Cross-border children’s policy

poots fitzgerald nsmc North/South co-operation on child protection is supported by both administrations and has resulted in tangible progress.

When 250 delegates attended an all-island child protection conference in Dundalk last May, it marked a new sign of progress in cross-border co-operation. Ministers Edwin Poots and Frances Fitzgerald, who opened the event, have frequently emphasised the practical importance of joined-up work.

OFMDFM is officially the lead department for children’s policy in Northern Ireland with junior ministers Jonathan Bell and Jennifer McCann having responsibility. However, practically, the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has a more prominent role as it deals with children’s cases on a daily basis.

The DUP is generally sceptical of North/South co-operation but Edwin Poots has been insistent on it in this area. “As I have repeated in the House,” he said last November, “a border should not be a barrier to child protection, and it should not be something that perpetrators on the vulnerable can use to their benefit.”

Frances Fitzgerald leads the Republic’s Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA), set up in 2011 as a response to the public outcry over clerical child abuse. Frances Fitzgerald and Jonathan Bell both have backgrounds in social work.

One of the DCYA’s key achievements has been setting up an integrated Child and Family Agency on 1 January 2014. Social services for children in Northern Ireland are provided by the health and social care trusts.

Co-operation through the North/South Ministerial Council is led by the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety and DCYA. It markedly increased after the February 2008 plenary meeting.

An all-island child protection awareness campaign was quickly rolled out. Practical results since then have included a protocol for the cross-border transfer of child care cases and a North/South Child Protection Hub website: www.nscph.com

The North/South Inter-Parliamentary Association also debated child protection at its first meeting in November 2012.

OFMDFM has set up the North’s inquiry into historical child abuse, which formally opened in Banbridge in January. This followed on from the Ryan Commission in the Republic. It funds several voluntary bodies and is currently running a consultation on a strategy for children and young people, which closes on 21 February.

As the 2012 children’s rights referendum in the South indicated, liberals tend to emphasise children’s rights while conservatives warn that rights can undermine parental authority. Sinn Féin and the DUP are on opposite sides of that spectrum, which may explain relatively slow progress on their children’s policy.

The post of Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People was established in 2003 and is currently held by former SDLP MLA Patricia Lewsley. The Republic appointed Emily Logan as its first Ombudsman for Children in 2004 and she continues to hold office.

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