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CRC funded reports

Focus group results

published in:
Family violence : young people and youth sector workers, informing government about the implementation of mandatory reporting in Victoria
Danny Sandor and Julian Bondy
ISBN 07311 0575 3
Fitzroy, Vic. : Youth Affairs Council of Victoria, 1995
Criminology Research Council grant ; (15/93-4)
October 1995

1. Introduction

This section presents the results of the focus groups with young people. These consultations focussed on areas outlined in chapter on methodology:

The final data set consisted of a total of 23 focus groups:

Ten general groups:

  • 7 Metropolitan groups: Broadmeadows, Doncaster, Footscray, Knox, Richmond, Springvale, St.Kilda. (71 young people.)
  • 3 Rural groups: Bendigo, Leongatha, Swan Hill. (27 young people.)

Thirteen targeted groups:

  • 6 Male groups:
    • 3 Metropolitan groups: Kensington, Parkville, Reservoir (16 young people)
    • 3 Rural groups: Bendigo, Geelong, Traralgon (16 young people)
  • 6 Female groups:
    • 4 Metropolitan groups: Ascot Vale, Burwood, Fitzroy, Parkville (17 young people)
    • 2 Rural groups: Bendigo, Geelong (6 young people)

Note: The Parkville male and female targeted groups comprised young people from around Victoria held in a central institution, either as protective clients on remand for an alleged offence or undergoing a custodial sentence (Youth Residential Order or Youth Training Centre Detention) after conviction for an offence.

1 mixed Metropolitan group:

  • Noble Park (5 males 5 females) (10 young people)

Total of all sample groups: (163 young people.)

The results of these focus groups are presented in different sections according to the patterns of emergent themes from the focus groups. The basic unit of measurement for the computer program was the 'text unit', which is simply a single statement, made by one participant, therefore text units can be any length and provide a variable amount of information, ie. from a single word response to a 10 line statement.

Passages of discussion along emergent themes were indexed. The data analysis program used allowed any piece of text to be indexed numerous times, so that the same piece of text could arise in a number of different text searches, depending on the content of that particular passage. We have endeavoured to avoid repeating quotes in this report.

References to Focus Groups

Each quote from focus groups identifies the source. The following nomenclature is used:

By circumstance rather than design, Noble Park was a mixed gender targeted group and has "T Mixed" as its identifier.

2. Young people's knowledge of mandatory reporting laws


Young people were questioned about their knowledge of mandatory reporting laws, and the child and adolescent protection system. Participants were then asked to comment on their sources of such knowledge.

Four groups responded that they had not heard of mandatory reporting. Three of these were male targeted groups comprising young people with direct experience of protective intervention

For the remaining groups, young people were more likely to provide incorrect statements regarding mandatory reporting than to provide correct statements. Most groups had something to say about their knowledge of mandatory reporting laws, although it seemed that participants sometimes had a guess which was based on an incorrect undestanding.

General rural groups were most likely to have incorrect understandings of mandatory reporting laws. Targeted female focus groups were more likely to have a general idea of mandatory reporting laws, than targeted male focus groups.

Completely correct understandings were not apparent in any group. A mix of understandings was typical.

"Correct" remarks indicated a general correct idea about the intent and scope of the laws.

Where young people could identify physical and sexual abuse as types of harm that gave rise to mandatory reporting, it was not uncommon for them to assume that emotional and "mental" abuse was within the ambit of mandatory reporting.

It was evident in a number of groups that participants were aware of general community awareness campaigns to encourage reporting by the general public and associated this with mandatory reporting.

Access to information

Mandatory reporting laws were explained to group participants at the next stage of the focus group. Explanations often had to be repeated.

Participants were asked to comment on young people's most likely source of information about mandatory reporting.

Only a small number commented on receiving information specifically about mandatory reporting laws. It appeared that mandatory reporting laws had not been much discussed with young people in schools. Young people generally had little to say about their experience of receiving information regarding mandatory reporting laws. Mentioned sources were schools and, for targeted groups, workers within the protective system, but references to them were few.

Participants commented on the lack of information they had received and the difficulty of asking for information from adults and other professionals. To the extent that they had received information, young people mentioned the significance of their social networks with young people for receiving information. However, the information exchanged between young people was not always accurate.

3. Young people's perceptions of mandatory reporting

General Comments About Mandatory Reporting

After providing participants with necessary information regarding the new mandatory reporting laws, they were specifically asked the question "what impact do you think mandatory reporting laws will have on young people's relationships with workers". Young people either responded to direct answers to this question, or they provided a general comment on mandatory reporting.

Some responses were clearly weighted against mandatory reporting.

