The Children First Act 2015 was signed into Law in the Republic of Ireland on Thursday, November 19th 2015. At that time only part of the Act was in effect. The Children First Act forms part of a suite of child protection legislation in Ireland that are designed to complement each other. These other Acts include:
- National Vetting Bureau (Children & Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012
- Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012
Children First Act 2015 in Full Effect
On Monday, December 11th 2017, all portions of the Children First Act came into effect. Some of the key provisions of the Children First Act are as follows:
- Organisations providing services to children are required to keep children safe from harm and product a Child Safeguarding Statement
- Mandated persons are required to report child protection concerns over a defined threshold to the Child and Family Agency (Tusla)
- Mandated persons are required to assist the Child and Family Agency in the assessment of a child protection risk, if requested to do so by the Agency
- The Act abolishes the common law defense of reasonable chastisement in relation to corporal punishment.
The provisions of the Act are intended to:
- Raise awareness of child abuse and neglect
- Provide for mandatory reporting by key professionals
- Improve child safeguarding arrangements in organisations providing services to children
- Provide for cooperation and information-sharing between agencies when Tusla – Child and Family Agency, is undertaking child protection
Key Principles of the Children First Act
Parents and guardians have the primary responsibility for the care and protection of their children. While the role of parents is to protect their children, society also has a duty to promote the welfare and safety of children. Everyone should be alert to the possibility that children with whom they are in contact may be being abused or at risk of being abused. The wider community of relatives, friends, neighbours, professionals and voluntary workers are well placed to be aware of a child’s welfare. They should know how to recognize and respond to the possibility of abuse or neglect, so as to ensure that the most effective steps are taken to protect a child and to contribute to the ongoing safety of children.
The key principles of the Children First Act are:
- The Safety and welfare of children is everyone’s responsibility
- The best interests of the child should be paramount
- The overall aim is to keep children safe from harm
- State intervention should build on existing strengths and protective factors in the family
- State intervention to keep children safe should be performed early and kept to a minimum
- Children should only be separated from parents/guardians when alternative means of protecting them have been exhausted
- Children have a right to be heard, listened to and taken seriously. Taking account of their age and understanding, they should be consulted and involved in all matters and decisions that may affect their lives
- Parents/guardians have a right to respect, and should be consulted and involved in matters that concern their family
- A proper balance must be struck between protecting children and respecting the rights and needs of parents/guardians and families. Where there is conflict, the child’s welfare must come first
- Child protection is a multi-agency, multidisciplinary activity. Agencies and professionals must work together in the interests of children
Reasonable Grounds for Concern
Whether you are a Jehovah’s Witness or not, and if you are living in the Republic of Ireland, you should always inform Tusla when you have reasonable grounds for concern that a child may have been, is being, or is at risk of being abused or neglected. If you ignore what may be symptoms of abuse, it could result in ongoing harm to the child. It is not necessary for you to prove that abuse has occurred to report a concern to Tusla. All that is required is that you have reasonable grounds for concern.
What are reasonable grounds for concern? Reasonable grounds include:
- Evidence, for example an injury or behaviour, that is consistent with abuse and is unlikely to have been caused in any other way
- Any concern about possible sexual abuse
- Consistent signs that a child is suffering from emotional or physical neglect
- A child saying or indicating by other means that he or she has been abused
- Admission or indication by an adult or a child of an alleged abuse they committed
- An account from a person who saw the child being abused
The guiding principles on reporting child abuse or neglect may be summarized as follows:
- The safety and well-being of the child must take priority over concerns about adults against whom an allegation may be made
- Reports of concerns should be made without delay to Tusla
Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Children First Act
The implementation of the Children First Act should be of keen interest to every active member of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Republic of Ireland. Why? Because of how Irish Law has defined relevant services and mandated persons.
A relevant service includes “Any work or activity as a minister or priest or any other person engaged in the advancement of any religious beliefs which would or could bring that minister, priest or other person, as the case may be, into contact with a child”.
