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Children Missing from Care

Private members’ business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:15 pm on 11th May 2009.

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Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP 4:15 pm, 11th May 2009

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to one hour and 30 minutes for this debate. The proposer will have 10 minutes to propose and 10 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have five minutes. One amendment has been selected and published on the Marshalled List. The proposer of the amendment will have 10 minutes to propose and five minutes to make a winding-up speech.

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I beg to move

That this Assembly notes with concern the failure of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to monitor and maintain baseline figures relating to the number of children who go missing from care and the number of such incidents per child; demands action to address the lack of access to specialist therapeutic support services for these children across all Health and Social Care Trust areas; recognises the pressure on police resources and time in retrieving these children; calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to place greater emphasis on the needs of missing children and to ensure that his Department accurately accounts for these children in its role as corporate parent; and provides a clear strategy and resources to address the reasons for these children going missing and the risks to which they are exposed during their absence.

I am disappointed that, for the second time in two weeks, the Minister is unable to attend the Chamber for this debate. However, this matter is too important to be delayed again, and I will proceed this time in his absence.

I note that the last delay afforded the Minister’s colleagues time to draft an amendment. I am content to accept that amendment. However, I cannot say that I am entirely happy. The purpose of the motion is to highlight a basic and fundamental gap in current practice in the Department. The Minister and his officials know that, hence their inability to answer the questions that have been posed. It was essentially agreed that the amendment should be the topic of an all-party motion to be tabled at a later date, following the debate on the substantive motion.

The motion was generated as a result of my concern at the experiences of some of the most vulnerable children and young people in our society. In Northern Ireland, almost 2,500 young people are in care, many of whom have stable placements and quality care. However, we all know that the overall outcomes for those children are likely to be poor.

The Department assumes the role of corporate parent of children in care, and therefore has the mantle of responsibility. According to the most recent figures, it remains a shameful fact that care-leavers are still 18 times more likely than other young people to leave school without any qualifications. In addition, more than half of all care-leavers, 53%, left school without gaining qualifications, compared with 3% of all other school-leavers in Northern Ireland.

Only 12% of young people leaving care obtained five or more GCSEs, as opposed to 65% of pupils overall. That obviously has an additional knock-on effect, given that young care-leavers are also four times more likely to be unemployed than those of a similar age in the population.

I know that strategies and approaches are in place to address the needs of children in care and that that can happen only over the longer term. In particular, I welcome the publication of the White Paper ‘Care Matters: Time for Change’ and the specific educational support schemes that have recently been put in place. However, I remain particularly concerned for a much smaller number of children and young people whose vulnerability and risk are drastically increased by their experiences of running away from residential homes, and, less so, foster-care placements.

Experience here and in the rest of the United Kingdom tells us that, without doubt, children who go missing from care are subject to greater risks, including drug and alcohol misuse, sleeping rough and being sexually abused and exploited by adults who prey on their vulnerability. Reports by Extern, Barnardos and the Children’s Society all identify a young person’s going missing as the most immediate indicator of sexual exploitation.

Since December, I have asked the Minister on three separate occasions and in three different ways to provide figures for the number of children in Northern Ireland who go missing. I am concerned that unless we are clear about the number of incidents of children who go missing from care and their patterns of risk, we will not be able to even begin to solve this problem. Keeping an accurate record of the number of children who go missing from care and the number of incidents per child are important indicators of children’s safety and vulnerability.

I am aware that there is currently no legal requirement for those statistics to be kept or analysed, and I am genuinely concerned at that serious legislative gap. It does not seem too much to ask that vulnerable children be identified so that they can be helped. My understanding is that unless a child is missing from care for 24 hours, trusts will not have a record of them having gone missing. It does not take 24 hours for children to be at risk or come to harm.

Of the 2,500 children in care, only 13%, or 319, are in residential care. Last year, there were 325 reported notifications of children absconding from care. That is the only year for which I can find any figures. Although that clearly includes multiple incidents of individual children who go missing, I must register my concern that the figure is significantly high.

The PSNI has confirmed that, in 2007-08, there were 4,956 incident records for adults and children who went missing. A total of 616 of those had an address at a children’s home. The lack of information means that it is not clear how many of those cases were repeat incidents and how many children they represent.

Retrieving children who go missing from care on a repeated basis represents a substantial investment of police time. Extern research shows that, in Northern Ireland, one in 10 children will run away from home, but it also shows that children in care are nearly five times more likely to run away overnight than those living in families.

They are also more likely to have had more than one episode of running away. Some 32% of young people who had spent time in care had run away three times, compared with only 13% of children who had never been in care. The research also indicates that running away is associated with mental-health difficulties, offending, and the use of alcohol and drugs.

Research and experience from the rest of the United Kingdom shows that children who repeatedly go missing are vulnerable and at risk. Repeatedly going missing from care is one of the most important indicators of increased vulnerability, as was recognised in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (DHSSPS) report ‘Our Children and Young People — Our Shared Responsibility’, which expressed concern about the repeated instances of children going missing, and about whether social workers and the police have sufficient resources to deal with them.

The report also identified the risk of sexual exploitation, whereby children in residential care were targeted and subjected to abuse by adults who knew that they were vulnerable. Some may accept children going missing from care as the norm, but would any of those who are parents in the Chamber accept that as the norm for their child?

A recent report by the House of Commons Committee on Children, Schools and Families argued that the state fails as a parent because it does not demand enough from services. Two essential demands must be made: to know when children are missing, how many times and why; and the recording and analysis of all that information to ensure that care becomes a better experience for children.

I know of one current example of a young girl aged 14 who regularly goes missing from care, where she has been living since the age of nine. From a young age, she witnessed significant domestic violence and alcohol abuse in her family. Over the past year, she has been going missing from the children’s home and staying away for increasingly long periods, usually from 8.00 pm to between 3.00 am and 5.00 am. Each time she goes missing, the home reports the incident to the PSNI. She often returns in a dishevelled state and is subsequently too tired to attend school. It is strongly suspected that she has been under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. I am not implying that her story is shared by a substantial number of children in care, but it is by a few. For one child to have that experience today in Northern Ireland is one too many. Unless the experiences of such children going missing from care are rigorously recorded and analysed, it is too easy not to see the child’s real story.

In response to the recommendations contained in ‘Our Children and Young People — Our Shared Responsibility’, the Department published guidance in April 2009 that seeks to ensure that the PSNI and staff in children’s homes work together to protect children. The guidance introduces a traffic-light system that recognises the difference between children who return late and those who are missing and, therefore, at risk. I ask the Minister to confirm what, if any, multi-agency training is being put in place to ensure that the PSNI and social care staff are clear about how to implement that guidance.

To my knowledge, only one specific support service for children exists; it operates in the east of the Province and is partly funded by the Department. To date, in the first nine months of its operation, some 23 referrals have been made from that one area. Will the Minister tell the Assembly whether he plans to invest additional resources in specific services for children who go missing from care? Is he familiar with the young runaways action plan that was published in England and Wales? That plan seeks to provide support to children and prevent them from running away from home or care. Does the Minister plan to consider such a strategy for Northern Ireland?

