Child abuse: what are the statistics behind mandatory reporting?

17 September 2013

"The countries that have mandatory reportings have higher death rates than England, so they're not an obvious model." Today Programme, BBC Radio 4, 17 September 2013 (08:53 am)

Following the case of Daniel Pelka, the four-year-old who was starved and beaten to death by his mother and stepdad, campaigners are calling for a change in the law on child protection to provide for mandatory reporting of child abuse.

When discussing the possibility of introducing the law on Radio 4, Eileen Munro - Professor of Social Policy at the London School of Economics - cast doubt on the effectiveness of the law, based on the mortality rates of victims of child abuse in other countries.

What is mandatory reporting?

The definition varies depending on the country and legal system. In the US, mandated reporters are people who work in social care, in schools or in other professions and come into contact with children and families. Which professions are classed as manated reporters depends on the state, but generally mandated reporters are required to file a report whenever they have "a reasonable cause to know or suspect child abuse or neglect."

The Australian government defines mandatory reporting as a "legislative requirement imposed on selected classes of people to report suspected cases of child abuse or neglect to government authorities."

UK law

In the UK we have what is known as the "Common Assessment Framework" - the Department for Education describes this as a process whereby practitioners can flag "concerns about their health, development, welfare, behaviour, progress in learning or any other aspect of their wellbeing." It is entirely voluntary.

According to the Scottish Government, "local child protection guidelines and professional codes of conduct may expect other professionals (teachers, health visitors and other medical staff) to report as part of their professional duty, but they do not have to do so as a matter of law."

In her 2011 Government-commissioned review of child protection, Eileen Munro makes the point that "there is conflicting evidence on whether the form is contributing to improved practice or not."

Which countries have mandatory reporting laws?

We contacted Eileen Munro to ask her what nations she was referring to in her Radio 4 interview. She told us "the American and Australian" examples all offer some form of mandatory reporting. She pointed us to this website as the source on mortality rates. The site references UNICEF as a source, and the data is fairly dated. UNICEF's report was published in 2003, but most of the figures were gathered by the World Health Organisation in the 1990s.

Child abuse mortality rates

Here are the death rates for the three countries compared by Prof. Munro according to UNICEF's 2003 report on child maltreatment deaths in rich nations:

USA: 2.4 per 100,000 children

Australia: 0.8 per 100,000 children

The UK: 0.4 per 100,000 children

Based on these figures, Prof. Munro's claims stack up. 

More recent data for the US is available thanks to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System. The Child Welfare Information Gateway reports:

"Based on these data, a nationally estimated 1,570 children died from abuse and neglect in 2011. This translates to a rate of 2.10 children per 100,000 children in the general population and an average of four children dying every day from abuse or neglect."

As for the Australian case, we weren't able to dig out more recent data given that the Australian Bureau of Statistics does not report on the causes of death for children under the age of 18.

Furthermore, though Prof. Munro referred to England in her Radio 4 interview, UNICEF statistics specifically related to the UK. 

The United States and Australia are not the only countries to have implemented mandatory reporting.

According to an academic paper published in Child Maltreatment:

"Other nations, including Brazil, Denmark, Finland, France, Hungary, Israel, Malaysia, Mexico, Norway, South Africa, and Sweden, have created quite general legislative reporting duties."

However, the journal does add that:

"the United States, Canada and Australia have given detailed attention to the development of these laws over several decades, and the laws in these jurisdictions continue to evolve in response to new phenomena and evidence of success and failures in child protection systems."

Eileen Munro is correct that Australia and the United States present higher rates than England of death by child abuse. However this doesn't necessarily mean all countries with mandatory reporting laws present higher mortality rates. More information on other countries' mortality rates and more up-to-date data would allow us to make a stronger link between the two. 


Flickr image courtesy of the More Good Foundation

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