Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The Child Abuse Inquiry

The Child Abuse inquiry announced by Theresa May is getting a lot of airtime at the moment, primarily because of the issue of the suitability of the panel chairman. Baroness Butler-Sloss was originally appointed and had to withdraw when she decided that her family connections made her position untenable. Concerns have been raised about the suitability of her replacement, Fiona Woolf. That will play itself out in due course.

I'm more concerned with what the inquiry will have to look at if and when it goes ahead. The Terms of Reference haven't yet been published, but Theresa May has stated that her purpose is for the inquiry "To consider whether public bodies – and other non-state institutions – have taken seriously their duty of care to protect children from sexual abuse."

Matthew Scott in his blog Barrister Blogger has offered some ideas about the inquiry, including suggestions for who might be suitable to chair it. Broadly speaking his suggestions revolve around judges or lawyers with experience of prosecuting, defending or judging sex crimes.
My concern with this approach is that somebody only with experience of the cases that come to trial is not going to be experienced in the various ways that cases fall by the wayside long before they get near a courtroom. In addition, he/she will probably know little about the efforts necessary to protect and support victims of child sex abuse in recovering from the abuse, whether or not the matter comes to trial. Nor will he or she have any knowledge of the measures that would help detect abuse early, nor of preventive measures that would deter abusers from abusing in the first place. It is notable that the currently nominated chair, Fiona Woolf, is a commercial lawyer, and doesn't even have the experience of addressing child sex cases in criminal court. I addressed this point in a comment on a recent article in the Guardian.
One of the problems with child sex abuse is that, on this subject, nobody acts according to normal adult standards of logic and reason.

Somebody new to this subject is going to be applying normal adult logic and will get into a terrible mess because they expect people to behave rationally according to normal standards, and they don't.

First let's look at the abusers themselves. They don't act rationally or they would not abuse. Many of them engage in a huge degree of self-deception in order to convince themselves that the children they abuse are freely consenting to the relationship.

The child victims don't act rationally by adult standards. They can't, they are children, their adult rational minds haven't been fully formed yet. Moreover they are placed into a situation where lies and secrecy abound, and their trust in adults is fatally undermined.

Those in authority don't act rationally, because they don't understand the psychological dynamics of the relationships between abusers and their victims. An abuser can be a pillar of society, intelligent, committed, a person everybody wants to know - and secretly a child abuser as well. The two are not mutually contradictory.

The idea that an abuser can be a high-functioning individual in all other aspects life is beyond the experience of most people, and so when evidence of abuse comes to light, it gets discounted on the basis of the abuser's otherwise good character.

Those who set policy in many cases act rationally in assuming that people with good intentions who see abuse will always report it, and that compulsion to do so is not needed for people to do what they know is the right thing.

But that doesn't take into account the simple disbelief that can afflict someone seeing something that "does not compute". People are suddenly wracked by doubt and wonder "What if I'm wrong?" They don't want to wreck and esteemed colleague's reputation or career, still less do they want to be labelled a troublemaker. And so they give into their doubts and do not report.

Even if they overcome their doubts, they then have to get past an institution's management. Here we have a whole new barrier to reporting, the reputation of the institution. A child abuse case can be very bad for business. The temptation can be overwhelming to find a way of handling it "in house", quietly, without the adverse publicity that will probably follow from a report to the authorities. People genuinely believe that by such actions they can protect both the children in their care and the reputation of the institution. In fact, the only person protected is the abuser.

And so at every turn, you have people acting in ways which on the face of it don't make any sense. It takes about a year of involvement in child protection in some capacity or other to start unravelling this in your head. Some people never manage it.

This inquiry can't afford to waste a year while the leader of it starts to understand that on this subject everything she ever knew about human behaviour is wrong.

That by itself is enough of a reason why Fiona Woolf's appointment is misguided.

If there is reason to think that there has been political interference in the investigation of child sex abuse cases, I agree with Matthew Scott in his assessment that there is little or no chance of decisive evidence of this being uncovered without the inquiry being converted into a full public inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005. If there is an establishment cover up, then those members of the establishment who are involved are hardly going to voluntarily give evidence as to their culpability. Similarly, documents that reveal the extent of any cover up are hardy going to be provided to the inquiry voluntarily. Compulsion will have to be used, and for that the inquiry will have to be converted to a full public inquiry. It might as well be done sooner rather than later. To delay will only give the impression that there is a cover up and the inquiry is being designed in such a way that it cannot reveal it.

Much of the recent publicity has surrounded alleged abuse by politicians living or dead, and alleged political interference in police investigations. But Theresa May's statement suggests that the remit of the inquiry is to be far wider than that.

I suspect the issue of cases being halted because of political pressure will form only a small part of the inquiry. It is likely that the vast majority of the failings in the system occur long before cases ever come to court and have nothing at all to do with protecting senior politicians.

