Memorandum Submitted by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (CS 13)

 

From the President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.

 

I am submitting written evidence in relation to the Children, Schools and Families Bill on behalf of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health which has 11,000 members. Our views are as follows:

 

1. We support the family courts to be more open and transparent.

2. Our single most important guiding principle is that the anonymity of children should be reserved in perpetuity.

3. In the light of 2, we believe that paediatricians who are giving evidence as professional witnesses (ie they have met the child in the course of their day-to-day work or the child was one of their patients) should retain anonymity in order that the child and family may not be identified. This is a particular risk if the child comes from a small community in a rural area where there are only a small number of paediatricians. Furthermore, research from Belfast within the last decade suggested that professionals who suspect child abuse only report it on 50% of occasions. If paediatricians carrying out their day-to-day work believe that they will be named in local newspapers, sadly that percentage might fall even lower.

4. We do not necessarily believe that expert witnesses should retain anonymity. They are being paid a fee for giving their evidence and they are not obliged to do so. However, the DCSF should be aware that the pool of expert witnesses willing to come forward to help courts has been dwindling and this measure may reduce that pool even further.

5. As the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, we believe that the views of children are very important in this matter. What research we are aware of suggests that children are not keen on excessive openness. We would suggest that Parliament pause and review the whole process and most importantly listen to children. Children on the whole do not wish to have their names in the press and whilst you and colleagues at the Ministry of Justice have reassured me that there are legal safeguards within the Bill, the point I have tried to get across to you repeatedly is that this is not the perception of children. Just because lawyers, civil servants and doctors believe that the Bill provides adequate safeguards is irrelevant if children do not believe this. If children are deterred in expressing their views when they have been abused or neglected because of concern that there may be reporters there to hear their evidence subsequently or that their name might appear in the press this would be a tragedy.

6. Interim findings to date indicate that children and young people tend not to trust the press and are clear about the information they do not want published about their case and families. In addition to not being named, they do not want information about, for example, allegations/findings of fact regarding maltreatment, or details of failures of parents made freely known (all information the press would arguably want). Further and more careful attention needs to be given to what constitutes 'sensitive information' - it has to encompass what children and young people deem sensitive and data indicate this is more wide ranging than you appear to acknowledge. In addition to information appearing in newspapers, young people are concerned that information once in the public arena will get on to the Internet and social networking websites where it will remain forever, available to anyone who wishes to 'Google' and download it and share with others. Data to date indicate that once told a reporter may be in court, children and young people will be unwilling/less willing to disclose parental ill-treatment, or the impact of warring parents, or their wishes and feelings to doctors. The implication of this is that family courts may be faced with making life changing decisions about a child/young person based on incomplete evidence from children themselves.

7. We are particularly concerned for very young children who cannot be involved in any decision making. In the future they may greatly regret the fact that their name or the family's name has appeared in the newspaper. I would draw an analogy with 'fly on the wall' documentaries of families where the parents have consented to TV cameras being allowed into their home. Some of these have resulted in the demonising or stigmatising of children who are far too young to be able to express a view and override their parents consent. However, in future years they may greatly regret the fact that their name, their homes and their lives have been betrayed in the media and will be available for ever in this digital age.

 

I hope you find this written evidence helpful. I am sorry that neither myself nor the College's Child Protection Officer are able to appear in person to give oral evidence on the 21st of January 2010 as both of us have prior commitments in Liverpool and Northern Ireland respectively.

 

January 2010