I have seen the project to which the amendment refers in operation in Manchester. I am, therefore, aware of the need for such a project in Northern Ireland. However, for such a project to be implemented here requires the basic measures, such as accurate record keeping, to be in place. That is the primary motivation behind my motion. I am glad that the Ulster Unionist Party, by accepting the motion, albeit with an amendment, recognises the need for the Department and other agencies to do more.

I will write to the Minister to advance the issues that are raised in the debate. Given the clear legislative gap that I highlighted, I will consider the merit of introducing a Private Member’s Bill. I hope that the Minister will support me in that initiative.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I beg to move the following amendment: At end insert

“; furthermore notes the danger of sexual exploitation that children missing from care can face; notes the successful approach of the Manchester Safeguarding Children Board ‘Protect Team’, and calls on the Northern Ireland Office to ensure that the Police Service of Northern Ireland, in conjunction with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the relevant voluntary sector organisations, provides an enhanced Protect Team for Northern Ireland with a view to preventing the sexual exploitation of children and young people.”

I declare an interest as a member of the Carrickfergus children and young person’s locality group. Barnardo’s paid for my travel costs when I visited Manchester with other MLAs to observe the work of the Protect team.

I thank the Member for tabling the motion. It highlights the issue of children who go missing from care, the need for improved support, and the need to record and analyse the experience of such children.

The motion calls for more resources and for the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to place greater emphasis on the needs of vulnerable young people. It calls for a clear strategy and for resources to be made available to address the reasons why those children go missing. That is all very laudable.

Let us chart where we are and where we have come from. In May 2007, the Economic Research Institute of Northern Ireland published the report ‘An Analysis of Public Expenditure on Children in Northern Ireland: Part 1: Spending on Children’s Services’. It revealed that, in 2004-05, less was spent on each child in Northern Ireland than in other parts of the United Kingdom. It showed that 28·6% less was spent on each child than in England and 33% less than in Wales. The proportion of Northern Ireland’s personal and social services budget that was spent on children amounted to only 14·1%, compared with 24% in England and 26·1% in Wales. During direct rule, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety underinvested significantly in children’s services, which received significantly less funding than similar services in the rest of the United Kingdom.

The motion fails to recognise the significant developments that have taken place in the children’s sector in recent years. The ‘Families Matter’ strategy document, which was published in March 2009, is particularly relevant to the debate, as is the Care Matters strategy. I understand that the early draft of ‘Care Matters’ was delayed for several months during the Sinn Féin/DUP spat last summer. That means that progress on the matter has been delayed because of politics.

I am pleased —

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP 4:30 pm, 11th May 2009

I noticed that the Member criticised the wording of the motion because it does not mention the positive progress that has been made. However, given that the amendment does not refer to that either, does that mean that the Member is critical of his own amendment?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I am conscious that we have all failed in the area, and I did not wish to say that no further improvement is needed. No one can ever say that, when it comes to children going missing, they do so at a satisfactory level.

I am pleased to learn that the ‘Care Matters’ document has been finalised, that it has been with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, and that it has now been passed to the Executive for final approval.

What is the relevance of those documents? They are relevant because, if families who are at risk are supported, fewer children will enter care. The evidence is clear: children who are in a caring family environment have a much better chance of reaching their full potential than those who are placed in care. Children who are outside the care system are also less likely to go missing. In addition, a wide range of new investments is being made in services for children and young people who are in care.

I hope that those omissions from the motion are not a sign that children’s issues are being used for party political purposes to attack the Minister. It would be helpful if the proposer of the motion would advise the House about when — or whether — she has written to the Minister or sought a meeting with him on the matter.

The all-party Assembly group on children and young people received health officials at its March meeting, and we were advised of progress on the Families Matter strategy. That strategy acknowledges that parents are best placed to support children. It advocates strengthening universal services and developing services for families that need extra help. A further £2·4 million in recurrent moneys is attached to the strategy.

Last week, Fergal Bradley from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety briefed the all-party Assembly group on children and young people on the Care Matters strategy. He and his colleagues must be complimented on the progress that has been made to date, but more must be done.

The Care Matters strategy has been developed with input from key partners, including the Department of Education, which educates the children; DEL, which helps some of them to go to further education; the Department for Social Development, which has a role in their getting housing; OFMDFM, which is responsible for children’s matters; the Northern Ireland Office; the Youth Justice Agency; and the voluntary sector. Each of those bodies has a degree of responsibility for children and young people in care, and, by making changes, they can improve the lives of and outcomes for those vulnerable individuals.

Safeguarding and information sharing is a key issue that has been highlighted, and piloting arrangements for the collocation of social work staff in the PSNI public protection unit is suggested. An information-sharing protocol is being developed, and, if it is to be meaningful, it is obvious that statistics such as those relating to children who are missing from care will be a key indicator. That should have been done in the past, and it must be ensured that it is done going forward.

Additional money is available to invest in family intervention services that are consistent with the Families Matter agenda. If we are to afford a better future for our children and young people, it is clear that a range of improvements will be required, with the co-operation of all the bodies that I mentioned.

The motion refers to the risk to which children and young people are exposed during their absence from care. It is vital that the Assembly identifies one of the main risks, which has been mentioned earlier; namely, the sexual exploitation of children and young people. It must propose measures to deal with that, which is why I tabled the amendment.

Some people might suggest that sexual exploitation of children does not happen in Northern Ireland. I will tell Members of my experience of visiting Barnardo’s Beyond the Shadows project in Belfast over a year ago. The project worked with some of the most marginalised young people in Northern Ireland. During the meeting, a case worker had to leave the room to take a telephone call from a young girl who was alone in a locked room and did not know where she was. She had gone out with people whom she thought were her friends. Clearly, those people were not her friends. She was being exploited.

Vulnerable young people, particularly those who are in care, seek friendship, contact and close liaison with others. Therefore, they are particularly vulnerable to unscrupulous men. Indeed, a recent edition of the ‘Sunday World’ revealed that young girls in east Belfast had been given drink and drugs by older men, who then exploited them.

Before Easter 2009, Barnardo’s took other MLAs and me to visit the Manchester Safeguarding Children Board’s Protect team. Its model involves close partnership working between police, social services and the voluntary sector. It is recognised as being successful at proactively preventing sexual exploitation of children and is being replicated across greater Manchester and, indeed, further afield throughout the United Kingdom.

A social worker leads on case planning, undertakes direct work with young people and their families and is the key link worker with individual homes. Police gather evidence and intelligence. They also use preventative strategies, such as warnings under section 2 of the Child Abduction Act 1984 and section 49 of the Children Act 1989. I want to know more about those warnings: how often, if at all, are they used in Northern Ireland? Of course, the voluntary sector supports young people and raises awareness of the dangers of being drawn into sexual exploitation.

The group of MLAs was told that some 54 warnings under the Child Abduction Act 1984 had been issued in the Manchester programme. Only two of them had been breached. Therefore, most people who attempted to draw vulnerable young people into a dangerous situation had heeded the warnings because of the severity of punishment. Have any such warnings been issued in Northern Ireland? If not, what changes are necessary to enable that tool to be used here? Are new protocols and regulations needed? The Assembly needs to hear from the police on the matter. I hope that all parties who have responsibility for it will get together and talk.

