Treatment of Asylum Seeking Children is “Cruel, Unnecessary and Avoidable”

20 June 2022

Speaking out on ‘World Refugee Day’ the Children’s Law Centre (CLC) and South Tyrone Empowerment Programme (STEP) have said the treatment of asylum-seeking children and their families in ‘contingency accommodation’ settings is “cruel, unnecessary and avoidable”.

The two organisations had recently published a report highlighting the lived circumstances of asylum-seeking children and their families being accommodated in ‘contingency accommodation’.

The report, jointly submitted upon request to the Council of Europe Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, highlights a number of potential rights breaches. The report was also endorsed by four other organisations – Conway Education Centre, Participation and Practice of Rights (PPR), Barnardo’s Northern Ireland and South Belfast Sure Start.

Fergal McFerran, Policy and Public Affairs Manager at CLC, said: “We are deeply concerned about the reports coming from residents who are living in ‘contingency accommodation’ settings and the community and voluntary sector organisations providing emergency support to them. The experiences of vulnerable children in particular are very worrying. We believe there are significant children’s rights breaches occurring and urgent, joined-up action is required to prevent these from continuing.

“We have been working alongside a number of organisations to call for action. This must include duty bearers working together urgently to address any rights breaches, and listening to those affected, namely residents, to co-ordinate an effective response.

“Beyond that, the ‘hostile environment’ created by the UK Home Office must end. It is driving refugees and asylum seekers into destitution and ill health, rather than allowing them to contribute positively to society. However, in the meantime, duty bearers cannot hide behind the Home Office and must continue to uphold key rights.”

Bernadette McAliskey, CEO at STEP, added: “The treatment of residents living in ‘contingency accommodation’ settings is cruel, unnecessary and avoidable. Asylum seeking children have rights that must be upheld. Yet, it is deeply worrying to hear reports of new mothers who cannot get access to basic goods and equipment to care for their babies, or families who have had their access to recreational activities severely curtailed. It is also clear that access to education has been severely limited, with no effective overarching strategy evident to address this.

“We will continue to work alongside other organisations to raise these issues and give a voice to asylum-seeking children and their families. We need to see urgent and co-ordinated action to address the failures and uphold the rights of those affected.”

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Call to End ‘Dangerous’ Spit Hood Use Amid Fears Chief Constable Plans to Make them Permanent

16 June 2022

Human rights and children’s organisations in Northern Ireland are calling on the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to stop the use of controversial spit hoods, also known as spit and bite guards, ahead of an expected move to make their use permanent.

Amnesty International, Children’s Law Centre, the Committee on the Administration of Justice and Include Youth say the continued use of spit and bite guards may be in breach of equality legislation and therefore be unlawful.

The mesh hoods, designed to be placed over detainees’ heads, were ‘temporarily’ introduced in March 2020 as an emergency Covid measure. But subsequently the chief constable backtracked, accepting there is no medical evidence that the hoods prevent the virus’s spread.

Image read: The introduction of spit and bite hoods. 1) Spit hoods 'temporarily' introduced as an emergency covid measure, despite lack of evidence; 2) Human rights and children's groups say spit hoods may be unlawful; 3) PSNI refusing to publish public consultation findings on the equality impact of spit hoods

The joint call comes a year after a public consultation on the spit hoods’ equality impact – the PSNI has so far refused to publish the findings. Previous equality screening data from the police shows a disproportionate use of spit hoods on people with disabilities and on people from a Catholic community background and also revealed their use on children.

According to PSNI data, between 16 March and 31 December 2020, spit hoods were used 84 times: 81% against people with a disability, including a mental health disability, and 48% against people from a Catholic community background compared to 20% against people from a Protestant community background.

A response to a subsequent freedom of information request by the Children’s Law Centre revealed that from 16 March 2020 to 11 November 2021, spit hoods were used 16 times on under-18s, despite a policy against their use on children.

Even though the Northern Ireland Policing Board recommended their immediate phasing out in its November 2020 reportReview of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Response to Covid 19,  PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne has instead expanded their use, issuing spit hoods to 4,000 additional police officers. The Policing Board has now called for the devices only to be used under stringent conditions.

In February 2022, the Policing Board published a review of their use, issuing 21 recommendations for the PSNI to adopt and implement. To date, the Chief Constable has not made clear whether the PSNI will adopt and implement any of the Policing Board’s recommendations.