If so, then the inquiry is going to have to look at all the ways in which cases of abuse might fail to be acted on or even reported.

These include (but are not limited to):
  • The child does not disclose the abuse at the time.
  • Other signs of abuse (e.g. physical, behavioural) are not noticed.
  • The signs are noticed (e.g by a member of staff at the child's school) but not reported within the setting.
  • The signs are reported but the report is not passed to the local authority children's services.
  • The report reaches children's services but is not acted on, for instance through lack of resources, because the report is disbelieved, or because it is thought not to reach the "harm threshold" that justifies intervention.
  • The report reaches children's services and is passed to the police for criminal investigation but the police decide no crime has been committed.
  • A child makes a disclosure to the police but is not believed.
  • The police investigate but decide no crime has been committed.
  • The police investigate and pass the file to the CPS who decide there is insufficient evidence for a prosecution.
  • The child, unable to face the prospect of giving evidence in court, withdraws the allegation.
  • The case results in an acquittal either on a legal technicality or in part because the complainant collapses under the pressure of cross-examination that he or she is insufficiently prepared for.
  • The investigation is halted because of political pressure.
If the inquiry is to do its job thoroughly, it needs to investigate each of the ways in which an abuse case might not receive the timely attention is requires. It will need to look at whether each item is a significant contributor to the overall failings, and if it is, what would need to be changed in order to fix this. Each element may require a different fix.

Proposals already exist for many of these elements, and it will be the task of the inquiry to decide whether they ought to be widely adopted. For instance, taking the very first item on the list above, the inquiry might decide that more needs to be done to improve age-appropriate sex education in schools in a way that would encourage children to disclose if they have been abused. The NSPCC has been looking at this area with its #TalkPANTS initiative and the Underwear Rule. The inquiry could look into whether this initiative should be included in the curriculum on sex education.

Each possible failure point will need to be looked into in the same level of detail if we are to thoroughly overhaul our child protection arrangements. There is probably no proposal or combination of proposals that can catch all abuse. But I'm sure we can do much better than we are at the moment.

In addition, we need to look into victim support, both for children and for adults who come forward to disclose abuse that they suffered in childhood. We don't want another case such as the shameful lack of support for Frances Andrade.

This is going to be a big job if done properly.

Thursday, 10 July 2014

NSPCC on mandatory reporting - 4

Well, as you've all probably now seen, the NSPCC has apparently performed a U-turn on mandatory reporting.

The BBC has said "The man leading a review into how the Home Office handled historical allegations of child abuse has said people who cover up such crimes should be prosecuted."

Mr Cameron, speaking during Prime Minister's Questions, said: "Should we change the law so there is a requirement to report and make it a criminal offence not to report? The Government is currently looking at that and of course both reviews will be able to examine this particular point and advise us accordingly. I think it may well be time to take that sort of step forward."

But we need to look carefully at exactly what it is being suggested should be made mandatory. James Meikle in the Guardian made a pretty accurate report, one of relatively few in the mainstream media.
The NSPCC, however, made clear it was not advocating blanket mandatory reporting and in other interviews with the broadcaster said it was calling for something much more narrow – “wilful cover-up of abuse” – to prevent unfounded concerns being raised about people or organisations.

Alan Wardle, its head of corporate affairs, told Radio 4's Today programme: ”We don’t think it should be across the board.”

There should be “quite a narrow approach” applying particularly to those in charge of organisations where children were away from home, such as boarding schools, children’s homes and hospitals, he said. These should be placed under a particular obligation because of the vulnerability of those they were looking after.
So let's have a look at the NSPCCs proposal as stated on its website.The key to it is in the four bullet points. The first shows the area that NSPCC is looking at.
    • The scale of abuse that has been reported in the last couple of years in places like hospitals, boarding schools and children homes shows that the current system isn't protecting children as it should.

      It has become evident that some of our institutions are utterly failing to protect children, which shows the need for reform.
      Hospitals, boarding schools, children's homes. The institutions Savile targetted. And yes, they did fail. But Savile isn't the sole failure of the system. Think for instance of the Catholic Church and how it has been able with impunity to cover up abuse.

      The NSPCC needs to explain why it is that it thinks that children in these specific settings are deserving of the protection of mandatory reporting, while the vast majority of children not in residential settings do not deserve the same level of protection.
      • Some of these cases have involved abuse being covered up or swept under the carpet. This is morally indefensible and people should be prosecuted where this has happened.
      The  NSPCC is very late to the party, but it's nice of you to agree - finally! - that this sort of thing is morally indefensible and that prosecutions should follow.

      The fact is that much abuse has been covered up simply because it could. There are no criminal sanctions for failing to report a crime, even when the crime is child sex abuse, and you are running the school which is caring for the child affected.
      • So, the NSPCC now sees a case for criminalising the act of cover up; that is, the failure of an individual within an institution responsible for the care and well-being of a child, to put the safety of a child before the disclosure of what they know to be a criminal act.

