New guidelines on Northern Ireland child abuse reporting

New NSPCC guidelines aimed at improving how child abuse cases are reported in Northern Ireland are due to be published on Thursday.

They are in response to problems journalists have had in getting information from Health and Social Services about serious cases of abuse.

At least 10 vulnerable children known to social services have died in Northern Ireland since 2003.

But it is extremely difficult to gain access to information about such cases.

A BBC Northern Ireland investigation two years ago found out about the ten deaths, but was prevented from reporting anything but the most basic details of the cases.

The new guidelines have been produced by a group representing journalists and childcare professionals.

The aim is to encourage both social services and the media to create a more open and transparent system of reporting abuse and neglect.

When the Baby Peter case happened in England there was understandable horror and outrage.

The review revealed a catalogue of errors by the professionals who were supposed to be protecting him. But if such a case were to happen in Northern Ireland, it would be handled differently.

A social services report into a child’s death or serious injury is called a case management review.

In Northern Ireland, unlike in England, it is very difficult to get any information about these. In the BBC NI investigation it was done through a lengthy Freedom of Information request.

Two of the families involved took out an injunction against the BBC, which the corporation challenged. The intention was not to identify children or their families in such tragic and vulnerable circumstances, but to question why transparency appeared to be different here than in the rest of the UK.

When the reports were released they were heavily redacted, to the point that it was hardly possible to establish even the most basic facts, for example if the child was a boy or a girl or even the health trust area where the tragedy occurred.

In England these case management reviews are published on the social services website and as a result it appeared that Northern Ireland was out of step.

The new guidelines are aimed at both the media and social services as a way of trying to balance the right to information with the right to protecting the children and the families involved.

The argument made by journalists working in this area is that if there was more transparency about the reports into those deaths then lessons could be learned.

And with more openness it would be possible for the media to check and ask questions about whether or not certain recommendations had been followed through.

The guidelines point out that 40,000 children in Northern Ireland live with a parent who has a drug or alcohol addiction and that 30,000 live in a house where there is domestic violence.

They offer advice to journalists and social services on how the sensitive coverage of abuse of children can encourage others to ask for help and acknowledge that the media plays a vital role in reporting on child abuse and neglect.

But they also point out the difficulty that childcare professionals face where there are legal and ethical issues relating to confidentiality.

The guidelines are not legally enforceable.But the Health Minister Edwin Poots has welcomed them and said they are unique within the UK.

He said that it is hoped they will lead to a more “constructive working relationship” between the Health and social care sector and the media to protect and safeguard vulnerable children.