Roy received unanimous support in the NI Assembly on 1st October 2013 for moving the following amended motion on the subject of preventing the Exploitation of Children and Young People.
That this Assembly notes with concern the recent revelations regarding the abuse and exploitation of children and young people; calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to liaise with the Minister of Justice to initiate an inquiry to ascertain the prevalence of abuse and exploitation of children both in care and elsewhere; and further calls on all relevant Departments to outline the strategies that will be put in place to safeguard and protect all children and young people.
It is important that we put in place safeguarding and protection strategies that will cover all our young children; it is not just about the children in care. Yes, we need to have a particular focus on them, but we have to ensure that all vulnerable children, particularly those living in our communities, are also adequately protected.
I picked up on some comments at the end of last week from a child carer who had been talking to a group of young people. The comment that was reported in the media was, “Why are the officials arguing when we are still being raped?” Let us make sure that we move forward constructively, take the lessons and solve the difficulties that are there. After all that is done, let us spend as much time as it takes to investigate the past, but let us try to prevent the abuse that is happening now today. It is important that we move forward.
Why did I feel that it was necessary to table an amendment to the original motion? In the evidence to the joint Health and Justice Committee, Seán Holland, chief social services officer, said:
“Children in care are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation for a number of reasons, particularly the experiences that probably led them to being in care in the first place. However, the academic evidence is that they represent only about 20% of children likely to experience childhood sexual exploitation. So it is a much bigger issue than just children who are in care.”
For that primary reason, I felt that it was important for us to look at the safeguarding and protection of all children.
The statistic recently highlighted was that 22 young people have been sexually exploited while in care. There is a lot of information stating that that is just the tip of the iceberg. There may well be other children in care also suffering, but even just look at those 22. If those statistics, which have been established from desktop research, are accurate, we can expect there to be 80 more young children in Northern Ireland being sexually exploited in the community where they are living. So, it is important that, while focusing on the children in care, who are particularly vulnerable, we must also ensure that we look at other young children in our community who are equally vulnerable.
Mr Campbell: I thank the Member for giving way. He has outlined that 20% of children are in care, in addition to the greater number of children who are not. Therefore, does he agree that it is essential that the wider community gets the unanimous message from the Assembly that it is the care of and compassion for all children that must be the defining factor of the outcome of today’s deliberations?
Mr Beggs: I accept that absolutely. Given the fact that sexual exploitation is occurring in the community, it is important that we do not overlook that fact, and that we do not stigmatise the children who are in care. The life that they have experienced so far is not their fault. However, it is important that we recognise the scale of the problem that exists beyond our care homes. It is important that the community — neighbours, friends, and children and young people in schools — watch out for warning signs and feed their concerns into the system so that they can be addressed at the earliest possible opportunity, and so that fewer children reach our care homes and experience such difficulties in their life.
I notice from the recent child protection referral statistics that, at 30 June 2013, 1,790 children and young people are on the child protection register. There are 436 in the Northern Trust; 378 in the Belfast Trust; 359 in the South Eastern Trust; 316 in the Southern Trust, and 301 in the Western Trust. Those young people are deemed to be vulnerable. However, it is widely known that that vulnerability can often expose them to additional risks. I have no doubt that there are predators in the community who would spot a vulnerability — a lack of parenting assistance perhaps — and try to take advantage of that. So, it is important that, as a community, we look together to try to combat that and protect some of the weakest members in our community, those vulnerable children. We must look after all children in our community. It is not just about the children in care.
The third reason for the amendment is that, if we are actually going to empower our children and young people against grooming and predators who try to ingratiate themselves and ultimately abuse and misuse them, it is important that we work at the earliest possible stage. There is no point simply working with children once they reach care and have a very thorough protection and safeguarding system at that stage. We must work at the earliest stage, right from primary-school age children. Take, for example, stranger danger; we must start warning all our children and young people, with age-appropriate messages, of the dangers that exist.
There has been a lot of concern recently around how inappropriate relationships are built over the internet, through Facebook etc. It is important that children and young people are educated in that with, I say once again, age-appropriate information. Ultimately, where children are vulnerable, they have to be told about the dangers of grooming. Where there is a clear risk for older children, that must be talked about. It goes much wider than our care homes. We have to start in the community, in schools and in youth clubs. Perhaps some vulnerable children are not at school regularly.
So, we must work out how we are going to get the message to such vulnerable children, how we are going to look after them and how we are going to support families with difficulties. In my own constituency, I am aware of some very successful programmes with families where relationships had become estranged. By early intervention — perhaps for children deemed to be at risk of offending — and by working with the family, the parent and the child, great improvements can be made at that early stage so that family breakdown does not happen, so that children become less vulnerable, so that normal parenting support is there and so that we are not reliant on our care homes, with the difficult relationships that exist there.
We must be cognisant of our social workers who work in care homes. It is a very difficult job. They are working with young people who have been frequently damaged by their life experience, and there are regulations and restrictions in respect of what you can and cannot do. Do we want children in our care homes all placed under lock and key? That would be a fire hazard to start with. What are we going to do in terms of restraining? When is it appropriate? If you are going to rely on that as a last resort, I say that that is much too late. We must put greater emphasis at the earlier stage, have earlier intervention, work through the community and give better education and support so that fewer of our vulnerable children reach that stage.
Equally, we must continue to fund Safe Choices, which is the very successful programme that Barnardo’s has been running. It tries to befriend and to help to make many young people aware that they are in abusive relationships, as they might not recognise that they are in such relationships, because abusive adults have befriended them and, ultimately, have betrayed those friendships and are abusing them. So, I think that it is important to widen it to all our children at that earlier stage.
Turning briefly to some of the wider issues, I agree that it is important that we have an independent inquiry, which the Minister has set up. It is equally important that we have a speedy inquiry and that we concentrate on learning lessons and not looking back into the past for the sake of it but making sure that we have the best possible procedures in place today so that we can safeguard and protect the children of today. There is great concern and danger that, if we look back at what happened in the past, the cooperation that has been happening could fall apart and the protection may not be as good as it should be.
I have spoken to some social workers, and they have told me that they have been aware that this has been going on for 30 years. This is nothing new. There have been abusive adults in our society.
We must get wiser and better protect our children in need.