The government is proposing to place a ‘duty to act’ on social workers regarding child abuse with those who fail the legal requirement facing fines or imprisonment.
A government consultation proposes to introduce two new reforms to the child protection system: mandatory reporting of child abuse and a duty to act in relation to suspected child abuse.
“There have been too many cases over recent years that have highlighted serious failings to protect children. These failings result from a variety of different factors, from not recognising abuse for what it is to incorrect assessments of risk and from failures to properly share information between agencies to deliberate cover-ups,” said a joint statement from children’s minister Edward Timpson and parliamentary under-secretary in the Home Office Sarah Newton.
“Given that failings can be a result of so many different factors, there is no single solution,” added the statement.
Currently, practitioners should make an immediate referral to local authority children’s social care if they believe that a child has suffered harm or is likely to do so. This is clearly set out in the cross-sector ‘Working Together’ statutory guidance. However there is currently no general legal requirement on those working with children to report either known or suspected child abuse or neglect, although there is a new requirement on practitioners to report known cases of female genital mutilation which came into force last year.
“Doing our best for children cannot rely on social workers alone”
The consultation highlights that despite the best efforts of practitioners working with children and families, some abuse and neglect continues to go undetected by statutory agencies. This was highlighted in the Child Sexual Exploitation cases in Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxfordshire where agencies failed to identify and prevent CSE. In Rotherham there was also evidence which suggested that senior local officials had recklessly or deliberately covered up abuse.
The high profile case of Jimmy Savile revealed that the television personality had abused his celebrity status and fundraising roles to gain access, influence and power to abuse vulnerable children.
“Doing our best for children cannot rely on social workers alone. We need police who can respond effectively and health visitors, GPs and teachers who can recognise the early warning signs of abuse and neglect and who know what to do,” said the consultation. “That is why we are delivering a real change in the quality of frontline practice to make sure that vulnerable children are treated appropriately by those best placed to help them.”
A ‘duty to act’ could hinder recruitment
The government has already outlined a number of child protection reforms including a new ‘government agency’ to replace the Health and Care Professions Council as the regulator of social work and a new accreditation and assessment system .
The consultation suggests that the following new statutory measures could be considered:
- a mandatory reporting duty, which would require certain practitioners or organisations to report child abuse or neglect if they knew or had reasonable cause to suspect it was taking place; or
- a duty to act, which would require certain practitioners or organisations to take appropriate action (which could include reporting) in relation to child abuse or neglect if they knew or had reasonable cause to suspect it was taking place.
Mandatory reporting is a legal requirement imposed on certain groups, practitioners or organisations to report child abuse and neglect to local authority children’s social care. While introducing mandatory reporting could increase awareness of the importance of reporting child abuse and neglect and lead to more cases of child abuse and neglect being identified, and at an earlier point in a child’s life than is currently the case it could also result in an increase in unsubstantiated referrals and lead to a diversion of resources from the provision of support and services for actual cases of child abuse and neglect, into assessment and investigation.
The introduction of a duty to act would impose a legal requirement on certain groups, professionals or organisations to take appropriate action where they know or suspect that a child is suffering, or is at risk of suffering, abuse or neglect. Potential benefits of a duty to act include strengthening the existing mechanisms for ensuring accountability arrangements in the child protection system and raising greater awareness. However, risks include hindering recruitment with those bound by the duty feeling less able to discuss cases openly for fear of sanctions and unnecessary state intrusion into family life by increasing inappropriate activity throughout the system.
The consultation says that sanctions could include:
- Employer and professional regulatory sanctions for individual practitioners and inspection/regulatory and statutory intervention for certain organisations.
- Additional processes involving the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS).
- Criminal sanctions for breach of either duty could also be possible at both individual and organisational levels including fines and imprisonment as an option for individuals.
“We can and should do more to highlight that if practitioners and the public have a concern about a child, they should report it immediately to children’s social care. We want practitioners and members of the public to pick up the phone and talk to someone about a child if they are worried about them,” said the consultation.
“And we need to make sure that when abuse or neglect is reported, children get an effective response from statutory services. Tackling child abuse and neglect requires a collective effort. We all need to be working together,” concluded the consultation.