Why information-sharing databases may harm children: special report

Following the inquiry into the death of Victoria Climbie, Lord Laming pointed the finger of blame at the lack of co-operation between agencies.

But the government’s response – to pump hundreds of millions of pounds into developing an unprecedented number of children’s databases –  may backfire, according to a report published this week.

Produced by the think-tank the Foundation for Information Policy Research, it argues that the children’s databases currently being developed could harm as much as help them.

Across 196 pages the report, ordered by the Information Commissioner, attacks the presumption that sharing information will always be to a child’s benefit. Evidence that it improves outcomes, they argue, is at best “tenuous” .

The report looks at the three major systems currently in development :

  •  common assessment framework
  • integrated children’s system
  • information sharing and assessment index

The systems represent part of  a “managerial framework” created by the government and driven by targets and performance indicators, which has led to a fundamental reduction in the autonomy and privacy of family life, it says. 

Frontline services
Pointing to a shortage of resources and an “inconsistency” in service care across the country, they question the funding of such databases, which they say is diverting resources from the delivery of frontline services.
High cost has been one of the criticisms levied at the children’s index, due to be in place by 2008 and estimated to cost £224m to set up and £41m a year to run thereafter. It will hold basic details for England’s twelve million children and will act as an early warning system for young people needing interventions.

But it could be “flooded” by practitioners registering low level concerns, creating the risk that those with real child protection needs will be less rather than more likely to come to the attention of authorities.

“What these whole set of systems will do is end up moving more and more data around and creating more risk of false alarms, but also more risks of false negatives, ” said one of the report’s authors, Dr Eileen Munro, a reader in social policy at the London School of Economics.

Victoria Climbie
“Rather than being a tool to help future Victoria Climbies, it becomes a tool for obscuring them in the mass of concerns people will register about children,” she added.

Questions are also raised about the effect of combined information across all the databases. In addition to the three main systems, the Information Commissioner identified nine others operating in various parts of the country.

Practitioners may end up having access to more information than a parent or child has given consent for them to see.

Professionals in some local authorities are already failing to get parents to sign off forms to be compiled in the common assessment framework, Dr Munro claims.

Combined with the integrated children’s system, which will hold records on all children in contact with social services, means the “sum total” of personal information will create “little space left for a private family life”, the report argues.

Evidence base
The Department for Education and Skills, responsible for rolling out the index, largely dismissed the findings of the report, saying in a statement that it had “serious reservations” about its objectivity and evidence base.

The Information Commissioner was mindful to point out that the opinions in the report are not his own. But his office is clearly sounding a warning note to government. It released a paper alongside the report, setting out the dangers of children being  stigmatised, and calling for the data protection needs of children to be addressed. 
The legality of the integrated children’s system and common assessment framework, especially when combined, is brought into question by both the commissioner and the think-tank, which said the government was taking a “cavalier” approach to interpreting the Data Protection Act and privacy laws.

It also warned that the mushrooming of data held on a child carries an increased risk of inaccurate information, with poor data quality likely to increase rather than decrease the likelihood of children falling through the net.

Poor quality or inaccurate data will lead to more errors, with out of context information likely to cause risk-averse staff to panic.

Between 300,000 and 400,00 practitioners, including social workers, doctors and teachers will have access to the index. Draft guidelines stipulate that practitioners have to “take all reasonable steps”.  A Dfes consultation, due to close on December 14, asks if the regulations contain the necessary safeguards to ensure the information is kept accurate and up to date.

Whether the index and other databases actually do is likely to prove the acid test of the government’s drive to acquire and share information and help achieve Every Child Matters outcomes.

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