Children in NI face plenty of problems (part two)
NI statutory departments are withholding reports about planned reforms to protect children from sexual abuse, according to a new flagship report from the Children’s Commissioner.
The Departments of Health, Education and Justice all committed to publishing biannual updates on implementation of the recommendations from the Marshall Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE).
The 2014 report said that CSE was a “growing threat” in Northern Ireland and made 77 recommendations that the then-government and Stormont governments committed to implement, with a completion date set for November last year.
The Children’s Commissioner undertook a detailed review of those implementation plans before highlighting “serious concerns that plans were fragmented, inconsistent and needed to directly address the substance of the recommendations and also that independent oversight should be in place to give assurance that statutory responses to CSE were improving.”
The Departments have only ever released two progress reports, covering the period to June 30, 2016 – 18 months before implementation was due to complete – and have since then simply stated that some recommendations are considered fully implemented. They have concluded that, in the absence of government ministers, they are unable to release the broader progress updates.
Commissioner Koulla Yiasouma has called for progress reports to be made public, and for real assurances that the Marshall recommendations have been properly implemented and NI children are now better protected from sexual exploitation.
These calls came in her inaugural Statement on Children’s Rights in Northern Ireland. This article is the second half of our look at the statement (last week’s article is here) which also addressed other safeguarding issues, such as bullying, and a whole lot more.
Safeguarding – child sexual exploitation
NICCY, as a rights-based organisation, pays particular heed to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. In 2016 it released its latest periodic examination of the UK; this report’s concluding remarks were a central pillar for NICCY’s assessments in all areas of its statement.
The UN Committee, amongst a raft of general remarks, said specifically that the recommendations of the Marshall Inquiry should be implemented; the Children’s Commissioner has serious concerns about whether this is being moved forward.
NICCY states that the rights sitting behind the responsibility to safeguard children are “some of the most fundamental” that should be afforded, including rights to life, to protection from harm, abuse and violence and special protection rights for some of our most vulnerable children.
Noting that child abuse is an under-reported problem, the statement says: “At 31 March 2017 [a total of] 22,737 children in Northern Ireland were known to Social Services as a child in need and 2,132 children were placed on the Child Protection Register. There has been an 11% increase in children on the Child Protection Register between 2014 and 2017 and 80% of those placed on the Children Protection Register have been due to physical abuse, neglect or a combination of both.”
Some number of structural changes have been made following the identification of key failings in how agencies were handling child protection, including dedicated contact points in health trusts and the creation of the Safeguarding Board for NI. Further changes are anticipated.
More recent findings have looked at protection of children in particular circumstances, specifically those at risk of sexual exploitation. The Marshall Report called for changes across health and social, education, and justice that could significantly improve the local picture.
NICCY’s statement said: “The Departments of Health, Education and Justice committed to developing plans to implement recommendations and to publish six monthly progress reports on implementation with completion in November 2017.
“Following a 2015 seminar in which NICCY brought together the Chair of the Independent Inquiry, Departmental and statutory leads and a range of practitioners to discuss the Inquiry recommendations, NICCY undertook a detailed review of CSE Implementation Plans. This highlighted serious concerns that plans were fragmented, inconsistent and needed to directly address the substance of the recommendations and also that independent oversight should be in place to give assurance that statutory responses to CSE were improving.
“To date, Departments have published only two rounds of Progress Reports which cover the period up to 30 June 2016. In examining these, the Commissioner has reiterated earlier concerns that Plans and Progress Reports have not provided a robust framework to take forward learning from the Inquiry or demonstrated that real improvements in tackling CSE have been achieved.
“For example, to date there is no published profile or prevalence data of CSE in Northern Ireland, no proposals to strengthen legal protections for all under 18s have been brought forward and progress against the range of Inquiry recommendations tasked to the Safeguarding Board has not been reported. It is of growing concern to NICCY that Departments have assessed an increasing number of recommendations as fully implemented and completed without substantiating evidence.
“Departments have concluded that, in the absence of Ministers, the third round of Progress Reports cannot be released and NICCY has written to the Department of Health to highlight concern about this decision. There is an urgent need for Progress Reports to be placed into the public domain and to give assurance that the Inquiry recommendations have been fully implemented and are ensuring that children and young people are better protected from CSE today.”
NICCY’s calls to government, regarding CSE:
1. In reviewing the arrangements for the Safeguarding Board and Children and Young People’s Strategic Partnership, ensure that a strong, independent, multiagency child protection body is in place;
2. Commencing a statutory multiagency child death review process in line with Section 3(5) of the Safeguarding Board Act (Northern Ireland) 2011;
3. Publishing CSE Progress Reports providing assurance that the Independent Inquiry recommendations have been fully implemented.
