BBC accused of putting tots at risk

STEVE DOWNES BBC bosses were last night accused of putting Norfolk children at risk for the sake of entertainment on a controversial reality show.

STEVE DOWNES

BBC bosses were last night accused of putting Norfolk children at risk for the sake of entertainment on a controversial reality show.

Twenty-five children - from tiny babies to 14-year-olds - were used as guinea pigs for The Baby Borrowers series, which is screened from Monday.

The vulnerable youngsters were thrust into the care of inexperienced teenage couples on a Norwich housing estate and watched around the clock by TV cameras.

Among the most disturbing results, a 10-year-old boy went a day without food and a baby had to be removed from the care of one couple as relationships began to fall apart under the glare of the cameras.

The BBC said it had taken “extraordinary steps” to ensure the safety of the children.

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But Norfolk child protection chiefs were so worried about the “very real risk” of physical or psychological damage to the children that they:

t urged the BBC to cancel the series;

t demanded evidence that the producers had carried out a full risk assessment;

t asked to have social workers present on set to monitor the welfare of the children.

But what county officials described as an “obstructive and very unhelpful” BBC, the requests were refused.

The children's parents gave permission for their youngsters to feature in the show - leaving the authorities powerless to protect them.

Last night, the BBC was accused of acting irresponsibly and taking reality TV too far by stretching the boundaries of the controversial genre from consenting adults to babies and children.

Dr Caroline Ball, chairman of Norfolk's local safeguarding children board, which oversees the welfare of all of the county's children and young people, said: “We did not believe that it was in the best interests of babies, children and young people to be placed in stressful and risky situations, under the spotlight of cameras, in the interests of factual entertainment.

“We made our views very clear at the start that we wanted them to reconsider undertaking the show at all.

“We made several representations regarding assurances about the way children were looked after. We had very unhelpful responses.”

The BBC Three show - which was filmed in a close in Sprowston, near Norwich, and was originally to be called Teen Town - involved five teenage couples from across Britain and is designed to see how the young people respond to being a parent at a time when Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe.

The parents of the babies and children in their care - many of whom are from Norfolk - watched the action unfold via monitors, and on more than one occasion intervened because of the behaviour of the teenagers towards their loved ones.

A BBC spokeswoman said professional nannies were also on standby throughout the experiment, while the programme-makers worked with registered charity Teens and Toddlers, which acted as consultants to “ensure that the subject matter is handled with sensitivity”.

The BBC spokeswoman said: “The safety of children is of paramount importance to everyone involved with the production. Hence extraordinary steps were taken, including psychological screening, criminal records checks, the use of 24/7 CCTV cameras and employing only trained childcare professionals and registered childminders to monitor and safeguard the wellbeing of the children.”

She added that all the babies had to be at least six months old, and should have experienced some kind of separation from their parents in the past - including time in a nursery or with a childminder.

Although the series is yet to be shown, the BBC has publicised some of the more controversial moments, including:

On programme two, when the teenagers are shown looking after babies for three days, “arguments soon ensue” and “one couple deals with the ultimate disaster - a baby having to be removed”.

On programme three, 16-year-old Raiesa, from London, “abandons responsibility for her child and boyfriend Kallai has to pick up the pieces”.

On show five, Alex, 17, and 18-year-old Sam, from Somerset and Dorset, have “hell-raisers Aiden, six, and eight-year-old Connor to contend with. “Alex and Sam bicker in front of the kids as their relationship problems flare up.”

During the same episode, Kallai and Raiesa get 10-year-old Jake and his two rabbits. “She lets Jake down badly by failing to cook for him, and mum is shocked to discover that he goes without food for a day”.

The Baby Borrowers begins on BBC Three on Monday, January 8 at 10.30pm. The main shows follow on January 9, 11, 12, 15, 16, 18 and 19 at the same time.

t Are you one of the parents of the babies or children featured on The Baby Borrowers? We would like to hear your side of the story. Call Steve Downes on 01603 772495 or EDP newsdesk on 01603 772433. Alternatively, email steve.downes@archant.co.uk.