Due to Covid-19, celebrations were postponed but it is very important that we recognise the need to mark, even belatedly, the work of the Agency over the 25 years.
The function of NIGALA is to safeguard and promote the interests of children and young people whose welfare is being considered in public law and adoption court proceedings, by providing independent social work advice and by ensuring the effective representation of the views of these children and young people. When a child or young person becomes subject to court proceedings to determine his or her best interests, the guardian must work to assist the court in making a fully informed decision about the future life of that child or young person.
The Agency is accountable to the NIGALA Board. During our 25 year history we have had five chairs: Her Honour Judge Philpott (deceased); Mary Connolly; Jim Currie (deceased); Bernard Mitchell; and Gemma Loughran, the current chair, who took up her role in 2020.
The first Chief Executive was Ronnie Williamson who led the agency for 17 years. On his retirement Patricia Nicholl was appointed; she was succeeded in 2015 by Peter Reynolds who retired in April 2021, when the current Chief Executive, Dawn Shaw OBE, was appointed.
In recent years, family life in our community has been adversely affected by many developments including the Covid-19 pandemic, the rise in mental health issues; the economic pressures which are causing escalating increases in the cost of living. There has been a 30 per cent increase in the numbers of children coming into care over the last 10 years and it is unlikely that the challenges to family life will ease in the future. NIGALA will continue to play its part in promoting the best interests of children and young people whose family life is under consideration by the courts and in being an independent voice for these children and young people.
Looking to the future
There are a number of significant events which will shape the next 25 years of the Agency. The new Children and Adoption Act (NI) 2022 will make significant changes to the law and to the process of adoption in Northern Ireland and our guardians look forward to preparing to meet the new requirements. The full implementation of the legislation will bring about changes to our names; NIGALA will be known as The Children’s Court Guardian Service Northern Ireland and the Guardians will be known as the Children’s Court Guardian.
The Belfast office of NIGALA will be moving to James House in the Gasworks site. This will provide a modern office environment to meet the needs of a forward looking service embracing the use of technology and hybrid ways of working.
Adapting to the future to ensure we provide the best service possible for the children, young people and families with whom we work is a core aim of the Agency. We are conscious that, as part of HSC, we cannot escape the funding restrictions across the public sector and we will seek to ensure that we are delivering the best service possible in the most efficient and effective way. We know that this will require transformation in the way we work and such transformation is a key theme for the Agency as we move forward. We are currently supported by the Leadership Centre in this endeavour which will focus on our most precious asset, our staff.
The core work of the Agency is delivered by qualified and experienced social workers supported by a team of administrative and corporate staff, led by a small senior leadership team. The NIGALA Board, which comprises five members from a range of backgrounds including social work, finance, corporate governance and law, provides strategic leadership, oversight of governance and accountability for our work. The Agency is ultimately accountable to the Department of Health and to the Minister of Health.
As part of our accountability processes we are required to produce a Corporate Plan and we are currently working on the plan which will set the direction for the Agency over the next five years from 2023 – 2028 and will create the platform for our next 25 years.
“It is a great privilege to acknowledge the outstanding work of NIGALA over more than 25 years in supporting thousands of children and young people whose future was under consideration by the court, and to look forward with confidence to NIGALA continuing to seek only the best for vulnerable children and young people in our society,” says Gemma Loughran, NIGALA Chair.
Some of the original staff, who started with the Agency in 1996, remain in post today demonstrating their long term commitment to supporting the lives of vulnerable children and young people.
For further information on our work go to https://nigala.hscni.net