Northern Ireland

NI child abuse: Safeguarding board criticised by independent panel

A child holds his head in his hands Image copyright Exopixel
Image caption Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland spent too much time on the "wrong issues", the panel said

An independent review has criticised the board set up to oversee the safeguarding of children in Northern Ireland for failing to deliver its main statutory responsibility.

The Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI) was tasked with improving protection for children.

But the authors of a report on its work raised concerns that it spent too much time on the "wrong issues".

They added that "tensions" existed among senior board members.

Alarmingly, among the 11 recommendations from the review panel is a warning that all agencies must ensure the board is notified of cases where a child has died or been significantly harmed.

That suggests vital information was not being shared in some fatal cases.

While the report said fault does not lie with those working directly with vulnerable children, the finger of blame is being pointed to those at the top of the board.

The review said concerns were being raised by many involved in social work but no-one appeared to be listening.

There appeared to be some tensions at the top of the strategic board, but children were still being protected, said the chairwoman of the Northern Ireland Association of Social Workers.

"On the ground, multi-agency work in between police, medics, social workers, education works well," Marcellla Leonard told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme.

Focus

The review was led by Prof Alexis Jay OBE, who led the Rotherham abuse inquiry.

She was appointed as the new chairwoman of the inquiry into child sex abuse in England and Wales on Friday.

Although the review of the SBNI was completed in February 2016, it was only published on the Department of Health's website last week.

Several health professionals involved in the panel and affected by its workings only became aware of the review's recommendations when they were contacted by the BBC.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Prof Alexis Jay led the review of the performance of the SBNI

The SBNI was established in 2012.

At the time, then Health Minister Edwin Poots said the previous child protection committees had been criticised for lacking focus, a strategic perspective and a legislative basis.

But according to this review, little has changed in spite of the board having the protection of children as its core purpose.

Distracted

"Perhaps the most troubling concern was the lack of structured focus on the multi-agency aspects of child protection," Prof Jay said in her review.

"The board now needs to restate its core role of ensuring that work to protect children is properly coordinated."

The review also covers Operation Owl, which related to 22 child sexual exploitation cases identified by police in 2013.

These cases related to children and young people who had gone missing from care in Northern Ireland and who the police said "may be at risk".

At the time, the SBNI conducted its own review and criticised the authorities for not doing enough.

The board has said the sheer scale of Operation Owl distracted them from their normal business.

But Prof Jay said it was not the review that distracted the board, but the way in which its members chose to handle it.

Image copyright Press Eye
Image caption Health Minister Michelle O'Neill has written to SBNI asking them to implement the review panel's recommendations

Throughout the 59-page report, a picture emerges of a disjointed organisation that was experiencing serious governance issues from the top.

That, according to the report, was affecting how health professionals were attempting to deliver care to vulnerable children on the ground.

Anxiety

In 2014, after two years of operating, cracks had started to appear.

After being contacted by members of the panel who had concerns about how the board was operating, the BBC approached the board seeking clarification.

But the questions were dismissed and the BBC was told the board was operating effectively.

The review said all was not well within months of the board coming together, and refers to "low staff morale" and "anxiety" amongst staff.

The SBNI is the responsibility of the Department of Health.

In a statement, it said Health Minister Michelle O'Neill has accepted Prof Jay's recommendations and has written to the board's chair requesting they are implemented without delay.