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Abuse Specialist Solicitor Samantha Robson discusses the importance of Mandatory Reporting to help stop child abuse

The sexual abuse and exploitation of children is happening in a number of towns up and down the country. A report compiled 3 years ago by the Children’s Commissioner for England estimated that almost 2500 children had been identified as actual victims of abuse or exploitation during a preceding 14 month period in 2010 and 2011. Perhaps more shocking was the statistic that in excess of 16,500 children were said to be high risk. The definition of high risk implies that abuse will almost certainly occur. If that assertion is correct then during a period of little over a year in excess of 19,000 children have or are likely to have been the victim of sexual abuse exploitation.

In recent years we have seen many high profile convictions for perpetrators of sexual abuse, but the number of offenders sent to prison is exceedingly low when compared to the level of recorded abuse. This indicates there is a flaw in the criminal justice system and this fault needs to be identified and rectified as soon as possible.

At first glance, it is difficult to describe common traits to the communities in which the perpetrators of sexual abuse have been brought to book. High-profile cases include the university town of Oxford where 7 men were convicted of serious offences including child prostitution, trafficking and rape. A damning report from the NSPCC commented there had been a systematic failure by Oxfordshire County Council to identify a gang that groomed young girls for sex and intervene to stop the practice.  Oxford is traditionally seen as a university town and middle-class and affluent. 

In 2011 nine men were convicted of grooming and abusing young teenage girls in Derby. Incredibly CCTV regularly captured on film the man picking up the girls and driving them around town. Perhaps in one of the great understatements of the year the Serious Crime Review found that agencies had “missed opportunities” to help the victims. I am unclear on the precise demographics of Derby but I assume it is no better or no worse than any other Midlands city in terms of crime or deprivation.

Similarly nine men from Rochdale were convicted of rape and sexual activities with children in 2012.  An independent review highlighted the brazen way in which the men operated and the complete inability of the agencies designed to protect these young people from protecting them.

A child prostitution ring from Telford operated between 2007 and 2009. West Murcia police said that in excess of 100 girls had been routinely involved and that some of the victims were as young as 13. 7 men were jailed for offences including trafficking, prostitution and rape.

In February 2014 a gang of 5 men from Peterborough were jailed for offences of rape and sexual assault on 5 vulnerable girls. The CPS remarked that it was one of the worst cases of sex abuse with children it had come across.

I suspect that an analysis of the demographics of the towns and cities above would show little difference in terms of social deprivation and general criminality.  How then to predict where child sex abuse occurs if it is not particularly obvious from social trends and geography?

There seem to be two common threads in the analysis of where perpetrators operate.

Firstly and arguably the least attractive proposition is that sex abuse and exploitation of children is disproportionately seen amongst certain ethnic minorities.  That is not to say that any one ethnic group should assume the moral high ground because this sort of criminality occurs everywhere. However, if the police are to act effectively than they should be allowed to know and act upon statistics that point the finger more readily at one ethnic group than another.

Secondly, in each and every case referred to above, and indeed arguably anywhere in the country, is characterised by the lamentable failure of the agencies to realise the problem and intervene appropriately. Almost every instance of large-scale child sexual abuse is followed by a report of some kind and that report almost invariably places blame fairly and squarely on agencies who are set up to protect children, but who do very little in practice.

This observation moves the debate on to a much more practical level. Why do these agencies fail in their duty and / or abdicate responsibility so readily?

The stock answer seems to be “we did not know it was going on”.

However, if there was a system of mandatory reporting imposed upon certain groups in the community who might have suspicion of child sex abuse, then in one foul swoop it would be nigh on impossible for agencies charged with looking after the welfare of children to say they were unaware of the problem.

Let us suppose that teachers, social workers, doctors and youth workers were required to log instances of actual or possible child sex abuse.  The precise legal test is irrelevant here for we will assume there has to be a prima facie suspicion to trigger a report.  

It follows from a statistical argument that anyone reported might be anomalous.  However, over time a picture would develop showing clusters of abuse of vulnerable children in certain areas, by known perpetrators and arising in certain demographics. Those in authority would then be able to judge where risk truly lay.

Of course mandatory reporting imposes an invasive burden on those required to report and the possibility that an innocent person may be wrongly accused. These objections seem to be the only counter argument to mandatory reporting.  

One readily accepts that for those groups of people required to report suspected child abuse or exploitation there is a degree of inconvenience, paperwork and the possibility of criminal sanction for those who are lax in reporting. However, I am a solicitor and on each and every occasion I take on a new client, I am required to undertake a money-laundering exercise that expects me to identify clients and to maintain records showing an audit trail to this effect. I face the prospect of criminal sanctions if I fail to report money-laundering. There is an irony in the fact that society is more concerned to ensure money-laundering is stamped out through mandatory reporting than ensuring that child abuse and exploitation is reduced by a similar exercise. There will be those people who report others for nefarious and untrue reasons. These reports will be blips in a massive statistical analysis and will simply be lost in the background noise. What the agencies charged with looking after children will be concerned with is statistical trends clusters and variation from the mean.  These are all powerful statistical tools to pinpoint events.   

The only consistency in an otherwise chaotic and dysfunctional system of child care is the apparent failings of those agencies and organisations charged with looking after children.  Mandatory reporting would dismiss the unlikely but prevalent excuse that “we did not know about it”.  The data would be there to persuade even the most indifferent individual that something had better be done. Moreover, the trends, clusters and statistical data would inform the police where best to devote resources, that is to areas of high risk and to reduce resources from areas of low risk, thereby better financing the national problem.

Sam has frequently spoken out in the press on mandatory reporting following her involvement in the Nigel Leat litigation at Hillside School.  She is a strong supporter of this system.  From her own involvement in representing abuse victims, she feels many children would have avoided sexual abuse altogether if mandatory reporting had been in place.

To speak with Sam on a confidential, no obligation basis please call 01392 345333, or email sam@robsonshaw.uk.