Playing with fire

As well as poverty and underfunded services, young people in
Northern Ireland face the threat of paramilitary punishment and vigilantism.
Paul Gosling looks at children’s services.

The Good Friday Agreement brought a sense of normality to
life in Northern Ireland – for adults. But for many children, life became even
more difficult. The number of punishment shootings of young people has risen as
paramilitaries focus on their roles as self-appointed police and judiciary.
About a quarter of paramilitary punishment shootings – and 30 per cent of those
carried out by republicans – are on youths under 20, including one of a child
under 14 years old.

The scale of paramilitary vigilantism against children was
illustrated last month, when the report They Shoot Children Don’t They,
written by Liam Kennedy, professor at Belfast’s Queens University,1
was published. The report found that punishment shootings of children, as well
as brutal assaults, are much more prevalent in Northern Ireland than had previously
been thought and that paramilitary child abuse has actually worsened compared
to the years immediately proceeding the Good Friday Agreement.

Dr Marie Smyth, chief executive of the Institute for
Conflict Resolution says that it is no surprise that teenagers clash with
paramilitaries. It is an age of rebellion, and if the local figure of authority
is a paramilitary group rather than parents, then it is the paramilitaries who
will be rebelled against.

During 30 years of conflict, survival was the priority for
many people, including parents. Often mothers and fathers struggled to nurture
their children, who are now themselves struggling parents without a background
of effective role models, says Smyth. These family crises have directly led to
the heavy and challenging workload of social services staff in Northern Ireland
– conducted through four health boards. (Local authorities in the province have
fewer responsibilities than in Britain.)

One social work manager recalled the time when a court
bailed two boys into the care of a children’s home – and that night the
paramilitaries came to take them away for their own form of justice.
Fortunately for the children, they had already absconded.

A recent training camp run by the Real IRA was raided by the
Garda in the Irish Republic, where youths as young as 14 were being inducted.
In some instances, reportedly, paramilitaries will use the threat of punishment
shootings or beatings to force anti-social children into joining their

Professor Paul Wilkinson, director of the Centre for the
Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews, says
that it is common for boys to be gradually weaned into paramilitary operations.
In the first instance they may be used to run messages and involved in stone
throwing and rioting, before being gradually accepted as fully fledged

The influence of paramilitaries on disaffected young people
in Northern Ireland inevitably impacts on the work of child welfare services,
but many professionals are reluctant to face the issues this raises for them. A
member of the executive committee of the Northern Ireland branch of the British
Association of Social Workers, who prefers not to be identified, says that
social workers have for too long looked the other way from the paramilitaries.
"We try to pretend we are above all that," she says. "We say we
are neutral. If we don’t get involved with them, they won’t get involved with
us." But in extreme situations, social workers have been threatened by
paramilitaries. Typically where social workers have to resolve problems with
paramilitaries they have spoken to an intermediary group, which will talk to a
politician connected to the paramilitaries, who will in turn talk to the

John Pinkerton, senior lecturer at Queens University’s
centre for child care research, agrees that an attitude of detachment cannot be
sustained. Social workers must look for ways to carefully engage with the
paramilitaries as probation workers have done, says Pinkerton. He believes that
the rise in community-based restorative justice projects, which are commonly
blessed by the political parties connected to paramilitaries, is a productive
meeting point.

But the challenge facing children’s social services goes far
beyond dealing with paramilitaries. There is common acceptance that the
services face far greater demands with fewer resources than their counterparts
in Britain. There is a nine per cent higher incidence of child disability,2
and figures released last month revealed that child drinkers in Northern
Ireland are more likely to get drunk regularly than those in Britain.3

Lack of staff and other resources, such as psychologist
support, lay behind last year’s industrial action by social workers in the Foyle
and North and West Belfast health trust areas. The funding shortfall applies
just as significantly to foster care. Financial support for children’s and
family services was £74 less per capita in Northern Ireland than in Britain in
1999, the last period for which figures are available, says the Northern
Ireland Foster Care Association.

