Monday, September 11, 2006

Whatever happened to child protection?

The Friday Project is talking about the latest 'social exclusion' buzz and making the link with the Information-Sharing Index:

Blair is talking about helping people, while at the same time demonising them. It's as though he's incapable of getting away from the tabloid agenda. When he uses expressions like 'off the rails' and 'menace to society' he's conflating the minority of youngsters who are committing serious crimes or are actually dangerous with those who are a bit of a nuisance, or just deeply troubled. It's like saying we need to screen all adults to simultaneously prevent armed robbery, parking on double yellow lines and depression.

A much bigger problem is how any of this will work. At this point it's worth mentioning the government's planned central database on children, which will surely be the machinery for monitoring children and their families. This is essentially a massive database of all children in the UK, adding new information and collating existing records held by doctors, social services, etc. Whether it will be as successful as the massively-behind-schedule and over-budget central NHS database has not been explained.

Another thing that has yet to be explained is why 'child protection' has vanished from the radar. It was the justification for the introduction of the Index and all its related systems, and Victoria Climbie's name was repeatedly held up as a shield against criticism of the information-sharing agenda. Indeed, Margaret Hodge's mantra, as the Children's Minister responsible, was: "Child protection is more important than privacy". To this day, there are those who still believe that the correct name of the Information Sharing Index is the 'Child Protection Index'. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Child protection is not the priority. The focus is on assessing 'deprived' families in order to predict a child's propensity for crime and educational failure. After all, these cost money. What about abuse and neglect? They may involve only a tiny proportion of the child population, but they are by no means restricted to any particular social class or income bracket. Nor, for that matter, is alcohol abuse: but note the subtle juxtaposition of deprivation and alcoholism in Tony Blair's
'social exclusion' speech last week, conjuring up nightmare visions of slum-dwelling gin-swillers. Pity the child of the alcoholic, middle-class professional, who has the added pressure of keeping up appearances.

Midwives and Health Visitors already assess (or should do) any potential risk of harm to a child or unborn baby. Social workers already intervene - before birth if necessary - to protect the child of dangerous, unstable, substance-abusing or uncaring parents. So who is in this new group of people who need watching? Why do we need a completely new system to recognise them, rather than strengthening what is already there?

'Child protection' has served its purpose and now occupies just one category in a large-scale tracking project: by 2008 the Government will abolish the local Child Protection Registers altogether, relying instead on its database network to pick up abuse alongside a million other concerns. This simply isn't good enough. Genuinely abusive parents are in a completely different category from the "socially excluded" and it takes real concentration to spot them.

Yes, we're angry. And disgusted. A steady 75 children a year die at the hands of their parents; a few thousand more are injured physically or mentally. Sure, it's a small number, and only a fraction of the number of 10-17s who commit offences, but something seems to have gone terribly wrong with the priorities here.

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