Mandatory reporting of sexual abuse
There is currently a government consultation ‘Reporting and Acting on Child Abuse and Neglect’. This will affect psychologists, who are regulated by the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).
Everyone agrees that children must be kept safe, and mandatory reporting seems the obvious way to achieve this. Yet it carries the risk of unintended consequences. I have, as chair of the Specialist Treatment Organisation for the Prevention of Sexual Offending (StopSO), written a comprehensive report, discussing the benefits and risks.
StopSO aims to reduce child sexual abuse by working with the perpetrators. Prevention is better than cure for everyone, especially the potential victims. So far, StopSO has had 288 requests for help in three years. Our biggest concern about mandatory reporting, is that potential (and actual) perpetrators will not feel safe enough to come forward.
Surprisingly, the reoffending rate for sexual crime is very low. In June 2013 government figures put it at 12.1 per cent. For a serious violent and or serious sexual crime it was 0.4%. We need to focus on stopping perpetrators before they commit the first crime, or early in their offending history. Almost 40 per cent of those approaching StopSO have never come to the attention of the authorities. We fear that if mandatory reporting includes psychologists this figure will drop. When mandatory reporting began in Baltimore, USA, the self-referrals of sex abusers decreased from 73 to 0 (Berlin et al., 1991).
If clinical psychologists were excluded from a mandatory duty to report, they could still report wherever necessary, but at their discretion. Some clients approach StopSO requesting therapy for ‘low-level’ sexual offending (e.g. low-level child abuse images) that they have recently stopped. StopSO suggests that in these cases the most effective child protection may be for the psychologist to have a proportionate response, working with the client and monitoring the dynamic risk on an ongoing basis, rather than automatically reporting them.
Please read the StopSO report and think carefully about the unintended consequences before filling in the government consultation (deadline 13 October).
UCKP Registered Psychotherapist
Berlin F.S., Malin, H.M. & Dean, S. (1991). Effects of statutes requiring psychiatrists to report suspected abuse of children. American Journal of Psychiatry, 148, 449–453.
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