The Ombudsman for Children, Indrek Teder, reminds that pursuant to law, everyone has the obligation to immediately inform the rural municipality’s or city government's child protection official or the police of a child who needs help. Data protection is not an obstacle to inform about a child in need of help.
The Ombudsman for Children drafted a manual “Informing about a child in need of help and data protection“. With this manual, the Ombudsman for Children hopes that children's problems will be noticed even more and encourages to inform about every abuse case involving a child, but also for instance if the primary needs of a child are not fulfilled. The manual is mainly targeted to specialists in the field of education, medicine, social work and police who work with children daily. The manual was drafted in cooperation with the Data Protection Inspectorate and specialists.
“I hope that the manual is of help to anyone who sees a child in need of help and who has to inform about this situation”, said the Ombudsman for Children, Indrek Teder, emphasizing that the manual is important also for everyone.
The manual gives an overview which information, in which cases, to whom and via which channels can be communicated about a child in need of help, without an approval from the child and/or his/her legal representative, and based on which legal provisions. Information concerning abuse and special needs of children must be communicated to the rural municipality’s or city government's child care official and in case of need to the police, who have the legal basis to interfere and the capabilities to provide help.
The precondition for helping a child is that the information about the child's need for help has reached a competent official or institution. Therefore early detection and work in networks are important pillars of child protection. The network consists of people who are in close contact with the child: a kindergarten or school teacher, head of a hobby group, coach, doctor, parents of a friend or playmate, youth police officer, etc. All of them have an important role in detecting the child's needs and notifying competent institutions. But the Child Protection Act states that every person has the obligation to immediately inform about a child in need of help (subsection 59 (1) of the CPA), be they relatives, neighbours or random people passing by. Leaving a child without assistance or protection is on everyone's conscience who notices that a child needs help but does not inform anyone of it. One cannot justify not informing anyone of the situation, with a claim that he/she was not sure whether the child's need for help was credible enough or informing anyone about the situation might seem as an accusation targeted towards the family or as shaming the child. Competent institutions decide and determine whether there is need for intervention or how important the information is. For instance, a physical education teacher must inform someone about his/her doubts when he/she notices blue marks on the back of a child or a doctor must inform someone about his/her doubts when a child has come to see him/her with many traumas and there is a doubt that these traumas have not been caused by the child. A neighbour must inform if frequent yelling, crying and throwing of things takes place in a family with children. A parent of a child’s playmate has to inform someone of the situation when his/her child's friend accidentally breaks a mug and is extremely afraid that he/she will be beaten as a punishment.
A feeling of safety, an environment for development and wellbeing has not been guaranteed for a child who needs help. A child's need for help might also arise from possible abuse (including violence and neglect), but also due to his/her social or educational special needs, the family's coping problems, etc. For example, a child might need help if he/she is living alone; if he/she needs help from a specific specialist, but a parent does not acknowledge it; if he/she does not go to school; ran away from home; if he/she committed an offence. Children in need of help include also children in danger, whose life and health need to be protected. Danger to a child’s life and health might originate from an external environment, from activities of others, but also from the child's own behaviour. For example a child is in danger if he/she is a victim of violence, is seriously ill, tried to commit suicide, lacks proper nutrition, committed an offence.
One must inform the rural municipality government or city government of a child in need of help and if possible, directly a child care official. The rural municipality’s or city government’s child care official is the node of the network surrounding the child and the collector of information regarding the help the child needs. Although every rural municipality government or a city government does not employ a separate child protection official, there is always an employee who is responsible for child protection. If a child is in danger, then in case of serious danger and offence, firstly the police and then also the rural municipality government or city government must be informed of it. There are child protection services in the criminal bureaus of all four regional prefectures of the Police and Border Guard Board. They investigate crimes committed by children and against children.
Data protection principles do not override the obligation to inform a competent institution of a child in need of help! One can inform the rural municipality government or city government and the police of a child in need of help and in case of need forward (delicate) personal data related to the child’s need of help, without the knowledge and approval of the child and/or his/her legal representative, as those institutions have a legal right to process child related personal data. The legislator has placed the main burden to protect the rights of a child in need of help on rural municipality governments or city governments and the police. A rural municipality government or city government and the police are administrative institutions who are permitted to process personal data, if it is done to carry out public tasks and duties prescribed in laws. Rural municipality governments or city governments and the police have the obligation to follow data protection requirements and to protect a child’s and his/her family’s personal data from misuse.
In case of need the informant can remain anonymous, i.e. he/she does not have to tell his/her name to the rural municipality government or city government and the police. But anonymity might have an effect on the credibility of the message and the possibility to follow it up and thus have an effect on the means to help and protect the child. But if an informant reveals his/her data, then the rural municipality government or city government and police are obliged to apply data protection principles also with regard the informant's data, even if a child and/or the child's legal representative ask who informed about the need for help. The rural municipality government or city government and the police, also the institution where the informant works, can for justifiable reasons (e.g. to guarantee the security of the informant) limit access to the informant's personal data (incl. name), i.e. declare that the data is meant for internal use only and to refuse to it out to an inquirer. In any case, serious thought should be given to the explanations given by the inquirer and the need to reveal the informant's name. Still, the fear that one's name will be revealed should not hold anyone back in informing of a child in need of help. For instance, if the reaction of the child’s legal representative creates fear, then one could think what the child feels under the authority of such person.
“Inform anyone of a child in need of help!” emphasizes the Ombudsman for Children, Indrek Teder, in the summary of the manual. “A child needs help if his/her life, health, feeling of security, development or wellbeing is under threat. Everyone is obliged to notify about a child in need of help. One should inform the rural municipality government or a city government (if possible, a child protection official directly) or the police about it. The rural municipality government or city government and the police are administrative institutions, whose public task, pursuant to law, is to help and protect a child. To carry out this task, the rural municipality government or city government and the police can process personal data related to the child's need for help. As the rural municipality government or city government and the police have the right to process personal data, one can inform them about the child's need for help without the approval from the child and/or his/her legal representative. Data protection is not an obstacle.”
In the course of drafting this manual, Margit Sarv, Senior Adviser, and Andres Aru, Head of the Children’s Rights Department of the Office of the Chancellor of Justice, led a project with an aim to analyse situations when information about a child in need of help, despite the obligation prescribed in the Child Protection Act, did not reach competent institutions rapidly enough. One of the causes of the problem is that due to limitations prescribed in the Personal Data Protection Act, specialists working daily with children have been feeling insecure when processing the personal data of a child in need of help. Therefore the Chancellor of Justice as the Ombudsman for Children decided that there is a dire need for a single and unambiguous manual, which would help specialists who work with children daily fulfil their obligations, pursuant to law, in relation to helping children and informing of the child's need for help, at the same time following the principles of personal data protection. Led by the Ombudsman for Children, the manual was drafted in cooperation with the Data Protection Inspectorate and representatives from the field of social work, the police, healthcare and education and citizens’ associations fighting for children’s rights.
The manual “Informing about a child in need of help and data protection“ is sent to local governments, the Police and Border Guard Board and organisations and associations working with children, so that it can be taken into use and circulated.
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