There is a 90% conviction rate in cases that the Protect team have taken to court. Significant statistics are available. During a six-month snapshot in 2007, 62 young people who had been referred had gone missing 769 times. Post-referral, they went missing only 276 times, which represents a 64% reduction. As regards children from care specifically, 22 looked-after children had been missing 312 times. Those are the sort of figures that one might expect to emerge in Northern Ireland. There is no reason why Northern Ireland would be significantly different from elsewhere. That figure was reduced by 21%.

Many children continue to go missing. We must recognise that young people cannot be stopped from leaving a home. They must be encouraged and supported to stay. In extreme cases, a secure detention order can be used. I understand that such an order has been used recently in Northern Ireland.

Therefore, the benefits of a multi-agency team include better access to information; better understanding of different agencies’ roles; information sharing; better knowledge; and improved outcomes. How would such a team be comprised in Northern Ireland? Perhaps, it would be comprised of a dedicated PSNI sergeant and two constables; social workers from the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety; and a voluntary sector practitioner.


I was abused in so called "care" on a "place of safety" order. I have been treated in a contemptious manner by virtually everyone I have sought help from since then, and made to feel as if it was all my own fault that I was abused.

It was said of the children in my hell hole children's home, "They were no angels". Yet I was only put there as a place of safety!

Submitted by barbara richards

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

The Member should draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I ask Members to support the amendment, which calls for measures that have proved successful elsewhere.

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I welcome the substantive motion and commend its proposers. I also take on board the reasoning behind the amendment, because it is right that the Assembly deals with kids who go missing from care.

The amendment deals with realities, such as sexual exploitation, and highlights the need for a joined-up approach to address the matter. As the mover of the motion said, the House should not divide on this serious issue. The Assembly should send a coherent message to the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and his officials.

I had intended to commend the Minister — credit where credit is due — on the work that he and his officials have carried out to date. However, the Minister is not attending today’s debate. Given that he was dealing with the swine flu crisis, I could have accepted a postponement last week. His failure to attend today sends a negative message about the importance of vulnerable children to him and his Department. I hope that the health sector does not go to the wall because of swine flu.

For the record, other Ministers have shown the capability and commitment to deal with crises in their Departments and have had the manners to participate in and listen to debates in the Chamber, most notably Michelle Gildernew during the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease and bluetongue. During Mr Beggs’s contribution, it struck me that Michelle Gildernew is able to multitask because she is female. We must consider the Minister’s failure to respond to a 90-minute debate on a serious issue that affects human beings.

During his speech, Mr Beggs made several excuses about Every Child Matters and the children’s strategy; this month’s excuse is swine flu. Last month and the previous month, the excuse was the lack of Executive meetings. I patiently await next month’s excuse.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The document will be completed. I understand that it is now with the Executive.

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

Other documents from the health sector and the Department did not sit on desks because the Executive was not meeting. Mr Beggs is well aware that he is politicking on an issue that affects vulnerable people.

My minute of negativity is now over, and I commend — I have only a couple of minutes left — the mover of the motion and my colleagues who tabled the amendment, because the issue affects the most vulnerable in society. We are failing children and young people in care, some of whom are there through no fault of their own. The state is supposed to be their parent. It is important that the original motion does not simply demand that we monitor and deal with kids who go missing from care, rather than wait 24 hours before anything kicks in. I doubt that the provision that will kick in after 24 hours is what is required.

Moreover, the state has failed to address some serious issues that affect kids in care. We need to consider that matter and adopt a joined-up approach to ensure that, when young people become part of the care setting through residential care, foster care or other types of care, society has a proactive package to deal with their emotional, physical, educational and health needs and protect them from exploitation. Mr Beggs mentioned the ‘Sunday World’. Every week, that newspaper contains stories of how older people prey on our most vulnerable. We need to stop that behaviour. We should not wait 24 hours before we decide if a person is vulnerable. Children who go missing from care are in a vulnerable position.

I have no problem with the issues that are outlined in the motion and the amendment. As Mr Beggs said, the PSNI and the Department need to work closely. When children are returned to care homes, nobody asks why they absconded in the first place. We all know of cases in which children are brought back but go missing again the next day. We need to create a joined-up strategy to deal with kids who go missing and are vulnerable in the community and to ask why they decide to go AWOL.

I accept the Member’s point that the Executive have been considering issues of housing and social justice. There is an onus on the ministerial subgroup that deals with children and young people not to create more work for the Executive that will provide an excuse for their lack of work on the matter. They need to focus on the issue with a collective responsibility and reach a collective outcome.

Kids are in care, some of them because they are vulnerable. We must ensure that we take away that vulnerability and stop others from exploiting them. I commend the motion and the amendment.

Photo of Mary Bradley Mary Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party 4:45 pm, 11th May 2009

I am sure that we can all agree in the House that the most important commodity that any country can have is its children. That is what we need to concentrate on today; that and what makes a child run away from care. If a child is not happy in care there is definitely something wrong. Our care system is supposed to protect and nurture in the absence of parental influence for whatever reason.

Looked-after children are nearly always the most vulnerable children. They have had experiences that some adults may never have in their lifetime. They will nearly always need support even when they leave care. How, then, does the child who has run away cope alone outside the care system? They are exposed to the increasingly familiar drug rings, the sex trade and the child-trafficking business. They are at most risk from themselves, and the fact that they often have had no previous sound family experiences to draw upon means that they do not instinctively sense whether an experience is good or bad. Any form of affection or consideration, misguided or not, is often a welcome caller to the looked-after child.

We were recently horrified by the brutal details that emerged from the case of Baby P in the UK and the lack of occupational investigation by those charged with protecting the vulnerable in society. However, we are here today not to dig around the whys and wherefores of such a case but to examine the preventative issues which should ensure that we never see another Baby P and that those in positions of trust are armed with the necessary manpower and can utilise a fully accessible database of information and complaints that, when consulted and acted upon, should make the experience of a looked-after child or young person a more helpful and friendly one. In turn, that should create a more stable and pleasant care environment, leading to a reduction in the number of runaway episodes, which are common at present.

The entire system must be examined. The provision of care and the recruitment and allocation of social workers to individual cases must be reassessed and, more importantly, the workload of social workers must be addressed. In the past I have had occasion to approach social services about children who are on the child protection register, only to be met with what I can best describe as a nonchalant attitude to what I considered a serious situation. The shift in attitude must begin at the heart of social services, not with the paperwork. My local social services workers, although very approachable, have an extraordinary workload. It is neither helpful nor wise to place the lives of vulnerable children and young people in the hands of overworked people with a serious morale issue.

I admit that there are obvious time and financial constraints involved in retrieving a child who runs away. However, the real change will come only when we can identify what makes children go missing in the first instance. Children need to be protected and looked after but not only in status. They need to be looked after by social services in a true parental manner, not in a pitiful manner. Children and young people are not an item that we can throw away or recycle. We get one chance at life, and it is a lottery for most of us.

