Belfast Telegraph

Professor to lead child abuse probe

A former commissioner for children in Scotland has been appointed to lead an independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland.

Professor Kathleen Marshall chaired an investigation into abuse in children's homes in Edinburgh.

She will hold a summit this month and take evidence into how to protect looked-after children and measure the extent of child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland.

A Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) investigation known as Operation Owl is looking at cases of suspected abuse of 22 children.

The inquiry panel will include the chief executives of health service, criminal justice and education regulators. It will report back before the end of next year.

Stormont health minister Edwin Poots' announcement comes after more than 30 people have been arrested as part of a major investigation into the sexual exploitation of children and young people.

A group of 22 young people aged between 13 and 18 may have been abused.

The majority of the victims were harmed when they went missing from care homes, at times after being plied with drugs or alcohol. Many did not realise they were being exploited, police have said.

Mr Poots said: "I want to ensure that we prevent, as far as possible, further sexual exploitation of children and young people in Northern Ireland.

"I also want to ensure that our child safeguarding systems are sufficiently robust across all sectors and, in particular, it is essential that those who are responsible for exploiting children in this way face the full rigours of the law."

The inquiry's terms of reference include establishing the nature and extent of exploitation.

Others include:

:: Examining the effectiveness of safeguarding and protection arrangements and measures to prevent and tackle exploitation;

:: Making recommendations on future action needed to prevent the exploitation and who should be responsible for carrying these steps out;

:: Considering the specific safeguarding issues for looked after children in state care, taking into account another ongoing review by experts;

:: Engaging with parents to help identify issues they are facing and take their views on what needs to be done to keep their children safe.

The findings of the inquiry will be reported to Mr Poots, Stormont Justice Minister David Ford and Education Minister John O'Dowd.

Lynda Wilson, director of Barnardo's NI, said: "Kathleen Marshall has an excellent reputation in advocating for the rights of young people. We are confident that she will provide forward looking, constructive leadership to the inquiry, to promote continuous learning about how we meet the needs of the most vulnerable young people."

Ms Marshall said t he sexual exploitation of children was a distressing subject, which recent events had shown to be of great public concern.

"Some excellent work has already been done in Northern Ireland to identify and address the problem, but there is much that we still do not know, and need to know if we are to understand its nature and extent, and take effective steps to tackle it," she added.

"I am eager to engage with young people, their parents and supportive professionals and agencies, to help me understand what is happening, and what can best be done to protect children and young people from child sexual exploitation."

She said her priority was to set up an easy and efficient way of allowing people to find out how the inquiry is progressing, and how they can contribute to it. Soon she will issue a formal call for evidence.

"My previous work on youth justice in Northern Ireland introduced me to many of the very vibrant organisations working with and for young people and their families. I am confident that, with their support, and the commitment of the Northern Ireland Assembly, we can make progress on this issue."

During her career as a lawyer specialising in children's issues she had a particular focus on child protection.

"My five years as Scotland's first commissioner for children and young people reinforced my commitment to listening to what young people themselves have to say as an essential part of understanding the world they live in and the situations they face."

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