        We want to discuss the details with people in government and other experts, including which institutions it should apply within. But allowing abuse to be covered up or swept under the carpet cannot be allowed to continue.
      This is where the "devil is in the details" phrase is apt.  In this case, the key detail is that phrase "the disclosure of what they know to be a criminal act". People don't know that a criminal act of child abuse has taken place unless they witness it (very rare) or the perpetrator admits it (even rarer). In all other situations, you don't know, you just have a suspicion of varying degree depending on what you have seen or what a child has disclosed.

      A reasonable suspicion is a justified basis for starting an investigation, and it is mandatory reporting of reasonable suspicions which MandateNow is calling for. But if a report doesn't have to happen until a person already knows, then no investigation can even get started. So by restricting mandatory reporting to cases where people "know" that a criminal act has occurred, you eliminate almost all practical situations from the scope of the NSPCC's proposal. Moreover, if you introduce mandatory reporting with such a narrow scope, you are likely to reduce the reports that come from situations outside the mandatory scope, because the law is clearly saying that not reporting in those situations is OK.

      Also, it seems very strange that they want to restrict the new law to just certain institutions - their initial idea is hospitals, boarding schools and children's homes. It's a bit like concluding that you need a law on drink driving, but then deciding it should be applied only to lorry drivers.
      • In addition, because we see particular risk in more closed institutions (such as boarding schools and residential care homes) we also wish to explore if there are further corporate, legal liabilities that should be placed upon them.
      This is so vague as to be pretty meaningless. But I am interested in their use of the term "closed institutions". One gets the impression that they think that boarding schools are places where the children have little contact with their parents or the rest of the outside world. This might have been true 40 years ago, but with mobile phones and internet, it is certainly not true now. There are almost no closed institutions in the sense that boarding schools used to be, something trumpeted at every possible opportunity by the Boarding Schools' Association.

      In practice, it is social isolation which commonly renders children vulnerable to grooming and abuse, and social isolation can occur in any school.

      The last part of the statement is also revealing.
      None of this substitutes in any way for the emphasis we will continue to place upon promoting open cultures within institutions where well trained staff can speak up and speak out about their concerns without fear of the consequences.
      It is precisely the lack of mandatory reporting which means that trained staff too often cannot "speak up and speak out about their concerns without fear of the consequences".

      Consider this scenario: A junior teacher sees in the distance a senior colleague and a female pupil sitting on a bench in a remote corner of the school grounds. They appear to be holding hands and kissing. As the teacher approaches, they notice him and they hurriedly separate, walking off in different directions. The teacher reports the incident to the head, who says he must have been mistaken, and firmly tells the junior teacher to mention this to nobody.

      You are that junior teacher. You have a very reasonable suspicion that an inappropriate relationship exists between the senior teacher and the girl, and that the girl is therefore at risk, but you have not seen any crime committed. What do you do? Do you turn whistleblower and phone children's services yourself, or do you obey your headteacher and shut up about it? Most teachers understandably will do the latter, having a mortgage to pay and a family to support. It was by ignoring signs like this that Bishop Bell School failed to take action before Jeremy Forrest fled to France with a pupil he was having an affair with.

      If the teacher is a hero and decides to call children's services off his own bat, and they call the school asking to investigate, then it will take the head teacher about 3 seconds to work out who called them. The junior teacher will not last long in his job. Whistleblowers are usually sacked for the sin of showing management up, unless management has actually done something criminally wrong.

      This sort of thing does really happen. Listen to this chilling account from a special needs teacher.

      This is where mandatory reporting should come in. Take the same scenario, but where there is a law on mandatory reporting of reasonable suspicions which applies to all schools and other institutions caring for children.

      The head teacher would now be far less likely to try and squelch the report. Few people are willing to risk jail in order to cover up somebody else's suspected abuse. So in all probability the report will get forwarded to the authorities, which is what we want to achieve.

      In the unlikely event that the head is being extremely reckless and still tells the junior teacher to tell nobody, the junior teacher is in a much stronger position. If he now phones children's services, he has two incidents to report: the original child protection concern and the criminal action of the headteacher in not passing on a reasonable suspicion. The junior teacher is much less likely to be sacked since he was following the law in making the report.

      But NSPCC clearly isn't interested in any of this. Peter Wanless is quoted later on the NSPCC page as follows:
      However, our focus for criminalisation is on cover up, not the merest suspicion that a child might have been harmed. Evidence from elsewhere shows that such arrangements can over emphasise process and onward referrals many of which never get properly dealt with, at the expense of focused action to support and protect those children most in need.
      What a dismissive attitude! "the merest suspicion that a child might have been harmed". Quite frankly, that alone should be reason to call for his resignation as CEO of NSPCC. But instead, he is the person appointed by the government to investigate possible failings by the Home Office act appropriately on receipt of concerns that children had been seriously abused.