Patrick Corrigan, Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International, said: “The Chief Constable rushed to deploy spit hoods with zero evidence that they prevent the transmission of Covid-19. Then he doubled down on that flawed decision, in defiance of the Policing Board, issuing them to thousands more officers. Now we fear that he is about to attempt to make their use a permanent feature of policing in Northern Ireland, despite the Policing Board’s and civil society groups’ serious human rights concerns.

“The police have not met the threshold for the necessity and proportionality for this type of use of force. Given serious concerns around potentially dangerous physical and mental impacts, particularly on vulnerable groups, spit hoods need to be withdrawn from use.”

Paddy Kelly, Director of the Children’s Law Centre, said: “The Children’s Law Centre is extremely concerned that spit and bite guards have been regularly applied to children since their introduction.  We are further alarmed at how little care has been taken to adhere to the PSNI’s own equality duties throughout the past number of years regarding their use.

“The PSNI introduced spit hoods without undertaking an equality impact assessment and have now failed to publish the equality impact assessment results a full year on from it being conducted. We believe their ongoing use is unlawful as well as being in breach of human rights obligations.

“Their use on children is even more concerning given that children who come in contact with police are more likely to have a disability, mental ill-health or a learning disability.  It is unclear how a police officer using a spit hood on a child can know if a child has a learning disability or suffers from serious mental ill health. Indeed, early analysis shows that protected groups are more likely to be adversely impacted by the practice. Their use should cease immediately.”

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New Assembly can ‘Close the Gap’ in Children’s Rights

24 May 2022

The Children’s Law Centre has launched a new document outlining some key priorities for the new Assembly to protect children and young people in this jurisdiction. The document, titled ‘Close the Gap’, highlights the positive actions that can be taken by MLAs in a functioning devolved Assembly to close the gap in children’s rights.

Read ‘Close the Gap’

Key priorities range from incorporating the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) into domestic law, through a range of youth justice issues, improvements to special education needs and disabilities (SEND) provision, fixing children’s mental health services, supporting children with complex needs, and addressing the gap in prevalence data to assess the unmet needs of children and young people.

Image displaying key priority 'Incorporate the UNCRC into domestic law'

Fergal McFerran, Policy and Public Affairs Manager at CLC said: “In recent years, CLC experts have consistently highlighted the gap in children’s rights in this jurisdiction and the impact this has had on children here. Whether it’s through the NGO stakeholder report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, or the ‘Tracing the Review’ report, the theme is absolutely clear, children and young people in this jurisdiction are being left behind.

“However, our experience tells us that devolution has the potential to transform lives and deliver real change. We believe the new Assembly mandate provides an opportunity to do just that.

“We hope this document clearly lays out some key steps that a new functioning Assembly can take to close the gap in children’s rights. It has been developed through our legal and policy expertise and grounded in our frontline experience working on behalf of children and young people, particularly those most vulnerable and marginalised.

“We look forward to engaging constructively with decision makers over the course of the coming mandate to promote, extend and defend the rights of children and young people.”

Read ‘Close the Gap’

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Restraint and Seclusion Recommendations Welcome, Implementation Essential

25 April 2022

The Children’s Law Centre (CLC) has welcomed a report by the Department of Education reviewing the use of restrictive practices in education settings. The report makes six recommendations, including repeal of Article 4 (1)(c) of the Education (NI) Order 1998 and outlines the need for statutory guidance.

Legal experts at CLC also welcomed the recognition of children’s rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) within the report, as well as the collaborative work undertaken to consult with stakeholders. A key issue at this stage is the extent of the legislative reform required to ensure compliance with human rights standards within education settings.

Special education needs and disability expert, Rachel Hogan, said: “I would like to pay tribute to the small group of committed individuals who have consistently built pressure to address this issue. That includes, most notably, children, young people and the parents and carers of the children and young people affected. This is what happens when the people affected have their voice heard by decision makers and should be an important lesson on how good, evidence-based, decisions can be made.

“There can be no doubt that the existing framework and guidance has led to instances where the human rights of vulnerable children have been seriously violated. The grievous impact this has had on the children affected, as well as their parents and carers, has now been brought into the public domain and acknowledged.

“There has been a notable lack of consistency in approach between education and health and social care settings and this must be fully addressed. Children should have equal protection from the unlawful and disproportionate use of restrictive practices regardless of the setting they find themselves in.

“The recommendations in the report reflect the direction of travel we need to take to protect children in education settings. This includes the urgent need for legislative reform, clear statutory guidance and monitoring practices. CLC is pleased to have had the opportunity to feed in to the report through the Department of Education’s reference group and the NI Commissioner for Children and Young People’s advisory group.