Good records and good administration are essential, but true care is what is needed. The interdepartmental approach is what will guide this issue and form the best response to the problem. The solution is a matter not just for the Department of Health, but for the entire spectrum of the Executive. Children’s lives are mapped right across each and every Department in the Executive. It is wrong to lay the responsibility at the door of one Minister; it is a shared problem, in what the Assembly likes to refer to as a shared society. A shared problem needs a shared solution. It also needs financial support, so that what is needed for children in care can be implemented. I support the motion and the amendment.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

I thank the Members who brought the motion to the House and those who tabled the amendment. It has already been mentioned that the absence of the Health Minister is a major disappointment in the context of this debate. I agree with Sue Ramsey; I do not believe that his presence in the Chamber for an hour and a half as a courtesy to Members would have significantly set back his response to swine flu.

I am also disappointed that, being part of an overall Executive, no other Ministers were willing to respond to this important debate, given its cross-cutting nature.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

This matter was raised at a Business Committee meeting that I attended. The Minister could probably explain it, but my understanding is that it is up to Ministers, if they are going to be absent, to request that an individual stand in for them. Therefore, the Minister in question has a veto. Indications were made that Mr McGimpsey did not want any other Minister to stand in on his behalf. It is not a question of the unwillingness of the other Ministers; it is because Mr McGimpsey is not prepared to allow anyone else to speak on his behalf.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

The Member’s point is welcome, because it highlights the issue of whether or not the Executive are functioning in a joined-up fashion. The two junior Ministers in OFMDFM are tasked with dealing with children’s and young people’s issues, and it is unfortunate that arrangements could not have been made in the Executive to ensure that there was some response to the debate. I will not get into a discussion about who blocked that. I am simply stating that, as a matter of record, it is disappointing. Mary Bradley is right to say that the issue of children missing from care is cross-cutting and extremely important.

Some of our most vulnerable young people are also among the most stigmatised in society. In many cases, the emphasis that is being put on the role of the police can lead to a perception in the community that young people who are living in children’s homes are involved in illegal activity. I agree with the proposers of the motion that those issues must be handled with great sensitivity.

Many young people are in care homes to be protected from dangerous, abusive or destructive environments. It is crucial that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, in its role as a corporate parent, ensures that risks to young people are significantly reduced and that they are properly managed while they are in care. Young people must be safe, not only from the threat of external harm and exploitation but from their own dangerous self-harming or risk-taking behaviour, which may happen because of significant levels of distress.

The motion calls for the extent of the problem to be monitored. We need statistics if we are to determine the scope of the problem and know whether to respond and to what degree and whether that response is working. Practitioners to whom I have spoken in the run-up to the debate have suggested that the risks to which children are exposed when they go missing vary quite dramatically, depending, partially, on how long the absence lasts and how frequently those young people are absent.

The perception that has been built up by monitoring statistics in England and Wales is that, when young people are absent for longer periods, they are at risk of much more serious harm. However, statistics on young people who are repeatedly absent are also a high indicator that those children are at risk of sexual exploitation in particular. In Northern Ireland, it is assumed that, on the basis of people’s knowledge of the children with whom they work, young people are often absent from care for shorter periods. Their carers know where they have gone, because they return to family, a relative, a friend or a hang-out, and people know their whereabouts. The difficulties arise when that behaviour is addressed. A lack of proper monitoring and intervention makes it difficult to change that behaviour.

There is also a small but vulnerable group of young people comprising children in care who have been trafficked or who have sought asylum as minors without adult supervision. Those young people are more likely to disappear from the system than any other group of young people. They are hugely vulnerable, because they have no adult supervision or support networks.

No one will deny that sexual exploitation of young people is a significant issue. However, their physical safety, their vulnerability to crime and their health are also important, particularly if they are repeatedly going missing and are living rough. Interviewing returning children is, therefore, crucial, because it identifies the reasons behind the episode, helps to inform future care and gives the right level of support to those young people and the people who work with them.

The use of police resources has been raised, and we have to concede that dealing with children missing from care is a drain on those resources. From time to time, that issue has been raised in my constituency in cases involving difficult circumstances. No one will argue that anything other than non-contact methods should be used in children’s homes. A young person can be reasoned with before he or she leaves if a carer knows that it is going to happen, but there is little that one can do to prevent them from leaving care. Alternative methods, such as locking the facility or introducing contact methods, have the potential to raise issues of trust with young people and the legal liabilities of staff. There are huge sensitivities around the issue. It also raises the issue of whether we want our care homes to become, more or less, secure facilities. We do not. Not all those young people need that level of protection. Once a child goes missing from care, there is very little option but to engage with the police — not to do so may result in serious consequences. The police are the only people with the power to return those children.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Will the Member draw her remarks to a close?

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

We need a more coherent strategy, and I hope that the Minister will assure us that we will get one. Unfortunately, in the absence of statistics, it is hard to see how that will be achieved. In Wales, it has been shown that people living in families are less likely to abscond and be at risk.

This is Foster Care Fortnight. If more work were done on that front, we could deal with many such issues in a more sensitive way.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I commend my colleague for moving the motion.

The Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has an unenviable and undistinguished record of maintaining proper records on vital issues of public concern, and we should not lose sight of that. There is a great deal of blame passing and saying that it is someone else’s fault. I am surprised at the number of times that Ministers come before the House — when they do come before the House; on this occasion, the Minister of Health has not — to use the excuse that an issue is cross-cutting or that they are part of a four-party mandatory coalition, almost as an excuse for not doing their job.

Let us focus for a moment on the responsibilities of the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. We note particularly that the motion highlights:

“the failure of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to monitor and maintain baseline figures relating to the number of children who go missing from care”.

That is not the responsibility of any other Minister. We could probably give the Minister of Health some latitude if this were the only issue on which he does not maintain suitable records and information. I will list some of the issues that my colleagues asked the Minister about in recent months: the number of patients transferred to hospitals outside Northern Ireland due to a lack of beds or personnel; departmental records of the amount of public money spent on hospitality; the number of children with speech difficulties; the number of patients presenting at accident and emergency departments who were told to go home and come back the next day; the percentage take-up of the flu vaccine; and the incidence of hospital-acquired pneumonia.

Photo of Naomi Long Naomi Long Alliance

Will the Member add to that list that there are no records kept on staff assaults in the Health Service or of the outcome of prosecutions that are pursued or whether boards have supported the staff involved?

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I thank the Member for her intervention. I tabled a question asking what records are kept in accident and emergency departments in relation to domestic violence.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Order. The motion is on children missing from care. I ask the Member to stick to the motion and not to digress.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

Not that I would ever question the ruling of the Chair, but I have to set the debate in some context. We are talking about the Minister

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Order, order. I have allowed the Member a degree of latitude to set the debate in some context. I ask him to return to the subject of the debate.

Photo of Mervyn Storey Mervyn Storey DUP

I return to the subject of the debate. The answers were: “unavailable”, “not kept” or we were told that an answer could be provided only at disproportionate cost.

The lack of proper records on children missing from care is not just a failure of good government; it is a failure of basic care. That is why the debate is timely and important. If children go missing — particularly from children’s homes — that is a failure of officialdom. It is also a ministerial failure.

