A new initiative launched by the Department for Education aims to tackle child abuse and neglect.

The initiative, called “Together We Can Tackle Child Abuse”, is being championed by local authorities and NHS trusts throughout the country.

One of the issues raised by the initiative is the failure of people to report suspected child abuse or neglect. It has been noted that, of those who suspect child abuse, one third does not act on their suspicions because they are worried about being wrong.

Together, we can tackle child abuse aims to encourage members of the public to report suspected abuse or neglect even when they are not certain it has taken place.

ABC – spotting signs of abuse and neglect

The initiative has highlighted that, in 2014/15, approximately 400,000 children in England were supported by local authorities after someone noticed they needed help.

Abuse of children can involve sexual acts, physical assaults or emotional harm. Neglect involves the maltreatment of a child by failing to care for them appropriately.

By using a simple acronym – ABC – the new DfE initiative provides the following guidance on how to spot the signs of abuse or neglect by reference to the effects on a child’s appearance, behaviour and communication:

  • Appearance – such as frequent unexplained injuries, consistently poor hygiene, matted hair, unexplained gifts, or a parent regularly collecting children from school when drunk
  • Behaviour – such as demanding or aggressive behaviour, frequent lateness or absence from school, avoiding their own family, misusing drugs or alcohol, or being constantly tired
  • Communication – such as sexual or aggressive language, self-harming, becoming secretive and reluctant to share information or being overly obedient

Education, education, education

It is important to provide education about, and increase awareness of, child abuse to members of the public. If it means that even one child is safeguarded from abuse, it will be worth it.

The ABC tool is easy to remember and it provides helpful hints for when to recognise the signs of abuse and neglect. If people read it, learn to recognise the signs of abuse and are vigilant when it comes to children in their care, it may save a lot of children from devastating abuse and neglect.

By educating people about the signs of child abuse, it may help to reduce the number of situations where people possess “incomplete information” and, hopefully, allow them to feel that they are able to recognise and report suspected abuse. Currently when people are unsure about whether a child is being abused, far too often they will subconsciously prefer not to report their suspicions for fear of rocking the boat.

Rock the boat, don’t rock the boat

Most people would agree that, if someone suspects that a child is being abused or neglected, they should report it immediately.

But clearly there are people who suspect child abuse yet do not report it.

There are often a number of other factors at play when a person makes the decision not to report abuse. The would-be reporter is bound to consider their relationship with the potential-abuser; a person may feel that it is more difficult to report a family member or loved one than someone they do not know as well.

Perhaps there is also an element of self-preservation in the decision not to report. For example, in a work setting, would-be reporters may consider the effect of reporting suspected abuse on their own jobs and careers.

These factors cannot be fixed by education alone and the question is then what can be done to combat human behaviour in order to protect children?

Use the force: mandatory reporting

In some Western countries, including the United States, Canada and Australia, certain groups or professionals are under a legal duty to report to the authorities reasonably held concerns about suspected child abuse and neglect. This is known as “mandatory reporting”. Failure to report suspected child abuse can result in criminal sanctions against the person who failed to report.

Although such a policy would be difficult to implement on members of the general public, some people are in a unique position to act: doctors and health workers; social workers; teachers and school support staff; and other organisations dealing with young people, for example.

In 2013, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, recommended the introduction of mandatory reporting in the UK. The suggestion received the support of the Catholic Church and the Church of England, who both stated that they would welcome mandatory reporting in this country. The Department for Education was against the idea however.

Since 31 October 2015, it has been mandatory for regulated health and social care professionals and teachers in England and Wales to report female genital mutilation (FGM) in under 18-year-olds to the police. The Government has promised to implement mandatory reporting for child abuse cases but it has so far failed to do so.

Given the recent recognition that one-third of people will choose not to report suspicions of child abuse and neglect, the Government needs to push ahead with mandatory reporting as soon as possible to help stop child abuse.