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Translating Learning Into Action: An overview of learning arising from Case Management Reviews in Northern Ireland 2003-2008

Even before they are born, children require parents who will provide for their physical, social and emotional needs, through the expression of love, a sense of security and the provision of care. Children, especially when they are younger, depend on parents and family to provide the stability and security required to form meaningful attachments, and to grow and develop in ways which are positive. However, we also know that not all parents provide this sense of stability and safety, either because they are unable or unwilling to do so.Over the past twenty years there has been a much sharper focus on how to support families before a crisis arises, and on how to intervene when a child is in need of protection. There is a fine judgement to be achieved in ensuring that a child’s right to be kept safe is balanced with the right of parents to bring up their child without undue interference by the State. Defining child abuse is complex as it involves an interpretation of which acts or behaviours towards a child are inappropriate, and an estimation of the amount of harm suffered by a child. There are specific criminal laws which provide a clear benchmark of what is inappropriate behaviour, such as the rape of a child. But in other instances the civil law focuses on whether the child has suffered harm as a consequence of parental behaviour (or inaction), and whether the harm is significant or not, such as when concerns exist about parental substance misuse or domestic violence. Children may be at risk of experiencing harm from a range of people, for example parents; siblings; extended family members; family friends; peers; adults in positions of trust; and strangers. Contrary to some media representations, children are at most risk from those who are known to them, rather than strangers. However, there are a very small group of individuals who pose a significant risk to any child they may have contact with, and recent improvements in the criminal justice led arrangements for monitoring and managing adults who pose a risk to children are essential in complementing the child protection system.The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child explicitly places a duty on nation States to protect children from abuse and neglect (Article 3) and to uphold their right to life (Article 6). As a response to these obligations the child protection system in Northern Ireland, and elsewhere, has in recent years centred on five interlocking objectives (Devaney, 2013):

1. Reducing the prevalence and incidence of child abuse and neglect through preventative approaches;

2. Reducing the child mortality rate as a consequence of having a system for identifying and protecting children at risk of significant harm;

3. Preventing children identified as being in need of protection from experiencing repeated harm;

4. Addressing the effects of the harm experienced by children on their development, and promoting their welfare resulting in improved psychological and social functioning and improved educational attainment;

and,

5. Addressing the needs of other family members so that they are in a better position to provide for the care and future protection of the child.