There is absolutely no point in blaming the system. That defence has not worked for MPs’ expenses claims, and it will not work here. The system needs to be changed. It does not need to be changed to please Members; it needs to be changed to address the needs of children in the months and years ahead.

Nobody would ever say that it is best for any child to grow up in care; it is absolutely far better for a child to grow up in a loving, caring family environment. We witnessed recently how the Children’s Commissioner concluded that it was better to place a child in care and criminalise its parents than to have that child grow up in a home where parents use physical discipline. However, apart from that kind of ideological aberration, most people would conclude that it is far better for a child to grow up in a loving, caring environment.

Unfortunately and regrettably, that is not always possible. When that is the case, the care system should be supportive of the child, should be supportive of the establishing of good relationships and should do everything possible to make that child feel valued, loved and cared for. Often, when a child runs away from either a care home or his or her own home, it is because that has become an established practice and something that is easy for the child to do.

In many cases, tension surrounding the break-up of a family — as the result of a divorce or separation, for example — has been very high up the list of reasons that children run away. However, if the Department’s set response does not involve an acknowledgement of that fact, how does that help the child’s growth and development? Clearly, it does not.

I would have made that point to the Minister today, had he been present, but, unfortunately, he is absent. We need to know whether the Minister is prepared to put in place the appropriate information to tell us exactly what the case is. It is past the time for excuses and ministerial absenteeism; it is time for action on the part of the Minister. I support the motion.

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin 5:00 pm, 11th May 2009

I support the motion and the amendment.

Today’s debate has brought to the fore many of the worrying concerns about the safety of young people in care. The figures that have been referred to indicate that, at present, approximately 2,400 children are in care in the Six Counties, with approximately 57% of those placed with foster carers and around 13% placed in residential care. Those figures are certainly startling. We all recognise that where it has taken responsibility for vulnerable children, the state needs to do more to ensure that those children are safe and have a better life.

I take this opportunity to commend the good work that foster carers do in our communities. They provide a loving and caring environment and emotional support for the children who are placed in their care.

Members have said that no centrally held accurate statistics exist on the number of children who go missing while in care. No statistics are available that state the overall number of those children who go missing on multiple occasions. We are told that those statistics are difficult to gather, as some people may go missing for short periods. In her contribution to the debate, the proposer of the motion outlined how there is no legislative requirement to keep such statistics. If the Department is serious about keeping those children safe, we need to gather that information to ensure the best provision for those children, who are most definitely in need.

Barnardo’s, jointly funded by the Department of Health, offers a limited service that is aimed specifically at children missing from care. That service, to which Members referred earlier, is located in the Eastern Health and Social Care Board area. Children who are not in that area do not have the same access to the specific therapeutic support to address the risks and difficulties associated with repeated instances of missing children.

Of the core issues that have been outlined in today’s debate and in the Members’ briefing from Barnardos, one is that those children who are repeatedly missing from care are some of the most vulnerable in our society. Another is that the lack of centrally held information on the issue makes it very difficult to analyse and address. Another is that there is no comprehensive monitoring system or strategy in place to address those issues, and that has implications for effective service planning.

As Members have said also, there are clear indications that for a small but significant number of children and young people, there is a link between being missing from care repeatedly and instances of sexual exploitation. Those are serious issues of concern. Today’s debate has highlighted many issues, and we need to see action.

The amendment refers to examples of good practice in Manchester; specifically, the Manchester Safeguarding Children Board’s Protect team.

We must look to those examples to inform us in developing a clear strategy to prevent harm to vulnerable young people in care. As has been clear from the debate, we need a cross-cutting strategy to identify and tackle the issues, and we look forward to that being taken forward on a cross-departmental and cross-statutory basis.

I support the motion and the amendment.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Like other Members, I commend the proposer of the motion and my colleagues who tabled it. It would be remiss of me not to express disappointment that the Minister is not in the Chamber to be with us on such an important subject. All Members appreciate the significance of the swine flu problem, but it beggars belief that he could not spare an hour and a half to be with us on such an important subject.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP

Does the Member not accept that a Minister would need a great deal more than an hour and a half to prepare for such an important debate? It is not just a question of a Minister turning up in the Chamber and taking part in a debate.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

Given that the Minister does not appear to have done a great deal on the issue and having listened to some of his replies, one wonders how long he would have prepared for it.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

I have already given way once.

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

I will take only 20 seconds.

Photo of Sue Ramsey Sue Ramsey Sinn Féin

The Member may agree with me that the Minister thought that it was important to come to Question Time but not to this debate because the former was live on TV. That highlights the problem.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

In the words of a fictitious politician of a while ago:

“You may very well think that; I couldn’t possibly comment.”

It beggars belief that the Minister is busy 24/7 dealing with swine flu; one wonders how the country copes when he is asleep at night. How are we not overwhelmed by swine flu? I am also disappointed that there do not appear to be any departmental officials in the Chamber, although that may be a symptom of the Minister’s absence. I am also disappointed that the motion is needed. As my colleague Michelle McIlveen said, she pressed the Minister with questions on the issue on three occasions, and the information was not forthcoming.

Leaving that aside, I welcome the motion and the amendment. I agree with other Members that the amendment slightly puts the cart before the horse, and there are vital things that need to be put in place before we can move forward on it. However, the amendment offers a welcome way forward, which is something to embrace.

As Mr Beggs and Mr Storey said, we all share a belief that a family environment is best for children. Providing whatever support that we can to families is of benefit to society in human and economic terms. Mr Storey also acknowledged that that is unfortunately not always possible with every family, and that in many cases, children end up in care because their family circumstances are simply inappropriate. For example, mention was made of sexual exploitation; unfortunately, the vast majority of sexual exploitation happens in the home. Consequently, we are left with a large number of children in care.

As the proposer of the motion said, statistics on the issue are scant. However, police statistics show that a disproportionate number of missing children are in care, which is why they should be the focus of our attention. As Naomi Long said, before we can provide concrete solutions to the problem, we need to know its scope. Consequently, it is vital to have robust statistics and records to highlight patterns in the disappearance of children.

That is not simply an academic exercise: missing children are vulnerable to being led into activities that are harmful to themselves and to society. It has not been mentioned, and I do not want to dwell on it, but there are two sides to the problem; society as a whole suffers when children are led into criminal activity.

In my constituency, a care home and a juvenile justice centre are in close proximity, and for many years, residents who lived close by suffered from antisocial behaviour. Although the juvenile justice centre often got the blame for that, in practice a wide range of children was involved, and very rarely were any of them directly connected to the Rathgael site.

Society suffers as a result of such criminal activity. Perhaps more so, however, children suffer. Vulnerable children are led astray into a range of activities, be it crime, drinking, drug-taking or sexual exploitation. The protection of those vulnerable children must be foremost in our mind.

