A Bill of Rights, with the inclusion of specific children’s rights, underpinned by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), could be transformative for children in Northern Ireland. It holds the possibility to address decades of failure for our children and young people, creating a framework for a brighter future.
The list of issues facing children in Northern Ireland was recently highlighted in an NGO stakeholder report to the UNCRC Committee. The report illustrated how decades of systemic failure around children’s rights have had a devastating impact on children’s lives, with COVID-19 further exacerbating problems. However, a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland would provide the perfect opportunity to build back better for children and wider society.
After presenting evidence to the NI Assembly’s Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights, Children’s Law Centre Director, Paddy Kelly, said:
“At the Children’s Law Centre, we firmly believe that a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland could provide a new dawn for children here. It could build on general rights protections in the Human Rights Act by incorporating child specific rights as laid out by the UNCRC, rights the UK has already signed up to but remain unenforceable.
“We could see age discrimination legislation finally enacted. It could give a voice to children in care, and it could protect children from harm. Every child should have the opportunity to reach their full potential. A Bill of Rights, with specific child rights provision, could achieve that.”
The Children’s Law Centre’s Director continued: “There can be no doubt that children’s rights in Northern Ireland have fallen behind and children have come to harm because of this. The results are plain for everyone to see over the past year, where Covid has exposed a weak framework of protections. There could be no better way to begin building back better than by strengthening the rights protections for our future generations.
“We have the blueprint. The UK is already a signatory to the world’s most celebrated and most complete statement on children’s rights ever produced, containing civil, political, socio-economic and cultural rights. Let’s prove our commitment to these principles, and to our children and young people, by incorporating the UNCRC in to law through a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.
“Where we’ve fallen behind in the past, let’s now lead the way.”
Notes: The Children’s Law Centre would like to thank Ms Moyne Anyadike-Danes for joining Paddy Kelly in presenting to the Ad Hoc Committee on a Bill of Rights. The Children’s Law Centre are privileged to have worked closely over many years with Ms Anyadike-Danes in the vindication of children’s rights. She is one of the leading children’s law experts in the jurisdiction. We would also like to acknowledge the assistance of Ms Anyadike-Danes and her colleague Junior Counsel Nick Scott BL in the preparation of CLC’s written submission to the Ad Hoc Committee.
The Children’s Law Centre, Amnesty International, CAJ and Include Youth wrote to Doug Garrett, chair of the Policing Board, ahead of their meeting on Thursday 4 March, to ask the Board what steps they are taking to ensure their clear recommendation that all spit hoods by withdrawn by the end of 2020 is followed.
In November 2020, the Northern Ireland Policing Board recommended their immediate phasing out in its report, Review of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Response to Covid 19.
Instead, PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne has started distributing spit hoods to 4,000 additional police officers.
New figures show that, to date, the PSNI has used spit hoods 95 times. They were used on children (aged 10 to 17) eight times.
In 81% of cases (68 out of 84 incidents) of their use by the PSNI in 2020, spit hoods were used on people with disabilities.
The figures have come to light in a document published as part of a PSNI equality impact assessment launched this week, almost a year after the introduction of the devices.
Patrick Corrigan, Northern Ireland Programme Director of Amnesty International, said:
“The decision to roll out spit hoods, rather than withdraw them from use as advised by the Policing Board, is shocking.
“It is disturbing that in more than eight out of ten incidents, the PSNI has used spit hoods on people with disabilities and, on eight occasions, on children.
“The Chief Constable rushed to deploy spit hoods without evidence that they are effective in preventing the transmission of Covid-19. Now he is doubling down on that flawed decision, in outright defiance of the Policing Board.
“Placing a hood over someone’s head is a significant use of force and one that raises key concerns over cruel and degrading treatment, as well as serious potential health risks.
“These devices must be withdrawn from use, as called for by the Policing Board.”
Paddy Kelly, Director of the Children’s Law Centre, said:
“The Children’s Law Centre are extremely concerned that eight spit and bite guards were applied to children during the last year. In the cases of one 16 year-old and one 15 year-old, two spit and bite guards were applied during the same incident. This use of force must have been a frightening experience for these children.
“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. A police officer using a spit hood on a child cannot know if a child has a learning disability or suffers from asthma.
“In the light of medical evidence that the use of spit and bite hoods may increase the risk of Covid-19 infection to both police and members of the public, there can be absolutely no justification for their use on children. Spit and bite guards should be withdrawn in compliance with the Policing Board’s report of November 2020.
