7 Dec 2022

Educational groups at odds over mandatory reporting of child abuse

9:43 am on 7 December 2022

Organisations say teachers need training to identify the signs of neglect and abuse. File pic Photo:

Organisations representing early childhood services and teachers are divided over calls for mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse but united in their belief that teachers need more training.

Dame Karen Poutasi's joint review into the children's sector, following last year's murder of five-year-old Malachi Subescz by his caregiver, recommended professionals working with children should be required to report suspected abuse and they should also receive compulsory training.

Teachers at the early childhood centre Malachi attended before he turned five noticed injuries on the boy, but did not follow the centre's policies for dealing with suspected abuse.

Organisations including Te Rito Maioha Early Childhood New Zealand, the Early Childhood Council and the Educational Institute said teachers needed training to identify the signs of neglect and abuse.

But while Te Rito Maioha, the Principals' Federation and the Post Primary Teachers' Association supported compulsory reporting of suspected abuse, the Educational Institute worried there might be unintended consequences and the Early Childhood Council said teachers needed legal protection so they were more confident about alerting authorities.

Early Childhood Council chief executive Simon Laube said mandatory reporting was likely to be an extension of the current approach, which punished centres for sometimes minor oversights.

"We need to look at why the reporting is not happening at the moment, it's not because of a lack of mandatory reporting," he said.

"The inherent problem with this is it's about suspected abuse, so it's always going to be a grey area so what we're saying, and it's a kind of variation on mandatory reporting, is just give teachers legal protection so that they can report it, a bit like whistle-blower protections, without getting into trouble.

"So just protect the person who you want to report, that's what you should do from a legislative point of view."

Laube said it was almost inevitable every early learning service would at some point enrol a child suffering abuse.

"If you look at the statistics across New Zealand, the child abuse statistics, they're horrific. So that means if you spread them across the country, every centre should have touched child abuse in some shape or form at some point because it's so prevalent," he said.

The union for primary school and kindergarten teachers, the Educational Institute, also had doubts about mandatory reporting.

"Schools and centres work hard to develop relationships of trust with parents and families and so mandating reporting could create some perverse consequences that would need careful consideration," NZEI president Liam Rutherford said in a statement.

"Children would be better protected in the current system though if schools and centres were all resourced with professional training and better support to work through the best outcomes for children in these situations."

Te Rito Maioha Early Childhood New Zealand chief executive Kathy Wolfe said teachers and managers were sometimes unsure when and if they should report suspected abuse.

"Some you absolutely know actually that there's something definitely awry here, but sometimes they're a bit cautious and rightly so, because they don't want to put family and parents in a position that they potentially didn't need to find themselves in," she said.

"There's definitely services that have done right by children, but then there's also been experiences where it's kind of fallen a bit awry, because it turns out that the child was not subject to abuse so it's very delicate for our services."

Training provides clarity

Safeguarding Children chief executive Willow Duffy said the child protection charity had trained about 46,000 people and they were much more confident about reporting suspected abuse.

"When we follow them up after the training and we say to them 'what stops you?', they say nothing would stop them. So when they've got clarity and they understand what the signs of abuse and neglect are and how to respond to it and they understand how to share information and that they can share information and they understand how to respond to disclosures, they're very clear," she said.

Government-funded education providers were required to have policies for identifying and responding to suspected child neglect and abuse, but there was no requirement for training, Duffy said.

"You will get some organisations, schools, ECE centres or whatever, who actually put that into their budget, that make it a priority that their staff have training, but you'll get other organisations that only act upon that when they've been burnt. So when there's been a child who's been abused and neglected or if there's an incident or a near miss or that type of thing," she said.

Training should be compulsory for teachers, Duffy said.

"In some respects, I think mandatory training is more important than mandatory reporting. We've got to equip our frontline workers with the knowledge and skills and capabilities to be able to recognise and respond to child abuse and neglect and be able to decide whether something should be reported to a statutory agency," she said.

"These frontline workers have to be trained. They have to be trained regularly and they have to be supported, because they all want to do the right thing for children, but at the moment they're doing their job with both hands tied behind their back, and if we just do mandatory reporting they'll have one hand tied behind their back and it will make the situation worse."

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