Neither the Department of Health’s Quality Protect scheme
for driving up children’s care standards, nor its funding, applies in Northern
Ireland. And, according to BASW, the Children’s Order of 1995 – equivalent to
the Children Act 1989 in Britain – was heavily under-resourced. There was
neither enough staff nor support resources provided, and insufficient family
and early years support.

Dominic Burke, director of social services at the Western
Health and Social Services Board, is Association of Directors of Social
Services representative for Northern Ireland. He agrees that children services
are under enormous pressure from high needs and a lack of resources.

"We are in the middle of a very significant programme
of change, "he says. "We are now in the process of developing and
updating all the residential child care facilities across for Northern Ireland.
That will lead to much smaller homes being developed and large homes being
reduced in size.

"On the fieldwork side we are currently experiencing
significant difficulties both in placing children in residential care and
secure accommodation.

"We are having difficulty in recruiting foster carers.
We are hoping to see developments in this field."

Mary McColgan, lecturer in social work at the University of
Ulster who has researched child protection in Northern Ireland, is seriously
concerned at the lack of resources going into child protection. "There are
enormous pressures on community-based child protection workers, partly as a
result of resources and government policies towards children in need," she

"Some of the families who are coming to the attention
of social services and in need of child protection are coping with high levels
of stress associated with domestic violence or mental health problems. There
are issues of whether preventive services are in place to prevent problems
escalating. There are major areas of deprivation in Northern Ireland and the
resources are not there to provide the development that is required in terms of
family support.

"It is well known there are waiting lists of children
requiring foster homes on a short term and long term basis. Foster parents need
support and training to help them to respond to the complex needs of children
who require looking after."

Children Matter, an official report published in
1998, strongly criticised the quality of children’s services, including
residential homes and fostering. In July, the health and social services
minister, Sinn Fein’s Bairbre de Brun, announced an £8.5 million capital
programme to build 22 new children’s homes. This will increase the number of
places available for children in care by 23 per cent, to 409, by March 2003. A
further 70 places will be replaced because they are in below-standard homes.

The announcement implements recommendations from a working
party established out of the 1998 review, which says its priorities are to
tackle overcrowding, inappropriate placements, absconding, prostitution and
drug abuse. It is also intended to improve the training, recruitment and
retention of children’s residential care workers, with the private and
voluntary sectors brought in to help provide services. A phase two report is
expected to propose further intensive support facilities for children with
behavioural difficulties and to make recommendations to improve foster care.

However, this will not resolve the general under-funding of
children’s services. Pinkerton had hoped that children’s services planning
would lead to increased resources – but it hasn’t, he says. He is now waiting
the appointment of a children’s commissioner, who he believes must consider the
issue of resources. Consultation to determine the responsibilities of the
commissioner formally began on 6 September.

To highlight the weight of expectation placed on the new
appointment, Pinkerton’s Queens University colleague Liam Kennedy argues that
the commissioner should "actively champion the rights of children in the
face of paramilitary abuse".

It is probably unrealistic to believe that the commissioner
will be able to achieve all that is demanded of him or her. But that so much is
hoped for from the appointment of a single person is a sign of the extent of
the problems facing children’s services in Northern Ireland.

Public awareness will continue to focus on Northern
Ireland’s political crisis. Yet crisis is also the right word for the state of
its children’s services. And like the state of the peace agreement, there is a
lack of optimism that things are about to get much better.

1 Liam Kennedy, They Shoot Children Don’t
, Queens University Belfast, July 2001

2 Figures for 1989-90 – the most recent
available – supplied by Department for Finance and Personnel (Northern Ireland)

3 See Drinking, Smoking and Illicit Drug
Use Among 15 and 16 year old School Students in Northern Ireland
Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety (Northern Ireland)
August 2001

More from Community Care

Comments are closed.