It’s getting bigger all the time

October 26, 2007

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News about the third member of the children’s database triumvirate, the Integrated Children’s System:

South Gloucestershire Council has announced that it has completed an implementation of Capita Children’s Services’ One Integrated Children’s System (ICS) and the service will soon be rolled out to nearly 300 social care practitioners within children’s services.

One ICS is being used to combine the council’s educational and social services information into a single child record to help staff make accurate assessments about the needs of individual children and young people.

Might be a better idea if the social worker responsible for a looked-after child went along to parents’ evenings and communicated with his/her school, same as any other half-decent parent. And what about children who are not in care? Does education suddenly cease to be the responsibility of parents and child as soon as they need any level of social care involvement?

Apparently:

Assessments of need will become more standardised across departments, making it easier for practitioners to understand a child’s circumstances across multiple services.

So all we need now is standardised children. Don’t social workers just talk to children and families any more?


Smoke and mirrors

October 25, 2007

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Some astonishing sleight of hand in the Lords last night. Baroness Walmsley initiated a debate on child protection, and spoke at length about the eCAF:

It is extraordinary that throughout the whole debate on the regulations for ContactPoint, the Government did not once mention their intention to create a second, parallel, national electronic database containing sensitive assessments of children seeking services. All our concerns about the security of ContactPoint are amplified in relation to eCAF. It is simply not possible to keep such a large database secure. It will have thousands of users, quite conceivably as many as ContactPoint. While arguments about the potential insecurity of ContactPoint have been countered with assertions from the Government that it will contain only minimal information, the same cannot be said about eCAF. It will contain detailed personal information about children seeking services and clear indications of their vulnerability.

She was followed by Baroness Morris of Bolton:

I should also be grateful for any further explanation on the decision to implement a single national IT system to support the Enablement of the Common Assessment Framework, eCAF, as disclosed by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Kevin Brennan, the day before the Summer Recess. As we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, the eCAF system is not as benign as it may seem and I find it extremely concerning that such a dramatic change in its use was brought about by a Written Statement slipped in just before the Recess. The data fields included in eCAF go far beyond Contact Point, including all the information in that system as well as very sensitive personal profiling.

And now here comes the fog: Lord Adonis replied by talking at length about Contactpoint (the other national database, formerly known as the Infomation Sharing Index, that acts as glorified directory of all children). He talked for so long, answering questions that hadn’t been asked, that – oh, whoops:

I am almost out of time, so I will have to respond to many of the other points in writing. A number of concerns have been raised about eCAF, to which I will also respond in writing, as I think that some alarmism has been generated.

This tactic of defaulting to Contactpoint whenever awkward questions arise about any of the other databases must have been decided centrally. It’s a straight repeat of our exchange with Beverley Hughes in the Telegraph letters page shortly after publication of the FIPR report to the ICO on children’s databases.


Take yer mitts off my genome

October 24, 2007

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The National DNA Database is the biggest in the world, and growing at the rate of 30,000 profiles per year. We’ve long been worried by the number of children on NDNAD, particularly at a time when police targets encourage over-emphasis on low-level crime.

Last year, it took 10 months of hard graft to squeeze figures from the Home Office on the number of children on NDNAD with no convictions or reprimands. It was hardly worth it. The answer is: somewhere between 33,000 and 82,000. It’s the lower figure if we allow an implausibly high replication rate, but looking at the arrest stats for children, the higher number looks nearer the mark.

Then there’s a second category of children who receive reprimands or final warnings for minor offences. These are not classed as a finding of guilt in law. Do we really need to keep the DNA of a child who has damaged a bush whilst romping around with friends?

In today’s Scotsman, an interview with Alec Jeffreys (big daddy of DNA fingerprinting):

Yet he is worried. He fears society has failed to grasp the ethical issues of DNA collection, its potential for abuse and the limitations of genetic analysis.

“The legislation is lagging really rather seriously behind the use of the database,” he said.

“I take the simple view that my genome is mine. Under some circumstances, I’ll allow the state limited access. But prying into my DNA …? I am wholly opposed to that.”