      But even more amazing is that this statement got past press officers and other senior people at NSPCC without anybody noticing what a disgraceful statement it really was. Such a cavalier attitude to the safety of children is horrifying coming from an organisation whose whole purpose is supposedly to protect children.

      The second sentence, about services being swamped, is a rehash of the NSPCC's previous paper opposing mandatory reporting in all its forms, which was dismantled by MandateNow some months ago. Quite simply, the evidence isn't there to justify the assertion.

      So let's consider a few recent cases which I've discussed here on this blog.

      The NSPCC proposal would have done nothing for St Benedict's School, partly because the school is non-residential, and partly because (to the best of our knowledge) criminal acts were neither directly witnessed by other staff nor admitted to by their perpetrators.

      The NSPCC idea might have affected Downside school, in that the school consulted its lawyers to see if they had to report the admitted abuses of Richard White, and were told "no". It's reasonable to suppose that had mandatory reporting of known abuse been in place, the lawyers would have advised differently and the school would have acted accordingly. White would therefore have been caught some 20 or so years before he actually was.

      The NSPCC proposal would have done nothing to help prevent the death of Daniel Pelka. His emaciation, constant hunger and unexplained bruises were noticed by his (non-residential) primary school, but not passed on as child protection concerns. However, no crime was witnessed, so the abuse was not known, merely suspected.

      And it would not have helped protect the children of Hillside First School, where Nigel Leat abused for 14 years. Eleven separate reports were made to the headteacher by staff concerning suspicious behaviour by Leat, but none was passed on by the headteacher to the authorities. Again, no crime was witnessed.

      Nor would the victims of Bruce Roth have been helped. Suspicions about his behaviour were known at Kings School Rochester but not reported to the authorities, and Roth was permitted to move to Wellington College with a good reference. Roth abused pupils at both schools.

      You need mandatory reporting in cases where somebody knows or suspects, or has reasonable grounds for knowing or suspecting that abuse has occurred. "Reasonable grounds" is a well-established legal term, and prosecutors aren't going to be interested in going after marginal cases where it is arguable whether somebody ought to have suspected. They will only be interested in clear cases where management for instance has suppressed and failed to pass on definite reports from staff. If you exclude reasonable grounds of suspicion, it would become almost impossible to prove that somebody knew that criminal abuse had occurred, and so nobody in practice would ever get prosecuted.

      So the fact is that the NSPCC proposal as it stands would provide additional protection to almost nobody. Few or no prosecutions will result, and since in most cases it provides no legal protections to those who would report against an unsympathetic management which wishes to preserve an institution's reputation, the NSPCC proposal does nothing to help in its own stated objective of "promoting open cultures within institutions where well trained staff can speak up and speak out about their concerns without fear of the consequences".

      In other words, the NSPCC proposal is a disguised recommendation to maintain the status quo. It must be exposed as such.

      Friday, 27 June 2014


      Savile was able to abuse at just about every institution he came into contact with. The present system of discretionary reporting failed at every one of those hospitals where he abused.

      Think on that. Every. Single. One.

      At the moment, nobody has a legal obligation to report suspected or even known abuse. An NHS manager could in principle even have witnessed Savile raping a child and would have had no legal obligation to report anything to anybody.

      Savile didn't abuse at just a few institutions with poor child protection arrangements. He seems to have been free to abuse at every institution he came into contact with. That suggests a massive failure of our arrangements to protect children. If that failure is not corrected, there will be another Savile, probably sooner rather than later, and hige numbers of children will have their lives wrecked. The effects of abuse can be devastating and lifelong.

      In fact, there has been another Savile - Cyril Smith seems also to have been a lifetime abuser on a prolific scale. How many more are there or will there be?

      So, our current system of discretionary reporting seems to have completely failed. People have used that discretion to not report. The time has come for mandatory reporting within schools, hospitals and other institutions which care for children and vulnerable adults.

      Monday, 23 June 2014

      Progress in Coventry

      Coventry City Council, after an initially somewhat negative response to my survey of its schools' safeguarding arrangements, has come round to the idea that they really do need to improve things. They invited me and Paula Barrow (the author of the Daniel's Law petition) to a meeting at council offices in May this year, the gist of which was reported in the Coventry Observer.

      The essence of the plan we agreed was as follows:

      1. A model safeguarding policy implementing best practice will be written, in such a way that schools will be able to use it with minimal modification, just adding the name of the school, the headteacher, the designated teacher(s) for safeguarding and a small number of other details.

      2. The policy will make it clear that all child protection concerns must (rather than merely should) be reported to the authorities and provide a clear procedure for this.

      3. The city council will ensure that the the new policy is adopted by all LA controlled schools in Coventry, will work with DfE with a view to ensuring that academies also adopt the policy, and will encourage independent schools in the city to do the same.

      4. The education department will periodically review safeguarding arrangements of schools to ensure that the policy has been effectively implemented.

