New strategy for care-experienced children and young people in Northern Ireland

Health Minister Robin Swann and Education Minister Peter Weir launch a new joint strategy for care-experienced children and young people.

22/02/21

New strategy for care-experienced children and young people in Northern Ireland

Ministers in Northern Ireland have launched a new joint strategy for looked after children with a focus on early intervention, co-production and children’s rights.

The new approach covers children who are already in care, at risk of entering care and also children and young people who have recently left care.

The number of children and young people in care has grown steadily over the last decade in Northern Ireland, and grew significantly during the pandemic.

Since 2010, there has been a 30% increase in the number of looked after children in Northern Ireland, with the most recent annual figures from 31 March 2020 showing a 3% increase from the previous year.

There are currently around 3,500 children and young people in care and approximately 500 children and young people left care last year.

The new strategy will replace “Care Matters in Northern Ireland – A Bridge to a Better Future”, which was endorsed by the NI Executive in 2009.

The new strategy makes more than 60 commitments aimed at delivering improvements in well-being for care-experienced children and young people.

Commitments include the development and implementation of an ‘Emotional Health and Well-being in Education Framework’, new legislation, additional specialist foster carers and teams to support children in residential care and those who have been adopted from care.

Welcoming the launch of the strategy, Education Minister Peter Weir said the timing of the new strategy was “critical”.

“It is necessary not only to address the increasing numbers of children in care but also greater complexity of need.

“The pandemic has added to the scale of challenge for some families, leading to higher than usual rates of family breakdown.”

Health Minister Robin Swann said engagement with care-experienced people was “central to the development of the strategy”, and that it would continue to have a role during its implementation.

“Direct engagement with care-experienced children and young people is vital in helping us shape policy, practice and services which touch their lives.”

The strategy comes after a 2016 OECD Public Governance Review highlighted the need for joint working between Department of Health (DoH) and Department of Education (DE) in a policy area where “success depends on a coherent and integrated strategy, shared objectives and a co-ordinated approach”.

In November 2016, DE and DoH agreed to develop a joint ‘Looked After Children Strategy’, and since then officials have been working on its development including extensive stakeholder engagement.

Part of the reasoning for the new strategy is the so-called ‘education attainment gap’ between care-experienced children and young people and children not in the care system.

Twenty-seven percent of care leavers aged 19 are currently not in education, employment or training (NEET), while 34% of care leavers aged 16-18 did not achieve one or more GCSE or equivalent.

Of all young people in custody, 39% were in care.

The report says that although efforts have been made in providing support for looked after children, the evidence continues to show that while some can go on to enjoy success, as a group, educational and other outcomes “tend to fall significantly below” those of the general population.

Education Minister Peter Weir said he wanted to see that gap close, adding: “That will be achieved in part by intervening earlier and that is what we are currently doing within schools.”

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