by reduced resources. When many of those reports are vague and ill-founded workers could be performing extensive investigations that could take them away from the serious allegations.
Mandatory reporting is also yet another attack on the professionalism of many workers who are considered incapable of making reporting decisions without a law. Already surrounded by bureaucracy, guidance, managerialism and procedures this will be yet another form of direction imposed on the practitioner. Who needs three years of study when it’s all in ‘the book’? Anyone else noticed that probation officers no longer need any qualifications in future?
Other questions arise. Will mandatory reporting have an impact on the therapeutic process? Will people be less open with their therapist knowing the worker has no margin of discretion and less ‘confidential space’ to work in? If a report has to be made what will happen to the working relationship that had been established?
Mandatory reporting is not the panacea it appears at first sight and in the rush to do ‘something’ we may end up with a worse situation than we have now.
(1) DHSS (1985) Review of Child Care Law HMSO: London (paras 12.3-4)
Author: Terry Thomas, Visiting Professor of Criminal Justice Studies, Leeds Metropolitan University