Mandatory child abuse reports 'could do more harm than good'

SOCIAL WORKERS have expressed alarm that plans to introduce mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse could push over-stretched…

SOCIAL WORKERS have expressed alarm that plans to introduce mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse could push over-stretched services towards breaking point.

Under tough new laws, failure to disclose information on child abuse will result in sanctions such as fines or jail terms.

In addition, the national code on how to respond to child protection concerns – Children First– will be placed on a statutory footing. This will create a legal obligation for organisations, volunteers or professionals who work with children to report all suspected cases of child abuse and neglect.

The Irish Association of Social Workers yesterday warned the new laws could end up doing more harm than good. “As it stands, the child protection system is not functioning properly. There are significant numbers of children without social workers or care plans,” said association spokeswoman Ineke Durville.

“I don’t see how putting additional pressure on child protection services will improve the situation.”

The group points to jurisdictions such as parts of Australia where mandatory reporting has led to services being “overwhelmed” by reports of suspected abuse.

Last month the deputy director of Australia’s centre for child protection at the University of South Australia urged Irish authorities to think carefully about introducing such a system, which could lead to children “not getting the services they need”.

However, Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald said yesterday she was confident the child protection system could cope and that placing Children Firston a statutory footing would make social services more efficient.

She also said the alternative to not introducing mandatory reporting was to tolerate a system where there had been ongoing non-compliance with guidelines on dealing with suspected abuse or neglect.

The Government has moved to strengthen child protection measures in the wake of the publication this week of the report on the handling of child abuse complaints in the diocese of Cloyne.

The previous government opted not to introduce mandatory reporting on the basis that it could "divert scarce child protection resources, causing an extensive administrative burden", according to briefing material obtained by The Irish Times.

“Mandatory reporting was introduced in New South Wales in Australia where they were inundated with reports but found it difficult to administer, because of the huge volume of reports,” said a source with knowledge of the previous government’s decision.

The move towards mandatory reporting has received a mostly positive reaction from children’s rights groups.