The Government has recently launched a consultation on new duties to report or act on child abuse and neglect. Peter Wake and Ken Slade look at the key points for local authorities.
On 21 July 2016, the Government published a consultation ‘Reporting and acting on child abuse and neglect’. The consultation, which runs until 13 October 2016, invites views on the introduction of:
- A mandatory reporting obligation, which would require certain practitioners (defined in the consultation as anyone who works with children in any capacity) or organisations to report child abuse or neglect if they knew or had reasonable cause to suspect that 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 that it was taking place.
The proposals follow consideration of an extension to the existing wilful neglect offences, which apply in relation to healthcare and adult social care services. The proposed duty to act applies the same principles as wilful neglect but focused specifically on child protection and covering a broader range of behaviours and practitioners/organisations. It is intended to address what the consultation refers to as ‘the institutional failures…seen in Rotherham and elsewhere.’
The introduction of a statutory duty (i.e. a legal requirement to act) would be a big change however. Currently, practitioners should make an immediate referral to local authority children’s social care, as envisaged under the proposals, if they believe a child has suffered harm or is likely to do so. This requirement is detailed in the cross-sector ‘Working Together’ statutory guidance, supplemented by ‘What to do if you’re worried a child is being abused’’, intended to assist practitioners to identify when abuse or neglect might be happening and provide advice on how they respond. Although the statutory guidance is very clear, there is currently no general legal requirement on those working with children to report either known or suspected child abuse or neglect.
The consultation sets out what the proposed new duties would cover and to whom they would apply, including anyone whose professional activities bring them into close contact with children in, but not limited to, the education, childcare, social care, healthcare and law enforcement sectors, and possibly the probation and housing services. It moots the possibility of the duty being either on an individual or organisational basis, or both.
So what are the implications for local authorities and all those involved, however tangentially, in child welfare? The consultation recognises potential benefits and risks to the proposals. Benefits include increased awareness and importance of reporting, both by those under a duty to report and the general public. Increased awareness coupled with more rigorous reporting and sanction measures could lead to more cases being identified, and earlier, also creating a higher risk environment for potential abusers. Drawbacks however could be that an increased fear of sanctions leads to an increase in unsubstantiated referrals, shifting resources onto assessment and investigation. If the emphasis is placed on reporting the suspected neglect, might the quality of the intervention decrease and likewise, the focus on the child? Might a reporting and sanction-led process dissuade children and adults from speaking out?
It would be hoped that the new duties would lead to early intervention by the appropriate organisation(s) but there are suggestions that lessons from mandatory reporting schemes in other countries suggest that, if done badly, it may actually be worse for some vulnerable children because it can lengthen the period between first disclosure and protective action.
The potential scope of the new duties is significant in terms of its reach across sectors, so a common, multi-agency approach to information provision and training is one of the most obvious challenges. The duty to act would be broader than the mandatory reporting duty, since, although required actions could include reporting, they would not be limited to this, and more detail about what would be expected, who by and where responsibility would rest is needed.
At the very heart of what will be required is extensive, clear and detailed training for those mandated either to report or to act. The elephant in the room is that there is no mention of additional funding to meet what will inevitably mean more work for local authority children’s social care professionals, both as referrers themselves but also as those who will have to respond to reports from practitioners in other agencies. At a time of unprecedented financial constraint for local authorities, this issue will have to be addressed – it will certainly be raised by those at the sharp end before the consultation closes in October.