Northern Ireland's most vulnerable children 'stranded at the centre of a hurricane' following Covid dilution of safeguarding protections
NORTHERN Ireland's `at risk' children have been stranded at the centre of "a hurricane" after safeguarding protections were diluted during the pandemic, advocates have warned.
"It's a perfect storm," says Claire Kemp, Children's Law Centre (CLC) policy advisor.
"Children have not been in school or seen in other settings and then there is no option for child protection referrals. Nobody is seeing them outside the home.
"Then taking away home visits from social workers as well - that's a hurricane and the damage will become clear at some point."
According to Department of Health figures by January there were already 170 more children in care now than at the beginning of the pandemic.
Indeed the number - 3,519 - being looked after in homes, by foster carers and relatives other than their parents is at its highest since the introduction of the Children's Order in 1995.
Lawyers at the CLC say they have been dealing with children who have been kept on at Woodland Junior Justice Centre after their sentences has been served - or even on some occasions having not been sentenced at all - because there is no available accommodation for them.
In part this has been due to the hospitality lockdown which has seen the closure of B&Bs which are used to house older teenagers after they leave care.
The Children's Social Care (Coronavirus) (Temporary Modification of Children's Social Care) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2020 will have been in place for a year in May, following a six-month extension at the end of last year.
The sweeping regulations have been controversial because, like many new Covid-19 laws, they were imposed swiftly and without the extensive consultation usually accompanying such wide-reaching changes.
The Department of Health insists equality screening "concluded that there would be no negative impact in relation to human rights" due to "the temporary nature of the modifications" and "clear" guidance that "flexibility should be used only where absolutely necessary and for the shortest possible period".
It insists there are "continuous risk assessment and the exercise of professional judgment", but stressed social care bosses needed "to act quickly to address the public health risks and resource pressures associated with the pandemic".
The regulations apply to visits to looked after children, visits to children's homes, looked after children reviews, reviews of pathway plans for care leavers, foster care reviews."
The last available monitoring assessment of visits shows that while 99.5 per cent of visits to looked after children in January took place, 56.4 per cent of those were done remotely.
That has risen from 17 per cent in December - a point when child protection advocates were already sounding the alarm.
In children's homes the number of remote visits has increased from 70 per cent to 86 per cent.
Meanwhile, 40 per cent of important reviews of `pathway plans' for those coming to the end of formal care had been delayed due to "Covid-related (reasons), social worker sick leave and non-engagement of young people".
And 212 foster care reviews are now more than three months overdue, blamed on coronavirus, staff absences and vacancies among other reasons.
As reviews of placements and `visits' with children become increasingly dependent on technology, from what the CLC has seen, the results are patchy.
"Our experience has been that in terms of technology available it is different depending on what (health) trust you're in. Some trusts have Zoom or Microsoft Teams or something like that, in other trusts all you have is a blank screen," Ms Kemp said.
She points out that it is almost impossible for social workers to see any physical signs of abuse on a screen.
And there are other concerns too.
"There may be a parent or foster carer sitting just out of shot of the screen, out of eye sight which may make the child uncomfortable to say `Things really aren't working out here'."
The Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission NIHRC) has asked that the department "confirm what steps are being taken by trusts to ensure that children are able to speak freely during remote visits using IT" and "ensure that online inspections are thorough and independent".
The department said "each case has to be considered individually, on the basis of robust risk assessment and taking account of the method of communication which is most suitable for the individual child".
A spokeswoman said the regulations "do not prevent face to face visits, reviews and assessments taking place" and guidance "states the temporary flexibility that applies in relation to each duty".
"For the most part, this means a slightly extended timeframe for conducting a visit or review, if absolutely necessary, or the option of conducting a review or visit using remote video technology.
"The level at which face to face visiting has continued has risen and fallen in correlation with the infection rates at any given time.
"So, for example, whereas 83 per cent of visits were conducted face to face in December, this figure had dropped to 43 per cent by January, given the sharp rise in the infection rate."
She said it is intended "to revoke the regulations at the earliest possible stage" and had to hoped to do so "by mid-September", a plan shelved "in light of new restrictions and rising infection rates".
But children's advocates said they were warning of `red flags' even when the legislation was being proposed, before it was implemented.
"We made representations to both the Department of Health and the Health Committee," Ms Kemp said.
"Emergency legislation needs to be proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory. That is laid down in international human rights laws.
"The regulations weren't proportionate or necessary."
She believes the department "skimmed over equality duties", a view echoed by an Equality Commission submission warning during a pandemic "more than ever" it needs to consult those who will be affected by regulation changes.
The department insists they were developed "in close consultation with officials in the Health and Social Care Board, Health and Social Care Trusts and departmental colleagues responsible for each policy aspect", with tele-conferencing with the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People, the Children's Law Centre, Voice of Young People in Care, Fostering Network and the British Association of Social Workers Northern Ireland.
"Given the urgent nature of this Statutory Rule, and the fact that it is a temporary measure in response to a rapidly developing emergency, there was insufficient time to undertake a full public consultation.
"...We considered that there was a more pressing need to act quickly to give trusts the powers they need to maintain effective children's services during the surge period of the pandemic."
But those representing looked-after children believe that, as Northern Ireland approaches a year with these legal changes, there has been ample time for such consultation to have been carried out.
They are unconvinced by it's proposal for a proposed targeted consultation by Voice of Young People in Care with a group affected by the regulations for a report to "inform the Department's future decision-making".
It is, they argue, the `here and now' which is of concern.
The CLC points to extensions in time frames for pathway planning for care leavers and looked after children reviews.
The latter should be carried out three months after the first meeting between a child in care and their social worker and every six months after that.
The NIHRC says looked after children's reviews must be held "at least every three months" and the department should "ensure that children in care are made aware they can request an earlier review".
Lawyers point to a pre-existing failure to start on their 16th birthday formulating pathway plans about what they need to become independent at 18 - including living arrangements, support systems and career advice.
"There are long-standing problems with this," Ms Kemp said.
"The quality of pathway planning, even in normal times can be very low. For example it can be written `A child will be presented to an accommodation panel' - that's not a plan, it doesn't tell you where you're going to live.
"It's supposed to be started at 16 and continually reviewed. Our experience is it's a bit of a rush job coming up to their 18th birthday."
Against this backdrop, the relaxation of key provisions is causing considerable concern.
NSPCC Head of Policy and Public Affairs Natalie Whelehan, said "even before the Covid-19 pandemic, children's social care was under extreme pressure and the necessary pandemic restrictions have exacerbated child protection issues".
"The (coronavirus regulations) are far reaching and have a significant impact on the lives of vulnerable children and young people in Northern Ireland.
"The NSPCC believes that the extension of the coronavirus regulations must be justified on an ongoing basis as they relate to the statutory obligations on the government to protect some our most vulnerable children and young people.
"Adequate monitoring and scrutiny of implementation of the emergency provisions is vitally important and should be being carried out continuously.
"Information should be published about any statutory obligations that aren't being met as well as the government's plans to ensure that all vulnerable children affected by the extension of the emergency provisions are fully protected and supported.
"If there is evidence that extending the relaxation of these statutory protections are having a negative impact on vulnerable children, the regulations should be immediately reconsidered."
The NIHRC warns "the focus should be on speeding up the process rather than removing safeguards".
And, with a fearful eye to the future, the CLC's "worry with temporary legislation - given there are problems in the system already with delays and poor planning - is it becomes the new normal", Ms Kemp said.
"Covid has exacerbated pre-existing problems. We need to build back better, we need to look at where the inequalities and problems were and how they can be solved."