Tagging leaps from criminals to children

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ELECTRONIC tagging, more usually associated with criminals and workers in dangerous industries, is being introduced for children amid growing fears of risk from abusers and abductors.

Retailers, which have set up creches and play centres to attract parents to shopping centres, are introducing tagging systems to increase security. While interest in tagging babies grew following well-publicised cases of abduction from maternity wards, it was the murder of Jamie Bulger which intensified concern.

The vulnerability of small children in large, crowded shopping centres was exposed by the haunting image, captured on a security camera, of Jamie being led away by his killers through a Bootle shopping mall. It persuaded many parents, retailers and police that increased security measures, including video monitoring, were not enough to keep children safe.

Among the most sophisticated systems being introduced is one at Action Stations, an activity centre at the Lakeside shopping centre in Thurrock, Essex. Tags, resembling giant yellow wristwatches, containing a receiver, transmitter, chip and battery, will be attached to each child's wrist while their every movement is monitored on a computer screen. All exits will also be alarmed.

The pounds 150,000 system, has been developed from one used on oil rigs after the Piper Alpha disaster and is in the final stages of being tested. The tags "talk" to 25 beacons around the activity centre which relay the children's location back to the central computer through radio signals. Parents, who must stay in the area unless children are over eight, can see exactly where they are by scanning a VDU screen. A red light flashes in an emergency.

"We are introducing this because it will add to the parents' peace of mind," said Gareth Lawrence, the general manager. "The benefit of the electronic system is that we'll know exactly what part of the place they are in so it's obviously more secure." Essex police welcome the move and other stores have been equally keen to allay parents' fears.

Planet Kids, in Bristol, has developed a "smart-card" system for children which cost somewhere between pounds 30,000 and pounds 50,000. "All children are checked in electronically and wear a bar-coded identity tag on their belts," said Sam Berry, the general manager. "Parents are given a ticket matching the bar-code which they have to produce to take the children away."

The four Discovery Zone centres, in London, Leicester, Nottingham and the Wirral, operate a similar system but not every retailer is convinced of the worth of tagging.

After the Bulger case, Vince Lochrie, manager of the Forge shopping centre in Glasgow tested out electronic tags. "We talked to people about incorporating a child tagging system and we had a demonstration of what seemed the most viable," he said. "But we felt to install such a system would have misled the public over security. It was fairly flawed.

"The idea was that a child approaching the exits would set off an alarm which would alert the security guard standing there. But if you approached the gates at certain angles the alarm did not go off. What we did in the end was spend a quarter of a million pounds on new CCTV systems so that there was very high picture quality."

Companies also marketed alarms for parents' use. Tags such as the Wanderer, Child Trakka or Child Guardian cost between pounds 30 and pounds 50 and sound an alarm when the child moves more than 30 feet away. But major chains have been cautious about adopting them. Neither Boots nor Mothercare stock any electronic devices. A spokeswoman for Mothercare said: "We're not 100 per cent sure they really work. Most of the products on the market aren't up to much. We prefer to sell reins instead."

Susan Pinckney of the Child Accident Prevention Trust agreed: "It gives parents a false sense of security. An alarm may go off when the child is 30 feet away but 30 feet away could be in the middle of the road. Parents should be teaching their children about safety not relying on alarms."

Just how fearful parents are was made apparent by a recent survey for the children's charity Barnado's. Nearly half of all parents interviewed said their children never or hardly ever played out without adult supervision and 70 per cent said their neighbourhood was unsafe. Although the biggest single fear is danger from strangers, the likelihood is slight. From 1983 to 1993, an average 86 children under 16 were killed each year in England and Wales, only five a year by strangers.

Some child experts believe that extra security, such as tags, could be bad for children. Dr Ned Mueller, a clinical psychologist dealing with children, believes confining them could retard intellectual development.

Neil Churchill, of Barnado's, also believes the answer does not lie in tagging. "Children need to be free to experiment, to learn things for themselves. We are limiting them by keeping them indoors. We need to give children a chance," he said.