“We and other civil society organisations have now written to the Policing Board to ask them what steps they are taking to ensure their clear recommendation that all spit hoods by withdrawn by the end of 2020 is followed.”
Systemic Failure on Children’s Rights in Northern Ireland
A report submitted by the Children’s Law Centre to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child paints a bleak picture in relation to children’s rights in Northern Ireland. The report demonstrates a systemic failure to incorporate the principles of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child within legislation, policy and practice. This has left children’s rights in Northern Ireland far behind internationally recognised standards.
The ‘List of Issues Report’, compiled in partnership with stakeholders in Northern Ireland, seeks to inform questions posed to the UK government and NI Executive ahead of the next examination of the UK Government by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.
Speaking after submitting the report, Children’s Law Centre Director, Paddy Kelly said:
“The NI Executive is failing children and young people in Northern Ireland. There has been a complete failure to make progress on concluding observations and recommendations since the previous examination by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. This has led to systemic failures, with no comprehensive framework to provide strong protections for children’s rights in Northern Ireland.
“The list of delays on key issues is almost endless. The Children and Young People’s Strategy has not been published and it is unclear if this is to be accepted as the delivery mechanism for UNCRC implementation. No efforts have been made to raise the age of criminal responsibility, and corporal punishment in the family remains lawful with no plans to repeal the legal defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’. Homeless children are still not being provided with suitable accommodation and medically fit children with complex needs are not able to leave hospital due to the lack of suitable accommodation in the community. Likewise, children with Special Education Needs continue to suffer due to a long list of operational failures and delays.
“This is simply unacceptable and failure to address these issues is having a devastating impact on the lives of children and young people in Northern Ireland. Things have been made even worse by COVID-19 which has exposed and exacerbated many pre-existing problems. Where we previously saw gaps in the protection of children’s rights, we are now seeing chasms.
“The current situation for children in Northern Ireland is grave and the Children’s Law Centre is seeing this daily in our work. We need to see immediate action to address these problems ahead of examination in 2022.”
The Children’s Law Centre is an independent charitable organisation established in September 1997 which works towards a society where all children can participate, are valued, have their rights respected and guaranteed without discrimination and every child can achieve their full potential. The organisation is founded on the principles enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child
The Children’s Law Centre operates a dedicated free phone legal advice line for children and young people called CHALKY and provides legal information through an online platform known as ‘REE’ and legal advice through ‘REE Live Chat’ – https://childrenslawcentre.org.uk/clhexpert/
The Northern Ireland NGO Stakeholder Report to Inform the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s ‘List of Issues Prior to Reporting’ can be found here, the supporting evidence report can be found here
The Northern Ireland NGO Stakeholder Report to Inform the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s ‘List of Issues Prior to Reporting’ has been endorsed by 48 organisations
The Children’s Law Centre would particularly like to acknowledge the work of Deena Haydon in drafting the report, the National Children’s Bureau and Include Youth for their support in the compilation of the report and NICCY for their support.
Lauryn loved to walk. She would walk anywhere and she would walk for hours. She would walk in the countryside and through the woods. She would walk around the streets of East Belfast where we live.
She is a 17-year old person with autism, severe learning difficulties and mood disorder. When the first coronavirus lockdown began, she stopped walking. She would get up, go downstairs and sit in front of the TV, a device in her hands, scrolling through it to find new toys to buy. She would do that almost all day.
Lauryn is my daughter and the pandemic has brought our family close to breaking point. It didn’t have to be this way. If the government had fulfilled its legal obligations to us, the last six months would have been different.
We would not be beaten and bruised because of the way her mood swings have been exacerbated by the situation we are in. We would not have had to go to our neighbours to explain that it’s her attacking us, not us attacking her. She would not have been put on a new cocktail of drugs as a last resort to manage her behaviour. We would not have had to hold our daughter down on the floor every day to try and stop her banging her head as hard as she can against any hard surface and against ourselves.
When the lockdown began, her school closed and with it all the support she gets, from occupational therapy to art therapy, ended. While the children of key workers had somewhere to go Lauryn, who requires constant supervision, was left at home. No emergency provision or supervised education placement was granted despite the efforts of our family, the Children’s Law Centre, our MP and our child psychiatrist.
During lockdown, my mother died. My son went into hospital for an operation. My mother-in-law was diagnosed with dementia. The grief is incredible but I have not been able to grieve. I went to my mother’s funeral but then, because the support we had been promised was retracted, I had to go home straight afterwards to look after Lauryn. I couldn’t even go to my own mother’s wake. We have just had to continue moving from one day to the next, in a constant state of emergency, always feeling as though we are about to crack.