A mixed response was most common.

Some responses appeared weighted in favour of mandatory reporting.

The text suggested that many "positive" remarks about mandatory reporting were in relation to the appropriateness of mandatory reporting for young children but not with respect to adolescents.

Some participants suggested there were circumstances were intervention may have to be imposed against the young person's wishes.

Negative statements about mandatory reporting illustrated a number of concerns. Some young people were concerned that mandatory reporting was being implemented without having consulted with young people.

More common was a concern that it would lead to silencing young people.

Participants were asked specifically whether they thought mandatory reporting laws would stop young people from talking to youth workers or other professional workers with young people. Only statements made in 4 groups indicated that young people would be likely to disclose under mandatory reporting laws. In contrast, statements made in 19 groups indicated that they thought young people would not disclose sexual and physical abuse if they knew that a report to the authorities would result.

Statements of young people being unlikely to report abuse under mandatory reporting laws were most evident in general metropolitan focus groups, followed by general rural groups.

Statements reflecting this broad theme fell into several subcategories. Participants explained their perception that young people would not disclose abuse in terms of their fear of involvement in the child and adolescent system:

Participants suggested that young people need the opportunity to discuss their problems with workers without this ushering in official involvement:

Targeted focus groups alluded to the experience of protective intervention when they suggested that if mandatory reporting had been enacted when they first disclosed they would not have disclosed:

4. Young people's fears about disclosure

Young people's perceptions of mandatory reporting and the effect it will have appear strongly connected with fears about disclosing abuse. These fears were expressed in several key areas.

Lack of confidentiality at the initial point of disclosure was the most frequently expressed fear. Fears relating to recriminations from family members or further social ramifications resulting from stigmatisation or general ridicule were also apparent. Other fears included a basic fear of abuse of the protective system, and a fear of losing decision making control over the situation. General rural groups expressed fears about disclosures more frequently than other groups.


Fears about a lack of confidentiality were most often expressed in general rural, and female targeted groups. The concern in rural groups stressed "small town gossip".

Targeted female groups tended to focus upon what they saw as the lack of respect for confidentiality among workers and discussions inappropriately within the particpants' earshot.

Information that emerged in Court was also mentioned as indicative of perceived breaches of confidentiality.

Fear of being removed from home

Here is a selection of quotes which reflect young people's fear of being removed from home into state care:

Fear Of Recriminations by Family Members And Others

Young people's fear of recrimination from family members was expressed in terms of a fear that the abuse would get worse when parents found out about a disclosure. Some spoke from personal experience or that of a friend.

5. Young people's needs when disclosing abuse

Participants provided a variety of comments regarding perceptions of the needs of young people when disclosing abuse. When asked what young people need following a disclosure of abuse, all but one group responded that young people require input into any decisions made following disclosure. In targeted focus groups particularly, this theme dominated discussion.

The need for trust in the person receiving a disclosure was the next most frequently mentioned need. This theme often included statements about confidentiality and the need for consistency in workers.

A need for information was the next most frequent need theme. Young people said that in order for young people to have an active say, accurate information should be provided to young people. General focus groups were more concerned about the issue of information provision than targeted focus groups.

The need for workers to maintain long term relationships with young people was a particular focus of targeted sample groups. This was often expressed in terms of a need for workers to "hang in there" with young people through any official processes.

Input into what happens

The issue of young people's perceptions of their need to play an active role in their protection warrants careful attention. Participants made a range of statements regarding the importance of young people's right to be heard and to have their wishes respected.

Participants distinguished differences between children and young people under this theme of self determination:

Many participants in both targeted and general groups commented on their experience or received accounts of young people feeling they have not been listened to in the protective system. It was also clear that they considered experience of not being heard by workers in other circumstances a good guide to young people's lack of capacity for input at the investigative stage of the system.

Young people's need for trust

Participants provided a range of responses regarding the need for young people to have trust in the person to whom they are disclosing abuse. References were frequently made again to the importance of confidentiality:

As noted earlier, for young people in rural areas, it appeared that the issues of trust and confidentiality were particularly critical:

An on-going relationship with at least one worker was suggested as an important aid to disclosure.

Many young people also mentioned the dangers of not having a worker they can trust, or of the consequences of losing trust in a worker.

Need for careful assessments

One further area of data concerned speculation from some groups that young people would lie about abuse to escape family conflict:

On further prompting, young people tended to suggest that this desire for attention may well be indicative of other family conflicts:

It was also suggested that young people may appear as though they are untruthful because they are trying to minimise their abuse or protect the abuser.

