Child protection chief calls for urgent reopening of schools to restore visibility of abuse across NI

The chair of the board which oversees child protection has called for schools to reopen urgently – to overcome a dramatic loss in reports of suspected abuse which normally come from teachers.

By Philip Bradfield
Sunday, 21st June 2020, 12:20 pm
Updated Sunday, 21st June 2020, 1:59 pm
Bernie McNally, Chair of SBNI, said schools should return as soon as possible for child safety.
Bernie McNally, Chair of SBNI, said schools should return as soon as possible for child safety.

Bernie McNally, the independent chair of the Safeguarding Board of NI (SBNI), said that average reports of suspected child abuse from mid April to mid May are down from the typical 56 per fortnight per trust to only 37 – a drop of some 34%. SBNI oversees all NI organisations responsible for safeguarding children.

The lack of caring adults closely interacting with children on a daily basis in schools means a huge drop in reports of visible signs of abuse for authorities to investigate.

She said a major explosion in abuse will be going on under the radar which will only become visible with time; to combat this, it is imperative that schools reopen as soon as possible.

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Almost 2,250 children are currently on the Child Protection Register but she estimates 10 times that could be very vulnerable at this time.

“Social services and police can only deal with reports if they get them, so while they may see some things themselves by and large they depend on other agencies making referrals and telling them about incidents and issues,” she said.

“The single biggest referrer would normally be teachers and schools, who see kids coming in with injuries, or kids telling their teacher something. So when the kids are not in school we usually see a bit of drop ... but we wouldn’t see as big a drop as we have seen during lockdown.”

During normal school holidays, statutory authorities run many summer schemes and diversionary programmes which children take part in, but during lockdown none of that has been happening, she says.

“It is definitely a very concerning one and the longer it goes on the more concerned I would be about it. I think you can cope with a few weeks but the longer it goes on the more concerning it is that the schools are not seeing these very vulnerable children.”
In normal times schools are the single biggest source of referrals, but during lockdown this is reduced to perhaps as low as 1% of all referrals, she says.
She has given a number of interviews to the media to air her concerns.

“But we are struggling to be heard to be honest, because some people think there are more serious issues with Covid-19 and nursing homes, which is an important issue.

“But people are not really focussing on children and when do you try to raise it in public domain, people do not see it as a serious issue.
“And the longer this goes on the more children at risk are vulnerable. So we do feel that the schools should go back as soon as possible and that every effort should be made to get visibility of the children.”

The Department of Health confirmed referrals “remain lower than average” but said social services, the PSNI and Education Authority are working hard to mitigate the risks.

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