These are chil­dren, not lab rats – Min­is­ter

The Press - - Front page - Stacey Kirk

A plan to treat vul­ner­a­ble new­borns as ‘‘lab rats’’ by sit­ting back for two years to see if they were abused has been blocked by the Gov­ern­ment.

The Min­istry of So­cial De­vel­op­ment pro­posed to in­clude 60,000 chil­dren born this year in an ‘‘ob­ser­va­tional study’’ to test the ac­cu­racy of its new pre­dic­tive risk mod­el­ling tool. It at­tempts to pre­dict abuse, wel­fare de­pen­dency and the like­li­hood of a child’s down­ward spi­ral into crime on the path to adult­hood so it can bet­ter tar­get spend­ing.

The Gov­ern­ment gave the go-ahead to de­velop the model in 2012, as part of the Chil­dren’s Ac­tion Plan. It had now be­gun test­ing it.

But doc­u­ments show of­fi­cials had sought eth­i­cal ap­proval for one study which in­volved risk-rat­ing a group of new­borns and not in­ter­ven­ing in high­risk cases, to check whether their pre­dic­tions came true.

A fu­ri­ous So­cial De­vel­op­ment Min­is­ter Anne Tol­ley said she could not fathom what her of­fi­cials were think­ing. She has called a halt to the study.

The min­is­ter’s hand­writ­ten notes on the doc­u­ments in­structed of­fi­cials: ‘‘Not on my watch, these are chil­dren not lab rats’’.

Asked what jus­ti­fi­ca­tion MSD of­fi­cials had for the trial, Tol­ley said she did not want to know. ‘‘I was not im­pressed and I was not go­ing to have a bar of it.

‘‘I could not be­lieve that they were ac­tu­ally even con­sid­er­ing that. Whether it would have got­ten through the ethics com­mit­tee – I hoped it wouldn’t.’’

Tol­ley said those head­ing the pro­ject were ‘‘well-mean­ing’’ and ‘‘en­thu­si­as­tic’’, but had not dif­fer­en­ti­ated be­tween an aca­demic study and real life.

MSD deputy chief ex­ec­u­tive for or­gan­i­sa­tional so­lu­tions Dorothy Adams said that while pre­dic­tive mod­el­ling had mer­its it car­ried risks.

‘‘It has been long ac­knowl­edged that while pre­dic­tive mod­el­ling ap­peared promis­ing based on pre­lim­i­nary re­search, it was at that time un­tried in the con­text of child mal­treat­ment, car­ried eth­i­cal risks, and war­ranted care­ful, staged, de­vel­op­ment,’’ she said. ‘‘ We were al­ways go­ing to care­fully test and trial to un­der­stand ef­fec­tive­ness and this was sim­ply one op­tion.’’

Tol­ley also ap­peared to sig­nal a ma­jor back­down on a pro­posed pop­u­la­tion-wide ap­pli­ca­tion of the model, say­ing it was ‘‘un­likely’’ to be used on chil­dren not al­ready no­ti­fied to Child Youth and Fam­ily. ’’Be­cause, God knows, do we re­ally want peo­ple with clip­boards knock­ing on peo­ple’s doors and say­ing: ‘Hello, I’m from the Gov­ern­ment, I’m here to help be­cause your chil­dren are go­ing to end up in prison?’ I just can’t see that hap­pen­ing.’’

Its ben­e­fit was strength­en­ing in­for­ma­tion avail­able to so­cial work­ers about chil­dren al­ready in­volved in the sys­tem.

‘‘Where we have a fam­ily that we’re putting re­sources into, it does en­able us to check and see what the wider fam­ily group might look like and make sure that we’re get­ting to that fam­ily the whole group of agency as­sis­tance that we need.’’

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