If a child reports abuse, there is still no duty not to ignore: UK law needs to change now

By Nigel O’Mara
Nigel O’Mara is a veteran campaigner for child abuse survivors and a core participant in the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse.

Over the next couple of days the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse or IICSA will be hearing from various people on the arguments for and against mandatory reporting.

To unpack this a little bit, at the moment anyone who is in a profession which has a duty of care to children, is not required by law to report any form of sexual abuse against a child.

Hard to believe isn’t it.

This includes teachers, sports coaches, doctors, nurses, social workers, teaching assistants, scouting and youth groups including cadets to the armed services.

Probation officers, playgroup workers, church leaders and helpers and anyone else who can be in charge of the safety of children and who we would normally like to think will be there to protect them.

If a professional becomes aware of abuse as the law stands, they can choose to report it or not.

They can choose to protect a person or place an organisation’s reputation over the safety of the child.

They can choose to ignore a complaint from a child and allow abuse to continue.

If they do choose to not follow up abuse, there is no legal sanction against them for the further abuse that the child suffers, there is no criminal legal recourse for either the parent or the child. 

There are some professional groups who have put a duty to report in contracts in order to make it a contractual offence but the use of this is sporadic and means it still is a lottery as to whether abuse will be reported or not.

Most reasonable people would assume that there is already such a duty and would be surprised to think that the introduction of a duty to report is in any way controversial.

Most of the arguments against a duty to report are to say the least questionable in my opinion and are based around protecting systems and organisations both statutory and voluntary.

Public servants unions, whose members face the reality of these choices on a regular basis, have argued against mandatory reporting in the past because it is their member who would get accused.

But I believe there must be an agreed fundamental right for a child to interact within society without being sexually abused.

Time and again the IICSA has heard that people in positions of responsibility for a child’s safety failed to respond to sometimes even the most blatant of disclosures.

The inquiry set up by Theresa May in 2014 to examine how the country’s institutions handled their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse has heard time and again how child abuse was ignored in institutions such asschools, secure units, churches and care homes.

There have been so many examples throughout the inquiry of where a legal obligation for mandatory reporting would have made a difference to countless children’s lives.

This would have made a massive difference in the Forde Park case, for example.

The IICSA has heard how children spoke out to members of staff, social workers, the police about the abuse they endured and yet generations continued to suffer there.

One perpetrator Derek Hooper wasn’t brought to justice for 30 years and was allowed to continue to abuse children for decades

In many of the strands of the inquiry, survivors have said that they were not listened to and no response taken when they reported abuse to people who should have looked out for them.

That’s why it is so important to hear the arguments for and againt mandatory reporting this week.

Surely in a civilised society there must be some redress, if someone who has been paid to look after a child or have that child under their duty of care fails to act when a clear disclosure has been made.

In my opinion if people are opposed to this form of regulation and basic protection of children then they have no place working with anyone who is vulnerable nor should they be put into positions where they are able to choose if they report abuse which has been disclosed to them by a child.

When will our society start putting children’s rights at the top of the agenda when it comes to sexual abuse?

Recent figures show that as a country we are getting even worse at prosecuting sexual crimes. Only 1.7% of reported rapes are now prosecuted in England and Wales.

What message does this give to younger people who are thinking of coming forward to disclose their experiences?

If we fail to address these fundamental issues regarding protecting children we are leaving ourselves wide open to continuing the cycles of abuse which we have seen through the IICSA are so damaging.

If someone is reporting to a teacher or a social worker it would make a real difference – if in the same way a nurse or doctor now has to do with female genital mutilation – they are required by law to report it to the police.

That for me seems a natural step for victims of child abuse. and a natural conclusion for the inquiry to reach.

Other countries have brought in forms of mandatory reporting: for example Australia brought it in after its royal commission into child abuse finished in 2014.

If one thing is to come out of the IICSA’s years of inquiry, surely the most important change would be to bring in mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse.

Children must finally have the confidence that if they report abuse their disclosure will not be ignored.

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