The Addressing Bullying in Schools Act received assent in 2016 but is not expected to commence until the 2018 – 19 academic year. It provides a common definition of bullying, a requirement for all grant-aided schools to record all incidents of bullying, and a requirement for each Board of Governors to designate one or more members, with specific responsibility for anti-bullying policies and their implementation within the school.
However, “NICCY has concerns that schools will continue to have operational freedom of school discipline matters, including recognising and classifying incidents as ‘bullying behaviour’, and that the new duty relates only to pupil on pupil bullying.”
In terms of specific types of bullying, NICCY highlights transphobic bullying as a major ongoing issue in schools that teachers and others with responsibility are struggling to tackle.
“Experiences of transphobic bullying were commonly found to involve sustained verbal abuse, which was perpetrated by pupils of all ages, frequently in public spaces with many witnesses. On occasions, young people reported that staff who were aware that bullying was occurring, did not offer support or attempt to end the harassment.
“[An Institute for Conflict Research report] found that typically staff lacked the appropriate awareness and knowledge to respond to incidences of transphobic bullying, and that often a school’s reaction is to view the young person as the problem rather than the bully. So they are prepared to allow the young person being bullied to drop out of school rather than address the bullying.
“The report found that many young transgender people in Northern Ireland are dropping out of education permanently because of the negative impact transphobic bullying has on their lives, and the inability of schools to adequately support them.”
Cyberbullying is also a problem without adequate solutions. For instance, there is no agreed definition for the word, as well as no overarching policy, meaning there is little clarity on schools’ responsibility to deal with this form of bullying “where in the majority of cases, the bullying behaviour by pupils is occurring both outside school hours and outside the school premises.”
The National Children’s Bureau has developed an e-safety strategy and action plan for NI, commissioned by the Safeguarding Board, which was submitted to the Executive Office for consultation approval in December 2016; NICCY hopes that, once an Executive is re-established, “approval to consult will be one of the first actions taken.”
In general, bullying is a major issue for NICCY: “In 2017/18 bullying accounted for 14% of the education-related enquiries received into our Legal and Investigations service. The persistently high levels of reported bullying are deeply concerning.”
Calls to government:
1. Bullying remains a significant issue for many children and young people in Northern Ireland. All children should be protected from violence and harm, including when using technology, social media and the internet. Efforts to tackle bullying and violence in schools should be intensified and prioritised;
2. The ‘Addressing Bullying in Schools Act (Northern Ireland) 2016’ must be commenced. The Education Authority and schools should ensure the consistent and robust implementation and monitoring of anti-bullying policies and compliance with the Act;
3. Work on the urgent implementation of the draft e-Safety Strategy and Action Plan for children and young people in Northern Ireland must be taken forward without delay. A comprehensive overarching policy on cyberbullying should also be progressed as a matter of priority in order to keep children safe from harm.
Children and families subject to immigration control
Children or families subject to immigration control can include migrants, refugees or asylum seekers. The children themselves can be unaccompanied, or “separated”.
Between 2000 and 2014, NI had net positive international migration of 32,000 people (175,000 long-term international migrants arrived and 143,000 left). The number of newcomer pupils in schools rose by three quarters during that period. NICCY is calling for greater support, generally, in protecting the right of children under the purview of immigration control.
However, the commissioner’s main concerns appear to with separated children.
Thankfully there are very few children in this situation – for example, 13 arrived in 2015/16 - however, while some improvements have been made (including the independent guardian service, established in April), NICCY says more needs to be done because of the high proportion of these children that went missing having arrived between 2008 and 2015.
Of 62 recorded separated children arriving in Northern Ireland in that period, 26 went missing and 20 remained missing at June 2016.
Calls to government:
1. The UK and Northern Ireland Governments must ensure that the rights of all children, including those of destitute asylum seekers, are fully protected and they receive the support they need;
2. The Government must ensure that all separated children have access to an independent Guardian;
3. Government should seek to support the transfer of separated children to Northern Ireland in cases where this would meet their best interests.
Over two articles, Scope has provided what we hope is a solid snapshot of some of the issues the Children’s Commissioner’s inaugural statement.
As well as the sections we have covered – education, mental health, poverty and safeguarding – the NICCY report also looked at youth justice, Brexit, legacy of the conflict, participation (in politics, education and, more broadly, all matters that affect them), and challenging discrimination.
The full report is the guts of 100 pages long but is well worth a read. It represents good work by the Children’s Commissioner and the next statement will be extremely interesting reading, most of all because of how the findings and recommendations compare with those in this first paper.
Hopefully the trajectory is in the right direction.
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