Mandatory reporting on child abuse and neglect: the consultation

I’ve just responded to the government consultation Reporting and acting on child abuse and neglect which closes on 13 October. It’s prompted some thoughts;

The challenge

Preventing children being harmed. Obviously.   But that’s a pretty broad remit. Local authorities and the agencies they work with have a statutory duty to ‘make arrangements for ensuring that their functions are discharged having regard to the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children’ (s. 11 Children Act 2004). Basically they should have appropriate procedures in place. That prompted this comment from Eileen Munro in her Review of Child Protection;

‘…instead of “doing things right” (i.e. following procedures) the system needed to be focused on doing the right thing (i.e. checking whether children and young people are being helped)’ (Consultation document para 5)

Since the 2004 Children Act, safeguarding children seems to have had an increasingly high profile; promoting the welfare of children appears to have taken a back seat. Here’s how the current government sees it;

“…Safeguarding children – the action we take to promote the welfare of children and protect them from harm…”(para 2)

In other words the broad duty to promote the welfare of children – with all that that entails – now boils down to protecting children from abuse and neglect.  And the child protection system doesn’t always work. Numerous people have pointed out that no system can guarantee the protection of all children; we don’t have, and never will have, the resources to do that.

The nation has been, understandably, shocked to the core by accounts of the appalling abuse some children have suffered. The news that one child each week is killed on our roads and over 2000 a year are seriously injured in contrast barely makes the headlines; child protection isn’t just about abuse and neglect.  But children are abused and neglected and recent high profile cases have been shocking partly because they’ve highlighted clear failings in the child protection system. The reporting and acting consultation is part of the government’s response.

What the consultation proposes is that reporting and acting on suspected child abuse and neglect is made mandatory for people working in certain organisations. If they don’t report and take appropriate action, they could face serious sanctions. The people include not only those working directly with children but support staff and senior officers. As the consultation document points out, the possibility of sanctions introduces a significant risk of unintended and unwanted outcomes, such as unwarranted intrusion into family life and even more problems with recruitment and retention of social workers.

The evidence

On the face of it, mandatory reporting and acting looks as if it makes sense; if everyone reported and acted on their concerns, surely children would be much safer. But the evidence doesn’t support that reasoning. The evidence shows that when mandatory reporting is introduced the number of referrals increases dramatically (in Australia it doubled), but the proportion of substantiated cases is low (around 20% in several jurisdictions).   As the consultation document itself says:

‘Overall, the literature seems to show that “there remains some question about the efficacy of reporting laws in achieving their ultimate goal: protecting children from harm”’(Annex D p.22).

The causes

Not only does the evidence demonstrate that mandatory reporting doesn’t help, but reporting and acting per se don’t play a major role in the failures of the child protection system to protect children, either. Serious case review after serious case review identifies complex decisions to which there is no obvious right answer, and not following existing procedures properly, as key factors in the failure to protect children from harm. SCRs are littered with accounts of novice social workers being assigned to difficult cases, agency staff unfamiliar with cases, inadequate supervision, lack of understanding of the law and poor communication between agencies – all signs of services that don’t have the capacity to meet demand. In the vast majority of cases, the problem wasn’t that no one had reported their suspicions or failed to act on them.

Given the lack of evidence for the effectiveness of mandatory reporting and acting, and the fact that reporting and acting weren’t the main causal factors of failure, why is the consultation happening at all?

Why consult?

The consultation appears to be have been prompted by some recent high profile cases where abuse and neglect was known about but ignored; the consultation document cites Jimmy Savile’s activities and the sexual exploitation cases in Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxfordshire. Mandatory reporting and acting has been suggested by “MPs, MPs, Peers, campaign groups and members of the public” (consultation document Foreword). But MPs, Peers, campaign groups and members of the public might not be familiar with the evidence for the efficacy of their suggestion.   The way the child protection system is designed isn’t a matter of opinion, it’s a matter of the evidence for what’s effective.

The only reason for consulting that I can think of that is that it’s politically advantageous; the government is seen to be doing something. As the consultation document says “… it is crucial that we do all that we can to strengthen our arrangements to minimise the risks as far as possible” (para 14). Yes, it is, but there’s no evidence to suggest this is the way to do it.

If there are problems with a system, the only way to address them effectively is to identify the root causes of those problems.   SCRs provide a wealth of evidence for those root causes. We need to be looking at them, not quick fixes that we know won’t work and could make things worse.

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