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NIASW: Spotlight in the NI child sexual exploitation inquiry should be shone firmly on the perpetrators, not on social workers and care staff

Following the announcement by Health Minister Edwin Poots that there will be an inquiry into reportedly widespread child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland, NIASW has raised concerns about the tone of some of the current debate on the topic in the media, saying that focus must remain on the perpetrators, not on social workers and care staff.

Mr Poots made the announcement in a written statement to the Northern Ireland Assembly in the wake of a series of arrests as part of a major police investigation into the alleged abuse.

Calling for responsible debate and reporting of the investigation, NIASW Manager Carolyn Ewart, said: “We have concerns about the current tone of the debate surrounding the minister’s inquiry into the sexual exploitation of children in Northern Ireland.

“Given that there have been no trials or convictions as yet, we must not fill this vacuum with speculation about the young people involved, or of the actions taken by staff in residential homes.

“Nor should any element of the current debate potentially prejudice any pending prosecutions.

“We want to see the focus of this debate put firmly on the perpetrators and send a clear message that if you target children for sexual abuse, you will be caught and you will be punished.

“It is important to note that these cases apparently do not just involve children in residential care.
The Child Sexual Exploitation convictions in Rochdale were a salutary warning to agencies about the dangers of stereotyping young children in care who have been groomed by adults as promiscuous or being complicit in their own abuse. These children have often already suffered abuse before they come into the care system and this can make them vulnerable to exploitation.

“All agencies in Northern Ireland have their part to play in protecting our children. We need a fast response from the police when children go missing; children’s well-being shouldn’t just be left to care workers.

“We also need better sex education in schools that not only warns children about exploitation but boosts their self-esteem and teaches them what a positive and healthy relationship looks like”.

“Much of the debate to date has focussed on the competency of staff working in residential care homes and on the issue of physical restraint; NIASW would not support the routine use of restraint. For the HSCT who have responsibility for these children, human rights are not a choice, they are a legislative requirement.

“Children in residential care need the same things that every child needs; the purpose of residential homes is not for containment and confinement but rather to provide a safe, secure and caring environment outside of a family home.

“Many children already feel that they have done something wrong to be in the care system in the first place, often they are dealing with the traumatic aftermath of being abused. They should be given every chance to have a normal childhood and the freedom that entails. We have members reporting that the inquiry has made them fearful to let children out in daylight to walk to the shop.

“This cannot be right and will only make children feel that they are being punished for being in care.

“We support social workers to build positive relationships with the children in their care.”

NIASW was part of a working group behind new Guidance for Media Reporting on Child Abuse and Neglect.

Click here to view the guidance