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IICSA published its final Report in October 2022. This website was last updated in January 2023.

IICSA Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

The Report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse

Final report

F.5: The case for mandatory reporting

66. Commonly referred to as ‘mandatory reporting’, numerous countries have introduced legislation which places specified persons, or members of the public, under a statutory obligation to report child abuse or neglect to a designated agency.[1] This includes the majority of countries in Europe and some parts of the US, Canada and Australia.

67. Although the detail and nature of mandatory reporting laws varies between jurisdictions, there are a number of common features.[2]

67.1. Most mandatory reporting laws identify designated mandated reporters, creating a group of people to whom the law applies. These individuals are generally those who come into contact with children in the course of their work or have managerial responsibility for others who work with children and are therefore assumed to be in a position to identify the signs of abuse.

67.2. Mandatory reporting laws also vary in what they require people to report. Some jurisdictions list categories of child abuse, such as physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse and neglect. It is also common for reporting laws to cover various forms of child abuse, including physical abuse, neglect and sexual abuse.

67.3. There is also variation in the level of awareness of the alleged abuse mandated reporters need to have before they are required to report.

67.4. All mandatory reporting laws specify the agency to whom the report must be made. This may be the police or, more commonly, social services or child protection services. In some jurisdictions, there is a dedicated agency whose remit is to receive reports (and sometimes also to monitor and produce statistics on the number of reports received) in addition to assessing and acting upon them as required.

67.5. Most, but not all, mandatory reporting laws also provide for a sanction for failure to report. Such sanctions may be criminal in nature, attracting a fine or custodial sentence.

68. The combination of these features gives a particular regime of mandatory reporting its character and scope, and the interrelationship between them is important. For example, it tends to be that criminal sanctions apply for the non-reporting of abuse that is known, rather than suspected, or applies to a narrow group of individuals who might be expected to have a heightened level of awareness or duty to children.

Debates about mandatory reporting

69. In recent years there has been significant debate about whether mandatory reporting should be introduced in England and in Wales.

70. Several organisations representing victims and survivors have called for its introduction.[3] In 2014, Baroness Walmsley tabled an amendment to the Serious Crimes Bill which set out a legal duty for those working in regulated activity (see Part E) involving children or vulnerable adults to report suspected or known abuse.[4] The amendment attracted both support and criticism.

71. In July 2016, the government launched a public consultation on reporting and acting on child abuse and neglect.[5] In its response (March 2018), the government concluded that the case for mandatory reporting had “not currently been made” and stated that it would not seek to introduce a mandatory reporting duty.[6]

72. The Inquiry has considered the government’s consultation response. However, the broad body of evidence examined by the Inquiry has led to the Inquiry reaching different conclusions on some of the government’s key concerns about mandatory reporting.

Referral figures

73. The introduction of mandatory reporting in other jurisdictions has led to an increase in the number of referrals made about child abuse to authorities and in the number of children subsequently identified as being in need of protection from sexual abuse. This gives rise to concerns about potentially unmanageable increases in the number of referrals made to children’s social care services.

73.1. In 1993, the Australian State of Victoria introduced mandatory reporting for incidents of suspected child sexual abuse and physical abuse. At the time of enactment, doctors, nurses and the police were subject to the duty, and in 1994 it was broadened to include teachers. Analysis of subsequent trends in reporting of child sexual abuse found that between 1993 and 2012 there was a six-fold increase in the rate of children identified as in need of protection.[7]

73.2. In 2009, the State of Western Australia introduced legislation giving doctors, nurses, midwives, teachers, the police and boarding supervisors a statutory duty to report any reasonable belief of child sexual abuse. Analysis of reporting trends in the three years prior and the four years following enactment found that, on average, following the introduction of mandatory reporting the number of children identified as in need of protection from sexual abuse doubled.[8] This means that the law enabled children’s services to provide help to more of those children who needed it.

