In Depth

After Rotherham, should it be mandatory to report abuse fears?

Sexual abuse and exploitation of 1,400 children in Rotherham leads to call for new legislation

As the police and local authorities stand accused of failing to protect more than 1,400 children in Rotherham, the former director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer has called for the introduction of mandatory reporting of suspected abuse.

How can a repetition of Rotherham be avoided?

Starmer told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning that the law needed to be changed to avoid similar catastrophic failures. "The case for mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse is now overwhelming," he said. The NSPCC says there are "no specific mandatory regulations in the UK requiring professionals to report suspicions about child abuse to the authorities". Instead, expectations on professionals to share information with other services are "clearly set out in legislation and guidance". But other countries do have such legislation.

 What could we learn from the USA?

The 2011 discovery that a popular assistant football coach at Pennsylvania State University had abused underage boys for decades on the campus caused intense soul-searching in the US. Legislation varies from state to state in America but Pennsylvania does have 'failure to report' laws covering child abuse. The junior university staff who discovered the abuse had fulfilled their legal obligations by reporting it to their immediate superiors - but the college management chose to deal with the matter internally, rather than go to the police. Much as happened in Rotherham, the failures came at the top of the institutions involved.

How did the legal world react?

Responding to the 'Penn State scandal', Washington Lawyer said it exposed "the problems inherent in the web of complicated laws defining the scope of who must expose child abuse". But on the other hand, "child advocates" felt the case highlighted need to increase the number of "mandatory reporters" - the professionals like doctors or teachers legally obliged to report abuse to the police - and to require them to report a broadened definition of incidents or suspicions.

What are the problems with mandatory reporting?

But for others in the US, this is not the answer. Thomas L Hafemeister, a University of Virginia School of Law academic told Washington Lawyer: "The concern is that if everyone is a mandatory reporter, and if we get the public so enflamed, they may start seeing child abuse everywhere." Other observers said that the Penn State officials had fulfilled their legal obligations but not their moral obligations - and that greater public awareness and heightened sensitivity, not further legislation, were needed.

What happened next at Penn State?

In 2012, longstanding assistant coach Jerry Sandusky was sentenced to a minimum of 30 years for 45 counts of abuse. Former university president Graham Spanier is currently facing a state court prosecution for what the Harrisburg-based Patriot-News dubbed his "milquetoast response" to the reports of abuse that landed on his desk. Other critics went further and accused him of a cover-up. The Huffington Post reported this month that Spanier has launched a counter-suit saying the charges violate his right to "due process of law".

How is reporting handled elsewhere in the world?

As well as some US states, mandatory reporting exists in Canada, Australia and "much of Europe", according to a report by the University of Western Australia. The death of four-year-old Daniel Pelka, tortured, starved and beaten to death by his mother and stepfather, led to calls for debate on extending mandatory reporting in the UK in 2013, according to The Guardian. The Mandate Now Coalition, formed of groups calling for new legislation, said the technique "works well in many countries". Just as in the US though, other voices feared reform could "overload the system with cases where the child is clearly not in danger".

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