Current statutory guidance defines abuse as: ‘a form of maltreatment of a child. Somebody may abuse or neglect a child by inflicting harm, or by failing to act to prevent harm.’ [my emphasis] – Working Together to Safeguard Children 2015.
By this definition then, abusers are not just people who abuse children. Abusers also include those adults who are aware of the abuse, and who fail to stop it.
It has always been the moral and professional responsibility of adults who work with children to report abuse. But for a number of years, child protection organisations like the NSPCC have been campaigning for mandatory reporting to make it our legal responsibility, with legal sanctions in place if we fail in these responsibilities. The NSPCC have pointed out cases where people in leadership positions have taken ineffective action, failed to disclose allegations and/or allowed professionals to continue their activities and/or to move on to other institutions unchecked. Recent examples include:
- The Jimmy Savile scandal, where it has now emerged that he committed offences in a broad range of settings. A significant number of offences were committed at institutions including Duncroft School, Broadmoor Hospital and Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Savile’s regular visits to these institutions allowed him to identify potential victims whom he went on to abuse.
- Allegations of sex abuse at Chetham’s and the Royal Northern College of Music, both in Manchester. The bulk of the offences are alleged to have taken place between 1970 and 1990, although incidents are alleged to have happened as late as 2010. The Greater Manchester Police investigation has been broadened to investigate incidents at other specialist music schools in the UK.
- Members of staff at more than 130 independent schools have been implicated in allegations of child abuse, with a significant surge in criminal prosecutions since 2012. There are approximately 300 institutions where inquiries are being made regarding allegations of abuse.
As a result of these recent concerns, in July 2016 the government launched a consultation: ‘Reporting and acting on child abuse and neglect’. This consultation outlines options for reform of the child protection system in England, specifically in relation to mandatory reporting and acting on child abuse and neglect. There are two proposals:
- 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.
A breach of either could result in criminal sanctions at both individual and organisational levels and involve fines, or possible imprisonment for individual practitioners.
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