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Can I tell someone if I’m worried about a child? Becci Whitton
1 April 2016

American Robin

I visited my small home town for the first time in a long while over the Easter weekend. This meant having a lot of conversations that started with, “so, where are you working these days?” I would then explain the work that we do here at the Office of the Privacy Commissioner, and was pleasantly surprised by how interested most people were in privacy issues! 

Many of my friends also work in government and social services, and a similar question came up in each of these conversations: if I’m worried about a child or a family (particularly a child or family I’m working with as part of my job), is it ok to tell someone about it? The short answer is yes.

Two legal protections

There are two legal protections for those who are concerned about a child’s well-being or safety and want to disclose this to someone else.

If you have concerns about the well-being of a child, section 15 of the Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act 1989 states that “Any person who believes that any child or young person has been, or is likely to be, harmed (whether physically, emotionally, or sexually), ill-treated, abused, neglected, or deprived may report the matter to a social worker or a constable”.

In addition, the Privacy Act’s information privacy principle 11(f) allows anyone to disclose personal information to prevent or lesson a serious threat to any person or to the public. A threat is serious based on its imminence, likelihood and severity - so a modest risk that’s about to happen might count as serious, as might a more severe risk that is some distance in the future. The test is what a reasonable person in your position would think.

Sharing between organisations

I was also asked a more difficult question: if one organisation is already working with a family, can it tell other organisations who might also be working with the family?

For example, a truancy service has been contacted about a child who is repeatedly absent from school. The truancy officer wants to know if the family has already had contact with the local Children’s Team (the truancy officer suspect they probably have, and they want to avoid the family being approached and having to explain their circumstances multiple times). Can the Children’s Team disclose to the truancy officer whether or not they’re working with a particular family, and the information they have about them?

The answer is it depends. It is up to the person disclosing the information to make a judgement call about whether telling someone else about the family and what social services they’re involved with is justified. This is appropriate and not something to shy away from; professionals working in social services make difficult judgement calls everyday.

Using the ‘Escalation Ladder’

The ‘Escalation Ladder’, available on our website is a useful tool to help guide these decisions.

Gaining the consent of the people involved is generally a good way to go. For example, do the individuals involved want other social services (such as truancy officers) to know that they’re working with the Children’s Team? If not, are there risks to the well-being of the people in the family that mean the children’s team and truancy officer need to be talking directly to each other to prevent or lessen the risk of harm? For example, perhaps the children are not going to school and the parents are reluctant to engage with the truancy service.

These are judgement calls that need to be made on a case by case basis. Professionals need to think about what is best for the people they are trying to help. And we are always here to help talk through the relevant legal provisions if there is doubt about whether disclosing information is the right thing to do.

We can be contacted on 0800 803 909.

See also our related blog posts here and here.

Image credit: American Robin via John J Audubon's Birds of America 


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