Kids in the waiting room
More than half of Northern Ireland’s major human rights concerns centre on children.
The Human Right’s Commission’s (NIHRC) annual statement, published in December, raised red flags about 13 different issues, seven of which affect children and young people rather than adults.
Speaking with Scope, NI Commissioner for Children and Young People Koulla Yiasouma said this does not reflect a lack of care for children’s welfare – either socially or politically - but instead it has arisen because we treat children as if they are just preparing for adulthood, rather than people and individuals with their own wants and needs.
“In many ways, children are not treated as citizens. They are viewed as passive recipients of services.
“We talk about children as our future, as if children are in the waiting room for life. Now, of course we need to see them safely to adulthood, but they also need rights that respect those first 18 years.”
Ms Yiasouma cites NICCY’s statement on children’s rights from last November, which begins with the quotation: “Childhood is not a preparation for life, childhood is life. A child isn’t getting ready to live – a child is living.”
In her foreword, the Commissioner writes: “In Northern Ireland we have unfortunately often been bystanders, watching as other jurisdictions on these islands have to varying degrees moved forward by publishing strategies, introducing new structures and passing legislation that has furthered children’s rights.
“It has sometimes felt like the children and young people of Northern Ireland were being left behind and becoming the poor forgotten relative.”
The seven problem issues for children identified by the Human Rights Commissioner cover a breadth of areas including child sexual exploitation, the age of criminal responsibility, the number of children held on remand, the number who go missing from care, early marriage, relationship and sexuality education, and physical punishment.
In Northern Ireland, smacking children remains legal, protected by the defence of “reasonable chastisement”.
Ms Yiasouma said: “You can’t smack an adult, nor should you be allowed to. I can’t hit my cat. You can’t hit your wife, she can’t hit you, but you can both hit your three-year-old as long as you don’t leave a bruise. I don’t understand how anyone thinks that’s a reasonable argument to make.”
The Commissioner says further that there is “irrefutable evidence” that much domestic abuse of children begins with smacking.
However, she says we all need to recognise that smacking has been a normal part of raising children here (and in many other places) for a very long time, and the process of changing that culture is not about being judgemental or hectoring people.
“Nowadays we know more than we used to. That’s the nature of progress. This is about developing our children, developing our childcare and how we view our children.
“I’m not into judging people who smacked their children - or who continue to smack their children. What I’m saying to parents now is there’s another way to do things.”
The NIHRC report recommends that the reasonable chastisement defence is repealed, while research by NICCY suggests there is strong public support for changing the law.
Relationship and sexuality education
Northern Ireland has made a legislative commitment to introduce a mandatory curriculum on relationship and sexuality education (RSE).
This legislation effective promises that Stormont will implement recommendations made in 2018 by the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which found that “NI youth are denied the education necessary to enjoy their sexual and reproductive health and rights”.
CEDAW recommended that the Executive “make age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights a compulsory component of curriculum for adolescents, covering prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion, and monitor its implementation.”
These obligations have not been met. Ms Yiasouma told Scope that the nature of NI’s coalition government means it can be difficult to reach consensus on issues – particular ones that are divisive, such as abortion. However, in this case, things are different.
“There’s a piece of legislation that says you have to introduce a mandatory curriculum on RSE. So, why have you not implemented it? It’s not even about consensus.”
Consensus, however, is a barrier elsewhere, such as with physical punishment or the minimum age of criminal responsibility, which remains at 10 years old in NI.
Per the NIHRC report: “In 2011, a Department of Justice review concluded that “the minimum age should be increased to 12 forthwith and, following a period of review and preparation, perhaps to 14, which has some historical and current significance for criminal law in NI”.
“In August 2020, the Minister of Justice, Naomi Long MLA, wrote to other NI Executive Ministers seeking their views on raising the age of criminal responsibility in NI. Responses have been received from the Ministers for Communities, Finance and Infrastructure.”
The Children’s Commissioner says that one of the reasons that rights are codified is to allow them protections from political disagreements. Nevertheless, that does not mean that barriers simply disappear.
“Naomi Long has been very clear - and she said this at the launch of our statement on Children’s Rights - that she would legislate to raise the age of criminal responsibility but doesn’t feel she is able to gain consensus.”
The Commissioner said other issues might face fewer obstacles to progress, such as the minimum age of marriage – which she says should rise to 18 – while the matter of too many children being held on remand ahead of trial is more a symptom of gaps in services rather than a disagreement about principles.
Northern Ireland needs to develop a range of non-custodial accommodation options for children awaiting trial who cannot return to their homes. Without this, rates of remand are likely to stay high.
Attitudes about risk
One area where attitudes could change is around children who have suffered trauma.
In 2019/2020, the Police Service NI received 2,300 missing persons reports from Residential Children’s Homes, relating to 205 children – with 16 of those children reported missing over 40 times each, and one reported missing a total of 91 times.
Ms Yiasouma says the level of public concern about this could be higher, with many people believing that children who run away from care are putting themselves at risk – but that many of these kids have suffered terrible Adverse Childhood Experiences and “many do not see themselves as having any choices… they are often not in a position where they make legitimate choices.”
Regarding child sexual exploitation, there are several issues. The first is that adults who sexually abuse children are treated differently if those children are aged 13 or older.
A defendant can claim they believed the victim to be 16 or above, and the onus is then on prosecutors to show that this was not the case.
NIHRC recommends that the burden of proof for this defence is reversed – i.e. that a defendant can still make that defence, but must then prove that they reasonably believed this to be true.
The second issue is how the justice system treats child victims. NIHRC recommends that Northern Ireland implements the Barnahus Model, which lets victims move on from their own involvement with the justice system in a matter of days or weeks – rather than the months or years that frequently pass between a criminal allegation and a trial.
The Children’s Commissioner told Scope: “I’m really unhappy that we have this age 13 threshold. We treat people who offend and abuse 13-year-olds differently to those who are under 13, and I’m very uncomfortable with that position.
“The Barnahus Model is a major thing for NICCY. We want to see it progress. Barnahus basically frontloads a child’s involvement with the criminal justice system. They get questioned under the supervision of a judge and a defence lawyer, and are then taken out of the criminal justice system.
“It’s an Icelandic model that is now being rolled out across the world. Children tell their story, and are then allowed to heal, and have proper therapeutic interventions – rather than have a trial held over them, and the fact that they will have to be held to account.
“It’s not that proper questions of criminal defence are not put to them, but that this is done in a different way, and done sooner.”
The Children’s Commissioner said: “It’s not that, as a society, we are not invested in children – although perhaps we could do more, financially – but the question is whether we are doing the right things, or even taking the right approach.
“A better vision is required. I don’t think we have a vision for children which is sustainable, and I think our threshold for what we think is acceptable for children is quite low.
Ms Yiasouma says she is confident that, for many of these issues, support already exists for change, or minds could be changed by having open and honest conversations.
However, she also said that NIHRC’s assessment is a sound one and, if anything, more red flags could have been raised, citing NI’s long-standing educational inequalities (in particular, for children with special educational needs) as another problem area.
The question, perhaps, is one of priorities. And our priorities are ordered by our vision.
What does Northern Ireland want for its children? Before answering that question, we should ask another. Is childhood an 18-year-long induction day, or is it part of life itself?
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