Recent laws requiring more aggressive <mandated reporting> must have been driven by cases where some child was being abused in a particularly horrendous manner, it was discovered, and then they found that someone else had known about it all along. This in turn made a widely read, heart-rending news story. Now in the US, if most professionals discover child abuse, they are required to report it, and the state agency is required to investigate and protect the child. Surely that's good for children's welfare? The statutes apply to all forms of abuse and neglect, but I will focus on sexual abuse.
Unfortunately, laws often have unintended consequences, and these laws have serious ones.
The most obvious from the pedophile side is that if we go to a psychotherapist to discuss our troubles, mandated reporting is always lurking in the background. Experts may be unclear how the law will be interpreted, so they will be conservative. Clinicians who aren't experts will likely play it even safer. Anecdotes of cases where clinicians reported on a hair trigger will make the rounds of pedophile communities, and pedophiles will play it safer still and not seek therapy to discuss how to better control their urges to act sexually with children. Sometimes all a pedophile wants to do is discuss depression and despair about his life in general. James Cantor has said that in his experience men abuse when they are most desperate and feel they have nothing to lose.
Clinicians have a duty to keep their clients' information private, and a possibly conflicting duty to make a mandated report. In theory they could face a lawsuit for a failure in either direction. But think about it... What are the chances that a victim of child sex abuse will win a case against a clinician who fails to make a report, compared to the chances a pedophile will win a suit about a therapist making a report inappropriately? It would be interesting to see statistics on how many admitted pedophiles ever win lawsuits of any kind when put before a jury.
Mandated reporting affects families too. Suppose a mother discovers her teen son has been abusing his younger sister -- occasional unwanted touching. In the old days, she might have seen a family counselor who could evaluate the situation, talk sternly to the teen boy, set up safety procedures, or perhaps even send him away for a brief time to straighten out. Now, if she talks to that counselor, it sets in motion an unstoppable series of events. The girl will be repeatedly interviewed and grilled. If she confirms the abuse, the boy must be removed from the home and must be charged as a sex offender. Whether he serves time or not, he must go on the sex offender registry for years, effectively ruining his life. It is a public event, so neighbors and friends and schoolmates will all know what happened. And along with a devastated family, the girl will feel some guilt for ruining her brother's life. Faced with those likely consequences, the mother will often say nothing to anyone and do her best to handle the situation on her own, which may be difficult. She may be put in the distasteful position of telling her daughter to be sure not to tell anyone if she doesn't want her brother to go to jail. I would say the mother is often making the correct choice, given the current situation.
The drastic interventions and punishments are motivated by the mistaken belief that sexual abuse is a harm unlike any other. Childhood is full of highly unpleasant experiences. Think how many younger siblings routinely suffer despair and rage when an older sibling taunts them or makes them feel worthless and stupid. Think about bitter sibling fights and arguments followed by tender reconciliations. As I see it, unwanted sexual touching fits into that mix somewhere -- it is not a horror totally beyond all the others. The famous Rind studies determined that predictors of poor adult outcomes were childhood emotional abuse, physical abuse, and neglect, with sexual abuse a distant fourth. Sexual abuse is just plain wrong. But in weighing measures to combat it, the costs and harm of those interventions must be carefully considered too.
Unfortunately, rare horrible news stories drive public perceptions and legislation. In an effort to save one child from devastating abuse, a hundred others facing less harmful abuse may have their lives upended by aggressive investigations, and another couple hundred will be unable to get any help at all since parents are terrified of telling any professional.
We should return to teachers, social workers and child psychologists the ability to consider all the circumstances in a case of possible abuse and use their own judgment about whether to intervene and how. We should return to psychotherapists and their pedophile clients the same confidentiality as exists between a person and his or her legal counsel.
That is the surest policy change I can think of to reduce child sexual abuse.