A&E database is not the answer to child protection failings

Government proposals for a new information system that includes children not at any known risk is a breach of their rights, by Liz Davies

Health minister Dan Poulter has announced the development of a new online child protection information system.

This will alert emergency health services to children known to be at risk, looked after children and children who are frequently presenting at healthcare centres. It is surely clear to professionals, working in compliance with the national guidance Working Together to Safeguard Children, that any such single agency approach is bound to fail and at the very least cause considerable confusion.

I question whether this is the start of each profession developing unique systems to protect children to coincide with a time when the Department for Education is proposing a drastic reduction of multi-agency child protection guidance. It would also seem that the minister is unilaterally deciding that what is now required is monitoring, not only of children identified by professionals as at risk of harm, but those children who happen to be in care or to make frequent visits to hospitals.

Including these, often non-abused children, in health surveillance systems involves a serious erosion and breach of children’s rights and an unprecedented, and disproportionate, intrusion by the state into family life.

The Child Protection Register, abolished in 2008, provided a proportionate intervention by the state because it focused multi-agency professional attention on children who had been identified as at high risk of actual or likely harm following joint investigation by police, social workers and other professionals.

The decision to place a child’s name on the register under the category of physical, sexual, emotional abuse or neglect was made at a multi-agency child protection conference – usually with the family and even, where appropriate, the child present. Access to the register was strictly managed by a senior social worker, the custodian, and provided to designated professionals in other key agencies, including the emergency services. Police and doctors would be alerted to a child whose name was on the register.

However, after the register’s abolition they had to actively seek information about children where they had concerns. This system was ineffective and unworkable. The custodian was replaced by an IT manager, and access to sensitive information about abused children became more widely accessible to a range of agencies and staff. This presented risks of perpetrators being more easily able to target abused children.

The new proposals further increase the dissemination of information about vulnerable children, including those where risk of harm is not identified.

If the minister is concerned at the absence of an alert system, and consequent gaps in protection, then he should support the call for the reinstatement of the Child Protection Register, the cornerstone of protective work which had been well tried and tested since the 1980s, and should propose the development of a National Child Protection Register. He should also do his uttermost to stop the Department for Education proposals which would severely cut statutory guidance, and he should express concern about the drift to localism, where each local safeguarding children board will be required to construct its own child protection protocols. Such a development will cause havoc in multi-agency working across authority boundaries.

There is so much Poulter could do to promote the protection of vulnerable children from harm but establishing a health database for many children who are not at any known risk is not a sensible way forward.

The cases of Victoria Climbie and Peter Connolly are once again being exploited to promote changes in policy. Victoria would not have been protected by the proposed health information system. She might well have been protected if a child protection conference had placed her name on the Child Protection Register and if there had been a thorough multi-agency investigation of all the factors in her case. She may have been made safe if there had been compliance with the Working Together statutory guidance and all information from every agency had been collated, analysed and informed a child protection plan.

Peter Connolly’s name was on the Child Protection Register (which was still in place in 2007) but, prior to abolition, the process and status of the conference had already been severely undermined, key professionals were often absent and the conference was not informed by a joint police/social work investigation. It would have made little difference if Peter’s name had been listed on the new health system as the hospitals had already clearly raised concerns about non accidental, unexplained injuries.

Proposals for a health information system are not the answer to current failings in the system. We need specialist child protection social workers working closely with specialist child protection police officers, and other professionals, trained together and highly skilled in the investigation of crimes against children from within the family but also from organised networks of criminals exploiting children.

The Scandinavian countries have an excellent system based on a children’s rights approach. It is a proportionate multi-agency response which focuses on the prosecution and conviction of criminals and the protection of children.

The minister’s proposals must be challenged within the context of government plans to severely reduce our most important statutory child protection guidance and the increasing government surveillance of, and intervention into, the lives of non-abusing families and their children.

Liz Davies is a reader in child protection at London Metropolitan University