The UK government's proposed child protection database replaces professional judgement with generalised suspicion.
The Children Bill currently going through Parliament includes a radical proposal to abolish the right to confidentiality of children and parents in their dealings with doctors, teachers and other professionals.
An electronic database will be established, containing basic information about all 11million children in England and Wales. Newborn babies will be assigned a number and added to the database. The precise details of how the system will operate are not set down in the legislation, but will be decided later when regulations are formulated away from Parliament.
Government ministers have said that they would expect all professionals to flag on this database ‘any cause for concern’ about a child, and suggest that, if two flags of concern were recorded, the case should be investigated further. Margaret Hodge, the minister for children, has given the example of a GP thinking a toddler is underweight and a nursery nurse thinking that the child looks miserable. When the two items are put together, it raises concerns that something is going on in this child’s life that is upsetting him or her. A professional (as yet specified) would then investigate and find out if the child or parents need any help.
A parent, hearing these examples, might question the sense of professionals flagging the concern on a computer instead of doing something about it themselves. Shouldn’t a GP investigate why a child is underweight, and share his or her concern with the parents? Wouldn’t a sensible nursery nurse speak to the parents – most of whom would be anxious to know if their child was looking miserable away from home?
Perhaps Margaret Hodge would say that she had assumed these commonsense steps would also have been taken, but her failure to include parents in the examples is in keeping with the general approach of the government. In the Children Bill itself, for instance, the word ‘parent’ appears only once (in the context of educational need). Children’s social work services are to be reorganised: they will be separated from services for parents, and merged with education and some health services. Yet given that the majority of child protection cases involve parental problems of mental illness, drink or drug misuse, or domestic violence, children’s welfare is inextricably linked to helping their parents.
At present, confidentiality can be breached and information shared with others when there are concerns that the child is, or is at risk of, experiencing abuse or neglect. This is justified on the grounds that abusive parents tend to tell lies to conceal their abuse. Numerous child abuse inquiries have revealed the extent to which abusers will go to hide the injuries or mislead professionals about their cause. So a casualty officer who finds a parent’s explanation of a child’s injuries implausible, can notify social services. In these circumstances, the child’s right to protection is considered to outweigh the parent’s right to confidentiality.
But surely, we have no grounds for extending this level of suspicion to all parents? Most parents can be trusted to be concerned about their child’s wellbeing. Indeed, most of them care far more deeply than any professional about their child’s development.
Professionals talking to each other behind the family’s back also raises concerns about the accuracy of what they are saying. Their comments tend to be not just factual but judgmental, yet they are often dealing with areas where there is no single ‘right’ standard of behaviour. A parent’s level of interest in their child’s school performance can seem too low, normal, or too high, depending on the values and viewpoint of the professional. Parenting is done in many different ways, most of them ‘good enough’.
An indication of the level of detail that the proposed surveillance will involve, is given by a tracking system already in operation, RYOGENS, which is currently being marketed to local authorities (1). At present, consent will be needed before sharing most of the information, but this restriction would no longer apply if the Children Bill goes through in its current form. Among the ‘categories of concern’ that the teacher or doctor may tick are ‘negative home influence on education’, ‘parent: mental health concern’, and ‘family/peers involved in crime’. So the system does acknowledge that parents play a part in their children’s lives, but it focuses only on the negative impact they can have.
The government has said that it is committed to ‘supporting families’. With support like this, who needs enemies?
Eileen Munro is reader in social policy at the London School of Economics, and author of Effective Child Protection, Sage 2002 (buy this book from Amazon UK).