Ferns-why mandatory reporting is urgently needed

By June Tinsley and Fiona Ryan*

In Barnardos, we believe the mandatory reporting of child abuse will help to reduce the incidences of child abuse and allow children to receive the support and care they need and deserve.

Under mandatory reporting, designated professionals such as GPs, social workers, teachers and public health nurses would be required to report known or suspected child abuse to the authorities. We believe the needs of children must be the priority when abuse has occurred or is in danger of occurring and that there can be no valid reason why we would not seek to prevent that abuse.

If the Ferns Report has taught us anything it is that child protection must be the ultimate priority for Government and society. How can the Government get out of not introducing mandatory reporting but simultaneously communicate a message that abusing children is unacceptable? In order to keep children safe, reporting known or suspected abuse should not be a matter of discretion for anyone. Instead it should be the foundation of a transparent and accountable system of child protection.

Mandatory reporting sends out a clear message on all levels that the abuse of children will not be accepted. It equips those who interact with children with a clear course of action that puts children first. It helps remove the element of discretion – a potentially important factor for someone who might want to make a report of suspected abuse but is reluctant. With mandatory reporting they can do so with the full support of the law. Mandatory reporting would also help tackle the issue of inconsistent and under reporting of abuse and allows those investigating reports of abuse to take a more consistent approach. The Protections for Persons Reporting Child Abuse Act, 1998 provides clear legal protection for anyone reporting child abuse 'reasonably and in good faith'.

Arguments do exist against introducing mandatory reporting including the very real issue that the resources available for dealing with prevention and treatment of child abuse would be diverted into investigating cases of alleged abuse.  The introduction of mandatory reporting would require developing further development and resourcing of the structures now in place under Children First National Guidelines For the Protection And Welfare of Children (1999).

People tasked with mandatory reporting need to have training so reporters know what to report, how to report and what system is in place to follow up on cases otherwise the whole process could be in danger of being reduced to a bureaucratic exercise. The Health Service Executive have had such training packages in place since 2000 and this should allow for the orderly introduction of mandatory reporting. Barnardos does not believe this is an ‘either or’ situation – investigation, prevention and treatment should be viewed as going hand in hand. Resources need to be made available to make that unified approach to tackling child abuse a reality. There would be an increase in the number of cases reported but also an increase in the number of cases being confirmed with the result that more children would be protected.

Another suggested reason against introducing mandatory reporting is that the professional / client relationship will be damaged; e.g. parents may be reluctant to bring a child suspected of abuse to the GP if the GP is obliged to report the matter. Or that an adult / young person who has been abused may not engage in therapy if they know the therapist is obliged to report the matter.

However, Barnardos believes that this can be overcome given that there are already exceptions to the principle of confidentiality e.g. criminal cases. The introduction of mandatory reporting would need to be accompanied by appropriate information and education strategies for all and professionals would have to explain the limits of the principle of confidentiality. Good practice suggests that responsibility of working with clients and explaining why limitations are necessary will be in the best interests of both the client and therapist. Ultimately, it could also lead to the prevention of further abuse as the abuser would be investigated.

Barnardos has been calling for the introduction of mandatory reporting for some time but the reality is that mandatory reporting is one of a number of measures that have to be introduced to ensure that children in Ireland are protected from abuse. Another such measure is the expansion of the Central Garda Vetting Unit to provide clearance / vetting for every one who works with children whether in a professional or voluntary capacity. Barnardos welcomes the additional funding that this Unit recently received to enable it to meet its objectives. A legal change is now required to ensure the Garda Vetting Unit can do its job fully.

The introduction of mandatory reporting and full vetting procedures for all paid / unpaid adults who have contact with children is in the interests of protecting children and as adults we have a responsibility to do this.

*June Tinsley is Policy Development Officer and Fiona Ryan is Campaigns Manager with Barnardos.


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