I recently visited the Gold Coast just for the day.
On the way over a flight attendant gave me a New Zealand Herald and I read the piece entitled Children our most valuable resource in which children's commissioner Dr Russell Wills addressed the issue of how to help New Zealand's abused and neglected children.
Dr Wills called for change and advocated a coordinated approach. His point about the lack of information sharing between the various agencies that monitor children struck a particular chord with me. Evidently, there's no communication between the likes of The National Immunisation Register, Oral Health Service, Plunket and Before School Check. As Dr Wills pointed out: "these databases don't talk to each other".
This is obviously a significant flaw in the system. Red flags that are raised individually may not be of huge concern but when viewed as part of a larger picture, and in light of additional information, they may point convincingly to neglect or even child abuse.
It's terrible to think that children continue to suffer due to the fact that, while we may be collecting useful data, we're not harnessing the collective power of that information.
Thanks to technology, cross-referencing of databases is a doddle; we're able to discover linkages and make connections that once would have gone unnoticed. To not be using this tool where child safety is concerned is quite simply reckless.
Dr Wills went on to say: "It's not legal for a principal and a paediatrician, or a non-governmental organisation social worker and a GP, to share information about a child, without a parent's consent." I found that sentence chilling.
What if the parent is the problem? What if the parent is covering up for someone else? What if the parent is in an abusive relationship and too scared to speak up? What if the parent is more concerned about retaining access to the DPB than the child's welfare? This is surely akin to putting a poacher in charge of a wildlife reserve, an arsonist in charge of the fire department. It makes no sense.
Pushing aside concerns that confidentiality seems to have priority over a child's wellbeing, I went about my business in the searing Queensland heat. But my thoughts turned again to this subject when I read the small print at the top of the New Zealand Passenger Arrival Card on my return journey that evening.
It said: "Information collected on this form ... is sought to administer Customs, Immigration, Biosecurity, Border Security, Health, Wildlife, Police, Fine Enforcement, Justice, Benefits, Social Service, Electoral, Inland Revenue, and Currency Laws. The information is authorised by legislation and will be disclosed to agencies administering and entitled to receive it under New Zealand law. This includes for purposes of data matching between those agencies."
The sharing of data between multiple agencies is clearly permissible in some instances then. Dr Wills' call for legislation allowing similar information sharing between the various health and welfare agencies including police and Child, Youth and Family must not be ignored.
I sometimes wish that new parents had to sign a form when children are born allowing any ongoing information collected to be shared - and that as many existing parents as possible sign too. Maybe access to benefits and welfare payments could be dependent on fulfilling such a requirement.
Or perhaps all parents interested in child welfare could be urged to sign this voluntarily - for the benefit of neglected and abused kids. As a mother gravely concerned about what's going on in some Kiwi households I'd happily sign and I'm sure thousands of others would too. Then the agencies could keep an extra close watch on any parents who'd chosen to not sign. What exactly have they got to hide?
It may not be perfect but at least it's a thought. Thanks for the inspiration, Dr Wills, and for making me realise that our borders are more closely protected than our children - and that is clearly not okay.
- NZ HERALD ONLINE