Opinion: there are advantages and disadvantages to today's introduction of mandatory reporting in Ireland of children who have been harmed or who are at risk of harm

By Professor Caroline McGregor and Joe Mooney, NUI Galway

Mandatory reporting comes into effect in Ireland today (December 11). Internationally, it had its origins in an American study in 1962, which focussed on 302 children in 71 hospitals who were shown to have been intentionally injured by their parents. The study came up with the term "battered child syndrome", which is now referred to as physical child abuse.

This led to a call for people to report cases they knew about to the authorities. The first mandatory reporting laws were introduced in the United States in 1963 and, within four years, all fifty states in the US had adopted mandatory reporting legislation

Mandatory reporting in Ireland

While mandatory reporting has been talked about at various times in the past and Ireland has had specific Children First guidelines since 1999, it is going to come into law for the first time now.

Part 3 of the Children First Act 2015 details the reporting requirements placed upon "Mandated Persons" in Ireland and Schedule 2 provides a comprehensive list of those who will be deemed mandated persons including such professional as social workers, nurses and teachers amongst others.

The worry is that this will place a huge burden on what are already strained services

Under Section 14(1), a Mandated Person who knows, believes or has reasonable grounds to suspect, on the basis of information he or she has acquired, received or becomes aware of in the course of his or her employment as a mandated person, that a child has been harmed, is being harmed, or is at risk of being harmed, they must report this to the agency as soon as practicable.

Under Section 14(2) where a child discloses such a belief or information to a mandated person, this must also be reported to Tusla. The act also precludes the reporting of sexual activity between minors, aged 15 years and above, under certain strict criteria.

Disadvantages

It’s the disadvantages of mandatory reporting which have attracted most attention when you look at responses elsewhere. The biggest disadvantage people consider is that this will increase the number of referrals made to child protection services by legally enforcing professionals, and the public in some cases, to report suspicions of abuse.

The worry is that this will place a huge burden on what are already strained services. The dangerous knock-on effect of this for child protection social workers is that the amount of time being used to assess new referrals will have to be diverted from current cases dealing with children known to be at risk.

A system of mandatory reporting did bring more cases of abuse and neglect to the surface, which is a good thing

Another concern about making it a law is that while certain abuse must be reported (i.e. if it meets a certain threshold), it will ignore other types of harm that are not listed as "reportable", such as psychological harm.

Advantages

One of the possible advantages of mandatory reporting is the fact that with increased referrals comes an increase in the discovery of actual cases of abuse and this allows child protection services to help more children in the long term. In 1999, the referral rates in New South Wales and Western Australia in 1999-2000 were compared. At the time, Western Australia did not have a system of mandatory reporting in place, while New South Wales did. The figures suggested that the referrals in New South Wales were more than eleven times that of Western Australia and "substantiated Investigations" in Western Australia stood at 44.2 percent, twice that of New South Wales.

This means that despite the increase in referrals, including unsubstantiated ones, it would seem that a system of mandatory reporting did bring more cases of abuse and neglect to the surface, which is a good thing. The administrative burden and caseload implications of this must be viewed as a policy and resource difficulties and not a social work issue.

The main argument against it seems to come down to resources, which will be an important issue in Ireland where the system is already under-resourced

The Irish model

There are some particular features of the Irish model that require some attention. Given that the Children First Act 2015 and associated guidelines, Children First 2017, set two different "standards" for reporting - mandated and non-mandated – we can predict in the first instance that this may cause some confusion in the community and amongst referrers.

Furthermore, we have low levels of public awareness of child protection systems in Ireland. Tusla recently released a publicly-available online training portal regarding the introduction of the new Children First Act and related policy. Looking to the future, the greater the public awareness and public understanding of child protection policy and procedures, the better the same public can respond to concerns about child abuse and neglect.

Finally, we do need to return to the main factor that is mostly likely to impact on the implementation of Children First 2015, which is the adequacy of resources and support provided in line with the additional level of referral anticipated into 2018.

A good thing

On balance, we believe mandatory reporting is a good thing. It increases the chances of child abuse or neglect being reported and hopefully responded to. The main argument against it seems to come down to resources which will be an important issue in Ireland where the system is already under-resourced. For those involved with children, it also emphasises a shared responsibility for child protection and reporting concerns about child welfare.

Professor Caroline McGregor is Director of Social Work at NUI Galway. Joe Mooney, is Doctoral Fellow with the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway