Weak partnerships failing children in Northern Ireland

19 Aug 2016 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 22 Aug 2016

Illustration by Patrick Sanders
Illustration by Patrick Sanders

Children who find themselves in the most difficult situations are being let down by failures in partnership working – growing evidence suggests local agencies struggle to deal with complex problems

Northern Ireland has problems looking after children who find themselves in the toughest situations.

Just this week, criticisms about the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland’s (SBNI) failures to deliver its core functions were revealed.

The independent review, led by Prof Alexis Jay OBE (who also led the Rotherham Abuse Inquiry) said: “Perhaps the most troubling concern was the lack of structured focus on the multi-agency aspects of child protection.

“The board now needs to restate its core role of ensuring that work to protect children is properly coordinated.”

Accusations of potential holes in the overall service, particularly when any partnership work is required, begin to look thoroughly problematic when other sources (and ultimately other recent criticisms) are taken into account.

This month Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) published a report which raised concerns about how the PSNI handles the needs of vulnerable victims, including child sexual exploitation and missing children in particular.

Earlier this year a BBC Spotlight investigation revealed that, since 2005, eight separated children (children who have travelled to a foreign country unaccompanied by a parent or guardian) have disappeared while in Northern Ireland.

However, Scope can now reveal that this figure appears to be a significant underestimate, and as many as 22 separated children could have gone missing during that period – with up to 20 still unaccounted for.

These new figures originate with the Health and Social Care Board and the health trusts, and were outlined by the Minister of Health in a written response to a question from DUP MLA Lord Morrow (for context about the lack of absolute precision in the figures, see the footnote to the HSCB table).

As if the vanishing of separated children was not bad enough, the fact that our authorities do not seem to be able to keep track of numbers that have disappeared – and that revisions of these figures go upwards – is extremely galling.

And this was not the case of one correction putting things back on track. The BBC investigation showed degrees of uncertainty across a period of time among state actors, and these latest figures compound that further. Not only do we not have a grasp of the problem, we do not appear to have a grasp of our lack of a grasp of the problem.


The police do not have chief responsibility for separated children.  This does not mean they should not make palpable improvements.

And it is not just separated children who could be better served by the police. There are failures in helping children who go missing and those at risk of sexual exploitation as well.

These issues are not all one and the same. Children who go missing (whose parents/guardians are local) are a distinct group from separated children, albeit there might be similarities in how to deal with them, while those at risk of sexual exploitation is a third group, but one which can overlap with both the first and second.

The recent HMIC report noted:

“PSNI's response to missing children is not consistently good. The service has a detailed service procedure and its risk assessment process is well structured, but it recognises that the way it conducts risk assessments and works with partners to prevent children going missing could be improved. The assessment of missing children who are known to be at high risk of child sexual exploitation as at medium risk of coming to harm, without a clear explanation, means that the service may not appropriately prioritise and resource its search for these children.

“The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is not yet prepared fully to tackle child sexual exploitation. The service, with partners, has introduced a governance framework and is developing good links between specialists and social workers. However, the PSNI has work to do to train specialists and frontline staff and develop links with private sector companies including hotels, fast-food outlets and taxi drivers to prevent and gather intelligence about sexual exploitation.”

Ways to improve

No-one should expect this to be easy. Vulnerable children – whether they are separated children, or those who have parents or guardians in Northern Ireland – frequently become vulnerable because of extremely complicated and sensitive backgrounds.

From the report, however, it appears where the PSNI needs to improve is in how it deals with the complications faced in investigations of this kind.

“HMIC examined six missing from home records for children as part of the inspection. It was apparent that the process to assess and locate missing children was being followed, but that underlying issues which caused the child to go missing were not being consistently identified and resolved leading to multiple repeat missing episodes…

“The service and partners recognise the need to prevent the harm to children that arises from repeat missing episodes. The PSNI's public protection branch now holds joint partnership meetings with the Northern Ireland Health and Social Care Trusts (HSCT), Youth Justice and voluntary agencies, to find ways to address the reasons looked after children go missing. These children have complex needs and this multi-agency approach has the best chance of finding and implementing solutions. However, we found that governance, and support for vulnerable children who are not in care or at risk of CSE [Child Sexual Exploitation], is insufficient.”

Similar criticisms are aimed at the force’s readiness to deal with those at risk of CSE. Like the other issues discussed here, this is not just an issue for the PSNI or any one agency, with a cross-cutting approach absolutely necessary to tackle the problem.

However, there is “no overarching strategy” leading to different approaches in different Health Trust Areas, while a team set up within the public protection branch to tackle CSE was criticised for not clearly defining officers’ roles, having no specialist training and putting too much on the plate of the single officer in charge.

The HMIC report also warns that current staffing plans will “dilute the PSNI's good work to understand and prevent harm to the children”.

These aren’t just matters for the PSNI. Complex problems can only be handled in partnerships – albeit with the police and health agencies (including the trusts) right in the vanguard. Per the HMIC report, multi-agency systems are in place, but clearly they are not working to a satisfactory level. This echoes observations in the review into the SBNI.

Partnership working done well can clearly bring great results. However, if there are shortcomings, even small ones, at many or all points in the partnership then the outcomes can be extremely disappointing.

These are not straightforward issues – but we must do better.

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