Updated: Nov 22, 2019
In 2016 , the government launched a consultation to seek views on the possible introduction of mandatory reporting of child abuse and neglect or of a duty to act in relation to it. October 2016 saw the airing of Louis Theroux’s second documentary about Jimmy Saville, where he publicly berates himself for his ‘failure to recognise him for what he was’. I feel that when we consider the issues of mandatory reporting, we need to consider the experiences of Theroux and others like him.
As the consultation document recognises, there is much good practice in child protection and the issues professionals face are highly complex. The document states,
‘Signs of abuse and neglect can be hard to identify and judgements about the best interests of the child are rarely clear-cut. The problems faced by children can be multi-faceted and the cost of failure extremely high.’ (p.3).
The responsibilities and roles of all and the need for universal good practice are clear. However, the signs of abuse are hard to spot and key to work in this area is professional judgement. Professional judgement depends on the knowledge, skills, experience and expertise of the professionals making the judgments, as well as the information they have and how it is shared within the guidance, systems and procedures that underlie their work.
As Munro reminds us:
‘instead of “doing things right” (i.e. following procedures) the system needed to be focused on doing the right thing (i.e. checking whether children and young people are being helped).’ Munro Review of Child Protection: Final Report.
Clearly, doing the right thing is easier when it is supported by effective systems. But a focus on mandatory reporting is missing the point. According to Mark Lawson in The Guardian, Theroux did report to the BBC, in 2001, testimony of sexual abuse by Saville when it came to light after the airing of his documentary in 2000. However, The BBC did not act on this information. Theroux could have been said to have fulfilled his duty under mandatory reporting, but the BBC’s failure to take action made the act of reporting meaningless.
As the consultation document goes on to remind us: ‘Any additional legislation needs to bring benefits and not create perverse incentives or unintended consequences. (p.12)‘ A key concern for many professionals and others in the concept of mandatory reporting is the unintended consequences: a system overwhelmed (or more accurately, even more overwhelmed) by pointless, inconsequential and ill-judged reports. Professionals driven by fear of sanctions, which undermine their confidence in their own professional judgements, leading them to report everything without making appropriate judgements about its value. This, in turn, would lead to front line staff drowning in paperwork, unable to distinguish the important and the unimportant. This could lead to less effective investigation of and action to prevent significant harm to children. Though, interestingly, international comparisons suggest that countries with mandatory reporting have a lower rate of referral than we do in the UK. Why is not clear.
What we want and need is for people to actively identify child abuse and neglect and not turn a blind eye. This means that all those working with children need to know what they are looking for in terms of the risks of child abuse. This requires training. When it comes to reporting, it also requires the recognition and valuing of the difference between ‘deliberate or reckless failure’ to report, and a professional carefully monitoring a vulnerable child and working with their family, rather than alienating them by reporting a concern that will not reach threshold for social care intervention. Effective safeguarding requires professionals to concentrate on cases where the issues are genuinely concerning and be empowered to use their professional judgement and discretion to support and protect children, not just tick a box marked ‘report’. The duty to act is more powerful and more effective for this.
Even if the mandatory reporting only applies to cases that meet the criteria for a section 47 (child protection) inquiry, there are questions of how this judgement is to be made. I suspect many professionals would report everything, rather than risk sanction or even worst the guilt of getting it wrong.
Which takes us back to Theroux’s recent programme. He was trying to understand what he had missed. How he had failed to identify Saville as a predatory paedophile and serial abuser? It is clear that he was not the only one. He did ask the ‘paedophile’ question. In what Theroux said did not seem a particularly revelatory exchange at the time Saville said; ‘I know whether I am or not. I know that I am not’. He then talked about not liking children and that this was enough to put the press off his tracks. What is clear with hindsight is that he did not see his actions as wrong.
There is a chilling interview with Saville’s former PA who said that he loved her because she was convenient. Equally, he disposed of her without warning. He boasted of not having emotions. His PA describes it better: ‘he did not understand other peoples’ feelings. They were not important to him so why should he understand them?’ He could easily have been a case study in Simon Baron-Cohen’s excellent book Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Understanding of Human Cruelty and Kindness ( for review).
Talking to one of his victims Theroux comments that Saville’s ‘sense of personality and entitlement were so strong’ that it did not permit his victim to see his assault on her for what it was. It was only when other assaults were disclosed this woman was able to understand and admit to herself what had happened. She didn’t disclose or report at the time because she did not know or understand what had happened.
We must be aware that this happens for professionals too. If mandatory reporting were to be introduced at what point does a professional get held responsible for not reporting, what they did not see or understand at the time. Like so many other perpetrators, Saville groomed the adults around the children he abused. He created a persona of unusual behaviour, of ‘treading close to the line’, of constantly blurring the line of what he was permitted to do and of using the power of his celebrity and ‘good works’ to ‘create an aura of invulnerability’. He told Theroux, ‘There is nothing I can’t get, nothing I can’t do!’ Saville’s sense of power was fed by the inaction of the BBC and the various charities and healthcare providers he worked with. His former PA described him as a ‘good liar’. The number of marathons he had run changed, but no-one checked up on him. No-one checked because, despite the rumours, no-one fully disbelieved him. This fed into his ability to do harm.
Another of Saville’s victims describes her reactions to Theroux’s programme in 2000 as: ‘Poor, poor Louis. He has really been hoodwinked there.’ Theroux was not the only one. He was ‘groomed’, like the rest of us. As he says: ‘It was all there looking back, and you think why didn’t we see it.’ We didn’t see it because Saville was manipulative and because we didn’t want to see it. But where does that leave mandatory reporting? How far can we be held responsible for not reporting what we only saw with hindsight? Equally, professionals cannot be excused not acting when there is evidence of abuse. This difficult balance would be made more difficult by the fear of sanctions under mandatory reporting legislation.
The viewer of any good TV detective drama, when the crime is solved, can track back through the programme and find the clues that they missed. Although, they didn’t see them or didn’t value them as evidence at the time. In more serious real life cases we review the evidence and can berate ourselves for our failures of vision and perception. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but we need to learn from it, not blame ourselves or professionals for not having it.
Local safeguarding boards produce numerous serious case reviews each year which make depressing reading. The sheer number is depressing, but even more their similarities and the constant recurring themes. If we want to have more effective safeguarding, it is those themes that need to be our focus for action supported by high quality training, so people are able to identify and evaluate risk and indicators of abuse. It is much easier to understand, see and report abuse if you know and understand what you are looking for.
As Munro reminds us safeguarding depends on “doing the right thing, but this is much easier in a culture of “doing things right”. We need robust systems and clear guidance, but overall we need a commitment to action. To report alone, is not enough. Only when a report is acted upon does it help protect children. A workforce living in fear of sanctions for failure to report will be in no position to safeguard children. If the focus is on reporting, there is no guarantee of action in response. If the focus is on the duty to act, this requires either action or careful consideration why it is not appropriate to act and so will lead to more effective safeguarding. As Theroux concludes: ‘to understand his (Saville’s) crimes, we should also remember how we were beguiled.’
Posted in: Safeguarding