      This is what I had wanted to achieve from the meeting, and it turned out that the council had already decided on much of it beforehand. We spent much of our time refining the ideas they already had in mind.

      I was very pleased with the outcome of the meeting. It is not mandatory reporting - that would require a change in the law. There can be no criminal sanctions for failing to report unless and until the law is changed, but if the model policy (with the all-important statement that child protection concerns "must" be reported) is adopted by governors, then staff at least will have a contractual obligation to follow the policy.

      A model policy adopted city-wide will bring practice up to the standard of the best schools (e.g. St Thomas More Catholic Primary School and Stivichall Primary School, who scored 10/10 in my initial survey).

      Furthermore, there are benefits from standardising on a single policy. It means that training can be designed round the policy. It means that reviewing schools' safeguarding arrangements is easier because it is known in detail what they ought to be doing. And it means that as staff move from school to school during their careers, they will be immediately familiar with the safeguarding arrangements at their new school because they are just the same as the arrangements at their old school.

      If and when mandatory reporting is introduced, the arrangements Coventry is putting in place could be used as a template for what needs to be done in schools and LAs across the country to implement it.

      Everything of course depends on effective implementation of the plan. I'm meeting the council again at the end of next week so we can review progress. I am very keen to ensure that these arrangements are in place by September, in time for the start of the new academic year.

      Coventry City Council has decided that something needed to be done to prevent another Daniel Pelka, and has shown a willingness to seek outside assistance in how to improve, and to get on with making the changes needed. I am not the only source of outside advice they have sought. It is a refreshing contrast to the glacial pace of my discussions with NSPCC.

      No place to hide

      The following article was first published in May 2014 in Every Child Journal, part of http://www.teachingtimes.com/ It is reproduced here with permission.

      No Place to Hide

      Safeguarding in schools is sometimes shamefully poor. Is it time now for a change in the law so that teachers are required to report abuse? Jonathan West thinks it is.
      A headteacher can know that a member of staff has raped a pupil on school premises, but even if the staff member admits it, the headteacher has no legal obligation to report the crime to anybody.

      When I tell parents that this is the legal position regarding the obligations of their child's school, the reaction is always the same. There is look of stunned disbelief followed by the angry question "How can this be possible?"

      In mainland Britain (Northern Ireland is different), it is not a crime to fail to report a crime, and the exceptions to this legal principle are few and narrowly drawn. The Mandate Now coalition of charities is campaigning to give staff working in "regulated activities" (schools, hospitals etc) a legal obligation to report suspected child abuse to the authorities and to protect whistleblowers when they report.

      The forces arrayed against the campaign are substantial. The government is against it. Amazingly, the NSPCC is also against. The campaign is hampered by the fact that few members of the public realise that reporting isn't already mandatory.

      The reasons for having mandatory reporting are obvious. Time and again, schools or other institutions have failed to report suspected or even known abuse. There is the case for instance of Father Nicholas White, a monk at Downside Abbey and teacher at the adjacent Downside School. He sexually abused a child in the late 1980s. He was caught and admitted the abuse to his Abbot. He was permitted to continue teaching at the school. He went on to abuse again, was caught again and this time was sent to Fort Augustus Abbey in Scotland. No report was ever made to the police, in fact the school went to the trouble of consulting its lawyers to see whether the school had an obligation to report. The lawyers said no. The police stumbled across the case more than 20 years later when they discovered the school's records in the course of a different investigation. In 2012 White pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 5 years.

      Then there is the case of St Benedict's School Ealing. After the conviction of Father David Pearce in 2009 for a string of sexual offences spanning 36 years (he was also given 5 years), the school commissioned Lord Carlile to produce a report into abuse at the school. Carlile concluded that abuse had gone unchecked for decades. Several different monks and teachers had committed abuses. The abuse had been known about, but nothing had been done to prevent it. At the time of writing, a monk and two former teachers have been convicted, and the former Abbot, Fr Laurence Soper, is on the run from the police, a European Arrest Warrant having been issued for him.

      It isn't just Catholic schools which suppress reports of abuse. In July 2012, Bruce Roth, a housemaster at Wellington College, was convicted of a series of offences against children and sentenced to 11 years. His victims were pupils both at Wellington College and his previous school King's School Rochester. Evidence given in court made it clear that concerns about his behaviour were known at King's School Rochester, but no reports were made to the authorities and Roth was permitted to go to Wellington with a good reference.

      State schools can also fail to report. Nigel Leat pleaded guilty in 2011 to a horrifying series of abuses of children at Hillside First School in Somerset, and was jailed indefinitely. A Serious Case Review discovered that behaviour of concern by Leat had been witnessed by other staff on about 30 occasions. Eleven reports about it were made to the head teacher. None was passed on to the authorities. Leat probably abused children for much of his 14 years at the school. During that time there were two or three OFSTED inspections, none of which noticed any shortcomings in the school's safeguarding.

