Deprivation of liberty in Northern Ireland

What can we learn from other countries about how we approach deprivation of liberty? Debbie Nolan shares learning from her recent exchange visit with secure care colleagues in Northern Ireland.

Since taking over the secure care practice development advisor post last year, I have been in touch with people across various countries to discuss deprivation of liberty – England, Wales, Republic of Ireland and America to name but a few. In late 2019, Iain Black from Voice of Young People in Care (VOYPIC) got in touch, explaining Northern Ireland had completed a review of regional facilities for children and young people. Given that Scotland had previously had a similar review through the National Secure Care Project, resulting in the establishment of the Secure Care Strategic Board and latterly the Secure Care Group with their various associated workstreams, the opportunity to share learning and experiences via an exchange visit was clear.

In preparing for my visit to Northern Ireland, I read the review report and there were a wealth of similarities in the findings from the reviews, experiences and challenges currently faced in Scotland. One such area was promoting the consistency of thresholds for considering secure care and ensuring the use of alternatives to secure care where this was safe, appropriate and/or in the child’s best interest. Similarly, both reviews had identified the challenges of transitions for young people and in particular ensuring continuity of care. In addition, monitoring and data had been identified as a key concern, particularly regarding children who may be on the edge of secure care; the profile, needs and experiences of children being considered for secure care; and usage of secure care. In Northern Ireland, in response to these challenges, the review had recommended the development of Multi-Agency Panel for Admission to Secure Care, replacing the previous restriction of liberty panels that operated in each of the five Health and Social Care Trusts. The panel role is two-fold; firstly, this is about decision-making in respect of individual placements, but more broadly monitoring and review.

The Panel has been operating since September 2019. Before a referral is made to the Panel, a meeting, either a LAC review for looked after children or trust meeting for children who are not currently looked after must have recommended that secure care is required and this must be reflected in the Child’s Plan. An independent advocate should be invited to this meeting and engage with the child regarding this recommendation. If not present at this meeting, the child’s social worker must inform the child and their parents/carers of the recommendation. An application for admission to secure care form must then be completed, with the agreement of the Health and Social Care Trusts head of service, along with a Signs of Safety Risk of Harm Matrix, during which time the child will remain in the community. This information is shared with Panel Members ahead of the panel, which are held fortnightly and consist of an independent chair; senior representatives from the 5 HSCT; CAMHS; Children’s Clinical Psychology; Education; and Juvenile Justice (all of whom have a say in placement decision making) and a Senior Manager from Lakewood Secure Care Centre and a representative from VOYPIC, neither of whom have a say in decision-making. The child’s social worker provides a brief overview of the child’s case, along with all interventions that have been attempted to avoid admission to secure care, which is considered by the panel alongside the child’s views, any information from panel members, contingency plans should a secure care placement not be agreed, and the exit plan should admission be agreed. Children are invited to directly present to panel or an advocate from VOYPIC can represent the child’s views. The panel consider this information and decides if the child meets criteria for placement in secure care, which is similar to Scotland.

There is only one secure care centre in Northern Ireland, Lakewood Regional Secure Care Centre, that can provide secure care for up to 16 children, mixed gender aged 12-18. Where more than one child meets the criteria and spaces for all children do not exist, the Panel will prioritise the child deemed in greatest need and will help develop a safety plan to manage the risk for any child where no bed is available. Reports on these children are provided to the panel chair on a weekly basis. If the placement is agreed, the case will be heard at court where the child, with legal representation, and their social worker will attend and an application can be made for a Secure Accommodation Order, in the first instance for a maximum of three months. In exceptional circumstances a child can be placed in secure care following the Panel’s decision prior to court for maximum of 72 hours. If the child is aged under 13, agreement must also be sought from the Department of Health. A LAC review must be held within two weeks and a regulation 11 review, attended by the chair of the panel, must be held within a month to determine the continued necessity of the placement. Core groups to progress the care plan and exit strategy must be held every two weeks. A child can be removed from secure care without the need to return to court following any of these reviews.

At each fortnightly meeting, the panel discusses the situation of all the children in Lakewood Secure Care Centre; any children who may be at risk of consideration for secure care; and collates information on referrals, admission/discharge, children who require a bed but none is available, profile, trends and alternative arrangements. As a new process, mechanisms for monitoring and evaluation of the impact and effectiveness of the panel had been built in.

At the panel I observed, three children were considered for placement, presenting with a range of needs, vulnerabilities and risks including child sexual exploitation, abuse, absconding, significant substance misuse, violent behaviour, additional support needs and threat to life. All of the children were assessed as meeting secure care criteria and the recommendation for placement in Lakewood agreed. The familiar challenges of what do we want (and realistically can) secure care to achieve during short placements; the impact of repeat admissions to secure care; ensuring the responsibilities of all corporate parents to children in secure care are fulfilled; the availability of community-based supports and “alternatives” to secure care; and really understanding the factors underpinning and driving behaviours were clear throughout.

A further recommendation from the review was the introduction of an integrated Regional Care and Justice Campus, replacing the current Lakewood Secure Care Centre and Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre, both of which were visited during my trip. Lakewood Regional Secure Care Centre is registered and inspected as a children’s house, being funded by the Department of Health, and as a special school. Children can only be placed in Lakewood as detailed above and Lakewood has no capacity to refuse a child’s placement (although there could be discussions if there were safety concerns). Woodlands Juvenile Justice Centre has capacity to accommodate up to 48 children, mixed gender, aged 10-18 who are sentenced or remanded to custody, or require to be held in a place of safety pending appearance at court across all offence ranges. All children would appear at court via a video link from Woodlands, meaning no under 18 attends court.

Twenty one males and one female were being deprived of their liberty on the day I visited, with the centre funded by the Department for Justice and inspected and regulated similarly to Scottish YOIs. No child under 18 can be held in custody in Northern Ireland and if the child’s sentence length extends beyond their 18th birthday, regular contact with prison staff is completed from the start of the sentence. Woodlands offer a weekly group to parents of children currently or previously in Woodlands. In both establishments, a similar range of supports and services are provided and a child’s journey through placement is similar to that in secure care in Scotland. Both were staffed with non-uniformed care staff and physically looked very similar to centres in Scotland. Both establishments were keen to hear about the integrated model of secure care in Scotland, which will be expanded upon on the return study visit in January.

About our blogger

Debbie Nolan is Secure Care Practice Development Advisor for CYCJ. Read more.

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