Child Protection System in Northern Ireland
The Northern Ireland Executive, through the Department of Health, is responsible for child protection in Northern Ireland. They set out policy, legislation and statutory guidance on how the child protection system should work.
The Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI) co-ordinates and ensures the effectiveness of work to protect and promote the welfare of children.
The board includes representatives from health, social care, the police, the probation board, youth justice, education, district councils and the NSPCC. The SBNI is responsible for developing policies and procedures to improve how different agencies work together.
Guidance on reporting safeguarding concerns in Northern Ireland can be found in Cooperating to safeguard children and young people in Northern Ireland (2017). (This is augmented by more detailed operation guidance contained in the SBNI Core Policy and Procedures (2018)).
Chapter six contains information on raising concerns and making referrals to the relevant agencies.
How to report a concern
If you think a child is in immediate danger, contact the police on 999. If you're worried about a child but they are not in immediate danger, you should share your concerns.
Services will risk assess the situation and take action to protect the child as appropriate either through statutory involvement or other support. This may include making a referral to the local authority.
Not reporting a relevant offence to the police, including those against children, is an offence in Northern Ireland.
Referrals and investigations
Assessing a child's needs
The Understanding the needs of children in Northern Ireland (UNOCINI) guidance can be used to assess a child’s needs (Department of Health, 2011).
The framework is designed to help identify a child's needs at an early stage and prevent problems from escalating. The assessment can then be used to make referrals to children's social services.
The UNOCINI guidance on thresholds of needs model (2010) can be used to decide the level of need and how best to help and support the child or young person.
Assessing the risk of harm
When the Health and Social Care Trust (HSCT) Gateway Service receives a referral about a child, they will first assess if the child is at immediate risk of danger.
If the child is not in immediate danger, the HSCT Gateway Service should carry out an initial assessment within 10 working days. They will use all the available information to decide what further action is required.
As part of this process, they must consider whether the Joint Protocol should be implemented. This is a framework for joint investigative working between the police and social workers (HSCB, 2016).
Following the results of the assessment, the HSCT Gateway Service may:
Where there are allegations of abuse and neglect, or if a crime is suspected, the HSCT Gateway Service must report the referral to Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and a strategy discussion must take place within 24 hours to decide how to proceed.
The strategy discussion may involve a range of professionals working with the family. Its purpose is to ensure an early exchange of information and clarify what action needs to be taken by the PSNI and the HSCT (either separately or together).
The following action can be taken through the courts:
If the child is at risk of significant harm, a case conference is held. Relevant professionals can then share information, identify risks and outline what needs to be done to protect the child.
The initial case conference should take place within 15 working days of the child protection referral. At this point the responsibility of the case is transferred to the Family Intervention Team.
If professionals at the initial case conference decide a child is at risk of significant harm they will add the child to the child protection register, and draw up a child protection plan.
Case conferences should continue at regular intervals until either:
Child protection measures
Child protection register
In Northern Ireland the child protection register (CPR) is a confidential list of all children in the local area who have been identified as being at risk of significant harm. It allows authorised individuals to check if a child they are working with is known to be at risk.
If a child is added to the CPR they must also have a child protection plan, which sets out what action needs to be taken by whom and when, in order to safeguard the child and promote their welfare.
Depending on the outcome of the child protection conference, it may be necessary to take the child into care to help keep them safe.
Unless the level of risk requires the courts to get involved immediately, care proceedings will only start after extensive efforts to keep the child with their family.
If the child is still at risk following these efforts then the parents will be invited to a pre-proceedings meeting as a final attempt to avoid going to court.
A child may be taken into care voluntarily through Article 21 of The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995.
The Health and Social Care Trust (HSCT) Gateway Service must provide accommodation for children who do not have anywhere suitable to live. This includes children who have nobody to look after them or whose parents are unable to look after them for a period of time, due to illness or other problems.
Under Article 22 a parent retains all their legal rights and can require the child's return at any stage.
Going to court
Care proceedings are usually held in the Family proceedings Court and more complex cases may be held in Family Care Centres or the High Court.
The court will make sure the child has a guardian ad litem (appointed to them). The guardian's job is to look after the child's interests. If the child is mature enough they are allowed to appoint their own solicitor to represent their wishes.
The child's social worker will make a care plan to help the court decide how the child should be cared for.
If the courts agree that it's necessary, they may make an order giving the local HSCT parental responsibility for a child.
Interim care order
At the initial hearing the court may decide that an interim care order is needed to set out what should happen to the child during proceedings.
This is awarded for eight weeks, and must be renewed every four weeks, allowing for investigation and further plans to be made. The HSCT will produce a care plan.
In some cases the child may continue living at home with the parents under specified conditions. However, if the conditions aren't met then the HSCT is able to intervene without having to obtain a separate care order.
While the interim care order is in place, professionals can work together with the family to see if the child can return home. Other options that may be explored are rehabilitation and placement.
Rehabilitation aims to return the child to their birth family, while placements offer options for fostering or adoption.
Full care order
The court will only make a full care order if they are convinced that:
This allows a child to be placed with prospective adopters prior to an adoption order, should the local authority believe this is the best option for the child.
This transfers parental responsibility to the adoptive parents. Courts only make adoption orders following extensive enquiries, based on the best interest of the child.
At the point of adoption the care order ends and the adoptive parents gain sole parental responsibility.
Unless an adoption order is made or the child returns home, care orders last until the child turns 18. HSCTs have a duty to continue to promote the welfare of care-leavers until the age of 21.
Legislation and guidance
The legislative framework for Northern Ireland’s child protection system is set out in The Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995. This sets out parental responsibilities and rights and the duties and powers public authorities have to support children.
>The creation of the regional Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI) was set out in law in the Safeguarding Board Act (Northern Ireland) 2011. This also established five Safeguarding Panels to support the SBNIs work at a Health and Social Care Trust level (HSCT).
The Children’s Services Co-operation Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 requires public authorities to co-operate in contributing to the wellbeing of children and young people, in the areas of:
Under Section 5 of the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967, it is an offence not to report a ‘relevant offence’ to the police. This includes offences against children.
Policy and guidance
Children and young people’s strategy 2017-2027: working together to improve the well-being of children and young people living in Northern Ireland, delivering positive, long-lasting outcomes (Department for Education, 2016)
This states that children should:
This provides the overarching policy framework for safeguarding children and young people in the statutory, private, independent, community, voluntary and faith sectors. It replaces guidance published in 2003.
This explains the actions that must be taken when there are concerns about the welfare of a child/young person, including: