Children First Bill will be a game changer for Samaritans

Volunteers will now have to report child abuse risks to the authorities

Because of the impending legislation, Samaritans is changing the rules for its 12 branches in the Republic. Photograph: Alan Betson.

Because of the impending legislation, Samaritans is changing the rules for its 12 branches in the Republic. Photograph: Alan Betson.

 

In 2004 Ray Osborne, a volunteer with Samaritans in Kent, received a call from a man who confessed to the murder of a woman. Osborne contacted the police, who had no leads in the case until his decision to breach the confidentiality rule.

The man was duly arrested and convicted, but Osborne’s reward was to be forced to resign from the charity.

The incident illustrates just how important Samaritans consider the principle of confidentiality in providing a lifeline to people in distress, most often through its 24-hour telephone helpline.

According to its website, Samaritans treats everything callers relate, including the fact they have made contact, as confidential. “This means we can’t talk to anyone outside of the organisation about anything we hear.”

Non-judg

mental The “you talk, we listen” philosophy has provided a space for people in desperate situations to unburden themselves in a secure and non-judg

mental environment during the charity’s 60 years, but what happens when a caller admits to criminal activity?

Most of these situations are covered by the confidentiality principle, though there are already exceptions, such as when information is received about terrorism or the charity is subject to a court order.

Yet the Children First Bill 2014, which requires certain professionals to tell the Child and Family Agency if they believe a child is being harmed, has been harmed or is at risk of being harmed, is something of a game changer for organisations such as Samaritans, because it may greatly expand the situation in which concerns will have to be relayed to a third party.

Scenarios

Mandatory reporting has been a long time coming, despite a litany of reports suggesting certain tragic events could have been avoided if suspicions of abuse had been relayed to the authorities earlier. Much of the resistance derived from claims that offenders would not seek help or be frank if they felt what they said was not kept confidential.

Because of the impending legislation, Samaritans is changing the rules for its 12 branches in the Republic only, while the remainder of its 201 branches in Britain and Northern Ireland will continue as before.

The charity denies the decision made in London in 2011 was rushed and says it has taken until now to tease out all the operational details. Under the new rules, where a volunteer has concerns about child safety arising from a call, s/he will report to a superior who may seek advice from a social worker with Tusla, the Child and Family Agency.