According to the January 15, 2008 edition of The Watchtower, Jehovah’s Witnesses “have always considered participation in the preaching work to be a matter of loyalty to God and a fundamental requirement of their faith”. In other words, all Jehovah’s Witnesses are engaged in the advancement of their religious beliefs. Jehovah’s Witness ministers are very likely to come into contact with children as part of their door to door preaching work and bible study courses.
A mandated person includes people who have contact with children and/or families and who are in a key poistion to help protect children from harm. It includes a “member of the clergy (howsoever described) or pastoral care worker (howsoever described) of a church or other religious community”.
The phrase howsoever described takes into account the fact that different religions have different means of interpreting “clergy” and “pastoral care worker”. The use of the phrase here is to indicate that the Act interprets the terms in the broadest of senses. All religious groups would do well to make note of that.
Jehovah’s Witnesses may not have a “paid clergy” but they have “spiritually mature men who take the lead in the congregation” They “guide and help to the protect the congregation spiritually”. “They teach [members] how to do God’s will” and “take the lead in the evangelizing activity, working with … and training [members] in all features of the ministry”. Based on these descriptions of an elder, he is a member of the clergy (howsoever described).
What about pastoral care workers? Who would fall into this category within Jehovah’s Witnesses? According to the January 15, 1996 edition of The Watchtower, “present-day elders do a pastoral, or shepherding, work for the benefit of the sheep of Jehovah’s pasturage.” Again, Jehovah’s Witness elders fall into this category.
Do other members of Jehovah’s Witnesses fall into this category of pastoral care worker? According to Jehovah’s Witnesses policy letter, dated July 11, 2014, entitled Use of ministerial servants where the number of elders is limited, there are various times when ministerial servants fulfill pastoral activities that are normally reserved for elders. As it is possible for a ministerial servant to perform pastoral activities, he could be considered a “pastoral care worker”. In the Kingdom Ministry School 2018, ministerial servants are taught how to teach by means of public talks. As they teach other members of the congregation, it is not difficult to argue that a ministerial servant is also a member of the clergy.
Could other members of Jehovah’s Witnesses be considered a member of the clergy or pastoral care worker ? In the footer of the website, JW.org, there is a link to Request a Bible Study. If a member of the public completes the online form, they will be visited by a couple of members of the Jehovah’s Witness community in their area. If the student requesting the bible study is female, they will be visited and taught by female members who will teach them using Watch Tower publications. Conversely, male students requesting a bible study will be taught by male members. Pastoral care, understood in the broadest sense, means to “help others”.
In the May 15, 2014 edition of The Watchtower, it states, “Making return visits and conducting Bible studies requires diligent effort … By applying ourselves in the Kingdom-preaching work, we can help others to ‘come to an accurate knowledge of truth,’ and that can mean salvation for them”. As all Jehovah’s Witnesses preach to “help others to ‘come to an accurate knowledge of truth'”, it could be said that each active member of Jehovah’s Witnesses is a pastoral care worker.
Applicability of the Children First Act
In the context of the Children First Act 2015, and based on the above understanding of Jehovah’s Witnesses theology, it is reasonable to conclude that all active members of Jehovah’s Witnesses are clergy and/or pastoral care workers. This is borne out by the fact that all members perform all or some of the following activities:
- Jehovah’s Witnesses conduct bible studies in the homes of families with children
- Jehovah’s Witnesses conduct bible studies with children that are not their own
- Jehovah’s Witnesses require children to be involved in their door-to-door ministry
- Jehovah’s Witness children are often paired with other adults and older youths who are not of members of their family
- Jehovah’s Witness children often sit with other adults or older children during congregation meetings
- Elders shepherd, teach, and conduct judicial tribunals with children
- Ministerial servants shepherd and teach children
For the above reasons, Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ireland need to be more concerned with how they interpret and apply the Children First Act than any other religious group. This is especially true when one considers the fact that they are probably the only religious group who have children accompanying them in their preaching and teaching activity.
