By Robert W. Walker, J.P. (NSW) B.A. (Sydney)
New Zealand, sadly, has no Mandatory Reporting in Cases of Child Abuse legislation. All Australian states (except, we believe, Western Australia?) have long standing legislation requiring doctors, teachers, social workers and others to report cases of suspected or known child abuse. Many New Zealand professionals, encountering suspected or real child abuse, are left in a dichotomous quandary as to whether or not to report suspected or real child abuse and thereafter wonder about the risk to themselves or their careers if they do report such cases.
Some professionals have been directed by employers to say nothing when observing, say, an infant whose body is covered with cigarette burns or who has obviously been neglected and starved, battered and bruised by a psychologically depressed mother or the boyfriend angry because the kid ties them down too much or because the sick or neglected baby just keeps crying a lot. Poverty, alcohol and drugs seem to be frequent, but NOT exclusively, issues in child abuse..
The professionals are directed by supervisors or employers to keep their mouths shut just to keep the peace and not draw attention to their organisation in case it prejudices their credibility for continued funding or because it could attract litigation for defamation. New Zealand presently offers NO protection to either the child or the professional. There IS a personal risk to the professional to report the incidents they encounter almost daily or weekly in New Zealand.
Workers in medicine, child welfare or education do have to fear the possibility of a gang patched and vengeful 120 kilo person arriving at the professional’s home doorstep with his mates and a baseball bat for “dobbing” them in.. An exaggeration perhaps it might be, but the threat of possible repercussions through the professional’s employment, legally, or to them personally, is real.
Sadly, legislation for Mandatory Reporting in Child Abuse Cases is not adequately or immediately able to protect the lawyer, doctor, teacher or social worker (etc) from any revengeful physical threats. It can though, as does for example, the Australian New South Wales (NSW) Children and Young Persons Care and Protection Act (1998?), protect them from repercussions to their employment and from tort law or malicious litigation. This litigation could be brought by the child’s carer/parents claiming defamation on the part of the professional and their legislated reporting obligations. The Mandatory Reporting Acts do NOT protect from litigation or prosecution any whistle-blowers or reporting persons where their report is found to be of malicious intention.
In addition the NSW Act, as does other States’ legislation, also protects the professionals from disciplinary action from their professional or statutory body by alleging unprofessional conduct. Such breaches of professional discipline, can be breaches of their Ethics Codes such as, for example, breach of confidentiality, discrimination or privacy of the client/patient relationship (etc).
Sadly the situation in New Zealand is definitely not promising for the child in remedying their plight. This is, at least within the NZ Social Work professional bodies, which have taken the view that they do NOT support Mandatory Reporting in Child Abuse Cases claiming that it might prevent abuse perpetrators from seeking medical help and support for their neglected, battered or abused child. The Social Workers in New Zealand have that concern in case the perpetrators fear they will be be reported to the law and police. Quite an understandable point of view but not one which has been the experience of the Australian States.
Three years ago, the writer had an interview, at their offices, with the CEO of one of the NZ Social Work professional bodies. They were claiming that the legislation for Mandatory Reporting in Child Abuse was probably unnecessary based on the premise that the next door neighbours or other parties would always report any incidents of suspected child abuse. There is a very famous psychology research project that, in recent years, investigated the actions taken by twelve street witnesses to a brutal murder in the USA. out of the twelve actual witnesses, only one came forward to report their eye witnessing to the murder….. Most people just preferred to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil and walked on by trying to stay out of any possible trouble or repercussions.
The social work organisations also made the assumption that there would always be neighbours/teachers/professionals in the area in New Zealand who could, or even would, witness or report incidents of child abuse. This assumes that everybody had the training or insights to recognise incidents. As above, there is a risk to reporting on your neighbours especially if there is the slightest personal doubt that child abuse has been happening.