Mandatory Reporting: is it enough?

by Sophie Olson

The Inquiry recommends that the UK government and Welsh Government introduce legislation which places certain individuals – ‘mandated reporters’ – under a statutory duty to report child sexual abuse

The Report of the Independent Inquiry Into Child Sexual Abuse – October 2022

Mandatory reporting is one of the recommendations of the IICSA report. It is hard to believe that this isn’t already the case but here we are – hopefully this law will be passed and professionals working with children will be legally required to pass on a disclosure from a child or a perpetrator. Sounds good… except children rarely disclose, and perpetrators seeking help aren’t likely to disclose either if it means they’re immediately arrested.

What should happen is mandatory reporting of suspicions and indicators of CSA. The recommendations around this are unclear as, in some parts of the report it is stated that observed, recognised indicators of CSA are mandated for reporting, but then goes on to say :

Where a mandated reporter recognises indicators of child sexual abuse (but has not directly witnessed abuse or received a disclosure of abuse from an alleged perpetrator or victim), it would not be appropriate to enforce the duty to report with criminal sanctions.

It is positive that reporting is at least encouraged:

Reports of this nature must be encouraged, and organisations must provide their staff with necessary and regular training to support recognition of indicators of child sexual abuse.

If mandatory reporting is not backed up by statutory requirements to log the more subtle indicators of abuse – and to encourage professional curiosity in a child’s well-being, then will we see real change?

The IICSA report makes it clear that “identifying indicators of abuse is more complicated than witnessing or receiving a disclosure of child sexual abuse” and so shouldn’t attract criminal sanctions. But shouldn’t there be a threshold that means overlooking these signs, that are usually evident if you are really and truly looking, makes you complicit in putting the child at risk? It would surely be better to rigorously train people who work with children to be professionally curious, and enforce them and the organisations in which they work (via regulatory bodies such as Ofsted etc), to keep record logs of the more subtle concerns they have regarding a child’s wellbeing. Given the vast majority of children who are being abused don’t disclose at the time, at least making it statutory to record these concerns, no matter how seemingly trivial, and build professionally curious relationships within these environments would help pick up more of these vulnerable ‘silent’ majority.

After I disclosed in adulthood, I heard a number of damning statements from family members. Here are a few of them…

We always had our suspicions’

‘I thought he’d be more into boys than girls’

‘I think he might have fathered the baby that his sister put up for adoption when she was a teenager. She never revealed who the father was.’

They did nothing. They didn’t report suspicions and I was left alone with this man. I showed signs of CSA and these signs were so clear that I was even asked by a few members of my family, on separate occasions, if I was being abused. I said no because I could really see they didn’t want me to say yes – and they never asked again.

The IICSA report is a start, something is better than nothing and the recommendations are important – but the focus of the independent inquiry was abuse within institutions. We shouldn’t separate familial and institutional abuse because they are deeply enmeshed. The perpetrators who reside within institutions are likely to be fathers, brothers, uncles, grandfathers, mothers (yes women abuse) – and there is a high chance they are abusing children within their own families too, because they are paedophiles. Because they have easy access. There are less eyes on them in their own homes and therefore they take less of a risk when they abuse and there may be ample opportunity to spend time alone with these children.

There will also be a significant number of abusers who don’t work with children or within institutions where there is access to children. The man who raped me didn’t. I was the child he had access to. I was the child he abused. The report misses cases like mine. I begin to wonder why I even shared my story with The Truth Project. I don’t think they wanted to report on stories like mine, maybe because the problem is considered too big and unsolvable, or perhaps just that little bit too unpalatable. Afterall, blaming an organisation or institutional failing is a lot easier than recognising that individuals in a family setting, just like our own, might be predators.

How do you police the safety of children within their own homes? You can’t – so there must be greater public awareness, in the form of campaigns, media and awareness raising in general. Now this is recommended in Recommendation 4: Public awareness of the report, but will the powers that be and the large organisations embrace the expertise of survivor activists and survivor led organisations already doing just that? There seems to be a reluctance to engage and I wonder why this is? Is it a funding issue? Or is there perhaps an unconscious bias that survivors are not qualified enough to do this work? If survivors infiltrate the world of the professionals what does that mean for the professionals who hold these roles?

If this is the case then it’s a shame because I firmly believe survivors hold the key to making long lasting change. I have no desire to replace the wonderful work of large charities and organisations. I want to learn from them and they can learn from me too. I believe the time has come for collaboration, not tokenism. We are not just our stories. Survivors of CSA have a wisdom and insight that is invaluable and it must not be wasted.

Back to mandatory reporting – it is depressing that it will take a law to force all professionals to act upon a disclosure but unfortunately some adults will prioritise their own self-interest or that of their school/church/club, over that of a child. CSA is an uncomfortable and unpalatable subject that causes no end of complications for that institution. A law is imperative as it will go some way to prevent the act of doing nothing.

According to the report, mandatory reporting could “deter families from seeking help”

Parents may be worried about the consequences of disclosing a concern about sexual abuse in their household if they believe it would lead to the criminal investigation of a family member.

Rather than accepting that, let’s tackle it. This will be controversial but let’s make an illegality to not report concerns within families.

There must be a deterrent to stop people colluding or turning a blind eye to the sexual abuse of children within their own families. If we can find a way to reduce CSA within homes then by proxy, institutional abuse might lessen. We must not turn away from intrafamilial abuse – the ever-growing elephant in the room.

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