      Safeguarding failures

      It isn't just abuse by members of staff which can go unreported. In March 2012, little Daniel Pelka, aged 4 1/2, was beaten to death. His mother and stepfather are serving life sentences for his murder. A Serious Case Review carried out by Coventry Safeguarding Children Board highlighted failings in a number of services. Most striking of them was the fact that Daniel had attended school for the last 6 months of his life. During that time, staff at the school had noticed his low weight, emaciation, constant hunger and visible but unexplained bruises, including what appeared to be strangulation marks on his neck. None of these concerns was passed to the authorities, and the SCR discovered that the school's reporting procedures were non-existent and that staff had received no safeguarding training.

      In all of the cases described above, a prompt report of concerns to social services would probably have put a stop to the abuse and much harm would have been prevented. So why doesn't it happen? Before we can judge the answer to that question, we need to find out whether these cases are exceptional, or whether there is widespread failure to report and these particular schools were just unlucky that they got the publicity. The Pelka SCR  listed safeguarding shortcomings at his school, but didn't investigate whether the same shortcomings existed at other schools in Coventry. I felt that this investigation needed to be carried out, and since nobody else was doing it, I decided to see what I could do myself.

      Safeguarding standards in Coventry schools

      I obtained the safeguarding and child protection policies for as many schools in Coventry as possible, to check them against a set of basic child protection criteria derived from the government's statutory guidance documents. I chose this approach for two main reasons. First, it was research I could actually do. As a member of the public, I had no right to look at case files, they would be confidential, all I could look at were policy documents. Second, I took the view that good practice is hard to achieve without clear written procedures, and that the Pelka SCR had given clear evidence of this. If written procedures are bad or non-existent, then the chances are that practice is no better.

      About a third of Coventry's schools published their safeguarding policies online. For the rest, I had to write to each school requesting a copy of its policy. Even after I made it clear that this was a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act, a number of schools were surprisingly hesitant to disclose their policies. Eventually I obtained the policies for 114 schools, almost every school in the city. The task then was to evaluate them. I chose to check them against the following 10 basic criteria, all derived from statutory guidance.
      1. The policy names and briefly describes the kinds of abuse that is covered: physical, sexual, emotional and neglect.
      2. The policy describes the signs of abuse that staff should look out for.
      3. The school has a named designated teacher for child protection.
      4. The school has a named designated governor for child protection.
      5. The policy instructs all staff to promptly inform the designated teacher of allegations or suspicions of abuse, and sets out the procedure for doing this.
      6. It requires that designated teacher to inform the local authority designated officer promptly of all allegations or suspicions of abuse.
      7. All conversations informing the local authority designated officer are backed with written confirmation.
      8. The school commits to periodic safeguarding training for all staff, with advanced training for the designated teachers and head teacher.
      9. The policy does not depend on external documents for a description of any reporting procedures to be carried out by the school.
      10. The school policy has a publication date, and has been updated within the last 12 months.
      These were chosen in order to concentrate specifically on a school's reporting arrangements. Far more than this is needed for a sound safeguarding policy, for instance this list includes nothing about safer recruitment practice. But I felt that these 10 items, if all were implemented in a school's policy, would provide a reasonable assurance that the kinds of injuries that Daniel Pelka suffered would get reported to social services.

      I suspected the results might be poor. My guess was based on the knowledge we have uncovered about Jimmy Savile. Had institutional safeguarding arrangements mostly been sound with just a few poor places, then Savile would have restricted his activities to just those with inadequate safeguarding arrangements, and we would have learned of abuses in just a few locations. But in fact, he appears to have been free to abuse at almost every institution he came into contact with.

      Dire Results

      The Coventry results were dire, worse even than my worst expectations. Daniel's school scored 2/10, essentially completely useless. That was to be expected given the SCR. But 14% of Coventry's schools scored 2 or less. The average score was 5/10. Only two schools out of the 114 met all 10 criteria.

      Five is a very bad score. Let me put it into context. In 2012 Jeremy Forrest abducted a pupil to France. After widespread publicity he was found, returned to the UK, convicted and sentenced to 5 1/2 years. The subsequent Serious Case Review castigated Bishop Bell School (where Forrest had taught) for its safeguarding shortcomings and failure to react to signs that there was something wrong. I've looked at the policy in force at the time. It scored 5/10. Half a procedure is no better than no procedure at all.

      Had anybody noticed that safeguarding in Coventry's schools was so bad? Apparently not. OFSTED inspected Daniel Pelka's school Little Heath Primary a year before his death, and said this:

      "Procedures for safeguarding pupils are robust; staff and the designated governor are well informed about child protection. Good practice in multi-agency work to support individual pupils is an example of the school's effective partnership work."