If all Jehovah’s Witnesses could be considered mandated persons, what are their legal obligations? They are to (1) report harm of children above a defined threshold to Tusla; and (2) assist Tusla, if requested, in assessing a concern which has been the subject of a mandated report.
It would be in the best interests of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Republic of Ireland to address this legal issue to ensure the safety of the children within their community. They would leave themselves open to severe legal risk if any member of their community were to harm a child while engaged in any of their pastoral activities, such as bible study, preaching, teaching and kingdom hall meetings. Additionally, they would leave themselves open to legal risk if they did not meet their legal obligations as mandated persons.
Reporting Mandated Concerns
As a mandated person, one is required to report any knowledge, belief or reasonable suspicion that a child has been harmed, is being harmed, or is at risk of being harmed. The Act defines harm as assault, ill-treatment, neglect or sexual abuse. It covers single and multiple instances. If a mandated person receives a disclosure of harm from a child, they must make a mandated report of the concern to Tusla. Mandated persons are not required to judge the truth of the claims or the credibility of the child. If it doesn’t meet the threshold for mandatory reporting, then it should be reported to Tusla as a reasonable concern, which is a requirement for all persons.
Handling Disclosures of Abuse
Jehovah’s Witness elders have been provided with very little training on how to deal with child abuse by the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their latest policy on child abuse provides no practical suggestions on dealing with the subject sensitively and professionally. Furthermore, in the section entitled Protecting Minors From Abuse as part of the 2018 Kingdom Ministry School, Jehovah’s Witness elders are being trained, not on how to handle child abuse, but how to read and understand a child abuse policy. There is more direction provided in the elder’s shepherding textbook, Shepherd the Flock of God.
Where does a mandated person receive practical information on dealing with disclosures of abuse? The Irish Government believes that the following approach is best practice for dealing with such disclosures:
- React Calmly
- Listen carefully and attentively
- Take the child seriously
- Reassure the child that they have taken the right action in talking to you
- Do not promise to keep anything secret
- Ask questions for clarification only. Do not ask leading questions
- Check back with the child that what you have heard is correct and understood
- Do not express any opinions about the alleged abuser
- Ensure that the child understands the procedures that will follow
- Make a written record of the conversation as soon as possible, in as much detail as possible
- Treat the information confidentially, subject to the requirements of this Guidance and legislation
Notice that there is no requirement here for a victim to face their alleged abuser. The mind boggles as to why Jehovah’s Witness leaders ever felt that was a sound process in dealing with child abuse within their ranks.
Reporting Disclosures of Abuse
A mandated person cannot submit a mandated report anonymously. The mandated person can make the report jointly with another person, whether that person is also a mandated person or not. As per Jehovah’s Witnesses’ policy, a minimum of two elders will be required to make the report. Tusla has two forms for reporting child abuse:
What is very interesting about these forms is the fact that they require the mandated person to include their full name, address, organisation they belong to, and the position they hold. This is extremely noteworthy because it means Jehovah’s Witness elders have to provide more personal information than Watch Tower is comfortable with releasing. For example, in the State of Massachusetts, there are mandatory reporting laws. Mandated persons are required to make an oral report followed up with a written report within 24 hours. The mandated person does not have to provide any personal information except inform the authorities what position they hold (e.g. Minister of a religion). When elders are instructed to make a report in the State of Massachusetts, the Legal Department directs elders not to disclose that they are Jehovah’s Witnesses unless asked. With this new law in effect in Ireland, the Legal Department must direct elders, or any other Jehovah’s Witness who may be deemed a mandated person, to disclose that they are Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Below you will find links to some of the key documents referred to in this article.
Children First Documentation
- Children First Act 2015
- Children First – National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children
- Child Protection and Welfare Report Form (CPWRF)
- Retrospective Abuse Report Form (RARF)