Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Failings call for child care revamp

Claims that predatory gangs of men abused vulnerable girls in care in Northern Ireland are alarming but hardly surprising. There have been several high-profile legal cases in England highlighting such behaviour and as long ago as 2009 children's charity Barnardos was uncovering evidence of similar practices here. The truth of the claims and the extent of the abuse can only be gauged when the current legal process is completed.

But it has already been admitted by the PSNI that action to investigate claims of sexual abuse against young girls was not undertaken quickly enough. Although Barnardos published its research in 2011 little, or nothing, was done to investigate what was going on or to find out the individuals involved. While hindsight is always perfect, nevertheless there were enough alarm bells ringing two years ago to warrant action. It is inexcusable that investigations did not begin then.

Those children had been failed once by those supposed to look after them necessitating them being brought into care. Then the system failed them again.

Of course it is not possible to keep teenagers under permanent supervision, but all the evidence coming into the public domain suggests that they were allowed freedom to come and go from their care homes beyond what should be acceptable. They were easy targets for predators who are skilled at grooming young people.

It is clear that an investigation into the failure of the authorities to act is imperative. For decades there have been demands for greater liaison between child care bodies, the police and other relevant agencies to ensure that vulnerable people are protected as much as possible. Frankly, the present system does not work effectively.

Any investigation must only be the starting point for a dramatic revamp of the child care system, not simply another report to be left gathering dust on the shelf.

Health Minister Edwin Poots must use this investigation as a tool to safeguard young people at risk and not as a shield to deflect criticism away from his department.

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