Making suspicious minds mandatory

Criminalising people who fail to report suspicions of child abuse will poison social relations.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics

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People often respond to events that distress or shock them with the statement ‘it should be a crime’. My grandma, for instance, was convinced that extramarital affairs should be a crime. In recent decades the phrase ‘it should be a crime’ has been regularly repeated by a chorus of unofficial organisations zealously committed to intensifying the policing of human behaviour. Like many a traditionalist grandma, they enjoy converting their prejudices into policy advice. But unfortunately, unlike my grandmother, these moral crusaders actually have the power to influence public policy.

This week it was the turn of Keir Starmer, the former director of public prosecutions (DPP), to issue the call, ‘it should be a crime’. Speaking on the BBC’s Panorama programme, he argued for the criminalisation of people who did not report suspected child abuse. Panorama, which has come to embrace the reality-television format, now serves as a powerful vehicle for the cultivation of moral outrage. The influence of the show is demonstrated by the fact that its message immediately becomes a major subject of discussion in the wider media.

Unlike many demands for the criminalisation of behaviour, Starmer’s call for the mandatory reporting of suspicions of child abuse does not aim to punish people for what they have done. Its aim is to persecute certain professionals for something they have not done, those, that is, who have failed to act in accordance with the ethos of the current obsessive regime of child protection. The demand to criminalise individuals who do not report their suspicions is justified on the grounds that it will curb the activities of future Jimmy Saviles. ‘Without a change in the law, there’ll be another Savile’, argued Starmer. (These days the very mention of Jimmy Savile usually serves as a prelude to the demand that something ‘should be a crime’.)

The institutionalisation of the mandatory reporting of suspicions will do nothing to help children preyed upon by paedophiles. After all, there is no shortage of reporting such suspicions to a diverse range of institutions. Most social-work professionals acknowledge that the child-protection system is already overloaded with far more cases than it can properly handle. As matters stand, the flood of such reports already means that it is difficult for authorities to make important distinctions between the relatively trivial cases of neglect and the really serious threats facing children. Moreover, those demanding the mandatory reporting of suspicions overlook the fact that in the relevant institutional setting, people already have a duty to report their suspicions. As Professor Eileen Munro, a government adviser on child protection, noted, ‘the debate around mandatory reporting creates a misleading impression that people don’t already have a duty to convey maltreatment if they have any suspicion of it’.

But the introduction of mandatory reporting would not merely distract professionals and institutions from their task of effectively protecting children facing harm. The very word ‘mandatory’ signifies a bureaucratic approach to a problem that requires professionals to make particular decisions in particular circumstances and contexts. Any operative can mechanically tick the mandatory box. But teachers, health professionals and social workers don’t need to tick boxes. They are required to use their training, experience, intuition and understanding of a specific problem to make a judgement call. The main result of mandatory reporting is that it spares professionals from the responsibility of having to think and act on the basis of professional judgement. Consequently, it serves to disempower and de-skill professionals.

Another effect of the introduction of mandatory processes is the corrosion of institutional responsibility. Instead of allowing individuals to act at their own discretion, it promotes responsibility-averse behaviour. Mandatory reporting constitutes the outsourcing of responsibility to a system that prefers the paper trail to the idea of professionals acting according to their best judgements. What matters is that the process is followed rather than what is in the best interests of children and their families.

Finally, mandatory reporting is not just bad news for professionals who are genuinely interested in the wellbeing of children; it is bad news for society as a whole. This process represents the juridification, the formalisation, of suspicion. It transforms every claim or suspicion into a potential criminal investigation, a development which threatens to immobilise society. And it will transform the adage ‘there is no smoke without fire’ into a new legal principle with all of its destructive consequences for the system of criminal justice.

All this might make good reality television, but it will do little to protect children.

Frank Furedi’s new book, Authority: A Sociological History, is published by Cambridge University Press. (Order this book from Amazon (UK).) He is also the author of Moral Crusades in an Age of Mistrust: The Jimmy Savile Scandal, published by Palgrave Macmillan. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his website here.

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Topics Politics


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