How ‘child protection’ policies harm children
We all want kids to be safe, but the plan to create a new database of children who visit A&E units will have the opposite effect.
Recent UK government policies aimed at protecting children have been based on an erroneous assumption – namely that intrusive monitoring of intergenerational relations is the only way to keep kids safe. In truth, such policies – including the mandatory vetting of all adults who work with children – are at best a form of PR, designed to demonstrate that officials take child safety seriously; and at worst, they fuel suspicion of all adults, creating an ever-widening cultural chasm between generations. This can actually diminish rather than enhance the security of young people.
The Lib-Con’s health services minister, Dan Poulter, announced over the holiday season that, starting in 2015, all children who visit an accident and emergency (A&E) department in a hospital will be logged on a new national database set up to identify potential victims of abuse. This is an example of precisely the kind of policy that will have the perverse effect of making life worse for parents and their children. Poulter justified his proposal on the basis that it will help doctors and nurses spot which children are frequently brought to A&E – apparently, frequent A&E visits are markers of child abuse.
Parents already know that every time they take their child to the hospital they will be scrutinised by health professionals on the lookout for signs of abuse. A minority of health professionals take the dogma of child protection so seriously that they have difficulty believing that a bruise or broken bone can be explained away as ‘just an accident’. Parents sometimes exchange jokes about how they fear that the bruises on their child’s body might be misinterpreted and their child taken into care. When I hear such exchanges between parents, while we watch our children play football, it quickly becomes clear that their ‘jokes’ express a recognition that they feel guilty until proven innocent.
When visiting an A&E is treated not only as a way of helping injured children to get better but also as a way of vetting their parents, then the very meaning of the experience is radically transformed. Even clinicians who have the best of intentions will start to consider what is on the database as being more significant than the singular injury on the child that requires emergency treatment. In such circumstances, clinicians are not simply offering a medical diagnosis – they’re giving an assessment of the moral status of the parent and the existential predicament of the child. And where a medical diagnosis is based on science, the moral assessment that clinicians will be called upon to give will essentially be based on guesswork.
While clinicians are busy assessing the risk of abuse faced by their young patient, the parents face a situation where an already stressful experience becomes even more difficult for them. Precisely at a time when they need to be reassured that their child will be okay, they will face a system that is likely to test their confidence further. That’s not good for parents. Nor is it good for children, whose security depends on the guidance of confident parents.
Some advocates of total child protection argue that the disagreeable experience of being scrutinised by health professionals is a small price to pay for the identification of abusers. But what policymakers overlook is that the knowledge that all children’s injuries will be logged on a database will lead some parents to think twice before they go anywhere near an A&E. In particular, that small minority of parents who are abusive will naturally tend towards avoiding a system where their behaviour might be exposed. Denied medical treatment, it will be the injured children of such parents who will pay the cost for this ill-thought-out policy.
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