The Commission to inquire into child abuse in the Republic of Ireland published its report (commonly known as The Ryan Report) on the 20 May 2009.
One of the recommendations of that report was that Children First: The National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children should be uniformly and consistently implemented throughout the state in dealing with allegations of abuse. The guidelines assisted people in recognising child abuse and neglect, and in reporting reasonable concerns but it did not amount to mandatory reporting.
Following the publication of the Ryan Report, the Irish Government prepared and published a detailed Implementation Plan in July 2009.
The overarching aim of the Plan was to make a difference to children’s lives by addressing the past failures and putting measures in place to achieve better outcomes in the delivery of services to children and families.
In July 2009 the Irish Government committed to the full implementation of this Plan which set out a series of actions designed to:
- Address the effects of past abuse
- Develop and strengthen national child care policy and evaluate its implementation
- Strengthen the regulation and inspection function
- Improve the organisation and delivery of children’s services
- Give greater effect to the voice of the child
- Revise Children First, the national guidance for the protection and welfare of children and underpin the guidance by way of legislation.
Despite this commitment of the Irish Government it still took a further six years for real progress to be made and this progress took the form of the Children First Act 2015 (the Act), which was signed into law In Ireland on 19 November 2015.
For the first time this legislation put elements of the Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children on a statutory footing.
The Act provided for a number of key child protection measures, as follows
- A requirement on organisations providing services to children to keep children safe from harm and to produce a Child Safeguarding Statement
- A requirement on defined categories of persons (mandated persons) to report child protection concerns over a defined threshold to TUSLA (the Irish Child and Family Agency)
- A requirement on mandated persons to assist TUSLA in the assessment of a child protection risk, if requested to do so by the Agency
- Putting the Children First Interdepartmental Implementation Group on a statutory footing.
The Act also includes a provision which abolished the common law defence of reasonable chastisement in relation to corporal punishment.
The legislation operates in tandem with the existing Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children updated in 2017, which outlines the non-statutory obligations which continue to operate administratively for all sectors of society.
“Mandated persons” are persons who, by virtue of their training, responsibilities and experience, should have an awareness of issues relating to child protection. These professionals either work with children or young people or they are in service sectors that encounter adults or families and children where there is risk of abuse and neglect. Mandated persons will be required to report child abuse above a defined threshold which comes to their attention in the course of their professional or employment duties. They will also be required to report any direct disclosures of abuse from a child.
“Mandated persons” will include among others medical practitioners; registered nurses; teachers; social workers; gardai (the Irish police); psychologists; members of the clergy; pre-school child care staff ; child protection officers of religious, sporting; cultural, recreational and educational organisations offering services to children.
A number of provisions of the Act have been commenced to date on a phased basis. These include the abolition of the common law defence of reasonable chastisement for parents or those acting in loco parentis in relation to corporal punishment and the establishment of the Children First Inter-Departmental Implementation Group on a statutory basis.
However, the Minister for Children, Katherine Zappone has recently announced that she will commence all of the provisions of the Children First Act, 2015 on the 11 December 2017 and these include the provisions in relation to the mandatory reporting of child abuse and also in relation to placing a legal obligation on organisations providing services to children to prepare and publish a Child Safeguarding Statement.
The Minister has stated:
“By announcing a date of full commencement of all remaining provisions of the Children First Act 2015 on 11th December, I am fulfilling a longstanding Government commitment in relation to mandatory reporting of child abuse.”
“While I do not underestimate the scale of the challenge for individuals and organisations to comply with their responsibilities under the Children First Act, I believe our children deserve no less.”
It has been 18 years since the introduction of Children First: The National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children, eight years since the recommendations made in the Ryan Report and eight years since the Government committed to revising Children First, and underpinning the guidance by way of legislation.
It has been a long road to mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse in the Republic of Ireland.
In England and Wales where a final report and/or recommendations by IICSA are not expected any time soon, the journey has yet to begin.
Written by Sharon Moohan, partner at BLM.