The BBC’s recent programme portraying the lives of three girls who were sexually abused in Rochdale has highlighted the bravery of child welfare whistleblower Sara Rowbotham and others, but it has also reignited the debate over a legal duty to report child abuse.
An excellent Community Care article about the film, entitled “The Three Girls Drama Is A Reminder That Staying Silent Is Not An Option” urges social workers to ‘do the right thing’ and ensure that children who are abused are protected, but this call to arms also invites the profession to consider how they should go about doing this.
In May 2016 the government published a consultation asking for feedback on the creation of a legal duty to report child abuse. It aimed to gather as much information as possible on the pros and cons of mandatory reporting, which professional bodies and individuals should be included in any duty report and what kind of sanctions a failure to report might carry. The government is currently analysing the submissions it received and should be publishing its findings shortly.
When it was first launched, the consultation was met with resistance by The Law Society, claiming that a duty to report child abuse would lead to a sharp rise in false allegations and a complete melt down of the justice system. And whilst some social work professionals raised concerns over a duty to report too, others welcomed the idea.
Many of the misgivings about a duty to report are unfounded. Emerging research across the world shows that a duty to report does not weigh down child welfare systems or encourage people to make false allegations. And though some evidence from the US suggests that criminal sanctions for failure to report suspected abuse can lead to professionals turning a blind eye over fears that this could cause the child in question more harm, much of the research highlights positive outcomes, including a larger number of abused children being identified.
Sara Rowbotham’s actions were extraordinary, but she paid a heavy price for speaking out. Sadly, agencies today working in the child welfare sector don’t make it easy to highlight wrongdoing, especially if it highlights poor professional practice at the same time. Mandatory reporting represents a solution to the unacceptable silence.