This is already the law in most civilised countries around the world, including Ireland, but not yet in England and Wales. But why should we sit back and wait for the law to change when steps could be taken right now to help identify people who abuse those most precious to us?
Although a legal obligation for early years practitioners and support staff in nurseries to report any suspicions of child abuse, where a failure to do so triggers a possible criminal prosecution, may seem harsh, it could help ensure that these crimes are no longer allowed to be swept under the carpet. Early years workers should by no means take it personally; what the law aims to achieve has immense significance, and far from seeks to criminalise professionals.
Mandatory reporting, rather, could empower staff to report any suspicions or evidence outside of line of management, directly to a third-party agency. Because although safeguarding policies are already in operation across the nursery world, history has taught us that abusers are determined and sometimes sophisticated in their tactics.
I am optimistic that this consultation will result in a change in the law. After having represented victims for more than two decades, it has been a long time coming. But we are talking about one of the most serious and sinister offences, and action to help uncover abuse against children cannot wait many more months and even years for potential proposals to become law.
Abusers have done well to keep their actions hidden so there is no exact statistic on how many children suffer abuse and neglect today. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has highlighted that there are more than 57,000 children identified as needing protection from abuse in the UK. The Department for Education has reported that more than half of the children who are currently in care have been taken in because of abuse or neglect. But sadly I fear this is merely the tip of the iceberg. For every child identified, another eight are estimated to suffer abuse. A sobering and saddening thought which in itself should have been enough to spur our Government into action years ago.
In the past two decades I’ve worked on several cases where the abuse was systemic and highly organised. I have seen cases where innocent members of public sector staff were silenced either out of fear of what might happen to them, or because they were afraid of what the abusers would do if they didn’t keep quiet. There is sadly no reason to believe that this doesn’t still occur and we need a simple and effective system for those people to safely and immediately report what they have seen or heard.
Unfortunately, there is also no reason to think that paedophile rings operating in institutional settings are merely a thing of the past. Career paedophiles are organised and persistent, and their actions do not happen in isolation. The nature of these crimes means victims often won’t come forward for many years, which makes prosecuting the offenders extremely challenging. However, someone around them will know, hear or see something, and those people must have a safe and direct route for reporting it.
It is a fact that the more contemporary that child abuse cases are when investigated, the higher the chances are of a successful prosecution. There is a groundswell of support for a publicly funded and widely publicised child abuse helpline. Many states in America and Australia already operate such dedicated helplines; they are well-funded and expansive. It is my opinion that the UK needs to follow suit immediately.
Introducing the law of mandatory reporting is a start, but I would like to see a law that requires everyone to report suspicions or instances of child abuse immediately – not just public sector employees. This is an area that absolutely demands resources and focus from the Government without a delay.