Wednesday, 23 April 2014

NSPCC on mandatory reporting

Quite unbelievably, the NSPCC has an established position that it is against mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse.

The NSPCCs position can be found here. They summarise their current position at the start of the paper, as follows
  • Mandatory reporting, in isolation, will not improve the reporting process or better protect children.
  • Priority instead should be placed on ensuring that all professionals know how to identify abuse, are clear what needs to be reported and are supported and encouraged to overcome their reservations about taking steps to report abuse.
  • Any introduction of mandatory reporting must be accompanied by reform to the services (and associated thresholds) to which referrals are made. Without this, there is a risk mandatory reporting could reduce the ability of the system to protect children from abuse.
The Mandate Now campaign has analysed the reasoning within the NSPCC paper, and that analysis can be found here. broadly speaking, arguments against mandatory reporting can fall into three categories, as follows.
  1. The reporting rate is already so high that no compulsion is required.
  2. Although the reporting rate is not very high, mandatory reporting would not increase it significantly
  3. A low rate of reporting is acceptable or even desirable for various reasons, and that no effort should be made to increase it.
The NSPCC position slips and slides between points 2 & 3. Note that if evidence existed to support point 2, then it couldn't possibly support point 3. And yet NSPCC incorporates both arguments into its position. Quite frankly it looks as if the NSPCC decided it was against mandatory reporting for reasons unconnected with evidence, and then found the need to justify its position and came up with this paper that gathered together all the vaguely plausible arguments it could muster. No organisation starting with no position and wanting to research the issue to arrive at a position would come up with such a farrago.

The Mandate Now campaign and others (including myself) have been challenging the NSPCC on this issue, something I suspect the NSPCC isn't at all used to. Specifically, the @MandateNow twitter feed asked @NSPCC whether NSPCC supported mandatory reporting where abuse was actually known about. This was the exchange.

This needs a bit of decoding. "Known" child abuse is fairly obvious. It is where the abuse was either witnessed or the perpetrator has admitted it. "Regulated activities" is a term defined in the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, and includes places such as schools and hospitals where children are looked afer by people other than their parents.

So the NSPCC is opposed to a legal obligation to report abuse even in cases such as Downside School, where a monk and teacher Richard White admitted abusing two boys, and the school, instead of informing the authorities, consulted with its lawyers to see if it had an obligation to inform the authorities. The lawyers said no. White remained free for more than 20 years before the police learned of the case.

Mandate Now has been pressing NSPCC to justify and explain its position. This got some people at NSPCC very tetchy and they made some inadvisable comments on Twitter. Journalist Louise Tickle described it thus.

Eventually Peter Wanless (the NSPCC CEO) decided that arranging meetings was a better idea. In a Twitter DM to me he said "I'm going to find a better way of engaging than via increasingly aggressive tweets!"

I offered to meet him, taking along a couple of fellow campaigners with me. He responded positively
I would be delighted to meet you to hear more about your work in Coventry.  You suggested sometime after 28 April and I would like to have the conversation before the middle of May if we possibly can.
I wanted to be sure what the meeting would cover. I wasn't prepared to have the meeting simply be a matter of them learning what I thought was the evidence for mandatory reporting so they could find better ways to counter it. There needed to be a full 2-way discussion of the evidence both for and against mandatory reporting. So I replied saying the following.
I think it is important that this be a 2-way exchange of information, so I would like to hear from you how the NSPCC arrived at its present position in opposition to mandatory reporting. Unless we know the reasons (in somewhat more detail than in your published papers), then we are in no position to know whether the evidence we have will be in any way relevant to the reasoning you used. If you could bring in any people who authored the NSPCC paper or were otherwise involved in the decision to establish the anti-mandatory-reporting policy, that might facilitate a fully informed discussion.

I hope that we can all work on the principle that the aim is to ensure that abuse is detected and reported as early as possible when it occurs so that an early intervention can minimise the harm done, and better still that potential abusers are deterred as far as possible from harming children in the first place. It is my view that mandatory reporting within regulated activities is a vital component of any package of measures towards that end, but it is the end that it important rather than the means.
This did not go down well with him. He replied saying.
I don't propose to spend time evidencing the NSPCC's opposition to mandatory reporting in the way you describe. I would say (yet again) that the position is we regard the case for immediate introduction of MR as unproven, rather than being implacably opposed, which is why we have called for all relevant evidence. The potential risks and unintended consequences are mentioned in previous NSPCC papers and I have nothing further to add to these.
It seemed that my fears concerning what he wanted from the meeting had some foundation. The impression Peter Wanless gave was that he was interested (a) in learning what we had to say so that he could counter it and (b) be able publicly to say that he had been meeting people with opposing views, that he had an open mind but they were unpersuasive. So I explained my concerns.
I was very disappointed by your email. Quite frankly, "implacably opposed" is a reasonable summary of the current NSPCC position on mandatory reporting as publicly stated. You cannot characterise the current NSPCC position as a cautious maintenance of the status quo pending the availability of new evidence when:
  1. You have a public position recommending the dismantling of the legal basis for mandatory reporting in Northern Ireland, as described here:
  2. The NSPCC spokesperson on Twitter has made it clear that the NSPCC is opposed to legislation for mandatory reporting even in the narrow case of known abuse within a regulated activity such as a school.
This is not a hypothetical situation. Let me offer an example. As I'm sure you are aware, Richard White, a monk of Downside Abbey and former teacher at Downside School, pleaded guilty in 2012 to child sex abuse crimes against pupils of the school. It was reported in court that on first discovering the abuse, the school had consulted with its lawyers to see if the school had a legal obligation to report it. The lawyers said no. The matter did not come to the attention of the police until more than 20 years later, when they stumbled across the case in the course of a different investigation. White was sentenced to 5 years.

You have said that the NSPCC is an evidence-based organisation and in recent public statements the NSPCC has made great play on the need for evidence-based decision making in addressing child abuse and neglect. Typing "NSPCC evidence-based" into a websearch brings up a plethora of pages on the NSPCC website.

It is therefore particularly disappointing that you are not prepared to subject to outside scrutiny the evidence on which the NSPCC has based its opposition to mandatory reporting. Any evidence-based discussion on the subject must if it is to be objective apply the same level of scrutiny to the evidence against mandatory reporting as it does to the evidence for. You give the impression that you are not prepared to have that open, equal and objective evaluation of all sides of the argument.

In these circumstances, I have significant doubts as to the merit of a meeting between us.
That was a week ago. I've heard nothing from Peter Wanless since. He has made no further effort to persuade me of the merits of a meeting. He has made no effort to persuade me that the impression I have of him is incorrect.

I'll just point out one further thing. One item in the NSPCC paper opposing mandatory reporting is this
Mandatory reporting would also have serious implications for confidential services and spaces for young people, such as ChildLine, a helpline for children in the UK that received 1.5 million contacts in 2012/13.
At least in terms of the proposal being put by Mandate Now, this is simply untrue. The Mandate Now proposal applies only to "regulated activities", and Mandate Now has made it clear that it is using the definition of that term as stated in Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006. It means activities and settings where children are looked after by people other than their parents - i.e. schools, hospictals, children's homes etc. Within that context, Childline is not a regulated activity, and for that matter neither are any of the Rape Crisis confidential helplines. They would be entirely unaffected by mandatory reporting as proposed by Mandate Now. NSPCC is opposing a proposal nobody is making, and then claiming that the proposal people actually are making is therefore unjustified.