Tragic deaths must not mean surveillance

18 December 2017

The Minister for Children Tracey Martin is right to oppose the call by the Bay of Plenty coroner Wallace Bain for a register and monitoring of all children from birth to five. Dr Bain made the call in a report following his investigation into the tragic death of Moko Rangitoheriri.

While it is understandable that people are outraged and deeply upset by the horrific death of this young child, many will also feel that mass surveillance of young families is not the right answer.

It is a knee jerk reaction which makes the potentially dangerous assumptions that registration and monitoring will be effective– i.e. no more deaths at the hands of caregivers.

But the reality is, creating a huge amount of data can ironically make the most at-risk children more invisible. Serious abusers will be highly likely to evade such a scheme and, as social workers know too well, abuse often becomes very serious over a comparatively short space of time, and in response to extreme and exceptional circumstances. Monitoring to prevent this possible escalation would therefore require the child being ‘seen’ at least monthly, if not more regularly, and that is unlikely to be resourced.

Further, there is a strong likelihood that people will evade any contact that is purely surveillance oriented unless it can offer them actual help and support. And then too, the question must be asked, how can ‘checking’ on a child prevent their death? The long and shameful list of children killed by their caregivers in New Zealand includes many who were already in the sight of various agencies, therefore were being ‘checked’, and their lives weren’t saved.

Many social workers would want to draw a distinction between the provision of accessible and affordable early child health and development care for families in all communities, and the idea of 'monitoring'. Monitoring of this kind usually translates into surveillance of the children of the poor as it is inevitably too expensive (and intrusive) to monitor all children.

In asking the question of how to best monitor the imagined percentage of dangerous families, in order to detect and rescue abused children, we far too frequently leave unanswered the more important question of how to support families in material and emotional need.

So, while the coroner does not directly advocate for a database, it is hard to imagine how a register and monitoring practice could be implemented without one. Such a database would be hugely expensive and raise concerns over important issues including privacy, data security, efficacy, confidentiality, and costs.

A scheme of this kind has been tried before, in the UK. Back in 2004, ContactPoint, a massive database of information on all children under 18, was established in response to another child abuse tragedy – the abuse and killing of eight-year-old Victoria Climbié in 2000. Victoria’s was a sadly familiar story and, as so often found in the inquiries that follow, the many agencies involved with her family were unable to prevent her death.

Of course, the aim of ContactPoint was indeed worthy – to improve child protection. But the database, created under the Children Act 2004, estimated to cost more than £220m to set up and £41m a year to run. Further, it was subject to sustained criticism by many professional and civic liberties groups, mainly because of concerns about privacy, security, and ineffectiveness.

A couple of years after ContactPoint was launched, a report was produced for the Information Commissioner on the safety and privacy of children’s databases. In the report, Professor Eileen Munro, from the London School of Economics, wrote: "The basic problem is that by magnifying the amount of data being collected so much, there is a risk that cases of serious abuse will be hidden in the deluge of data about lower level concerns”.

Her concerns were echoed by the Commissioner who, in response to the report, said: “When you are looking for a needle in a haystack I am not sure it is wise to make the haystack even bigger”.

Four years later, in May 2010, the database was scrapped.

It would be a huge leap here in New Zealand to emulate even just part of this proven failure of a service and mandate visits to all families with under-fives in order to prevent the unspeakable happening to very few children. And, given the massive challenges faced by our new coalition Government, it would seem even more foolish to rush into such an expensive undertaking when there is no real evidence that such a system creates the change that underpins its well-meaning but misguided intentions.

There are better ways forward to ensure the wellbeing of children in Aotearoa.

Most social workers would prefer see significant and tangible efforts to address poverty and social exclusion. As a society, the debates about welfare in the lead up to our recent election might lead us to want to destigmatise, rather than treat those facing socially generated disadvantage as abnormal.

Every right-thinking person in New Zealand would support measures that would stop another death like that suffered by little Moko Rangitoheriri. However, what families need to nurture all children must not get obscured by ill-considered and expensive systems that target the many in an attempt to detect those few highly dangerous families.

Dr Liz Beddoe is an Associate Professor in Counselling, Human Services and Social Work at the University of Auckland's Faculty of Education and Social Work. Liz has long-standing interests in critical perspectives on social work education, professional supervision in health and social care, the sociology of professions, the professionalization project of social work, and media framing of social issues and professions.

Used with permission from NewsroomTragic deaths must not mean surveillance published on Monday 18 December 2017.