There have been calls from the Children’s Commissioner for England for a change to the law. The changes would require doctors, teachers and social workers to report suspicions of child abuse.
The Commissioner, Maggie Atkinson, argues that this step would be an encouragement to professionals to focus more on the needs of children and importantly to ensure that if there are concerns that they are shared with others. By contrast the Government has argued that there is no evidence to suggest that this would lead to children being made any safer.
Legal guidance already exists that is intended to compel professionals who come in to contact with children to report child abuse. However, at present failure to report is not considered to be a crime in England, Scotland and Wales. The position in Northern Ireland is slightly different where it is an offence to disclose an arrestable offence to the Police and this would include offences against children.
It is suggested that alongside a potential tightening of the laws it would be necessary to implement a programme for training. This is because much of what happens can depend on how well a professional has assessed the issues and significantly what steps they then took as a result.
The suggestions are similar to suggestions made previously by the former Director of Public Prosecutions for England and Wales, Keir Starmer. His recommendations supported the idea of short prison sentences for anyone convicted of a failure to report a suspicion of child abuse.
One of the unfortunately common features of some recent cases reported in the media has been the lack of proper reporting of suspicions.
In response The Department for Education has argued that the introduction of mandatory reporting standards was not the solution to the problem. Guidance already exists that suggests professionals should immediately refer matters to social care when they are concerned about a child.
The general response to these suggestions, particularly in terms of the professions, has been hesitant. Medical practitioners in particular face the difficult prospect of dealing with these potentially serious problems whilst also being mindful of their own responsibilities and ethical standards. There may be exceptional cases where reporting, in a formal sense, might be against a child’s interests.
It is fair to say, in some circumstances, that not reporting a suspicion straight away does not amount to a decision to do nothing at all.
What is evident from a number of the heavily reported cases is that the key difficulty in taking action on a suspicion is the lack of a clear and cohesive approach that allows any information received to be acted on by the right agencies. Mandatory reporting does not necessarily lead to effective response and in many respects that is the point most likely to provide a better safeguard for vulnerable children.
The importance of this issue cannot be underestimated. It is, of course, essential that steps are taken to prevent child abuse and neglect. However, it is equally fair to say that this is a complex area and the solutions that are put in place to deal with problems need to be flexible enough to adapt. In that sense mandatory reporting may be the right option but equally it needs to be looked at in a wider context to ensure that professionals are alert to the problems and better equipped to identify and act on suspicions in a manner which protects the child in question.