Mention was made of the fact that we have, at least as a first step, some level of model that can be rolled out across Northern Ireland. That does not preclude further steps being taken. Again, we have the example of what operates in the former Eastern Health and Social Services Board area. However, we are witnessing one bit of good practice in one former board area that is not being repeated elsewhere. As was the case in the debate that the Assembly had some time ago on autism, in which a range of board responses to adult autism was revealed, with some boards being more proactive than others, here is an example of good practice that has effectively been ring-fenced by one health board.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Peter Weir Peter Weir DUP

We need to adopt a much more joined-up approach. ‘Our Children and Young People — Our Shared Responsibility’ outlines a positive way forward. That needs to be implemented, and we need to have the statistics available so that the problem can be tackled for the sake of the most vulnerable children. I support the motion and the amendment.

Photo of Samuel Gardiner Samuel Gardiner UUP

I support the motion and my colleagues’ proposed amendment. I preface my remarks by making some important observations. Today’s motion is the fifty-fifth private Members’ motion that the DUP has tabled on health. It comes after the Minister has made 14 statements to the House, answered 3,500 health questions and steered no fewer than five Bills through the Assembly. That represents a workload four times greater than that of the closest DUP Minister. When will the DUP give the Minister time to manage his Department? The Minister of Health is in the midst of managing a swine flu crisis —

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Order. As I did with Mr Storey, I ask the Member to return to the motion’s subject matter, which is “Children Missing from Care”. Thank you, Mr Gardiner.

Photo of Samuel Gardiner Samuel Gardiner UUP

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for drawing my attention to that point, but some statements, which I feel need clarification, were made earlier in the debate about the Minister’s actions. The Minister is active, and it is worth noting that among those who are criticising him for not being here today is not one single DUP member of the Health Committee. Where are they? They should be here supporting their colleagues, but none of them is here.

Why was the subject of the debate not brought before the Health Committee? Why, indeed, did the Health Committee fail to meet last week? The answer is that it could not get a quorum. I received a telephone call to say that, apart from me, only three Committee members were available to attend the meeting: my colleague Mr McCallister and a Sinn Féin Committee member. Therefore, we could not hold a Committee meeting. It would have been much more constructive to have brought the matter of children missing from care before the Health Committee for mature discussion rather than try to grandstand with yet another health debate. The subject chosen for debate was deliberately emotive, and its timing deeply inappropriate. We are now not simply having debates on health but debates on children.

All those DUP health debates cast aspersions on the professionalism and dedication of the many excellent health professionals in the Health Service.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Order, order. Mr Gardiner, it is time to return to the subject matter of the motion, please, which is “Children Missing from Care”.

Photo of Samuel Gardiner Samuel Gardiner UUP

I again thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for reminding me about that, but certain matters must be highlighted, such as the DUP’s hypocrisy in its attacks on the Health Service.

Our main concern is for children who go missing from care. I support the motion and the amendment.

Photo of Carmel Hanna Carmel Hanna Social Democratic and Labour Party 5:15 pm, 11th May 2009

I support the motion and the amendment.

The fact that children go missing in Northern Ireland is a huge concern for everyone who is involved in the protection of children. Although it is the responsibility of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, it is a much wider societal issue, and it requires far more family support, early support and early intervention. However, the fact that the Health Department does not have adequate records for children who go missing from care is very worrying. There is no baseline data, so it is impossible to measure the extent of the problem and, consequently, to address it. Without those adequate records, we are not sure who is running away, why they are running away, or, indeed, whether a child is repeatedly running away.

There are a number of reasons why young people run away from care. It may be because of an unsuitable family placement, for example. There is also the issue of young asylum seekers, who are vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking.

Improving the lives of children is a priority for the Health Department. It states that effort needs to be focused on the most vulnerable and disadvantaged, and no group is more vulnerable or disadvantaged than children. It is essential that all partners work together: the statutory agencies, the Police Service, health and social services, and the NIO, because it still has that responsibility. Indeed, the Manchester Safeguarding Children Board emphasised that point.

Runaways are on the increase in the UK, and I am led to believe that that may also be the case in Northern Ireland. ‘Care Matters in Northern Ireland’ outlines the vision to improve services for children in, or on the edge of, care and to provide support. The Care Matters strategy, which was launched in 2007, planned to improve the outcomes for children who were looked after by the state. I am pleased to hear that the strategy is with the Executive and is soon to be implemented, because charities that work with young people, such as Barnardo’s and Save the Children, are advising us of what we know anyway: children who run away from care homes may turn to sleeping rough, begging, theft, drugs and alcohol, because they are living on the street and do not have a lot of choice. That puts them at considerable risk, and we are always picking up the pieces.

In Northern Ireland, there are so many children in care who do not attend school and who have mental-health problems, as well as alcohol and drug-related problems. There are also many teenage parents and young offenders. There are many reasons for the barriers to improvement, but I fear that insufficient joined-up working across all the relevant authorities is a major one. We now have an opportunity to make a fresh start to tackle the issue head-on collectively. For too long, children have suffered in a care system that has failed.

To begin with, there must be clear statistics and guidelines to deal with the protection of children. In recognising the seriousness of the issue, the Government must commit to fulfilling their international obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and to providing better protection to the most vulnerable children. Without stability and future prospects, children whom we fail to protect now may fall prey to homelessness and to a life on the street. It is a huge challenge for all of us. It is a much wider societal issue, but the Health Department has the main responsibility, not only because of the ripple effect of any negative impact on society, but because all children are our future, and we have a huge responsibility in that area.

Photo of Claire McGill Claire McGill Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I support the motion and the amendment. I thank the proposer and her colleagues for tabling the motion and I commend the proposer and Members who brought the amendment to the House.

The motion is comprehensive. It mentions the monitoring of figures: quite a bit has been said about the difficulty in obtaining those figures, what figures are obtainable, and how are they used. The motion then mentions lack of access to therapeutic support for young people who have gone missing, perhaps repeatedly. It acknowledges the pressure that is on the PSNI, asks the Department to behave as a corporate parent and calls for a strategy to be drawn up to address the reasons why children abscond. The amendment refers to the sexual exploitation of young people who go missing.

The absence of the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety for the debate, which was raised by my colleague Sue Ramsey right away, is an issue. However, Mr Gardiner made the point that the matter could be dealt with by the Health Committee. The way to address the important issue of vulnerable children may be found somewhere between those options. However, this must not be turned into a conflict between Members and parties. Ultimately, I do not believe that that will happen.

The PSNI’s reply to a freedom of information inquiry states that in January 2009, 16 young people were missing from homes here. That response gave me a sense of the difficulties involved, a feeling that I also got from somebody in the Western Health and Social Care Trust. The situation can be fluid. As my colleague Michelle O’Neill said, somebody who is 15 minutes late in returning to a children’s home can be reported as missing because they did not return on time. The person from the Western Trust told me that a judgement call is involved in such cases.

Individual absences differ. Someone may present a very serious problem by being absent from the place in which they should be for two or three minutes. As a Member said earlier in the debate, anything can happen in a very short time. However, a young person who goes to school every day and who is due back at 9.00 pm may have arranged to do something else that leads to them being 10 or 15 minutes late. The person from the Western Trust said that it can be difficult to record all those details.

I accept that point, and I note that the proposer of the motion asked for figures to be recorded and kept centrally. Responses to the Member for Strangford Miss McIlveen suggest that trusts should have those figures and that, perhaps, given time, they will be able to produce them.

