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Tuesday, 18 November 2014

'Significant under-estimate' likely, new NI child abuse report

Written by The Editorial Team

Northern Ireland Health Minister Jim Wells has announced the findings of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Exploitation (CSE), led by Kathleen Marshall.

In an Oral Statement to the Assembly, the Minister told MLAs that the inquiry concludes that while child sexual exploitation is not new in Northern Ireland and takes many forms, it has been difficult to establish its prevalence, mainly due to its hidden nature and under-reporting.

Speaking to the Assembly the Minister said: “All forms of child abuse, including CSE are totally unacceptable. I want Northern Ireland to be a safer place for children and young people and the most hostile of environments for those who abuse or exploit children and young people. Last year my predecessor, on behalf of my Department and the Departments of Justice (DOJ) and Education (DE), commissioned an Independent Inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland. That inquiry, led by Kathleen Marshall, is now complete.”

The Inquiry was charged with: establishing the nature and extent of CSE in Northern Ireland; examining how effective cross-sectoral child safeguarding and protection arrangements are in preventing and tackling child sexual exploitation; and considering how well we are safeguarding and protecting looked after children. The Inquiry was asked to make recommendations on future actions.

The Minister continued: “On the nature and extent of CSE in Northern Ireland, the Inquiry concludes that it is not new and it takes different forms, as it does throughout the UK, but there are particular Northern Ireland dimensions to it. A number of individuals expressed an ardent plea that the Inquiry should speak up about the paramilitary dimension to CSE. Individuals believed to be members of, or linked to, paramilitary groups used that authority and the fear it engendered to exploit children and young people. The Inquiry was told very clearly that paramilitary influence may cause and facilitate CSE. Within communities it can build upon loyalty and fear.

“The Inquiry concludes that available data can only give a ‘rough idea’ of the extent of CSE and it is likely to be a significant under-estimate. The report states the first step in tackling CSE is to recognise it exists and suggests more cases will be identified as awareness increases and there is a recommendation linked to raising public awareness.

“While we do not know the full extent of CSE in Northern Ireland, we can say there are no findings in this Inquiry that point to the type of organised exploitation seen in Rotherham or Rochdale; nor does it have the same ethnic minority dimension. There is no evidence in the report to suggest cover-up, corruption or lack of commitment on the part of agencies or individuals.

“While that may be the case, there is no room for complacency and the Inquiry report counsels vigilance in the face of changes in social attitudes and in the cultural make-up of Northern Ireland society.”

The Inquiry Report contains 17 key recommendations and a further 60 supporting recommendations. Of the 17 key recommendations, seven are for DHSSPS and two of those recommend that actions are progressed jointly with the Departments of Justice and Education. The remaining 10 key recommendations are for the DOJ and DE, RQIA, SBNI, PSNI, the HSCB and HSC Trusts.

Mr Wells informed members that a number of the recommendations are already being progressed. He said: “To ensure a co-ordinated Health and Social Care (HSC) response to Kathleen Marshall’s report, I plan to establish an HSC CSE Response Team. The Team will be required to consider all of Mrs Marshall’s recommendations that are relevant to the HSC, consider responses to them and advise me of those by the end of January 2015. The Team will also consider where the HSC needs to work collaboratively with other Departments and agencies and make recommendations to me on how this should be done.”

The Minister updated members on the recommendations for his Department that are either already committed to or work is ongoing to deliver them. They include:

  • The development of a new child safeguarding policy;
  • A revised departmental circular, which will provide clear guidance to front-line practitioners on the sharing of information about adults considered to pose a risk to children;
  • The introduction of a new definition of adult at risk in the context of a new adult safeguarding policy, which we are currently consulting on;
  • A planned review of the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland;
  • Commencement of work on a public information campaign on CSE, with support from the Minister’s of Justice and Education.

The Minister continued: “This brings me to the next action, which is underway. Kathleen Marshall has very clearly identified advances in technology as increasing dangers and risks to young people. Helping children and young people keep safe in an electronic world and equipping their parents and those who work with them to keep them safe is a major challenge for all of us and a shared responsibility.

“I have already written to my Ministerial colleagues to seek their agreement to commission and fund the SBNI to develop an e-safety strategy and action plan for Northern Ireland.

“There are other recommendations in the report for the Departments of Justice and Education and their agents, including schools, the PSNI and the PPS. There are also recommendations for the SBNI and the RQIA. Ministers Ford and O’Dowd will consider those recommendations relevant to them and how they wish to respond. Where there is a need for cross-sectoral collaboration in progressing any of the accepted recommendations, my Ministerial colleagues and I will agree how this is to be done.”

The Health Minister welcomed Mrs Marshall’s counsel for a balanced response to the reality of CSE in Northern Ireland and avoiding a “panic that can lead to an unhealthy repression of and limitations on young people’s lives and expectations of human relationships.”

The Minister said we need greater awareness of CSE; we need to tackle the issues that make children vulnerable to CSE; and we need to promote the confidence of children and young people, their parents and carers, as well as those who work with them in the wider community to enable them to respond effectively to the risk of CSE.

The Minister concluded: “This is a step on a journey. We know more today about CSE than we did yesterday. Next year and in the years to come we will know more than we do today. It’s a journey that will continue for years to come and one that we need to make together. On behalf of my Ministerial colleagues, I would like to thank Kathleen Marshall and those who assisted her for their efforts.”

The full report is available here: www.dhsspsni.gov.uk/csereport181114.pdf