Relating with IT

October 23, 2007

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Over on Blindside there’s an interesting look at the latest developments in location-based services and their many uses, from tracking vehicle fleets to promoting the independence of elderly people. Meanwhile the manufacturer of RfID-chipped school uniforms is pointing out their advantage:

“The system saves valuable lesson time, often wasted in registration and monitoring”

Actually registration isn’t a waste of time. As a teacher, it’s an opportunity to make individual contact, however briefly, with each child in your class. You say the name, look up and make eye contact. You can even add “happy birthday,” or “feeling better?” “nice to see you back.” Little bits of human interaction to oil the social wheels. In that second or two of looking, you may also notice something that prompts you to have a quiet word later. Perhaps a child looks as if he’s been crying, or he’s a ghastly shade of green. Maybe he’s grinning like an idiot and is bursting with excitement. It’s a ‘pastoral care’ thing. Given the rhetoric of ‘every child matters’, it’s a shame if registration and class admin time is seen as a series of tedious chores where children are as inconvenient as passengers in a busy bus schedule.

To take more examples, from the Blindside blog: ‘Telecare’ for frail, elderly people living alone is a good idea when it acts as an alert in an emergency. It’s a very bad idea if it stops the warden of a sheltered housing scheme popping in at intervals to say hallo to someone who may be alone all day. Remote parental monitoring of a child’s Internet use may sound appealing, but it is just that – remote. What about virtues like trust, conversation and joining in?

Then there’s the fraught area of monitoring each room in your home remotely, or the daycare webcam that allegedly “bridges parental bonding”. What about the child’s ‘bonding’? And it must be a weird, psychotic experience to have your parents comment on the events of your day when they weren’t actually present.

It’s not only gizmos that have the capacity to mechanise the space where a relationship ought to be. Consider the new check-list assessment and profiling tools (“have you ever been sexually abused?” Click.) An experienced social worker or counsellor will tell you that information isn’t knowledge. Just as important is the way someone tells their story, the order in which they put events and the quality of the relationship they form with the worker.

Gadgets and databases certainly have the ability to make life a lot easier. I’m very glad of wifi, my mobile, my laptop and the thing my mother wears on her wrist to call for help if she falls over. But there can be too much of a good thing: they also have the potential to turn life into a ruthlessly efficient industrial process, which doesn’t seem to be a very healthy environment in which to grow happy children.


More on child-tracking

October 22, 2007

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We’ve just put up our report on two other forms of child-tracking, both of them closely related to chipping children.

The first is the growing trend towards installing biometric systems in school libraries and canteens; the second is the use of mobile and GPS location technology to track children’s whereabouts.

We were hoping to include a section on the increasing use of CCTV in schools, but have been hampered by the fact that we received only 11 replies to our Freedom of Information Act requests to over 200 schools. It seems that it is yet to dawn on rather a lot of schools that they are public authorities with FOIA obligations.


What’s ‘eCAF’ then?

October 21, 2007

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We’ve been asked by newer visitors to our blog to explain what the eCAF is.

It stands for ‘e-enabled Common Assessment Framework’ – an in-depth personal profiling system for every child seeking services. It gathers a large amount of highly personal information about the child and his/her family. The government estimates that around half of all children will need services at some point in their childhood, and thus will be subject to the eCAF process. You can read more about it here.

It was originally intended that the databases to hold each child’s eCAF assessment would be at local level, but just before recess the government announced that they intended to construct a single, national database.

We already have one national child database under construction: ‘Contactpoint’, which will contain the basic details of every child from birth. An indicator on Contactpoint will show whether an eCAF is also available for inspection.

Although the government insists that this will be a consent-based process, we have heard from several practitioners in pilot areas that, in reality, consent is being bypassed, and that people are being told that they may not get services unless they agree to have an eCAF carried out. They also say that the system is chaotic. One recent caller said that everyone in their office agrees that something has got to be done.

Practitioners themselves are worried about their future employment prospects if they talk openly about the eCAF problems, hence our new ‘eCAF Alert’ site that allows practitioners to leave comments. We hope to build a better picture of what is going on before the government forges ahead with the creation of this national eCAF database.

If you want to help, please put the ‘eCAF Alert’ logo on your blog/website. You can download the code from the eCAF alert website


The longest peer-review in history?

October 20, 2007

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It’s 10 months since Tim Loughton, shadow children’s minister, asked when the evaluation of the Integrated Children’s System would be published, and received the reply:

“The draft of this report is currently being peer-reviewed, and it will be published once the report has been completed.”

The Integrated Children’s System (ICS) is the third ‘core’ database in the children’s trilogy: it holds a record of every child’s contact with social care services and consists of a series of online forms. Amongst other things, it has been criticised by social workers for reducing the assessment of children at risk of harm to a mechanised process, ill-suited to the reality of child protection work.

The evaluation, commissioned by the DfES, was submitted in September 2006. Since then the silence has been deafening. Could it be that the report is less than enthusiastic about ICS?


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