Child abuse and mandatory reporting

There is a growing movement in England, Scotland and Wales calling for the mandatory reporting of child abuse suspicions. In Northern Ireland there is at least partial protection for victims of child abuse because under the Criminal Law Act it has been an offence not to report criminal offences – including those against children – since 1967.

The calls for mandatory reporting have been growing louder and more insistent since the horrific death of Daniel Pelka at the hands of his mother and stepfather. At the beginning of August 2013 Paula Barrow, a Manchester-based mother-of-two, began a petition on Change.org calling on the government to make it mandatory for those working with children who observe or suspect abuse to report it to the police or social services. The petition now has upward of 88,000 signatures.

The Mandate Now coalition, which joins several organisations concerned with survivors of abuse, is also calling for mandatory reporting to be introduced for workers at any institutions where children are cared for in loco parentis.

These calls, however, are not merely populist.

In March 2013 Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary published a review entitled “Mistakes were made”. The review was into allegations and intelligence material concerning Jimmy Savile between 1964 and 2012. It made five recommendations; the third states:

We consider that a system of mandatory reporting should be examined whereby those who, in the course of their professional duties, become aware of information or evidence that a child is or has been the victim of abuse should be under a legal obligation to notify their concerns to others.

Just three months later in June the Home Affairs Committee published its report into 'Child sexual exploitation and the response to localised grooming.' Recommendation 36 under the heading 'legislation' states:

We also recommend that the Government examine the Florida Protection of Vulnerable Persons Act passed in 2012 in order to ascertain whether the mandatory reporting of child abuse could, and should, be implemented in England and Wales.

Most recently Keir Starmer QC, just days after leaving his position as Director of Public Prosecutions, stated very clearly in an interview with BBC1's Panorama programme that teachers and other professionals who do not report child abuse suspicions should face prosecution. "I think the time has come to change the law and close a gap that's been there for a very long time. I think there should be a mandatory reporting provision."

He said a criminal penalty would "focus people's minds" and said there should be "immunity for individuals if they did report".

He said the penalty for failing to report abuse could be a short jail sentence or a fine.

"There are just too many examples of cases where those who have suspected abuse have not really done anything about it and the perpetrator has either got away with it or, worse still, been able to perpetuate the offending."

He added: "I would have a reasonably broad category of individuals that were subject to the law.”

For the first time, the Catholic Church and the Church of England, despite their long history of denial and cover up, have also come out in support of mandatory reporting.  Speaking on Panorama in support of Keir Starmer’s proposition that there should be a centralised system of mandatory reporting, the Church of England’s head of child safeguarding, The Rt Revd Paul Butler, the Bishop of Southwell and Nottingham, said: “We have to think of the child first, not ourselves, not the institution -- what’s best for the child.”

Danny Sullivan, chairman of the National Catholic Safeguarding Commission, said: “The Catholic Church in England and Wales has been following the principle of mandatory reporting for some time and that it is why we would have no problem with such a provision being enshrined in law.”

But… not everyone agrees.

While saying that there is "absolutely no justification whatsoever" for not reporting abuse if identified, Dame Clare Tickell, chief executive of Action for Children, told the Panorama programme that what was needed was for social workers and people working in the health and education systems to be educated to know exactly what it was they needed to identify. “What we want, she said, “is for people across the system... not just social workers, we want people working in the health system, people working in the education system, to know exactly what it is they need to identify and not to feel that they might be prosecuted if they fail to identify and report”.

One can understand the fears of those who work with children that they might become victims of a witch hunt, but this is still a curious position for anyone who cares about the welfare of children to take. Having observed Daniel Pelka’s desperate attempts to forage for food in the school rubbish bins, his severe weight-loss and his numerous visible bruises and injuries, one wonders, for example, how many more overt and blatant signs of abuse were needed for staff at Little Heath Primary School in Coventry to recognise that he was in trouble.

A spokesman for the Department of Education said: "Guidance is already crystal clear that professionals should refer immediately to social care when they are concerned about a child.”

If guidance is so very clear how was it possible that in Daniel’s case and in many other cases like his, referral to social care or the police does not occur?

It is hard to resist the thought that had there been a requirement for mandatory reporting the professionals in these cases would have had more incentive to focus their minds on the needs of the victims.

NEXT: The experience in other jurisdictions