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Mandatory Reporting of Child Abuse

The idea for a new law placing a duty on all professionals working with children to report child abuse when they come across it, has raised its head again. Paula Barrow of Manchester has started gathering signatures to get a debate in parliament on the subject http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/change-the-law-to-better-protect-vulnerable-children-like-daniel-pelka.

Teachers, youth workers, probation officers and others would be obligated to report any child abuse concerns they come across to the police or local authority Children’s Services. Meanwhile the NSPCC has come up with the idea of an additional new law to criminalise anyone who covers up child abuse they knew about (see http://www.nspcc.org.uk/news-and-views/ceo-news/reporting-abuse-policy/covering-up-abuse-crime_wda103339.html.)
All this has been played out against a back-drop of missing files listing paedophiles in high places and popular entertainers going to prison for ‘historic’ offences. But do we need such ‘mandatory reporting’ as it is known?

We have considered such laws before and some people wanted ‘mandatory reporting’ to be written in to the Children Act 1989. A preliminary discussion paper looked at the idea but ruled it out seeing reporting on a legal basis as being unnecessary because we could depend on the professional judgement of the workers concerned (1).

Practitioners and professionals have always prided themselves on providing a confidential service to members of the public, qualified only by the need to breach that confidentiality when someone was seemingly at risk of harm. The interaction between worker and service user was accorded a form of ‘confidential space’ where the boundaries were known and crossed only if necessary. Mandatory reporting will arguably reduce the size of that ‘confidential space’.
One of the problems of reporting child abuse has always been how you define child abuse. No problem when it is extreme and obvious but often it is not. The recent inclusion of ‘emotional abuse’ as child abuse for example is going to need some defining. Child abuse is not a legal term. If reporting becomes an obligation then more reporting is likely to take place just ‘to be on the safe side’ and to avoid any possible prosecution. Who would want to be the first practitioner prosecuted for not reporting?

The police and local authorities could find their workload in this area growing rapidly. That in turn could mean investigating a flood reports which will overwhelm both agencies already hit by reduced resources. When many of those reports are vague and ill-founded workers could be performing extensive investigations that could take them away from the serious allegations.
Mandatory reporting is also yet another attack on the professionalism of many workers who are considered incapable of making reporting decisions without a law. Already surrounded by bureaucracy, guidance, managerialism and procedures this will be yet another form of direction imposed on the practitioner. Who needs three years of study when it’s all in ‘the book’? Anyone else noticed that probation officers no longer need any qualifications in future?

Other questions arise. Will mandatory reporting have an impact on the therapeutic process? Will people be less open with their therapist knowing the worker has no margin of discretion and less ‘confidential space’ to work in? If a report has to be made what will happen to the working relationship that had been established?

Mandatory reporting is not the panacea it appears at first sight and in the rush to do ‘something’ we may end up with a worse situation than we have now.

(1) DHSS (1985) Review of Child Care Law HMSO: London (paras 12.3-4)

Author: Terry Thomas, Visiting Professor of Criminal Justice Studies, Leeds Metropolitan University

Student Post: Youth Crime: Is Imprisonment a Suitable and Effective Solution? 

Issues surrounding youth crime and justice are one of the longest-standing and most highly debated areas within criminology.  There are many arguments surrounding the imprisonment of children and young offenders, particularly in relation to custodial sentences and whether they are appropriate and effective.

There is no single, definitive principle of youth justice in the UK, but according to Hall, the philosophies of youth justice are four-fold and include welfare, punishment, rehabilitation and education.  There is much controversy surrounding the punishment of young offenders in particular, and emphasis is placed on different factors according to changes in time and politics.  This is particularly significant in recent years with the ‘punitive shift’.

As a result of this punitive shift since the 1990’s, the UK has seen considerable focus on punitive approaches in managing youth crime driven by an intense desire for stricter punishment and responsibilisation of young offenders.  According to Goldson, however, the imprisonment of children and young offenders is merely a matter of political convenience and the result of incompetent responses to, and failure to manage, youth crime through other methods.  This approach is supported by current government plans to build a super-prison to manage over 300 children and young offenders.  According to the Howard League, however, children’s prisons are volatile and dangerous environments which are ineffective at rehabilitating young offenders and are not suitable environments for young people. It is argued, therefore, that more emphasis should be placed on alternatives and that imprisonment is not an appropriate response to youth crime.

During a recent visit to East Moor Secure Children’s Unit, it appears that the four philosophies underpinning youth justice are attempting to be implemented in practice; but how effective are these philosophies in reducing youth crime?

According to the statistics for East Moor, 70% of young offenders released from the unit re-offend within the first year and many are subsequently returned to the unit.  Much emphasis is placed on education at East Moor and on getting the young people to address their offending behavior. However, if recidivism rates remain this high, it has to be asked how effective the imprisonment of young offenders is, particularly in relation to rehabilitation and how this can be addressed. The cost, (per person/per annum) of detaining a young person in an institute such as East Moor is up to £220,000. As a result, if the risk of a young person leaving the institute and reoffending is so high, arguably, imprisonment is not an effective method of rehabilitation and the money could be better spent on identifying and implementing alternative strategies.

During the visit, it was also highlighted that 90% of young offenders admitted to East Moor come from families with a recent history of offending behavior.  Perhaps, this highlights the ‘welfare’ philosophy of youth crime and therefore more emphasis should be placed on managing the welfare of young people and addressing the external factors which may contribute to them committing crimes and ending up in institutions. If a young person is admitted to East Moor, or a similar institute, then returned to the same environment and circumstances which may have contributed to their initial offending their chances of re-offending remain high.

Another factor for consideration when addressing the welfare of young offenders surrounds the disproportionately high number of children in these units suffering from mental health or conduct disorders which may be a significant contributory factor in offending.  The resources at East Moor are good, with medical and mental health professionals available as required. However, 20% of the young people there have self-harmed and, as a result, it can be argued that locking up young people with such issues is only going to exacerbate the problems, therefore ethical implications surrounding the welfare needs of young offenders need addressing. It may be more appropriate for these issues to be addressed in the community, and incidentally, by concentrating on treating these underlying problems, the risk of repeat offending would reduce as a result.

The punitive shift may explain why recidivism rates for youth crime remain high despite the education and support provided by institutes such as East Moor.  Perhaps, Goldson’s claim that prison is a political convenience – a result of failure to manage youth crime through other means – may offer some insight into what the focus should be in order to change the future of youth justice for the better.  However, the government’s plans to introduce a super-prison for youths would only exacerbate the problem, continuing to focus on punitive approaches, and avoid dealing with the underlying issues surrounding youth crime and justice and finding suitable alternatives.

Questions:

  1. What are your views on the government’s plans to introduce a super-prison for young offenders?
  2. Do you think that punishment is an appropriate way of managing youth crime or should more focus be placed on alternatives?

 

Post by Rebecca Baird-Parker

 

Image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net by  sakhorn38

Student Post: 10 tips to help you on the day of the group presentation

The actual group presentation can be very daunting – trust me, I know!

When I do a presentation I get so unnecessarily nervous, even though I know everyone that I’m presenting to. Because of this, I’ve developed a few little tips and tricks that can help everything run smoothly.

 

group presentation image

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