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UK child protection database 'misguided', critics warn

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UK government policies designed to safeguard kids might backfire by diverting valuable resources while creating a "culture of surveillance" where the role of parents is sidelined, according to a report for the Information Commissioner published on Wednesday.

The study, Children's Databases: Safety and Privacy (PDF), takes a critical look at child databases designed to collate information from multiple agencies including schools, doctors, social workers and law enforcement. By linking up these databases in an index, the government hopes to reduce the incidence of serious child abuse, highlighted by the Climbié case.

But the report warns that by extending Britain's child protection systems - from the 50,000 children currently identified as been in substantial risk of serious harm to the 3-4 million children with some form of welfare issue - means that the most serious cases might receive less attention. The study also warns that the system will intrude into family life in violation of data protection and human rights law. Children listed on the system might become "stigmatised" by being labeled as at risk of becoming criminals.

Furthermore moving responsibility from teachers, doctors and social workers to a central system might also erode parental responsibility, critics believe. It's also possible kids might be pressurised into providing intrusive data on themselves, their parents and friends without proper safeguards.

The study was produced for the Information Commissioner by the IT think tank Foundation for Information Policy Research (FIPR). Its authors included academics, computer scientists, a law professor and a representative of a leading children's charity.

Director of Action on Rights for Children Terri Dowty said: "Offering services that support families is highly desirable, but you need to listen to parents and children in order to understand their problems. As it is, the Government proposes to take the child protection system and apply it to all aspects of children's health and welfare needs, when the system doesn't have the needed resources anyway. We also don't want a surveillance system that forces professionals to be defensive and suspicious, and make clumsy risk assessments."

Academic critics of the policy warn it threatens to erode the privacy and autonomy of families. Dr Eileen Munro, of the London School of Economics said: "When dealing with child abuse, we do need to override privacy. But the new policy extends this level of intrusion into families that are not even suspected of abusing their children, and to all concerns about children's development. It will also over-stretch scarce resources, damage parents' confidence and divert services from focusing on real cases of abuse."

Critics argue the even though the government's aims are laudable replacing professional discretion with computerised assessments of human behaviour is the wrong approach to take. There's also concerns that the system will join the growing list of failed government IT initiatives.

The Government is currently running a consultation on proposed regulations for the Index. ®

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