Stormont Restored: A New Decade for Vulnerable Children?

What does the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ deal mean for children and the families who care for them, in Northern Ireland?

On 11 January 2020, the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ deal, brought forward by Secretary of State Julian Smith and Tánaiste Simon Coveney, and signed up to by all five main party leaders, brought an end to three years of political stalemate in Northern Ireland. DUP leader Arlene Foster addressed the Assembly saying that despite differences between parties, it was “time for Stormont to move forward”, with Michelle O’Neill from Sinn Fein expressing her “sincere wish that 2020 brings real change.”

This language is hopeful, and the decision to restore the assembly has been long-awaited. But what does a restored devolved government and the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ deal mean for vulnerable children and young people, and the families who care for them, in Northern Ireland?

Firstly, while the ‘New Decade New Approach’ deal does not specifically address the care system, it makes a number of other commitments on issues that overlap heavily with the experiences of vulnerable children, including improved support for children with Special Educational Needs and publication of a Childcare Strategy to deliver affordable and high-quality provision of early education and care for families with younger children.

We recognize that many of the commitments outlined which relate to education, criminal justice and communities so often interlink with care experience in Northern Ireland. For example, 37% of children aged 16-18 leaving care have no qualifications and nearly 1 in 5 care leavers aged 16-18 have a statement of special educational needs [1]. The ‘New Deal, New Approach’ deal goes some way to demonstrate the government’s attention to the needs of children and our society’s most vulnerable, and, if adhered to, the commitments prioritized in ‘New Decade, New Approach’ could help create a society more conducive to supporting vulnerable children and the families who care for them.

In the wider context, having a local government again is a paradigm shift for individuals and organizations like Home for Good who are seeking to influence policy and practice. With Stormont functioning again, it opens up more opportunities to advocate on behalf of vulnerable children and their families to decision-makers and MLAs. With an urgent need for250 more foster families to be recruited [2] and with children waiting on average 3 years and 1 month to be adopted [3], the restoration of Stormont could not come soon enough. As Home for Good we welcome this recommencement as an opportunity to secure positive change and improvement for our vulnerable children if given the necessary attention and support.

There are some immediate opportunities for MLAs to achieve much-needed change for vulnerable people; The Adoption and Children’s Bill and Strategy for Looked After Children are ripe to receive due political attention and focus. Both would be significant in improving access to support and other vital services for children in and around the care system. The political stalemate has resulted in their progress grinding to a halt but with decision-makers resuming their seats, we are hopeful that these two items will receive the necessary attention to secure progress and change for the better.

Yet, despite Stormont’s official inactivity over the last few years, Home for Good has remained determined to pursue change for vulnerable children. Last February, we hosted a reception at Stormont to raise awareness of the need for more foster carers and adopters, and to celebrate some of the stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things for vulnerable children in Northern Ireland.

“As we wait for the Assembly and the Executive to return, we are already seeing churches and communities stand in the gap for looked after children and those that care for them, from setting up local support groups to running local recruitment campaigns to find foster carers and adopters, and want to encourage many more to do the same.” Natalie Mills, Policy & Research Officer, February 2019 [4].

Although we are pleased that official business is resuming, living in a government-less Northern Ireland for the past three years has taught me that politics is not confined to the walls of Stormont. Politics happens, and has been happening for the past three years, on the ground, in our everyday actions and attitudes. It’s seen through the social workers who have continued to strive tirelessly to achieve better outcomes for the children under their responsibility. It’s seen in the teachers who spoke out for protected funding for schools to ensure children can access the best education. We’ve seen it in our young people who have taken to the street with signs and chants calling for better mental health provision.

And we’ve seen it in every family and individual who has opened their home to a child who needed one and among churches and communities who made the choice to do whatever they could to support them. They truly have stood in the gap. The people of Northern Ireland have been ready and waiting to partner with the Assembly to make positive change a reality for the most vulnerable in society. Now that they are back, we are ready, and excited and hopeful, to see this change take place.

[1] Northern Ireland Care Leavers 2018/19; Department of Health

[2] Fostering Statistics; Fostering Network [accessed January 2020]

[3] Children adopted from care in Northern Ireland 2018-19; Department of Health

[4] Home for Good's Stormont Reception

About the author: Rosie Killick is Home for Good's Northern Ireland Intern.

Author:
Rosie Killick


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