A former Director of Public Prosecutions has been arguing for the compulsory reporting of all cases of child abuse. The problem this is intended to address are the evidence of deliberate cover-ups, notably in cases of child sex abuse, and attempts to save the face of certain institutions. Where that has happened, there’s an argument for treating people as accomplices. However, there are many other circumstances where this rule would apply, and those are much less clear-cut.
The first problem is the referral of partial or incomplete information. One of the characteristic features of many cases of child abuse is that people haven’t known the whole story, and haven’t put the information together with others. It’s only after a catastrophe that the whole issue becomes clear, and people realise what they should have done. (In one of the worst cases, Victoria Climbié, the Social Work department had most of the necessary information, but it was spread across different files. The Laming Inquiry reported: “Victoria managed, during the time that her case was open in Brent, to acquire five different ‘unique’ identification numbers on the various systems that were designed to ensure that the progress of her case was effectively monitored.”)
Then there is the problem of uncertainty. What does a teacher, a community worker, a nurse do if they’re not sure? Is a burn, a bruise, a cut, enough to call for an investigation? One of the immediate effects of that would be to put off parents from coming near the worker or the agency, and that raises other issues.
The third problem is that suspicion is not proof. Many of us will have been in a position where we suspect someone of a crime, but we don’t know. I’ve certainly sat in meetings where a lawyer has advised that people accused of theft or fraud are innocent until proven guilty, that it’s not for us to reach a verdict, and that no public statement should be made. There has to be evidence to refer, and all too often in cases where child protection is needed, the evidence is not there.
Prosecutions aren’t made lightly, and even if there was to be a new offence it would have to be reviewed with a wide degree of discretion. I can’t see, however, how a new offence would clarify what ought to be done in practice.