New Zealand, we are told, has a high incidence of child abuse. It was, therefore, entirely predictable that eventually the government would move to establish a national database of children of some sort. The governmental authorities have a demonstrated record of incompetence in the area. A most frequent failing is the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing. Too many children being "helped" by too many government agencies who are unaware of what others agencies are doing.
To address the "information gap" the Minister of Social Development is proposing a national database of at risk kids be set up. It is estimated that 30,000 children will eventually be on electronic record.
Whenever Big Brother proposes something like this the issue of official abuse percolates to the surface.
We have lots of databases about people in New Zealand. We also have plenty of incidents of abuse and misuse by people authorised to access such databases. Will the checks and balances be sufficiently robust and real to disincline abusers of the new proposed system?
We have been told that there will be protections such as access by passwords and monitoring of use. That is positive. What, however, will be the sanctions if someone accesses another person's record in bad faith? The only credible sanction is instant suspension leading to dismissal (if misuse is proven) and initiation of procedures to strike off professional registers if found guilty of misuse. If such sanctions are not up front in large typeface, we predict that abuse will occur--probably on a regular basis.
Private corporations which maintain lots of personal data about clients (such as banks) have extremely strict codes of conduct about staff access and use of client information. Penalties are usually summary. Everyone knows the score. Banks employ investigative staff to monitor employee behaviour and access of client information. Consequently, compliance is high.
Will the state set up similar compliance regimes for those accessing the at risk kids database? We hope so. We also expect to be disappointed. As reported in the NZ Herald, the whole project at first glance appears to be too big, too broad, with too many government agencies and quango staff given access:
Teachers, doctors, community organisations, Child, Youth and Family workers and others will have access to the database and be able to add to individual children's records. High-risk adults will also be added to the database so they can be tracked and an alert given if a child moves into their household.Parents and caregivers will be "profiled"--which is a bit embarrassing since profiling is not PC is lots of quarters:
A "risk assessment tool" developed at the University of Auckland will identify the most vulnerable children based on data in this system such as previous findings of abuse or neglect, behavioural problems, single-parent families, parental ages and education, intervals between babies and multiple-birth children.Such tools are always blunt and crude. To be fair and just they need qualification and review; checks and balances are essential. That leads to the second major problem--secrecy and lack of informed consent.
Social workers will be able to log information into a new centralised system described as "not a new database on children but a mechanism for extracting and combining relevant information on children (and their caregivers) from existing databases". "Information will only be pulled into the platform when a child reaches a certain threshold of concern," the documents say.Parents will not be told if their children are being put on the database and when they are "pulled on to the platform". This is unconscionable. Apparently, parents can find out only by requesting the records under the Privacy Act, after their children have been put on the database. But this would potentially be open to abuse of the worst kind by overzealous do-gooders. If there were a protocol which required that parents or caregivers be notified when a child is being first put on the database it would help stop casual expansion of the records without due process. And why ought not parents be informed? If they are neglectful informing them would put the parents on notice. The idea of a semi-secret database able to accessed by thousands of government and quango and private sector functionaries without notice is a scary thought.
Without doubt one unintended consequence will be a further weakening of the institution of the family. Take, for example, the issue of parental discipline. There are many parents now who fear to speak out against the current stupid, inconsistent and draconian practice for fear they would fall under the attention of Nazi-like government bureaucrats who are authorised to operate on a "guilty until proven innocent" mode, with the first intervention and sanction being the removal of children from the home.
Now another sanction will loom: if you come to the attention of the authorities you risk your children being put on a national snooping database which identifies them as being at risk because you happen to be their parents.
As soon as a child is entered on the database you, the parents, are suspected of nascent child neglect and abuse--by definition. Imagine your child falling down and breaking an arm. You take them to the doctor who looks the child up on the "at risk child" database and you are identified as someone who puts their own children at risk. Suddenly the broken arm can be seen as probable evidence of child abuse--and so it goes on. The child protection agency may be called. Would they be waiting for you when you return from the doctor's. Would they demand access to the home to ensure that your child is not being abused by you, the suspect parent. Will there be protections against such abuse, misuse, overreach, and browbeating? We doubt it.
Ironically, the extensive consultation has apparently made it clear to the government that the draconian approach used by CYFS has proved counter productive.
CYFS already refers less urgent cases to community social services, but many people are scared to ring CYFS because of its statutory power to take children off parents judged to be abusive or neglectful.No surprises there.
Thirdly, if your children are put on the database, what will be the procedures and protocols for getting them removed? We expect there aren't any, or if there are they will be so difficult and costly to apply and action that they will be beyond the reach of any but the wealthy.
Fourthly, expect this database and intervention approach to produce a mammoth new initiative in government bureaucrats planning for your lives. Each child "on the platform" will have a plan developed by the government for it and its parents or caregivers.
Each child and family referred to these teams will have a "whole-of-child" assessment of their physical and mental health, safety, housing and other material needs, cultural wellbeing, caregiving, family relationships and support systems, behaviour, learning and development. . . .So, if you get on the list the implication here is that you will be showered with state help and state intervention all co-ordinated by your personal "plan". There will doubtless be thousands upon thousands of parents and caregivers who will do all they can to get on that database. The prospect of more government help is a huge driver of behaviour. Within a nano-second the underground network will be buzzing about the best ways to get on the list in order to get more help and money. A bit more neglect of your children would do the trick quite nicely.
Regional directors will ensure that each vulnerable child has a "lead professional" who will be "responsible for developing a plan and ensuring the plan stays on track and is delivered" by all the agencies involved.
Such initiatives are always well meaning. The actual outcome and the real-life fruits are often as bad or even worse than the problems they ostensibly seek to address. Be warned.