      I've reviewed the most recent OFSTED report for each of Coventry's schools. OFSTED didn't have a bad word to say on safeguarding about any of them. When I disclosed my results to Coventry Education Department, their reaction was to point to the good OFSTED reports, even though they knew that OFSTED had failed to notice bad practice at Daniel's school.

      Clearly something is seriously wrong here. If Coventry is anything to go by (and I have no reason to think the city is exceptionally bad) the government's statutory guidance is rarely effectively implemented, frequently implemented so badly as to leave children seriously unsafe, and sometimes flatly ignored. OFSTED often doesn't notice even shockingly bad practice.

      The case for mandatory reporting

      Would introducing mandatory reporting improve things? After all, it is one thing to recognise that failure to report is endemic, it is another to reach for legislation as the means of changing this. The NSPCC takes the view that mandatory reporting would not help, and has published a position paper on the subject. It is a confusing and contradictory document, and seems to offer two conflicting arguments. First, it argues that introducing mandatory reporting would generate so many reports that it would swamp social services, then later it argues that mandatory reporting wouldn't generate many additional reports at all. Both arguments can't be true at the same time, if the facts support the first argument, they can't possibly support the second.

      But even ignoring the weaknesses of the NSPCC paper, the possibility that mandatory reporting might do more harm than good by generating a flurry of trivial reports has to be taken seriously. We don't want an improvement that actually makes things worse. The Mandate Now campaign seeks to guard against this by a number of means. First, the duty to report would only apply to those working in "regulated activities", not to the general public. Second, mandatory reporting would need to be part of a package of measures including training for those mandated to report and training for the LADO (Local Authority Designated Officer for child protection) who would have to triage the reports and decide which needed to be followed up. Third, the duty of social services is now and would remain primarily the welfare of the child, and prosecution would take second place to the more immediate needs of child protection.

      In "Exploring the Contested Role of Mandatory Reporting Laws in the Identification of Severe Child Abuse and Neglect" Dr Ben Mathews of the University of Queensland has researched the effects of mandatory reporting legislation in the various states of Australia, most of which have introduced mandatory reporting in one form or another. His research indicates that introducing mandatory reporting does increase the number of reports generated, and that the proportion of "unsubstantiated" reports remains roughly constant. He notes that unsubstantiated reports are not necessarily wasted reports, they may successfully trigger an early intervention before any serious crime has been committed. He concludes that mandatory reporting, as part of a coordinated approach to child abuse, does have a beneficial effect, and that its effect can be optimised by tweaking the legislation so that it is clear what needs to be reported (e.g.  by providing a clearly defined threshold for "serious harm" to a child), by improving the training of mandated reporters and those who receive the reports and by ensuring that there is an effective "differential response", i.e. a range of options that can be taken according to the nature and seriousness of the report. According to him, the NSPCC's concern about social services being swamped by trivial reports is unfounded.

      There is another cause for concern. It may be that abuse is so grossly under-reported that social services on their current level of resourcing may be overwhelmed by the increase in serious and justified reports that would be caused by mandatory reporting. The Office of the Children's Commissioner in England has offered a most appropriate response to this issue.

      “We consider that if child protection services become overwhelmed with genuine cases of abuse, then resources must be used to address these in accordance with the UK’s commitment under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to protect children from all forms of harm.”

      Why the case against is flawed

      There are many reasons people hesitate to report suspicions of abuse. In schools for instance, a teacher may be new and uncertain, he might find himself up against an aggressive and vexatious parent who he might have to accuse, he might find it hard to believe that a senior colleague could abuse. The teacher might decide that there must be an innocent explanation for what he has witnessed, or he might assume that somebody else has already noticed it and the matter is in hand. The teacher (or other member of staff) may be inadequately trained and not know the right procedure or who the report should be given to. We all like to think we would notice abuse and promptly report it, but the evidence is that this is a very fraught process and failure to report is far too common, especially in cases where a colleague is suspected of having abused.

      Even when a report is made, school management has reasons not to pass it on. All schools are dependent to some extent on their reputation, and an abuse scandal can do a lot of damage to a school. The temptation exists to find a way of protecting children without risking the publicity an external report might bring, so some schools seek to handle abuse cases "in house". While this might be done with the genuine intention of protecting children, in fact the only person protected is the abuser. If he abuses again, management dare not report the new case lest their earlier bad decision come to light, which would damage the school's reputation even further. By this means, a few schools gradually become honeypots for abusers, and by the time the abuse is finally uncovered, there can be several abusers operating there. Whistleblowers are rare, and are usually sacked for the sin of highlighting management failures to report abuse.

      Something decisive is needed to cut through all this uncertainty. Mandatory reporting would achieve that. Everybody would know that they must report all concerns, and that these concerns must get passed on to the authorities. If management were to try and handle abuse allegations in-house, a whistleblower would be in a far stronger position, he or she would in fact be reporting the criminal activity of management in suppressing reports. Few headteachers would be willing to risk a spell in prison to cover up somebody else's abuses. The entire safeguarding culture would change as people understand what is required of them. Abusers will probably be caught much sooner before they can do so much harm, far fewer schools would become honeypots for abusers over decades, and it is likely that potential abusers would be deterred from abusing within institutions because of the high risk of being caught.