“Effective and timely implementation of the recommendations is now key. The young people affected, and the parents and carers who have fought for change, all deserve to see progress. We cannot continue to allow children’s rights to be breached in this way. The current framework has fallen well short of international human rights standards and this is the first step towards addressing that. “CLC looks forward to ongoing engagement on the implementation of positive change to realise and protect the legal rights of children and young people in education settings.”

Read a report on the recommendations by

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Treatment of Disabled Children and Adults Should Bring ‘Shame’

  • Systemic failings worsened by the impact of COVID-19
  • Daily life still impossible for many as we emerge from the pandemic

07 April 2022

The Children’s Law Centre (CLC) and the National Autistic Society NI have warned that disabled children and adults are being discriminated against because of the lack of adequate service provision to meet their needs. The charities, who advocate for people with complex and high support needs, witnessed a sharp increase in the number of people, particularly children, who have lost access to vital services in the past number of years.

However, both charities insist the systemic failings have been there for a long time, and only worsened by the response to the pandemic. While others in society return to everyday life, many disabled children and adults have been ignored and left isolated, living restricted lives and having their freedoms and autonomy severely curtailed.

Speaking ahead of a special hustings debate titled ‘Forgotten Voices’, the charities called for urgent and meaningful action to address the failings.

CLC Mental Health Solicitor, Eamonn McNally, said: “We should be horrified and ashamed at the treatment of disabled children with complex needs. What some young people, as well as their parents and carers, are having to go through is nothing short of a disgrace in a modern society. How can they expect to live their lives without access to the services that make that possible?

“We know from recent reports that the health and well-being of disabled people has not improved as restrictions have lifted, and that their access to health services continues to remain limited. This is reflected in our everyday casework at CLC, which has grown in both size and complexity.

“Respite services have been crippled for many years and the impact of the pandemic has exposed the inequalities for disabled children and adults. But we can’t hide behind the pandemic or make excuses, these failings have long been apparent. Disabled children have a wide range of legal rights and those rights include access to services that allow them to live a full and dignified life, as well as services to support carers by providing them with the help they need to maintain care for their loved ones within the family home.

“The failure to provide adequate services to children with complex needs and their families breaches a range of fundamental human rights.”

Shirelle Stewart, Director of National Autistic Society NI, added: “As we emerge from the pandemic, much of society is feeling the benefits of a return to normal life. Yet this isn’t the case for many disabled adults and children with complex care needs, including many autistic people. Many are still facing a daily struggle to cope, as services remain wholly inadequate in providing for their needs. In some cases, already stretched services have disappeared completely.

“When are we going to start listening to the people who have had to suffer most during the pandemic and start giving them their lives back? We need to listen to the voices of people with complex needs, their families and carers. Their concerns need to be acted upon by the government and public authorities, recognising their protected status under Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act. We need to see a significant drive towards joined up, properly planned and funded cross-departmental work, including the collection of disaggregated data to assess the level of unmet need.

“Disability discrimination in education settings, including informal exclusion, part-time schooling or no schooling, lack of required therapeutic input, failure to provide school transport to disabled children with complex needs and unauthorised restrictive practices must end. “Anything less than swift and targeted action by government departments and public authorities to address these unmitigated inequalities will be an abject failure of human rights compliance.”

Case Story

Jillian Black is mum to Peter who is nearly twenty. Peter is autistic and has a severe learning disability, ADHD and uncontrollable epilepsy, Peter can often become distressed because of his profound disability, which can result in harm to himself, others or property. When Peter was in children’s services he accessed four overnights a month. Although this was not a lot, it provided a welcome break to providing the 24/7 care that Peter needs.

When Peter turned 18 he entered adult services and the family have never been told what their assessed respite is. Since becoming an adult, he has only had four nights respite, two in December 2020 and two in spring 2021. The respite unit he was using had to be closed to house an adult on an emergency placement.

Peter’s mum, Jillian, said:

“You just feel absolute desperation when you are told that you will have no respite. We don’t begrudge our caring role but providing care on a 24/7 basis with no breaks really takes its toll. There is only me and his dad, as his sister is at university, so we are exhausted. No one would expect anyone to work all that time with no breaks.

“Peter is at the age where he needs to become less dependent on his mum and dad and allow others to help, but the lack of respite is not allowing this transition to happen. We don’t know what will happen in the future.”

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