Making failure to report sexual abuse a criminal offence not enough on its own to protect children

Published April 14, 2015 by JS2

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Shocking child abuse scandals have triggered campaigns throughout Britain for legislation making failure to report abuse a criminal offence.

A petition calling for “mandatory reporting” in Scotland has been lodged with the Scottish Parliament by campaigner Scott Pattinson.

Campaigners say staff in faith settings, schools, sports clubs, other institutions and childcare settings must be legally obliged to report to police and or social services. Who could object to that?

Yet many people experienced in working against child abuse and sexual violence have serious worries about the effectiveness of a crusade no-one, including politicians, likes to question. They believe it will both encourage complacency and ignore more urgent changes needed before mandatory reporting could make much difference – at least in sexual abuse, the main abuse in recent scandals.

However, we can all agree that the most senior management level in these settings should indeed be mandated to report so that scandals where church leaders, or heads of homes and schools kept information about paedophiles to themselves would end. But junior staff should not be threatened and intimidated with criminal sanction. Other reforms also need greater priority. Why?

Reporting doesn’t mean reports will be acted on, nor children protected. Countless reports were made by outraged staff to police and social services of children raped and brutalised by child exploitation gangs or in care homes, yet nothing was done. This will continue until key agencies and criminal justice interpret those acts as abuse, instead of deciding stigmatised young people make lifestyle choices, or are just prostitutes, troublemakers, delinquents or liars. Changes of attitude need to be enforced through compulsory training, backed by the professional sanction of disciplinary action.

Even if reports are acted upon, children and young people will continue being traumatised and discredited in court so long as they’re used as the main source of evidence and without further curbs on defence conduct. Why not pilot in Scotland one of the “children’s houses”, so successful in preparing such cases sensitively for court in Scandinavia?

Most children remain unable to tell adults if they are being sexually abused. In my research alone, young people gave 14 different reasons why they did not tell. The climate for “instant action” in mandatory reporting would further deter young people from confiding in staff. They need time to develop trust and overcome fears, and greater control over the speed of investigation. In successful child exploitation investigations, police have painstakingly built trust with stigmatised, distrustful young people. Hence three local authorities hope to pilot Scottish “confidential space” projects, to gather evidence thoroughly at sexually abused young people’s pace, with emphasis on making them safe and achieving some positive outcome. How would this child-centred practice coexist with mandatory reporting, or give young people any sense of control or involvement?

Worrying behaviour seen or heard is rarely clear cut, but filled with doubts and uncertainties. Mandatory reporting assumes people will clearly recognise sexual or other abuses. But most don’t, as any training exercise reveals. What am I seeing/hearing? Am I exaggerating, imagining, mistaken? Are they just kids experimenting? Might I ruin his career?

More “worry ‘phone lines'” and secure internet advice services, staffed by child protection specialists, where people can talk through worrying scenarios, are urgently needed. Most adults responsible for children think they’re not allowed to ask if they’re being sexually abused.

“Backlash” propaganda has made school and youth staff fear to ask even sensitive, open-ended (and clearly permitted) questions of children, even when they strongly suspect sexual abuse. Disclosures and reports remain tiny in most schools. Simply making quite clear to teachers that it’s permissible to ask would make a big difference.

Most adults find sexual abuse a difficult, upsetting subject they prefer to avoid. Threats of prison increase fear and panic: support builds confidence and courage. Regular confidence- building and reflective discussion for staff groups throughout organisations will achieve this – not stern instruction, nor the big stick.

We need to campaign for the changes above so that, if mandatory reporting is eventually implemented, it only takes place in a climate of informed awareness and confidence, lack of prejudice against children, and a legal and criminal justice system which gives them better hope of protection.

Sarah Nelson is a writer and researcher specialising in sexual abuse issues, based at the Centre for Research on Families and Relationships at the University of Edinburgh.

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