      A similar cultural change has already been achieved on the subject of drink driving. 50 years ago, drink driving was not thought to be a particularly bad thing. A large number of people were killed or injured in accidents where a driver had been drinking. But the landscape has been transformed by a combination of laws introducing limits on blood alcohol levels, technology in the form of breathalysers, police powers to stop suspected drunk drivers, and public information campaigns about the risks and effects of drink driving. Drink driving is now much rarer, there are far fewer alcohol-related accidents, and couples routinely decide who will be the "designated driver" and so not drink when they go out, or they decide to travel by public transport instead.

      This is the kind of cultural change that Mandate Now is looking to bring to the field of child protection. The change in culture will follow the legislation, as people gradually get used to the new rules.

      Saturday, 21 June 2014

      NSPCC on mandatory reporting - 3

      Tom Perry and I have had a further Twitter exchange with Peter Wanless.


      So a few days later (on 21st May) Tom Perry wrote to Peter Wanless to confirm the exchange and his willingness to participate in a meeting.
      Dear Mr Wanless,

      Following our exchanges on Twitter on 15 May (attached), Jonathan West is in the process of assembling a draft agenda for your consideration and input. We will perhaps be circa 5+ people, the names of whom Jonathan will confirm in advance of the meeting once the agenda agreed.  I propose we meet in chambers located twenty minutes from your Curtain Rd office. These arrangements will be subject to competing diaries, accommodation availability, and no doubt the usual collection of factors that make such meetings so challenging to arrange.  

      Let’s firstly agree the agenda,  then proceed with participants and availability to establish a meeting date. I hope you consider this a sensible approach.  Do you have a PA who can liaise these matters for you?

      I look forward to your reply.  

      Tom Perry
      Two days later Peter Wanless replied.
      Dear Tom

      Look forward to hearing from you again when you are ready to make a proposal.  It all feels terribly formal but let’s see what is suggested.  I’m happy for you to liaise directly with me but have copied my PA into this exchange as well.

      Best wishes.
      It took a few days' work to put together an agenda, I sent it to Peter Wanless on 5th June.
      Hi Peter
      Here is what I propose for the agenda for our meeting. Note that I have put some bullet points under item 4, items of concern to Mandate Now. I would appreciate it if ahead of time you could provide some bullet points for item 3 to expand on the issues which have caused NSPCC to oppose mandatory reporting until now.

      1. Introductions

      2. To develop a constructive dialogue and relationship with the common goal of the safety of children attending Regulated Activities of all types.

      3. Issues of primary concern to NSPCC regarding safeguarding in Regulated Activities including those matters which have driven NSPCC to oppose mandatory reporting. [NSPCC to present]

      4. Issues of primary concern to Mandate Now: [Mandate Now to present]
      • Abuse in regulated activities not being reported in part because of the inadequate ‘regulatory’ framework.  [abuse within the RA, and abuse outside the RA but noticed and reported by it] [L]
      • Poor child protection policies and protocols  [P]
      • Poor child protection/safeguarding inspection of schools [P]
      • Inadequate training supervision and support of staff, DSO’s and Governors [P]
      • Poorly resourced LADOs / Children’s services + poor training [P]
      [L]: Legislation
      [P]: Practice

      5.  Reporting legislation :
      • What benefits/disadvantages does the status quo provide?  [NSPCC]
      • What benefits / disadvantages does mandatory reporting introduce. [Mandate Now]
      6. Practice + Policy issues :
      • Enhancing the role of LADO’s + training for this role
      • Child protection inspections of schools
      • Placing staff, DSO, Governor, training on credible foundations
      7. Common ground

      8. Next steps

      Jonathan West
      Peter waited a week to reply
      Hello Jonathan

      I'm conscious I've not replied to your message but I have been involved in some meetings that will, I hope, better clarify the ground at our end and make for a more productive meeting. I will have some comments on how you have chosen to lay things out below and/but I will be happy to list risks identified by those who have argued against advocating for mandatory reporting (in regulated settings) so we can explore together the strength of those points against the case for a new mandatory reporting requirement.

      Best wishes.
      And that is the current state of things. A month has gone by since Peter Wanless indicated his willingness to talk about the evidence informing the NSPCCs opposition to mandatory reporting, but I've had no more word from him as to when the clarification he speaks of will occur. We have no date for a meeting and no indication of what (if anything) NSPCC is willing to say in defence of its opposition to mandatory reporting. One wonders how strong that willingness really is.

      NSPCC seems to be interested in talking about mandatory reporting to anybody and everybody except the people who are actually proposing it. I'll leave it to you to decide why that might be.