6. Young people's recommendations for the implementation of mandatory reporting.

As will be clear from the previous extracts, participants' comments often carried the implication of recommendations about the implementation of mandatory reporting. To aid the collection of this kind of data, the final section of focus groups involved reflecting on some of the themes which had arisen during the group and young people were asked to make recommendations for the implementation of mandatory reporting.

Young people commented widely and drew a variety of agents into their recommendations. There were recommendations made by participants that were not confined to the primary purpose of the study. Targeted groups took the opportunity to critique their experiences of the Children's Court and post-court service aspects of protective services.

In terms of mandatory reporting per se, the central focus of this report, young people's primary recommendations focussed upon: the need for information including the nature of information they recommended, and how it should be disseminated; the implications of disclosure, including the capacity to have choices in the protective process; and the ambit of mandatory reporting laws. These are discussed below.

Need for information

Participants complained about their lack of access to reliable and accurate information sources geared to them and suggested a range of media for spreading information. Schools were a favoured source and media forms featured prominently.

There was mention of the manner in which rumours fill the information vaccuum.

The value of "live presentations" was also discussed. It will be recalled that a number of groups mentioned young people as each other's source of information. One group specifically recommended the use of peer education to disseminate information about the child and adolescent protection system:

This suggestion met with approval in another group.

Another group of participants suggested the need for a telephone service available to provide accurate legal and referral information to assist young people in making well informed decisions:

One of the groups suggested television media but it would seem that language can be a barrier.

The implications of disclosure

Participants placed importance on young people's need to have input into the process of protection from various early stages. It was suggested that young people should be counselled about the formal implications of their disclosure before disclosing:

Focus groups also made recommendations about greater involvement in how investigation occurs and the exercise of rights.

It was further suggested that young people need a chosen 'outsider', to be actively involved with young people as they progress through the investigation and subsequent intervention pursued by protective services:

Approaching the issue of rights in another way, some participants recommended removing the abuser instead of the young person from home:

The ambit of mandatory reporting laws

As extracted earlier in this chapter, many young people recommended that young people in older age groups should not be included in mandatory reporting laws but that it was sometimes acknowledged that there were circumstances required action not in keeping with their wishes

Discussions in some groups about categories of mandated workers found that young people saw value in having professions that were not mandated to report. General groups in made particular comments with respect to youth workers.

7. Summary and comment

Knowledge of mandatory reporting

The data clearly point to young people's lack of understanding about mandatory reporting. Like our youth sector worker sample, those who correctly knew that physical and sexual abuse were notifiable grounds, tended to assume that other forms were also to be reported.

The focus group data also indicated that young people were critical of their lack of access to information about mandatory reporting that it was inappropriate that young people had not been consulted before the law was introduced. Some had received information from informal sources but these appeared unreliable or based on personal and often negative accounts. Youth workers were not specifically mentioned as a source of information and this is consistent with our survey findings that indicated more than half felt lacking in competence to explain the scheme (Q17A).

While there are indications that some young people would not have disclosed abuse if mandatory reporting had applied, this seemed a feature of targeted groups with direct experience of the protective services system. The accuracy and validity of their views was not tested in this research. It should not, however, be ignored that young people with experience of protective intervention who may advocate against disclosure are peers of other young people without prior protective services experience; they will be a source of information if accurate alternative material is not otherwise provided to young people at large.

Perceptions of mandatory reporting

Many participants voiced concern and disapproval about mandatory reporting and three-quarters of the groups had participants who warned that it would be a detterent to disclosure. Targeted groups often made reference to negative experiences of protective intervention. The fear of being removed from home loomed large in both general and targeted groups as did opposition to notification without prior consultation with the young person concerned.

There were young people in a number of groups who expressed positive assessments of mandatory reporting- but this was in relation to mandatory reporting as a concept distanced from personal application. Such comments were found in both general and targeted groups. Support waned, however, on the question of whether it should apply to young people of their age with a strong urge for autonomy evident.

We see here an interesting mirroring effect between our youth sector and young people samples in that while both express levels of support for the notion of mandatory reporting, personal application is another matter. Recall here the findings with respect to Q21 of the survey. Despite 50% of the sample agreeing or strongly agreeing that a legal obligation to report was better than individual discretion, nearly three-quarters could envisage envisage a circumstance where they would breach mandatory reporting requirements.

There was no consensus amongst those who did not favour mandatory reporting as to the age at which mandatory reporting should cease to apply. Within a number of focus groups, strident claims to self-determination were tempered with a recognition that there were cases where intervention against the young's person's wishes would be appropriate. This dovetails in an interesting manner with the survey result (Q21b) indicating that youth sector workers do not fear that young people will feel they have been abandoned if a youth sector worker makes a notification.

