Jury out on proposed mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse

Fiona Simpson
Friday, December 2, 2022

Key sector leaders back independent inquiry recommendation that reporting of child sex abuse should be made compulsory in law, but others remain concerned that it would lead to children’s services being ‘overwhelmed’.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse ran for seven years. Picture: IICSA
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse ran for seven years. Picture: IICSA

Following a seven-year review of evidence from thousands of survivors of child sexual abuse, the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) recommends that it be made compulsory in law for professionals and volunteers working with children in England and Wales to report suspected abuse, despite the government rejecting the same proposal in 2018.

The inquiry, based on the testimonies of more than 6,000 survivors of child sexual abuse, recommends in its final report that “the UK government and Welsh government introduce legislation which places certain individuals – “mandated reporters” – under a statutory duty to report child sexual abuse (see box).

Following a public consultation four years ago – while the IICSA was under way – the government said the case for mandatory reporting “had not been made”.

However, inquiry chair Alexis Jay’s decision to push for its implementation for a second time has led to sector leaders questioning whether it is now necessary due to a raft of failures the report brings to the fore.

Previous rejection

Proposals to create a legal duty around reporting abuse was first put forward in 2014 as an amendment to the Serious Crimes Bill.

In July 2016, the government launched its public consultation on reporting and acting on child abuse and neglect.

However, the response, published in March 2018, highlighted concerns that a likely increase in referrals risked creating a “needle in a haystack” where children most at risk of abuse would not be recognised and children’s social care services would be “overwhelmed” with referrals.

Then children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield was reluctant to back the proposal first time around, saying she would “prefer adults to be trusted to do the right thing without the need for a statutory mechanism”, but always said she would back the idea “if that is what is needed to ensure people take action”.

Responding to the IICSA’s final report, she says that the “extent of failures” it reveals means “making the reporting of child sexual abuse mandatory” is something that has to be done.

“I do support it,” says Longfield, who is now chair of the Commission on Young Lives. “The amount of time that has been spent by the inquiry unearthing the extent of these failures changes the landscape of things and means that now mandatory reporting does need to be introduced.”

This was echoed by Jay who, while introducing the 468-page report, said: “Child sexual abuse has been hidden from public view for decades and it remains under-reported and under-identified to this day. Unless we are prepared to accept a world where our children, and their children, are always in danger of becoming victims of this terrible crime, action must be taken immediately.”

However, Steve Crocker, president of the Association of Directors of Children’s Service (ADCS), says the body “does not believe mandatory reporting would provide greater protections for children or improve their outcomes”.

Dispute over referrals

Crocker raises concerns, dating back to the 2018 consultation, around the scale of referrals mandatory reporting may trigger.

“It may lead to a dramatic increase in referrals and risk overwhelming the systems already in place to protect children if individuals feel compelled to take all of their concerns outside the established escalation process,” he says, adding that “the introduction of a similar duty in some parts of Australia led to a significant influx in contacts, most of which were unsubstantiated”.

Former children’s minister Tim Loughton also highlights concerns that mandatory reporting will increase referrals, arguing “nothing has changed since the government rejected proposals in 2018”.

“It has never been the case that social workers don’t report incidents of child sexual abuse because they’re lazy or can’t be bothered – when cases get missed or dropped, it’s generally because we have systems that don’t talk to each other and are not well connected,” he adds.

“What we need is proper joined-up working, that’s why multi-agency safeguarding hubs and safeguarding partnership boards are so important.”

The inquiry’s report notes that after the introduction of mandatory reporting in the Australian state of Victoria in 1993, “there was a six-fold increase in the rate of children identified as in need of protection”. And when similar legislation was introduced in 2009 in the State of Western Australia, the number of children identified as in need of protection from sexual abuse doubled.

Jay describes this as a “long-term improvement”, stating that “the law enabled children’s services to provide help to more of those children who needed it”.

Longfield questions whether a rise in referrals would happen at all, while dismissing fears of a slight initial rise in favour of increased protection of children.

She says: “I don’t think we would have an avalanche of reports – we may do at first, but that would even itself out – and would mean we are protecting those children where failures have been identified.”

Training is key

Meanwhile, despite differing opinions on the introduction of mandatory reporting, both Crocker and Longfield say it will not effectively protect children unless it is introduced alongside greater support for both victims and professionals.

According to Crocker, ADCS believes that “the most common reason people do not report abuse and neglect is because they don’t recognise it for what it is”.

“We need to ensure all professionals, and communities, are aware of the signs of child abuse and how best to raise concerns with the appropriate agency,” he says.

“If a change in law was introduced, it would need to be fully funded by the government as a new burden.”

The inquiry’s report highlights gaps in training for professionals working with children, noting that “many victims and survivors suggested that people who work with children should be better trained and supported to identify signs of child sexual abuse, such as physical symptoms or changes in behaviour”.

Longfield backs these calls, adding: “Making reporting of child sexual abuse mandatory is something that has to be done, not necessarily as a stand-alone thing – that won’t work. It needs to be part of reshaping a wider system that supports the child, including training for professionals in how to spot signs of child sexual abuse.”

Loughton also agrees that improved training on spotting the signs of child sexual abuse is needed, but warns that “mandatory reporting takes away the ability for social workers, highly skilled and well-trained professionals, to trust their gut instinct”.

He adds: “People will start to report things that go against their instincts because they have been threatened with sanctions. It’s an unnecessary pressure on already over-stretched social workers that will lead them to burn out.”

Complex issue

A number of charities and local government organisations contacted by CYP Now about mandatory reporting said they are currently in talks around whether or not to support the decision.

Speaking anonymously, one local government leader says discussions are taking place to weigh up the gravity of IICSA’s findings against fears that mandatory reporting could “overwhelm an already over–stretched system”.

Others, say that are likely to fall on the side of no mandation but better training.

“Social workers actually have very limited training on child sexual abuse unless they opt in, so if this is going to be mandated we need the training to go with it,” says another, while some raise questions around a need to reduce stigma around child sexual abuse.

Jay raises the point in her foreword to the report, saying: “As a society, we do not want to talk about child sexual abuse. It is too difficult, too painful, regrettably a taboo subject for many.”

While more consideration is needed around whether mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse is necessary, as Longfield reiterates, it cannot be the only measure brought forward from the report. “It needs to be part of reshaping a wider system that supports the child.”

Experts agree that while it is now down to the government to respond to the report, they must ensure plans arising from it are underpinned by sufficient support for professionals to help vulnerable children in the best way possible.

Key recommendation: Mandatory reporting

The inquiry recommends that the UK government and Welsh Government introduce legislation which places certain individuals – “mandated reporters” – under a statutory duty to report child sexual abuse: where they receive a disclosure of child sexual abuse from a child or perpetrator; witness a child being sexually abused or observe recognised indicators of child sexual abuse.

It lists any person working in regulated activity in relation to children (under the Safeguarding and Vulnerable Groups Act 2006); any person working in a position of trust (as defined by the Sexual Offences Act 2003); and police officers as so-called mandated reporters.

This includes those working in children’s social care, in schools and in youth services, including as volunteers, and defines child sexual abuse as “any act that would be an offence under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 where the alleged victim is a child under the age of 18”, except cases where the child is aged 13-16 and has not been harmed, the relationship appears consensual and there is no difference of maturity or capacity between the child and alleged perpetrator, unless the perpetrator is in a position of trust.

Mandated reporters who fail to report sexual abuse based on a disclosure from a child or perpetrator or where they have witnessed abuse to either children’s social care services or the police “as soon as it reasonably practicable” would have committed a criminal offence if the recommendation is implemented.

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