Children put at risk by data blunder

VULNERABLE Scots children have been exposed to a serious risk of violence following an "incredible" data blunder by the organisation supposed to look after them.

The scandal involves children taken from their parents for their own safety and given new homes. On at least 12 occasions in the past year, details about the children, including their secret addresses, were accidentally passed to their abusive or neglectful birth parents.

In one case, the foster parents moved house because they were so scared of being attacked by the birth parents of the child they had given a new home to. In another case, it is understood details of a child's new address may have been given to the father, who was serving a lengthy prison term for a violent crime.

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Scotland on Sunday understands all the breaches concerned children as young as a few weeks and no older than six or seven years.

Last night, the Scottish Children's Reporter Administration (SCRA) admitted the mistake and issued a full apology. But officials privately admit they could face a string of legal claims for substantial damages following the data fiasco.

There are more than 1,500 children in Scotland whose fostering or adoption has been done in secret from their natural parents.

All the cases are flagged in the SCRA's computer system and all have bright red files to reduce the risk that details could be accidentally released.

But a spokesman for the SCRA last night confirmed there had been "a number of cases where the addresses of new carers of children referred to the Children's Reporter have been accidently disclosed".

He added: "When these disclosures came to light, we moved quickly to make contact with families affected and, in the small number of cases where there was heightened concern about the safety of the carer's family, additional security measures were put in place in discussion with the family affected and the local police.

"SCRA accepts fully the distress and anxiety caused in these instances and we have offered our fullest apology to the families affected."

Senior officials at the SCRA – some of whom were said to be "sick to their stomach" – immediately carried out an audit of all cases where children had been placed with foster or adoptive parents at addresses meant to be kept secret from their birth parents.

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The SCRA also launched a disciplinary investigation. Insiders stressed that managers – not secretarial staff who made the disclosures – will answer for any mistakes. All workers have been retrained. The disclosures have been reported to the UK's data protection tsar, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO), and to the Scottish Government.

Conservative MSP Bill Aitken said: "Frankly, this is an unacceptable blunder. Not only is there an unnecessary call on police resources, we have well-intentioned and well-motived people being put at risk, as well as the potential disruption to youngsters."

Labour's Ken McIntosh said: "We are used to hearing about mistakes with data and I think we all expect that occasionally there will be errors made. This is one of the most serious I have heard of. We should thank our lucky stars that nobody has been harmed, because the potential here was huge.

"I am sure the parents of the foster children and staff at the SCRA will have had a nasty shock.I would expect the minister to take action first thing on Monday morning."

The SCRA is responsible for reporting children to the Children's Panel, either because they are at risk or commit a crime. The agency has turned into a political battleground in recent years, most notably when the Labour-Liberal Democrat administration was waging its 'war on neds'. Last year the number of children referred to the SCRA dipped from its record high of 2006-7. But there are still more children under supervision than ever.

An ICO spokesman said: "We do have some serious concerns and Ken Macdonald, the assistant commissioner for Scotland, will be meeting with the organisation this week to establish the full facts of the case and to help them with good practice for the future."

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: "Child protection is a top priority and we expect the SCRA to have robust measures to ensure that information which would place a child at risk is not disclosed. We are committed to improving support for vulnerable young people and intend to reform the Children's Hearings system."

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