I share Mrs Hanna’s delight that the Care Matters strategy will be considered by the Executive fairly soon. I hope that that strategy addresses a number of the issues that have been raised in the debate. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Dawn Purvis Dawn Purvis PUP

I am glad that the Assembly is taking the time to examine the situation of vulnerable children and young people in our community. I thank the authors of the motion and the amendment.

I have been working quite a bit on this issue in my constituency of East Belfast. I have very serious concerns about what is happening to those children. What we know of them and the risks to which they are exposed are extremely worrying. However, what is even more troubling is what we do not know.

In response to a freedom of information request in January 2009, which has already been mentioned, the PSNI stated that 38 children were classified as missing in Northern Ireland, 16 of whom were missing from care. Clearly, the numbers fluctuate regularly. However, if those figures are typical, they suggest real cause for concern but probably do not herald an emergency.

When it comes to trying to understand the situation of vulnerable children, the problem is what we do not know. The number 38 tells us very little. We do not know how many children are truly missing from care or how often they go missing, because there is no regulatory requirement for that information to be maintained, tracked or reported. The 16 children missing from care are likely to be the tip of the proverbial iceberg. I welcome the fact that Barnardo’s is carrying out research into that issue, and I urge the Department to fund more such research.

We know that children in care are not thriving in our society. Before they enter care, many children will have endured an abusive or violent situation at home and few will have had any form of stability or healthy, caring relationships in their young lives. As Miss McIlveen stated earlier, a mere one in 10 care leavers achieves five or more GCSEs. The statistics of young people in care are very similar to those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Those circumstances leave children and young people in a very vulnerable position. Many of them carry a host of unmet economic, social and physical needs that can leave them open to manipulation. We know that care homes are targeted by criminals who seek to take advantage of children who are at risk of being coerced into some form of physical, emotional or even sexual exploitation.

The motion rightly calls for specialist support services and a strategy to address and remove the risks to which those children are exposed. However, it does not address a lingering and important question about the other children who are missing. If we return to the PSNI’s figure of 38 missing children, half of whom are in care, where is the other half? Who are they?

Children who go missing from residential and foster care are one element in a broader concern of missing and vulnerable children. The issue is very serious and scary and it is happening in our own communities. Children and young people are being coerced and manipulated into various forms of exploitation. What do we think of a 13-year-old girl who has a 28-year-old boyfriend? Is that acceptable or is it child sexual abuse? That is what is going on currently.

Not all those children are missing. Some of them go home to a parent who is aware of, and is quite possibly involved in, the exploitation of their own children. I know of a case of a mother who allowed and encouraged a relationship between her 14-year-old daughter and a 40-year-old man. Is that acceptable in our community? I know of examples in which pub and club owners have prevented community workers from entering their premises to try to identify vulnerable young women for fear of losing business. That happens on a weekly basis.

We turn a blind eye to those situations that are clearly there for us to see almost any weekend in a pub: a 12-, 13- or 14-year-old girl, dolled up to the nines, goes to the pub, drinks alcopops and gets a boyfriend of 27 or 28 years of age. He goes with her that weekend, falls out with her the next weekend and passes her on to one of his friends. That is what is meant by being passed around the pub. Is that acceptable? Of course not: it is paedophilia.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Does the Member accept that one of the beneficial outcomes of the Protect Team model used in Manchester is that it investigates children who are missing from care and addresses other vulnerable children in the community? Its scope is much wider than children in care, so it may help to address the issue that the Member has mentioned.

Photo of Dawn Purvis Dawn Purvis PUP

I thank the Member for his intervention, and I accept that the model’s scope is much wider than children in care. That is what we need to see.

The alternative is the continual sexual abuse of children. Those children and young people rarely make an informed choice to be involved in such activities; they are groomed, manipulated or forced into them.

The answer is to prioritise child protection at all levels. That means changing our perspective and approach to the issue to reflect the understanding that the children are victims who have been coerced, or worse, into those activities and that they are not willing participants. That will require a joined-up proactive response from all the agencies and organisations that come into contact with those children. As well as the Departments, the police, the judiciary, our local councils, and even the licensing authorities, have an important role to play.

I support the motion and the amendment.

Photo of John McCallister John McCallister UUP 5:30 pm, 11th May 2009

Some Members remarked on the Health Minister’s absence from the debate. As my colleague Sam Gardiner said, the Minister’s record on answering questions and on participating in debates ranks well above any other Minister, as does his record in introducing legislation. Furthermore, he is more active in running his Department than the majority of DUP Ministers. Mr Weir was so exercised about the debate, yet he has not managed to remain in the Chamber for its entirety.

Miss McIlveen opened the debate by laying out some worrying statistics and trends, and other Members backed her in those arguments. A common theme running through Members’ contributions was the dangers faced by children and the need for the Department to be the corporate parent and to work with other Departments and Government agencies to address the issues of drugs, alcohol and sexual abuse.

Another common theme was the need for improved record keeping. However Mrs McGill said that representatives from the Western Trust had told her of some of the difficulties faced when trying to keep records.

In moving the amendment, my colleague Mr Beggs provided frightening statistics on children’s services and spoke of the worries in that regard. I attended a useful briefing from the Department on the Care Matters strategy at the all-party group on children and young people. Such strategies are a welcome development, and it is hoped that the Care Matters strategy will have Executive approval soon.

Mr Beggs and Mrs Hanna mentioned the need for a cross-governmental approach to children missing from care. It is not the responsibility only of the Department of Health, but of the NIO, the Youth Justice Agency, the Department for Employment and Learning and the Department of Education. A great deal of work needs to be done in addressing the serious issues that we face.

Ms Ramsey accepted the Ulster Unionist Party’s amendment and said that we need to make serious progress on the issue. Bar some debate about the Minister’s non-attendance at the debate, there was agreement that we need to do more on this issue, and that is to be welcomed. However, I remind Ms Ramsey that the difference between attending a debate and attending Question Time is that one supplies a Minister with the opportunity to provide ministerial accountability. It has nothing to do with appearing on television, as Ms Ramsey might have suggested in an intervention.

Mrs Bradley spoke about the importance of children in society, and every Member accepts that. She also spoke about the effort that we must all make in addressing how our care system looks after those children.

Mrs Hanna also mentioned early intervention and early detection, which must be made a priority in so many areas if we are to prevent families from reaching the crisis point whereby their children are put into care. Many Members pointed out that the best home for children is with their families, so it is critical that we have such support and early-intervention procedures in place.

One of the best contributions that I heard today was from Ms Purvis, who talked about the broader issues and told some horror stories about the exploitation of young people in our society. It was certainly shocking to hear them, but it is right that we do, so that we can start to address the issues. It is just horrendous that that is going on so very close to this Building.

I thank Members for their support for our amendment.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The debate is timely, and I thank my colleague Miss McIlveen for bringing it to the House. I regret that some Members have criticised her motives for doing so, but I can assure them that her only motive was to raise in the House concerns that people had brought to her. It is right that the matter should come before this House, because it is important.

