Parents of children involved in fierce rioting in Belfast this week could get a knock on the door from Social Services despite police admitting they have no powers to crack down on families who allow youngsters to attack officers.
Children as young as nine and 10 were identified as having thrown missiles including bottles, bricks and petrol bombs at police during sustained clashes over four days across the city.
The disturbances lasted late into the night and early morning — well past the bedtimes of some of the children seen fighting on the streets at to all hours in scenes reminiscent of a war zone.
Water cannons and plastic bullets had to be deployed as violence escalated.
Shots were fired at police from the Ardoyne shops, from where a piece of concrete was also dropped on a female police officer, seriously injuring her.
Witnesses on the ground in the area over the four days of trouble, which broke out on Sunday, say that one young boy throwing stones was accompanied by his grandfather and another child was told by his mother “not to get arrested” if he stayed out late.
But with calls growing for parents of tearaways to be punished, it has emerged that there is little the PSNI can do.
While no legislation exists to prosecute parents for their child’s criminal behaviour in Northern Ireland, Social Services have said that they will intervene if young people are involved in “risky or criminal behaviour”.
A police spokeswoman said that in coming days police will be working to identify all of those involved in this rioting, arresting them and, where appropriate, bringing them before the courts.
The spokeswoman said it was too early to speculate on how police will treat the parents of any children identified as having taken part.
“This is a criminal investigation rather than a welfare investigation, which comes under the remit of Social Services,” she said.
“We are still working to identify and arrest those responsible for the rioting and cannot at this stage comment on what, if any action, can be taken against parents — however there is no legislation here to prosecute parents for their children’s criminal activity.”
She continued: “We are aware that some elements have been encouraging the disgraceful scenes we have witnessed and have been using young children to attack police and undermine community relations.
“Anyone engaged in this disorder will be investigated and runs the very real risk of being arrested, prosecuted and ending up with criminal records.
“We will liaise closely with other agencies including Social Services and juvenile justice organisations to ensure that the appropriate action is taken in relation to any young person found to be guilty of a criminal offence. Bear in mind the fact that the age of criminal responsibility is 10 years old, those children who are identified as committing offences could face a very bleak future.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Health, Social Services and Public safety said the agency would intervene if necessary.
“Arrangements are in place for the police to refer to Social Services any young person identified as being engaged in risky or criminal behaviour.
“Social Services can intervene to protect children at risk and will work with parents to support parents in their role as the main carers for their children.”