From 2015, children taken to accident and emergency departments will have their details put through a £9 million computer database in order to identify potential victims of abuse.
The Child Protection – Information System will identify children who have been to casualty on more than one occasion. It will also identify children who are living in state care or whose families are under the supervision of social workers. Ministers claim the national database will crack down on child abuse by identifying abused or vulnerable children claim ministers.
The database, announced by health minister Dan Poulter, will link NHS records of A&E visits with registers held by local council children’s services departments when it goes into operation. Dan Poulter said ‘doctors and nurses are often the first people to see children who are victims of abuse. Up until now, it has been hard for frontline healthcare professionals to know if a child is already listed as being at risk or if children have been repeatedly seen in different emergency departments or urgent care centres with suspicious injuries or complaints, which may indicate abuse. Providing instant access to that information means vulnerable and abused children will be identified much more quickly – which will save lives’.
Dr Simon Eccles, an A&E consultant at Homerton University Hospital, London, who helped plan the system said, ‘it is quite straightforward, I hope, most of the time, to ascertain whether this is just a child who is beautifully looked after but tends to play rough, or this is a child who is not ever being watched when they play and tend to hurt themselves. This database is not trying to solve the entire problem but simply adding another layer of information that previously was hard to get’.
However, MPs and civil liberties groups warn that innocent families could find themselves cast under suspicion by the system and that misuse of its information could lead to children being wrongly taken into care. Liberal Democrat MP John Hemming, a campaigner against the abuse of social work powers said, ‘we have to be very careful not to require parents to prove their innocence. There are cases where there is clear evidence that parents are not guilty of abuse but it is ignored. It does nobody any good to take the wrong children into care. We need to encourage people to go to A&E departments when their children are hurt, not to put them off. We don’t need a situation where if you take your child to A&E three times, the child goes into care. Hospitals already use information wrongly and I am worried about the way information on the new system may be used’.
Nick Pickles, of civil liberties group Big Brother Watch said, ‘the Government needs to clarify urgently that the only children who will see any change as a result of this system will be those who are already registered as at risk’.