Simon Collins

Simon Collins is the Herald’s social issues reporter.

Information-sharing to protect children has popular support

People have given the Government a mandate to share information about vulnerable children more widely. File photo / NZ Herald
People have given the Government a mandate to share information about vulnerable children more widely. File photo / NZ Herald

People have given the Government a mandate to share information about vulnerable children more widely but opinion is split down the middle on whether doctors and teachers should be legally required to report suspected abuse.

A summary of almost 10,000 submissions on the Government's "green paper" on vulnerable children, released yesterday, says most submitters support sharing more information to keep children safe.

Health services, in particular, expressed frustration with privacy laws that prevent agencies such as Child, Youth and Family sharing information about children with their doctors, teachers and other professionals.

"We are typically so obsessed with privacy that we cannot make common-sense decisions for the safety of children," said Patrick Kelly of Starship hospital's child protection team.

The Paediatric Society called for sharing information "freely between health/education/welfare".

"This should be universal, but parents could opt out; this should be flagged as an indicator of vulnerability," it said.

The society proposed giving people a common identity number across the three sectors to facilitate information sharing.

But the summary said views were much more divided over whether doctors, teachers and other professionals should be required by law to report suspected abuse - a system called "mandatory reporting" which Social Development Minister Paula Bennett has previously expressed sympathy for.

"Submissions on mandatory reporting were most likely to support the idea, however the weighting between support and opposition to mandatory reporting was very close," the summary said.

A submission by the police said there was already a high rate of voluntary reporting of child maltreatment and the main problem was inadequate resources to respond to reports.

"The issue may not be so much an under-reporting of incidents but the response to those incidents and the resourcing required in regards to response," it said. "A current issue is the ability to assess risk in low-level incidents and provide an appropriate response."

However, Hamilton-based Child Matters, which trains professionals in how to recognise abuse, strongly advocated mandatory reporting - not by law but "through a regulatory process whereby reporting is part of a planned intervention undertaken by trained people who are supported by their organisation's child protection policy".

"Through this process the advantages of mandatory reporting remain, while any disadvantages are overcome," it said.

"Well trained and supported workers do not over-report, do continue to take personal responsibility for reporting, do not pass the buck, and are more liable to identify those difficult-to-recognise situations that get overlooked even with mandatory reporting."

Australian associate law professor Ben Matthews, an expert on mandatory reporting laws, also argued that fears of over-reporting were not backed up by international evidence.

He said many reports of possible abuse that turned out to be unfounded actually came from the general public, while 70 per cent of all substantiated reports in the US came from doctors and other professionals who were required to report concerns.

A "white paper" outlining the Government's preferred direction is due on October 12.

GREEN PAPER

* Suggests changing spending priorities to help the youngest and neediest children.
* Proposes sharing information about suspected child abuse more widely.
* Seeks feedback on whether professionals should be required by law to report suspected abuse.

ON THE WEB

childrensactionplan.govt.nz

- NZ Herald

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