Investigations & Analysis - Northern Ireland
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Signposts for the future

24 JANUARY 2013

SBNI chair Hugh Connor
SBNI chair Hugh Connor

BY KATHRYN TORNEY

THE new Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI) was established and took on responsibility for case management reviews in September 2012.

Since then four cases have been referred to the board for possible CMR. A decision has been taken to progress two to case management review. One case will not be reviewed and the SBNI is awaiting further information from the PSNI on the fourth case.

In an interview with The Detail, SBNI chair Hugh Connor confirmed that the two cases which will be reviewed by the board are one case of child neglect and the other case centres on physical abuse of a child. Neither of the children died as a result of the abuse.

Mr Connor said: “The number of children dying in Northern Ireland because of abuse or neglect has dropped considerably but still every year one to two children die at the hands of their parents.

“Listening to children is central and this is a key issue which I want the SBNI to tackle. At times this can be difficult to do with hard to reach children but it is so important.

“Child protection is everyone’s business and social services and the police need help from others like health professionals, schools and those who provide services to adults with drug and mental health problems.

“If health professionals identify issues within families they need to report them and then an assessment can be done on the children’s needs. If the referrals do not come through, children can be left without support.

“This new overview report shows that a high percentage of the children who died were not known to child protection services. This is particularly true of babies. It is young children who are the most vulnerable.”

Mr Connor said that the child protection system had improved as a result of CMRs.

“We have learned some very key messages from CMRs like babies and adolescents are the two prime groups at risk,” he said.

“Early intervention can prevent deterioration within families and it also saves the state a lot of money.

“However, this is a time of great financial stringency. Savings have had to be made and in some cases this has affected support services who offer early intervention.

“Child protection is about rescuing children at real risk but we want to stop it getting to that stage.”

Dealing with neglect will also be a priority for the SBNI.

Mr Connor said: “It is often difficult to deal with neglect because it is cumulative and happens day on day, week on week and year on year. A child standing in front of you with a black eye and cut lip or with allegations of sexual abuse is much more obvious. It can be much harder to identify neglect.

“There is no doubt that listening to children is key to all of this but some parents are deceitful and can do things to throw people off track.

“There are risk factors but we cannot use these as predictive factors as, for example, living in poverty does not mean to say that parents are going to fail their children. Many families are able to rise above this.”

Under the new SBNI rules, three criteria must be met for a case management review to take place:

  • Has a child died or been seriously harmed?
  • Was abuse or neglect a factor? OR Was the child or siblings on the child protection register? OR in the care of social services.
  • Does the Safeguarding Board have concerns about the efficiency of any of the agencies involved in safeguarding and promoting the welfare of the children.

If a case goes to CMR, each agency has to reflect on its practice.

The SBNI wants to ensure that there is consistency in the new reports. The overview report showed wide variation in style and approach in the CMR reports completed to date.

Departmental guidance states that the reviews should have been completed within six months.

The overview report launched today notes that details on the number of panel meetings were only available for 15 CMRs which took place between 2003 and 2008. These reviews took an average of 36 weeks to complete – but ranged in length from 10 to 88 weeks.

The length of the written reports also varied from 13 to 141 pages (an average of 71 pages per report) and the number of recommendations ranged from 5 to 63.

The size of the review panels also varied, from one review undertaken by a single person, to another with 13 members. The average number of panel members, including the chairperson, was seven.

“As well as reporting on the facts of the case, we also need to ensure that learning is implemented,” Mr Connor said.

“I am also required to share the reports and do plan to put them into the public domain. However, how this is done may vary on a case by case basis as I need to pay attention to data protection legislation and I also do not want to cause any further hardship to siblings of the children.

“I may also do overview reports or thematic reviews on the CMRs.”

THE SURVIVOR’S VIEW

Pete Saunders, chief executive of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood (NAPAC) is due to speak at today’s launch event at Queen’s University.

Mr Saunders was born and raised in South West London and was abused by various people throughout his childhood. He didn’t speak about his abuse until he was 40 years old.

He left teaching to set up NAPAC, which is starting a support group in Belfast at the end of February.

Speaking to The Detail before he travelled to Belfast, Mr Saunders said: “As a survivor representing a national survivor organisation we are encouraged that society is finally – hopefully – learning the lessons of the past and taking child protection seriously.

“People are finally understanding that children who are abused grow up to carry a burdensome pain of suffering into their adult life.

“A worrying statistic I note is that a person in the UK today is more likely to be murdered during the first year of their life than at any other. We also know that some children are killed by their parents or carers and not reported as such.

“This is a reflection on all of us and society needs to do much more to teach us about the hard work, dedication and patience required to bring up children.”

Mr Saunders warned that there is no room for complacency.

He continued: “In Rochdale not many months ago a catalogue of abuse was going on unnoticed in front of everyone’s eyes.

“It is important to listen to children. No one listened to the victims of Jimmy Savile who dared to come forward.

“This overview of the case management reviews carried out in Northern Ireland can only help everyone learn from past mistakes and benefit from where things were handled appropriately.

“I am grateful that survivors of abuse are being heard at last because at the end of the day, we are the experts, sadly by experience.”

© The Detail 2013