Lauryn is a very routine-orientated person and during lockdown her routine has changed completely. She sits on the sofa all day, dictating what we can or cannot watch on TV. Normally, we wouldn’t give in to such demands but in order to try and avoid meltdowns we have been giving in to her a bit more than usual. She has become very lethargic and refuses to do anything for herself, demanding that others do it for her, shouting, “Mummy, help” or “Daddy, help”. She even shouts out in the night for certain toys that she wants, ones we can never find.
In the absence of having her special educational needs met, her behaviour escalates. She attacks us and she attacks herself
A lot of the time, frustration about not knowing what’s going to happen next sets Lauryn off. Because of her autism, she craves certainty, structure and control of day-to-day activities. In the absence of having her special educational needs met, her behaviour escalates. She attacks us and she attacks herself. I have to lock myself in rooms and people outside are thinking that it’s Lauryn being attacked, not me. She’s screaming, “Mummy, stop, stop” because I have the door closed. She wants the door to be opened so she can attack me. The neighbours tell me not to worry but it’s embarrassing having to go to them and explain what’s happening.
Since the lockdown began we have asked again and again for help from the Department of Education, the Education Authority (EA) and from Lauryn’s school. It has been a humiliating, degrading and traumatising experience. I used to work full-time but had to take redundancy last year in order to look after Lauryn. Now I work part-time as a teaching assistant but even that feels close to impossible.
At one point, later on in the first lockdown, I filled in the “Vulnerable Child” form on the EA website, which was the process made available at a late stage to seek help if the child’s school was unable to offer a supervised education place. Weeks later I got an automated response that told us we wouldn’t be helped and concluded:
“As you may be aware the school is currently closed. I have made the Principal aware of the application and should they be able to open, a risk assessment will be carried out. I will come back to you if I receive any more information.”
No-one came back to me. An alternative specialist school placement was finally secured in August, but that was swiftly interrupted due to positive Covid cases.
Her dose of anti-depressants was doubled. She was then put on a huge dose of diazepam
What has happened instead is that drugs have been thrown at the problem. Lauryn had always been on medication to help her sleep, but during the lockdown she has been chemically restrained. Her 100mg dose of the anti-depressant Sertraline was doubled to 200mg. She was then put on a huge dose of diazepam, and we’re currently working with her doctor on slowly reducing that. The withdrawal is hellish.
Rather than going to school – rather than putting in place measures to respond to this extraordinary situation – they are medicating the problem, and if there are horrendous side-effects for us to deal with then so be it. Lauryn’s consultant psychiatrist has indicated that this chemical restraint would have been unnecessary if she had the structure and routine of school attendance. I am sure it is also contributing to her lethargy and to her new refusal to walk.
Rather than find respite in nature, we have the indoors and we have the internet, which she uses to buy toys. Lauryn’s obsession with toys is longstanding but there is no escaping it now. When she was little, she used to think that they came alive when she went to sleep. Then she wanted to stay up and watch them come to life. Then she wanted to stay up, watch them and film them on her iPad. In the daytime, all she wants to do is look for new toys to buy on the internet. She can’t talk about anything else, but then once she’s bought that toy, it gives her satisfaction for about an hour and then it’s on to the next thing.
There are toys that she cherishes, but there are many more that are bought, played with for an hour, and then discarded. We spend thousands and thousands of pounds every year on these toys. The house is buckling under the weight of them: characters from television shows, furry animals, dress up dolls, figurines, you name it. If she watches a programme on TV she can never just buy the toy for one character, it has to be the whole set. The toys themselves are always cheap and cheaply made, but so often they come from China or the US, so the shipping costs are exorbitant.
It’s like a metaphor for our society, really. People think that these cheap products will make them happy but they don’t. When Lauryn is at school, she can’t get online to buy toys because she’s not allowed her phone. At home, if we try and stop her she flies into a rage and she won’t calm down until we let her get back to scrolling and buying. The fallout if we tried to do anything more to stop her would be horrendous. The internet is the devil. Ebay is the devil. Lauryn’s speech is extremely limited but she can find anything she wants online.
I’m not a negative person by nature, but I feel totally overwhelmed and am not sure I can carry on. The threat of a second lockdown looms on the horizon and we are terrified that we will be placed back in the same untenable position, at home without support of any kind. If we don’t get any help this time round, I’m not sure what will happen to our family.