Health Minister Robin Swann has announced a review of children's social care services in Northern Ireland will begin in February 2022.
Professor Ray Jones will be the independent lead reviewer assisted by an Advisory Panel. Members of the Advisory Panel are Her Honour Judge Patricia Smyth, Professor Pat Dolan, and Marie Roulston, OBE (former Director of Children's services), along with young people and parents/ carers with personal experience of children's social care services. The young people, parents and carers are being independently recruited and supported by the Voice of Young People in Care (VOYPIC) and Children in Northern Ireland (CiNI).
Explaining why the review is being undertaken, the Minister said: "It has been more than a decade since there has been a fundamental examination of children's social care services in Northern Ireland. The pandemic has shone a spotlight on the importance of such services and exposed a level of fragility within the system for the most vulnerable children and young people."
Northern Ireland has the highest number of children in care since the introduction of the Children Order in 1995 and there has been a sharp increase since the start of the pandemic. The Children Order was designed to support and protect children to the highest extent possible. The review will look at the support services for families, the care of children away from their families, and how the services are currently structured as well as looking at the support for staff.
The Minister continued: "The review will look at how we support families to keep their children safe and well-cared for and enable them to stay together, and where this is not possible the provision of alternative care. It will also examine how the current services are structured, managed and led and assess if we can do more. In addition, we need to ensure the staff providing front-line services are sufficiently supported and developed to deliver the best possible outcomes for children, young people, families and parents who need their help and support."
Professor Ray Jones, the independent lead reviewer, said: "I am delighted to lead this important review of children's services. It is incumbent on us all to care for, nurture and develop our children to enable them to flourish as children and then as adults. I took this role as the lead independent reviewer to help shape the services that may help deliver that ambition. To assist with the ambition of helping children to flourish I am donating my fee from this appointment to a university scholarship programme which helps children from care or disadvantaged backgrounds to go to university."
The review is expected to take 16 months to complete, starting in February 2022. It will engage throughout with parents; children and young people and with those working within and alongside children's social care services.
In conclusion the Minister said: "This is a real opportunity for us to identify improvements which will benefit some of the most vulnerable children, young people and families as well as the staff who tirelessly serve them on a day-to-day basis. A thorough examination of services will be undertaken and critically, children and young people, parents and front-line practitioners will be directly engaged and central to the Review. I welcome the appointment of such an esteemed panel to carry out the review and wish them well in taking it forward."