As a parent or guardian of a child under 16, you are entitled to request health information about your child as if it were your own information. For other personal information, the Privacy Act does not provide a right of access by a parent, but a parent or guardian can request information if the child is either too young to act on their own behalf, or where the child has consented.
This information will often be necessary to help parents raise and look after their children. But the parent or guardian’s right to access information is not absolute.
There will be some cases where information should be withheld from parents. Sometimes information is requested in situations of family breakdown and violence. Sometimes children will have suffered abuse and may be caught in the middle of bitter custody disputes.
An example is where a child undergoes counselling, and whether a parent should see the disclosures a child may make in those counselling sessions. In these situations, the child will be free discuss sensitive personal information, and needs to feel safe while doing this. This can be intensely sensitive and personal, and the improper release of such information could be detrimental to a child’s wellbeing. Trust in the counsellor will be diminished, and the child will be less likely to share sensitive information in the future.
In some cases a child may disclose abuse by a parent or a close family member. Releasing this information would very often be dangerous and unsafe.
The Privacy Act gives some protections around this. Information can be withheld under sections 27-29 of the Act. In particular under section 29(1)(d), an agency may refuse to disclose any information requested, if this is contrary to the interests of a child under the age of 16.
Sometimes it is not clear cut. When an agency is asked for information from a parent or guardian, there may be competing interests to consider and these can be hard to judge. Parents should be able to access information about their children, but ultimately the welfare of the child must come first. If you work in an agency, and you are asked for information and you have concerns or something raises alarm bells, you should ask for advice. If you are in doubt as to whether release is in the best interests of the child, do not release the information. If parents make a complaint to the Privacy Commissioner, we will look into it The outcome of that may be that further information is released. This is not a big deal if you’re acting with good intentions.
Whether requesting, withholding or releasing information, the welfare of the child must always be paramount and be at the forefront of any decision.