The circumstances described in young people's quotes approved of intervention against wishes in situations of crisis or where the young person had an intellectual disability. One might also consider that it is not possible to give an adolescent "veto" power in circumstances where there are younger siblings less able to escape or avoid the risk of abuse.

The fear of the consequences which flow from disclosure was a significant theme which emerged. The broad importance of confidentiality was heightened among rural groups conscious of "small town gossip" a finding which was consistent with the Youth Policy Development Council's (1987) observations with respect to health issues. Targeted female groups made specific and critical references to their experience of workers' treatment of sensitive information.

There was frequent comment about the fear that disclosure would lead to removal from home and in the recommendations stage of focus groups, it was suggested that one of the general information needs for young people was an understanding that removal did not necessarily follow. Assurances of this kind are especially fraught in relation to young people's fear of painful family consequences for exposing abuse. This was a theme underpinning a number of young people's jealous guard on how disclosure information is treated. Some young people's comments gave the impression that workers had tried, and were wrong to have tried, to reassure them otherwise.

Young people's assessment of mandatory reporting indicated that they viewed the new scheme as a further situation where their views and wishes will not be given credence. General focus groups stressed the importance of having choices while targeted groups drew frequently on their negative personal experiences at later stages of protective service in saying that they felt decision-making did not value their participation. They seemed acutely aware that it was they who were going to have to live with the situations where professionals decided "at them" not with them.


Young people recommended that there be more information available to them about mandatory reporting. In the recommendations stage of focus groups, their comments were mainly directed towards the sources of information rather than the content. Looking at the focus group data as a whole, it seems to us that their call was two-fold. Firstly, basic information about the new requirements; secondly, in the light of their concerns about the implications of disclosure, they want to know where they will stand and what their rights are if they make a notifiable disclosure.

It is interesting to observe that young people's suggestions for sources of information reflected points of system contact, i.e. health, income security and other formal agency points. There was a noticeable lack of comment in relation to recreation venues or peer-social outlets other than schools which can can themselves be characterised as institutional sources. Youth workers were not featured as a source of information about mandatory reporting, a finding that is consistent with the lack of competence in the area that our survey sample indicated.

Peer methods were recommended in two of the groups and there was also the suggestion of a telephone advice line. These correspond with the suggestions in Wilson (1992) based on a project with sexually abused young men.

One of the criticisms voiced by young people with experience of protective intervention was the number of workers [we assume within H & CS] that they had dealt with. It was also evident in groups that young people lacked information about their rights and felt little capacity to exercise them. It seems that considerations such as these may lie behind young people wanting a self-selected 'outsider' to actively accompany them through the process following notification.

There is, however, no necessary correlation between being trusted by a young person who is considering making a disclosure and having the necessary knowledge of the protective system to act as an effective support. In this respect, the data collated from youth sector worker surveys provides an indication of the relatively low level of knowledge held by persons not yet targeted by H & CS for educational programs. One would expect that potential support persons who have even less contact with the system would feel and be even less capable of providing informed support. Informing the supports selected by young people seems to us an important measure.

Recommendations for the operation of mandatory reporting

The data do not favour the adoption of a rigid rule which excludes a particular age group from mandatory reporting provisions. As noted earlier, the groups presented mixed views. We hear our participants asking for a better balance between professional judgment and autonomy from those who mean to protect them. Young people ask to have the knowledge and confidence to enable, if they choose, to express informed wishes and have those wishes given more weight than is perceived to be currently the case. To the extent that young people accepted that mandatory reporting was a law in force, their recommendations reiterated the importance of advising young people at the outset of the implications of disclosure and for young people to have a stronger say in how investigations are conducted.

The focus group data highlighted young people's emphasis upon trusting relationships as a significant determinant of disclosure and it appeared that for an adult to provide information about rights and the implications and consequences of disclosure was a positive influence on young people's perception of that relationship. This is similar to Brown's (1993) finding and various references to the importance of trust and autonomy among abused and homeless young people in Burdekin (1989).

There were also a number of groups in which young people spoke against youth workers being mandated and this was connected with young people's concern at losing opportunities for confidential discussion. Our reading of data suggests that young people may be under a misapprehension. It seems to us that they were perceiving non-mandated workers as 'safe sponges' for information that they want kept confidential. We do not think that they have been made sufficiently aware of the capacity for voluntary reporting that every member of the community has unless they claim the privilege of priests to their confessors or lawyers to their clients. The data, therefore about young people wanting someone to talk with who will not pass on the information should be considered with this in mind.

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