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.”

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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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Heightened Risk of Child Trafficking “Deeply Concerning”

01 December 2021

Speaking ahead of the 2021 Children’s Law Centre Annual Lecture, UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons Especially in Women and Children, Professor Siobhán Mullally has raised her fears that the Nationality and Borders Bill will heighten the risk of trafficking and re-trafficking for child refugees.

Professor Mullally’s lecture will be delivered on Thursday 2nd December at 3:30pm and is titled ‘Responding to Child Trafficking: Rights Vs Rhetoric’. The lecture comes only a week after at least 27 people, including children, drowned crossing the English Channel. Following the tragedy, the UK Home Office was widely criticised for its hostile environment towards refugees and asylum seekers.

Speaking ahead of the lecture, Professor Mullally said: “The Nationality and Borders Bill is deeply concerning in its hostile approach towards refugees and asylum seekers. Immigration practitioners and human rights organisations have consistently raised concerns that the identification of victims of trafficking will become more difficult. Indeed, the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner has also made this very point. I have also officially written to the UK authorities, along with other relevant Special Rapporteurs, to highlight my concerns about the Nationality and Borders Bill and its compliance with the State’s obligations under international law to prevent trafficking in persons.

“There is little doubt that the risk of trafficking or re-trafficking will increase as a result of this Bill, particularly in relation to children. It will make it more difficult to identify victims or potential victims of trafficking, with changes to the ‘reasonable grounds threshold’ particularly concerning. It will also weaken access to services that meet the complex individual needs of victims of trafficking, and potentially treat child refugees as criminals.

“There is an established international rights framework set up to protect refugees and prevent trafficking. Such serious departure from this framework, coupled with the current rhetoric towards refugees, will have devastating consequences for people, including very vulnerable and traumatised children. Rather than address the refugee crisis and tackle trafficking, the Nationality and Borders Bill is a gift to people smugglers.”

Paddy Kelly, Director at the Children’s Law Centre added: “We are very pleased that Professor Mullally agreed to deliver our 2021 Annual Lecture. It comes at a critical moment where much of the good work carried out in this jurisdiction to tackle the causes and effects of child trafficking could be undone. It also highlights the importance of a strong rights framework, including domestic implementation of those rights in the protection of children. Just last week we witnessed the terrible impact of the failure to protect the rights of refugees and asylum seekers. Until we recommit to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, we will continue to fail child refugees.”

Download our briefing paper on the Nationality and Borders Bill

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Decade of Delay on Key Youth Justice Recommendations

23 November 2021

Children’s rights in Northern Ireland are being compromised by a failure to implement youth justice review recommendations

That’s the key message after the launch of a new expert led research report, jointly commissioned by four leading third-sector organisations – Children’s Law Centre, Include Youth, NIACRO and VOYPIC – Voice of Young People in Care.

Download the Report

The independent research, titled Tracing the Review: Developments in Youth Justice in Northern Ireland, was conducted by Dr Siobhan McAlister and Dr Nicola Carr, experts in the field of youth justice in this jurisdiction. It tracks the progress of several key recommendations made a decade ago in the Youth Justice Review and was launched in Parliament Buildings on Tuesday 23rd November at 1pm.

The new report draws particular attention to the lack of progress in relation to raising the minimum age of criminal responsibility, a key recommendation from the Youth Justice Review. It also outlines a number of key findings, including the need to ensure compliance with children’s rights and human rights standards.

Paddy Kelly, Director at the Children’s Law Centre said: “In this jurisdiction, we have one of the lowest ages of criminal responsibility in Europe, and indeed the world. The recommendation to raise the age of criminal responsibility is one of the key elements of the Youth Justice Review ten years ago but it has remained unimplemented. The UNCRC clearly recommends raising the age to 16 and the NI Executive has a duty to comply with UNCRC obligations. We cannot cherry pick children’s rights.

“Failure to raise the age has serious real world impacts on vulnerable children. Rather than addressing the failures that have pushed young people towards the criminal justice system, we are criminalising them. This in turn can have lifelong negative impacts, both on the children affected and the criminal justice system itself.”

Read the Report

Dr Paula Rodgers, Policy Co-Ordinator at Include Youth said: “The overuse of remand and the placement of children into custody remains areas of concern. The recommendations of the Review concerning the development of alternatives to custodial remand have not been brought forward, and such lack of alternatives remain a fundamental weakness in provision.

“Whilst numbers are small the simple fact is one young person held in custody is one too many. A further concern is that care experienced young people are disproportionately represented in these numbers and this is something that needs to change as a matter of urgency.”

Olwen Lyner, Chief Executive of NIACRO said: “Legislation should be brought forward to give effect to all aspects of Recommendation 21 of the Youth Justice Review, with respect to criminal records. This is particularly the case with respect to recommendation 21a of the Review “to ensure diversionary disposals do not attract a criminal record or be subject to employer or more general disclosure”.  

“Indeed, the recent judgment in relation to the judicial review on the Rehabilitation of Offenders and the necessary policy consultation that will follow, gives an opportunity for these issues to be dealt with.”

Alicia Toal, Chief Executive at VOYPIC, said: “Whilst overall numbers of children and young people held in custody have declined, we are concerned that children and young people from care continue to be over-represented amongst those on remand and in custody under PACE provisions.  Compliance with children’s rights standards would ensure that custody is only used as a measure of last resort.  This report highlights the need for urgent action from the Executive, to ensure better outcomes for all children across the region.”

Tracing the Review: Developments in Youth Justice in Northern Ireland 2011 – 2021

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