A working group of consultant paediatricians in the north of England has concluded that covert video surveillance is necessary, safe, legal and ethical when operated under strict controls. Its main aim is to detect deliberate smothering of children by parents, which is difficult to distinguish from accidental smothering or breathing difficulties in the child.
Since it was introduced in Britain in 1983, covert video surveillance has provoked fierce opposition from parents and child-care professionals, on the basis that it involves a breach of trust between doctor and patient.
But, writing in Archives of Disease in Childhood, Dr Neela Shabde, of the Northern Specialist Advisory Committee in Paediatrics, and Professor Alan Craft, of the Institute of Child Health, Newcastle upon Tyne, point out that under the Children Act 1989, courts may not remove children from their parents unless an "appreciable level of risk" is shown to exist. And the secret filming of children with their parents in hospital can provide the evidence necessary to prevent a child from being returned to abusive parents or, conversely, to stop children and parents being separated needlessly.
Covert video surveillance poses no more threat to civil liberties than any other child-protection procedure, they state. But they warn that using it simply to obtain a criminal conviction is never justifiable; and health trusts that do not follow a rigorous protocol for its use risk being accused of breaching confidentiality by parents and carers.
"Covert video surveillance is ethical if it is necessary to protect the interests of a child and if the child is at serious risk of abuse," they write.