A number of weeks ago, we debated a motion that had been tabled by Sinn Féin Members, and at the time, I pointed out that although the issue was important, it was unlikely to make many headlines. I dare say that when we pick up tomorrow’s newspapers, the headlines will once again be about MPs’ expenses. That is fair enough, but, unfortunately, this debate will not get much mention in any newspaper because newspapers do not tend to be interested in these stories. However, they should be, because we are talking about vulnerable children.

If one asked those vulnerable children whether they wish to be in care or in family homes, their overwhelming response would be that they wish to be in caring, loving homes with their own parents. Unfortunately, for many young children across Northern Ireland, that is not the case. Unfortunately, intervention is often required. Many children end up either in foster care or in care homes not because of any wrongdoing on their part, but because they have never had an opportunity in life and because their parents have not provided for them. In some cases, their parents might not have had opportunities in life either, and the problems affecting those children could have been passed down through a number of generations.

Photo of Kieran McCarthy Kieran McCarthy Alliance

The Member mentioned foster care, and this is foster care fortnight. Does he agree that tremendous work has been, and continues to be, carried out by people who take it upon themselves to bring those vulnerable children into their own homes? Indeed, I heard a report this morning about a man and a woman who had reared their own family and had taken foster children into their home. We should acknowledge that tremendous work.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank Mr McCarthy for that intervention. Mrs O’Neill also commended foster carers on their work, and I can endorse both Members’ comments. Many foster carers are the salt of the earth; they are people who want to give some love and care to children who have had none.

It is good to see Mr Weir with us in the Chamber. Indeed, he has been present for most of the debate, and I welcome the fact that he continues to be with us — in spite of Mr McCallister’s previous remark about his absence.

It amazes me that the issues raised today do not appear to be being taken up by our Children’s Commissioner. In the previous Assembly, I was Chairperson of the Committee of the Centre, on which Mr Beggs and other Members also sat. Some of the stories that we heard would have raised the hairs on the back of one’s head. We heard about how children were being treated and how young children were getting caught up in cycles whereby they repeatedly ended up in juvenile justice centres and care facilities. Those cycles need to be broken.

I want to see people in the office of the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People getting their teeth into those issues. However, I am afraid to say that I have yet to see any evidence of that. I challenge the Children’s Commissioner to support those vulnerable young people; her office has not inconsiderable resources with which to carry out those duties.

Miss McIlveen pointed out some important statistics, including the fact that 53% of young people leave school without any qualifications and only 12% leave with five GCSEs or more.

Glenmore Children’s Home, which does excellent work, reopened in January 2004. It is a small four-bedded unit with a large enclosed garden and a ground floor that is suitable for disabled young people and disabled visitors. Two young people left that home recently. One is 19 years old and is studying at Queen’s University, and the other is her sister, who is studying at the Lisburn Institute of Further and Higher Education and lives with her grandparents. Three other young people in that home are studying for qualifications and are doing very well at school. A 15-year-old came to live in the home recently and is settling in there very well. Unfortunately, a decision has been made to close that home. One must ask why it is closing. I suspect that the decision has more to do with cuts than with anything else. That home is an example of one that is performing; however, it will not be allowed to do so because it is to be closed.

Neither Roy Beggs nor any Member who supported the amendment made a case for it. Fortunately, it made its own case, as none of the Members who spoke in support of it was able to do so. Mr Beggs’s attitude was that the Minister should not be blamed. However, the motion is not about blaming anybody; it is about highlighting an issue, and I think that Mr Beggs got off on the wrong foot.

Sue Ramsey criticised the Minister for his inability to multitask and for letting men down. She said that women could multitask and that they could handle a crisis and respond to debates. In this instance, I must say that men have been let down. However, I suspect that other males could do the Minister’s job and multitask a bit better than Mr McGimpsey has done in this case. Ms Ramsey also said that young people missing from care equated to their being vulnerable.

Naomi Long talked about self-harm, mental distress, and the use of police resources in a non-contact environment. She said that a more coherent strategy should exist.

Mervyn Storey tackled the issue of poor record keeping and said that he believed that there has been a ministerial failure on the issue in a number of areas in the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and that it was time for action.

Michelle O’Neill commended foster carers, and she called for a more cross-departmental, cross-statutory strategy to tackle the issue.

Peter Weir said that we needed robust statistics and record keeping, which are vital in dealing with the matter. He wanted to prevent children suffering, because when children become involved in these issues they suffer, and, as a consequence, society suffers with them.

Samuel Gardiner spoke for three minutes and 27 seconds and addressed neither the motion nor the amendment; he simply had a little rant about the Minister and the DUP and indicated that one should not ask any questions of the Minister and that he should be allowed to get on with his job without having to deal with anything. I assure Mr Gardiner that there will be more motions on this issue; this is a matter that concerns the people of Northern Ireland. The DUP will not ignore health issues just because it does not hold the portfolio of the Department of Health.

Carmel Hanna talked about family support and early intervention and about establishing the reasons why young people run away. She said that there were wider societal issues for that, and I tend to agree with that point.

Dawn Purvis said that 38 children are missing, and of those, 16 are in care. She said that there is little stability in many young people’s lives. She also provided some startling examples, including that of a 13-year-old girl who has a 28-year-old boyfriend, and a 14-year-old girl who is with a 40-year-old man. Wider society can only regard that as purely exploitative and wholly unacceptable, but it is taking place. The challenge to wider society is the question of what it is going to do stop it. A number of people must take up that challenge.

John McCallister once again defended the Minister’s record. The Minister may have responded to questions, but that is not the same as answering questions. An awful lot of questions, including those on the issue that we are discussing, are responded to with a statement that the answer is unavailable in the format requested, and other such nonsense. If we were given more answers, there would be less need for some of the debates that take place. Mr McCallister indicated that there is broad agreement that something needs to be done, and he is absolutely right.

It is deeply disappointing that neither the Minister nor any colleagues or officials that he could have sent were present for the debate.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP 5:45 pm, 11th May 2009

I ask the Member to draw his remarks to a close.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Nevertheless, the matter has been aired, and the public is now aware of it. In future, we will be looking for more action and fewer evasive answers.

Question, That the amendment be made, put and agreed to.

Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.


That this Assembly notes with concern the failure of the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to monitor and maintain baseline figures relating to the number of children who go missing from care and the number of such incidents per child; demands action to address the lack of access to specialist therapeutic support services for these children across all Health and Social Care Trust areas; recognises the pressure on police resources and time in retrieving these children; calls on the Minister of Health, Social Services and Public Safety to place greater emphasis on the needs of missing children and to ensure that his Department accurately accounts for these children in its role as corporate parent; and provides a clear strategy and resources to address the reasons for these children going missing and the risks to which they are exposed during their absence; furthermore notes the danger of sexual exploitation that children missing from care can face; notes the successful approach of the Manchester Safeguarding Children Board ‘Protect Team’, and calls on the Northern Ireland Office to ensure that the Police Service of Northern Ireland, in conjunction with the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and the relevant voluntary sector organisations, provides an enhanced Protect Team for Northern Ireland with a view to preventing the sexual exploitation of children and young people.

Adjourned at 5.46 pm.