Call for Improvement to Protect the Rights of Children in Care

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21 August 2015

A new research report released today by the Human Rights Commission examines the Rights of Children in Care in Northern Ireland. It highlights there are currently more ‘looked after children’ in Northern Ireland than at any time since the Children Order came into effect and that the numbers of child protection and children in need referrals are on an upward curve.

Chief Commissioner Les Allamby stated:

“In 2015 we are even more aware how very vulnerable children in care are, children who for whatever reason cannot live with their families, must be offered the highest level of human rights protection. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child requires the best interests of the child to be a primary consideration in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies.

At the time compiling this report there were over 2,800 looked after children in Northern Ireland, almost one fifth of these children had been in the system for 5-10 years. Our research identifies on-going difficulties with the current system and indicates that reforms are required in a number of areas. Our aim is for improvements be made without delay as it is essential that our laws and practices protect children’s human rights at every step of their journey through the care system.”

The report identifies a number of areas for improvement, including:

Practice of Moving Children: The report highlights that some children are facing placement moves due to financial pressure within Trusts’, for example, moving from private foster placements, to Trust’s foster placements. Of the looked after children who had placement moves in the year 2012- 2013, over 20% had between one to three placement moves. While these figures indicate that the majority of Looked After Children are in relatively stable placements, those who continue to experience placement moves are exposed to “a level of intense disruption” and “a risk to their sense of security and stability”.

Delay in N.I Adoption Process: The report shines the spotlight again on the N.I Adoption process. Despite the Department for Health and Social Services and Public Safety’s recognition are far back as 2006 that the current law is out of date. The Adoption order NI Order 1987 has not been reformed. The Commission recommends that Department should expeditiously bring forward new legislation which addresses concerns surrounding adoption in NI, including delay.

The right of the child to be heard and taken seriously: The report captures the voice of looked after young people who expressed that they feel a strong sense of powerlessness and lack of decision making in their care. It indicates that inadequate information is available regarding the protection of the right of affected children to be heard and taken seriously, as well as the participation of parents, at crucial stages of the child welfare system including:

• in the care planning process;

• in determinations regarding secure accommodation.

Concerns over criminalisation of young people in residential care: Interviewee’s in the report highlighted that young people in residential care were being penalised for offences in a way that they would not if the resided with their parents. They also stated that the practice of calling police out should only occur as a measure of last resort and that focus should be on finding alternative means of dealing with incidents. Concern was also expressed by some of those interviewed for the purposes of this report at the lack of consistency across residential care settings in how they responded to incidents, and suggested that there was a need for more staff training and learning from good practice.

Further information:

For further information please contact Claire Martin on: claire.martin@nihrc.org (028) 9024 3987).

Notes to editors

1. The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is an independent statutory body first proposed in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement (1998) and established in 1999 by the Northern Ireland Act (1998). It is answerable to Parliament at Westminster.

2. Children should not be separated from their parents unless it is in the child’s best interests and States are required to provide assistance to parents in fulfilling their parental responsibilities in order to prevent the need for alternative care. However, international standards also require the child’s safety to be secured and in certain circumstances the child will need to be placed in alternative care in order to fulfil these rights.

3. At 31 March, 2014 there were 2,858 looked after children in Northern Ireland.

• 249 (9%) been looked after for more than 10 years

• 547 (19%) children had been looked after for between 5 and 10 years.

4. At 31 March, 2013 there were 2, 807 looked after children in Northern Ireland.

• 247 children (9%) were Looked After for more than 10 years.

• 529 children (19%) were Looked After for between 5 and 10 years.

• 447 children (16%) were Looked After for between 3 and 5 years.

• 862 children (31%) were Looked After for between 1 and 3 years.

• 722 children (26%) were Looked After for less than a year.

5. The UNCRC requires the best interests of the child to be a primary consideration “in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies.”This requirement is also reflected in international human rights standards regarding the rights of children such as the UN Guidelines for the Alternative Care of Children. Similarly the Declaration on Social and Legal Principles relating to the Protection and Welfare of Children, with Special Reference to Foster Placement and Adoption Nationally and Internationally states that: “In all matters relating to the placement of a child outside the care of the child’s own parents, the best interests of the child, particularly his or her need for affection and right to security and continuing care, should be the paramount consideration.”

6. Access the Report: Alternative Care and Children’s Rights in Northern Ireland


21 Aug 2015