Mandatory reporting key to tackling child abuse
OPINION:Proposed legislation to secure children’s safety signals society’s intent to finally resolve this shameful problem
The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) has advocated for 20 years for the introduction of mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse or neglect.
We firmly believe that recently-drafted legislation which addresses the issue of mandatory reporting will not only send the message that child abuse is not acceptable but will also significantly contribute to ensuring children are better protected.
This is not a new issue, rather a recommendation that has come up time and time again following various reports and reviews, notably the Kelly Fitzgerald report of 1996 and more recently the Ryan report implementation plan. Mandatory reporting clearly demonstrates society’s commitment to dealing with child abuse and stands to make a real difference to how we approach child protection and welfare in this country.
The proposed legislation will oblige named professionals and organisations to comply with particular sections of Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children, 2011.
The impact of this would be that designated professionals would be required, under law, to report suspected cases of child abuse. This would no longer be a guideline nor a matter of discretion. In failing to report, designated professionals would be committing an offence and would face criminal sanctions. In effect, this legislation will introduce accountability in the area of child protection and welfare.
Legislation to place Children First on a statutory basis is by no means a cure-all remedy for all that is wrong with the system and certainly should not be seen this way; but rather as a vital step to be taken alongside other developments and reforms.
This legislation will form the bedrock for enhancing child protection and welfare and it is essential that in addition to restructuring the system, additional guidance and processes must be put in place to ensure it can cope with the new structures. This will be particularly important when the legislation is initially introduced as many organisations will require additional support and training to adequately meet its requirements.
A number of arguments have been advanced against the introduction of mandatory reporting. However, the ISPCC contends that there is not one child-centred argument against the mandatory reporting of child abuse; we must at every stage put children first.
Some of these arguments are addressed here:
Mandatory reporting will cause over-reporting and trivial reports;
The ISPCC recognise that the introduction of this legislation will result in increased reports, particularly in the early stages. But the problem with reporting in Ireland is massive under-reporting and not the reverse. The public and professionals must be encouraged to highlight and report concerns they have about children who may be at risk. A report is not an allegation, nor is the person reporting an investigator. The person reporting a concern merely brings a piece of information, a piece of a jigsaw to statutory professionals who must make judgments as to whether or not the jigsaw needs to be put together or acted upon.
The failure in the past to place Children First on a statutory footing, to ensure that statutory and non-state funded bodies are held accountable, has resulted in patchy and inconsistent implementation throughout the country. History has taught us that guidelines without the appropriate administrative and legislative framework are not enough. Children’s voices have not been heard, children were not believed and the plight of many children has been ignored.
Leaving the reporting of abuse to the discretion and moral judgment of individuals and professionals can result in a failure to adequately protect children. There must be consistency and to achieve this, everyone must be obliged to work from the same set of rules. The introduction of mandatory reporting will clarify the structures for reporting. It will give legal authority to those who make reports as well as ensuring a consistent and uniform approach;
It will put further strain on a child protection and welfare system that is already in crisis;
It is argued persistently the compulsion to report will cause over-reporting and thereby flood an already under-resourced system. The ISPCC recognises that the system as it stands is unsatisfactory. However, simply warning against a broken system will not change anything. The expected implications or perceived impact of mandatory reporting should not be judged by the current system alone but against a reformed child protection and welfare canvas, an acceptance that things need to change and willingness to move away from the status quo;
Resources will be diverted away from investigation of “real” cases or important preventative family support work;
We acknowledge that resources are an issue, but protection and welfare of children must be prioritised. The choice between investigation of increased reports, existing caseloads or doing preventive work is not a real choice. All are important and are required to protect children and support families. The Child Care Act places a clear responsibility on the State to promote the welfare of all children, not just to protect those obviously hurt or at risk. We must move on from the either/or approach to develop and fund better processes for receiving and investigating reports as well as more intervention, prevention and support programmes.
None of these arguments are putting children first.
In summary, guidelines are simply that. If we have learned anything we must recognise that guidelines alone do not and will not work. We need to build accountability into our child protection and welfare system; this is the only way to ensure full implementation and adherence to their principles.
We have seen the devastating effects of failing to report child abuse. What do we want as a society for our children? That any child who discloses abuse is believed and responded to and that action in the form of a referral to the Health Service Executive or Garda is made; that we learn from our history and properly protect our children.
It is time to put children first.
Ashley Balbirnie is chief executive of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.