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.


      1. Thanks for a considered account. You are far from alone in questioning the role played by the NSPCC.
        One point though, a point that I have never seen covered in any MSM report.
        All state schools (I don't know about private schools) are expected to have a designated child protection officer or officers, appointed by the head but not the head. All teachers should be told who this is/are as part of their induction process. They should also be told in detail what they should report, as well as what they are not allowed to do with respect to pupils and parents. Child protection issues should also be covered regularly on training days.
        The position of child protection officers is worth considering. Firstly, if there is no designated child protection officer or teachers are not informed about who they are, then the head teacher is negligent. The audio clip concerning a SEN teacher mentions no child protection officer. As it is a secondary report, it may be inaccurate.
        Secondly, teachers reporting suspicions do so to the child protection officer. They do not report them to the head teacher or in most cases a line manager. This gives teachers a degree of protection, although again in the bad schools the head will appoint someone who can be trusted to protect him or her and not the children.
        Thirdly, child protection is the main role of the child protection officer. S/he cannot claim overwork as an excuse for failing to act. Child protection is his or her first priority. Those people who do the job well are often in late on a Friday night waiting for social services to find a temporary home for a child reporting abuse.
        Child protection officers therefore should have the time and resources to do their jobs well. You are quite right to highlight that actual abuse is rarely witnessed. It is suspicions that other teachers have and which they should report. It is unreasonable for a teacher to be suspended solely on the word of another teacher or member of staff or pupil that something might be happening. However, the teacher suspected of abuse should be interviewed by the child protection officer and the suspicion raised without the other teacher / member of staff / pupil being named. A record should be kept of the initial report and of the interview. The interview should act as a warning whether the suspected teacher is innocent or guilty. An innocent teacher is warned that s/he needs to keep a greater distance from pupils and a teacher actually guilty of abuse or grooming may be frightened off from continuing his or her activity. Should the same teacher be reported a second time especially concerning the same pupil, then the child protection officer should be required to involve the head teacher, with both the teacher and the pupil or pupils being formally interviewed with a parent or guardian present.
        In some of the cases mentioned, Jeremy Forrest and Daniel Pelka for instance, there were reports of warnings being given but no action taken. In none of the MSM reports, however, were there any questions about whether there was a designated child protection officer, whether suspicions were passed on to him or her and whether his or her performance was satisfactory. Instead of analysing what had happened within the context of the different responsibilities of a classroom teacher, a child protection officer and a head teacher, the journalists allowed the schools to give the impression that suspicions were raised but they disappeared into the ‘blob’ that was the school staff.

      2. ChrisB
        I agree with much of what you say, but a teacher suspected of sexual misbehaviour should not be interviewed by the school Safeguarding Officer, or by anyone else at the school. He or she will be dealt with by the statutory authorities. Far too much abuse has occurred as a result of school staff meddling where they should not.
        If a suspected member of staff was interviewed by anyone other than the police, they would have opportunity to interfere with any criminal investigation. They could interfere with a witness or, more likely, pressurise their victim or even worse.
        The role of the school safeguarding officer is to offload the case to the appropriate authorities as a matter of urgency.

      3. IMO it depends on the degree of suspicion. The case of a teacher and a pupil being seen leaving a hotel should immediately be referred to the police.

        It is worth remembering that good schools have strict rules for teachers: no car lifts, no meeting outside school, no contact through social media, no handing out telephone numbers. The consequences of breaking such rules are severe, i.e. dismissal, even if it was proved that no sexual misconduct took place. In such circumstances, a teacher would struggle to explain why s/he risked dismissal if the reason for meeting or contacting a pupil was innocent.

        Most suspicions, however, do not arise from such clear cut evidence. They arise due to a teacher and a pupil appearing to be touching when seen from a distance or only for a split second. Or another teacher arrived too late to see that the physical contact had been made by the pupil without any encouragement from the teacher.

        Should each of these incidents be reported directly to the police? IMO no. The police would probably not be able to cope with the number of such incidents and the risk would be that the police started to ignore all reports from schools.

      4. The MandateNow proposal isn't that such cases be immediately reported to the police, but rather that when there are reasonable grounds for suspicion they are reported to children's services.

        And if a school is unsure whether a concern is sufficient to justify a formal report, an informal phone call to ask is not that hard to do.

        With training in what are the appropriate thresholds it shouldn't be hard to do, and I agree with you that good schools do it already.

        But as I discovered when I did a survey of school child protection policies in Coventry, in the aftermath of the death of Daniel Pelka, there are awfully few good schools in this respect.