How will small organisations like scouts, brownies or sports clubs be affected by Government plans to place guidelines on the reporting of child abuse or neglect concerns on a legal footing?
Organisations where children attend without their parents will have a legal responsibility to make sure they provide a safe environment for children.
This means appointing a “designated officer” who will be responsible for ensuring staff and volunteers are vetted, recruited properly and trained in safe practices with children. This officer will also be required to make information in child protection in the organisation available to the HSE and parents.
While groups such as the GAA have officials to deal with these issues, they are likely to pose a challenge for smaller organisations.
Will these requirements extend to nannies working in the home with children? And what about staff in amusement parks?
No. In the case of a person employed to work in the home, the principle of the parent providing the best protection for the child and supervising any service applies. Also excluded from the legislation are services with general public access such as fairgrounds, amusement parks, festivals, etc.
Apart from organisations, are there special requirements for professionals working with children such as teachers?
Yes. The legislation also applies to named professionals, who will have a legal duty to report suspicions and allegations of abuse to the HSE. These include doctors, nurses, social workers, teachers, foster carers, pre-school staff, therapists, etc. The full list is contained in the proposed legislation.
What are the consequences for a person or organisation who fails to report details of abuse or neglect?
If the “designated officer” of an organisation or a professional who works with children is found guilty of failing to report abuse or neglect concerns, they may face a fine or jail term of up to five years, depending on the severity of the offence.
If an organisation is found not to comply with the legislation, it will face a series of warnings from the HSE, the most serious of which will require it to cease activity.
Will social services be able to cope with additional reports of abuse and neglect?
No one knows for sure. At present, social services receive about 30,000 reports of suspected abuse or neglect each year.
Some social workers say they are already overwhelmed by the volume of reports and say they can only respond to the most urgent cases. The less serious complaints, they say, are simply put to one side and may never be responded to.
However, the HSE says social services in many areas do not have any backlog of cases and say each individual report receives a social work response.
What we do know – based on the experience of other jurisdictions – is the volume of reports is likely to rise sharply once mandatory reporting becomes law.
Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald has said management reforms, recruitment of additional social workers and a better filtering system mean services will be able to cope. Education will also be key for organisations and professionals.
Alan Shatter’s Bill could criminalise a person who fails to report serious offences against children to the Garda. But what happens if a child asks a parent not to pass on information about abuse?
A person may rely on a defence of failing to report information in circumstances where a child requests that information should not be disclosed.
There are also defences for medical professionals and parents who fail to disclose information in cases where they feel they are acting in the best interests of the health and wellbeing of a child by doing so.
Mr Shatter says these provisions are aimed at protecting those who legitimately act in the best interests of a victim.
What kind of offences against children will come under the remit of this Bill?
In addition to sexual offences, other serious offences include murder, manslaughter, false imprisonment, rape, child trafficking and assault.
Can these measures be applied retrospectively?
No. The Constitution does not allow a criminal offence to be made retrospective. Following consultation with the Attorney General, Mr Shatter said it was decided the new law would apply to non-disclosure of information after the legislation had been enacted.
In the meantime, there is an existing law – the Criminal Justice Act 2006 – which makes it an offence for a person with authority or control over a child to “recklessly endanger” a minor by allowing them to be left at risk of serious harm or sexual abuse.