The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) was established in 2014 to investigate how institutions, across society and including charities, have failed and continue to fail in protecting children from sexual abuse.
As part of its work the IICSA recently held two seminars at the end of April on the idea of introducing a legal requirement to report knowledge or suspicions of child sexual abuse for certain professional groups that work closely with children, such as teachers and medical staff.
These are preliminary discussions, which will inform the final report and recommendations mandated in the IICSA's terms of reference. However the transcripts will also make very interesting reading for those in the third sector who work with children.
In particular, if these proposals are taken forward they would transform the current landscape of 'safeguarding' regulation for charities, and offer much for charities working with children to consider now.
The arguments for and against mandatory reporting legislation
Many countries already have mandatory reporting legislation - including Ireland, France, Canada and certain states in Australia - and studies in such countries show that the legislation increased the number of reports of suspected and known child sexual abuse.
In Western Australia for example, the mean number of reports of child sexual abuse per annum increased from 662 to 2,448 after introducing mandatory reporting laws.
The participants at the IICSA's seminars commented that, under the current regime for reporting, many people are unsure of their reporting duties and the steps they need to take if they only have slight suspicions or have noticed something is "off" for a child.
A law that requires reporting in cases of knowledge and suspicion of abuse would clarify requirements and, hopefully, lead to earlier and more frequent identification of abuse.
The crucial benefit delivered by mandatory reporting is therefore the opportunity to increase the chance of abuse being reported.
This could potentially prevent years of perpetual abuse as well as reducing the trauma and other negative by-products that victims face as adults, including depression, anxiety, self-harm and PTSD.
However, the discussion at the seminar included consideration of whether mandatory reporting legislation was the best means to achieve that vital goal.
In particular the IICSA has also noted the risk of an increase in premature and false reporting and that victims may feel they cannot trust an adult and disclose their abuse at a pace that they feel comfortable with, which might result in less disclosures by children themselves.
The introduction of this legislation would also require government to expand the budget allotted for investigations of this nature and provide more resources to the local authorities so they are able to review all reports, and training for staff and other professionals caught by the regime.
The practical implication is that individuals working with children would need to know how to identify child abuse and how to make reports effectively, and government would need the resources to investigate reports, to actually achieve greater safety for children.
The possible impact on charities
The IICSA's work will be of particular interest to those charities carrying out crucial work preventing and aiding the victims of child sexual abuse. The third sector would also, undoubtedly, have a key role to play assisting government and local authorities in addressing reports and caring for victims who are identified to ensure that practically any mandatory reporting scheme delivered its goals.
The IICSA's forthcoming conclusions on the value of mandatory reporting legislation and its final recommendations may also have wider legal ramifications for the third sector and those working in it.
In the past year charities of all kinds and across all sectors have engaged in greater depth with the issue of safeguarding, led by the Charity Commission's revised guidance and approach to the issue. Yet previously only individuals in a position of care/responsibility over children had a statutory duty of care which extended to reporting concerns regarding child abuse.
The IICSA's proposals of mandatory reporting suggest that, in the future, many more charities who deal with children might have to engage with safeguarding law and that the requirements therein may become more onerous.
For this reason we expect the IICSA's final report on this proposal, and its other recommendations, to be crucial reading for many in the sector and we recommend that charities currently working with children keep track of these developments going ahead.
If you have any questions about the IICSA's proposals or the current safeguarding regime which might affect your charity, please contact any member of the Charities team for further information.