The largest ever investigation into child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland could be the subject of an Assembly inquiry after criticism of the role played by the Health Minister and his department.
Edwin Poots could be instructed to explain what action his department took following a major report by a leading children's charity outlining serious concerns it had about the risks posed to young people by sexual predators. The report, published by Barnardo's in November 2011, warned that two-thirds of girls in social care were in danger of being groomed and exploited.
The chair of Stormont's health committee, Sinn Fein's Maeve McLaughlin, said her party would be putting forward a motion in the Assembly calling for an inquiry into child abuse and exploitation in care homes and elsewhere.
Mr Poots yesterday said everything that can be done to address the issue of abuse and exploitation is being done by his department.
He added that he was considering seeking an independent expert's assessment on existing procedures in his department.
The Sinn Fein motion will call on Mr Poots to liaise with Justice Minister David Ford and launch an immediate inquiry into the revelations.
"It is a serious indictment on our society when children are placed in care homes to keep them from harm's way when in fact some are being placed in even greater risk," said Ms McLaughlin.
"This has happened under the watch of the health minister and the Department of Health.
"In 2011, Barnardo's published a report paid for by the Health Department that made recommendations concerning the welfare of children in care homes.
"Indeed, five of the six recommendations fell under the remit of the Health Department and the minister needs to tell us how many of these recommendations have been implemented and when they where implemented."
On Monday, police said they were investigating the sexual exploitation of 22 young people aged between 13 and 18, and had made around 30 arrests to date.
The young people were said to have gone missing a total of more than 400 times over the past two years. Most of those targeted lived in residential care homes at the time of incidents but the allegations relate to periods when they were not in the facilities, such as on nights out when they failed to return.
Mr Poots said in a statement: "I recognise this is an issue of significant interest to the public. In order to provide assurance and for the public to have the maximum confidence, I am giving consideration to asking an expert from outside Northern Ireland to provide an independent assessment and report to me on existing practices and procedures which fall under the responsibility of my department.
"A significant amount of work has been carried out in recent years in this area where continuous improvement is constantly being sought.
"I consider it essential that the public know that everything that can be done is being done on these very challenging issues."
PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott will now be grilled by MLAs over the PSNI's handling of the investigation. He will appear before Stormont's justice committee today. Among the questions he will be asked is why it took police seven months to launch their inquiry into child exploitation after major concerns were outlined in the Barnardo's report.
On Tuesday, a senior detective involved in the investigation accepted failings by the police in tackling the grooming and exploitation of young people. Detective Superintendent Sean Wright admitted flaws in the time taken to launch a probe after the Barnardo's report.
"It should have started sooner. I can't dispute that," he said.
Chair of the justice committee, Paul Givan, said "serious questions" needed to be asked of police as to why its procedures were not reviewed until June 2012.
He also called on Mr Ford to initiate an independent review into the effectiveness of the role of the criminal justice agencies, including the PSNI, involved in the investigation.
"Concerns exist why the police failed to connect the patterns previously identified by the Barnado's report and that lessons learned by the police has ensured effective procedures are now in place," he said.
A number of people have been charged, some with non-sexual offences such as drug crimes, as a result of the ongoing police inquiry.
STORY SO FAR
A report by children's charity Barnardo's in November 2011 warned two-thirds of girls in social care were at risk from being groomed, with one in nine of the teenagers polled reporting they had experienced an adult trying to groom them in person or online. Despite the findings, a major police review was not launched until the following June. On Monday, police said 22 young people – aged between 13 and 18 – had been sexually exploited with around 30 arrests made to date. A number of individuals have been charged, some with non-sexual offences such as drug crimes.