The Press

These are children, not lab rats – Minister

- 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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