74. Similar long-term improvements have been observed in Canada in the identification of children who were in need of protection and received support, as a result of mandatory reporting. One study examined the contact that individuals who were sexually abused as children had with child protection services both before and after the introduction of mandatory reporting. The study found that those born after mandatory reporting was enacted in their province (1965 onwards) were three times more likely to have had contact with child protection services than those born before or in the same year as the legislation’s enactment.[9]

75. Research also indicates that the number of children identified as in need of protection from sexual abuse is higher in jurisdictions where mandatory reporting exists than in jurisdictions which do not have mandatory reporting. Over a 20-year period, the number of substantiated reports of child sexual abuse in Victoria, Australia, was 4.73 times as high as in the Republic of Ireland, a comparable jurisdiction which did not have mandatory reporting at the time.[10]

76. Conversely, some have argued that there is no need for the introduction of this law as rates of referrals for child abuse and neglect in England and in Wales are “comparable or already higher” than in jurisdictions which have mandatory reporting.[11] During the Inquiry’s seminar on mandatory reporting, Stuart Gallimore (then President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services) observed that “there is no evidence in modern times … of professionals routinely failing to report concerns about child sexual abuse”.[12]

77. However, throughout its investigations, the Inquiry repeatedly found that allegations and indicators of child sexual abuse were under-reported by adults who ought to have reported them.[13] Child sexual abuse is not sufficiently well reported at present. Reliance on bare statistics about rates of referrals risks a complacency about child sexual abuse. In 2021, the Inquiry asked the Department for Education and the Welsh Government for information on the number of referrals for child sexual abuse made to local authorities. Neither government could provide this information, because it was not collected.[14]

78. The proportion of referrals to children’s services which result in them identifying factors of child sexual abuse or child sexual exploitation in particular – as opposed to rates of referral of child abuse or neglect in general – is relatively small.

78.1. In 2021, child sexual abuse was identified as a factor in 6 percent of assessments and child sexual exploitation as a factor in 3.4 percent.[15] By comparison, the proportion of assessments for which emotional abuse was identified as a factor was 21.6 percent, neglect was identified in 17.2 percent of assessments and physical abuse was identified in 11.9 percent of assessments.[16]

78.2. Existing referrals for child sexual abuse are therefore likely to represent a small proportion of all referrals, and a proportion much smaller than the proportion of referrals represented by other types of abuse and neglect.

78.3. A potentially higher rate of referrals is therefore not the same thing as a high rate of referrals about child sexual abuse or exploitation.

79. Mandatory reporting laws have the capacity to improve significantly statutory services’ ability to target help and support to child victims of sexual abuse. The international evidence supports the view that England and Wales ought to introduce mandatory reporting laws to enable the police and local authorities to better identify children in need of protection.

Striking the balance in mandatory reporting

80. The requirement to make a formal report of child sexual abuse has led to concerns about a potential loss of privacy or confidentiality that a child may request when making a disclosure.

81. Children and young people told the Inquiry that mandatory reporting could discourage children from disclosing sexual abuse for fear of the potential consequences for them, for their families and potentially for their abuser.[17] The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has separately observed that children might be deterred from accessing support in respect of mental health or sexual or reproductive health if professionals were required to report abuse that they became aware of through such treatment.[18]

82. Some victims and complainants told the Inquiry that when they sought help they wanted the abuse to stop, without wanting there to be any legal consequences.[19] Children and young people have commented that, once a report is made, they may feel a loss of control over this aspect of their lives.[20] They may not be able to decide for themselves whether to engage with the criminal justice system, particularly where the abuser is a peer who they do not necessarily want to see investigated by police and prosecuted in a criminal court. The distress that children and their families might feel at the prospect of a formal investigation into allegations must not be underestimated.

83. It is also possible mandatory reporting could deter families from seeking help and that families are more likely to self-refer where they believe their disclosure will be handled confidentially. Parents may be worried about the consequences of disclosing a concern about sexual abuse in their household if they believe it would lead to the criminal investigation of a family member. Social, familial and economic factors might also influence parents’ decision-making.

84. The countervailing consideration is the significant public interest in reporting, investigating and prosecuting perpetrators of child sexual abuse, and protecting other children from harm. If abuse is not reported in this way, perpetrators may continue to abuse. Child sexual abuse is a crime that is known to be under-reported. The prevention of abuse in the future is of the utmost importance.

85. In the delicate balance between the need to provide an individual child with confidential advice and support (whether medical, psychological, legal or social) and ensuring child sexual abuse is prevented, it is essential to recognise that there are some circumstances where privacy ought to be protected and some where prevention is paramount. One important example is in the context of consensual, non-abusive relationships between young people. In other jurisdictions, mandatory reporting laws provide for exemptions to the duty to report where the child concerned is in a sexual relationship with a person who is near in age to them and where that relationship lacks features of exploitation or coercion. The Inquiry considers that it is desirable that such a measure is included in a new mandatory reporting law.


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