Alarm over children being sexually exploited in Northern Ireland care homes was raised seven years ago
Reports sounding alarm bells over the sexual exploitation of children in care homes in Northern Ireland date back seven years, the Assembly has been told.
The chair of Stormont's health committee, Maeve McLaughlin, said it was "shocking" that reports in 2006 pre-dated the recent Barnardo's report which was itself published in 2011. Her comments came as Assembly parties united yesterday to voice concern over the recent revelations and backed an inquiry involving Health Minister Edwin Poots and Justice Minister David Ford into claims that 22 teenagers missing from children's homes were sexually exploited.
Referring to a Social Services Inspectorate report called 'Our Children And Young People: Our Shared Responsibility', she said: "Although the vulnerable nature of young people involved in sexual exploitation is shocking, it is just as shocking that reports date back to 2006 in which organisations and agencies were recommended and mandated to respond to the abuse of children.
"That, in anybody's terms, is wrong and has failed children."
The Sinn Fein MLA also welcomed what she called Mr Poots' change of heart moving from the appointment of an independent expert to reviewing practices to establishing an independent expert-led inquiry – but said a number of questions still need to be answered.
"An inquiry with proper independence, powers to investigate and accountability mechanisms is required (and) if departments have failed after they have been mandated to act, they will need to be accountable," she said.
Mr Poots, however, blamed modern "disposable relationships" and the media for creating unsavoury new norms in society. Of 22 cases under examination by police, 18 involve children in the care system who were recorded as missing from their homes a total of 437 times.
"The youth and celebrity culture, reinforced through TV and media, portrays an image that sex, drugs, alcohol, parties and disposable relationships are the norm. That is hugely damaging," Mr Poots said.
Ulster Unionist Roy Beggs jnr proposed an amendment extending the motion from children and young people in care to "all children and young people". He said: "If we are actually going to empower our children and young people against grooming and predators, it is important that we work at the earliest possible stage." The DUP's Jim Wells argued "the basic building blocks of our society that protect our children are rapidly breaking down".
The SDLP's Patsy McGlone said it was essential that faith in the province's social care system is restored but welcomed the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland's decision to review the cases which triggered the police investigation.
Mr McGlone said: "Among those questions is why the police decided to review those cases in the first place. And having done so, what mistakes were made in the initial investigations?"
The PSNI has revealed it has identified 22 people aged between 13 and 18 who might have been abused. The teenagers and young people were plied with drink or drugs and in some cases trafficked around the region in taxis. More than 30 people have been arrested as part of a major investigation into the sexual exploitation of children and young people and a number of people have already appeared in court.