Shaping the future in Northern Ireland

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Kathleen Toner, director of The Fostering Network in Northern Ireland, outlines our role in shaping the proposed new children’s legislation in Northern Ireland and the merits of updating the law

Despite the current and continuing impasse in the Northern Ireland Assembly, work on the draft Adoption and Children Bill (ACB) for Northern Ireland is continuing. Adoption legislation in the north of Ireland is almost 30 years old while the Children (Northern Ireland) Order, the key body of children’s legislation, is more than 20 years old. In taking this bill forward, the aim is to modernise legislation for the benefit of children, their parents and those families who offer them permanent homes through adoption.

The Children Order is the principal statute governing the care, upbringing and protection of children in Northern Ireland and it deals with both public and private law matters. The provisions in the ACB will extend and strengthen provisions in the Children Order to enhance the services provided to children, their parents and carers, and improve outcomes for looked after children. With regard to foster care, this legislation seeks to introduce a wide range of new provisions including the proposed introduction of special guardianship orders and provisions for kinship foster care. We are represented on the ACB advisory groups which will help inform the development of the legislation as it goes forward. In order to ensure our input reflects the experiences and concerns of members in Northern Ireland we recently held two consultative events and conducted a survey of members to inform our response to the draft bill.

The Draft Programme for Government Framework 2016-21 released by the Northern Ireland Executive last year sets out the executive’s ambitions for society and outlines the planned approach for addressing the big issues facing Northern Ireland. The framework’s key element is its outcomes-based approach that moves away from assembly term-length measures of progress, towards a generational one, and looks to work beyond traditional departmental lines and involve all interested sectors in the improvement process. The framework strongly emphasises the plan to work alongside local government as well as the private, voluntary and community sectors to bring about these changes.  With 14 high level outcomes and 42 indicators we very much welcomed the introduction of an indicator specifically in relation to looked after children. This will be accompanied by an action plan and link into the developing looked after children strategy which is being taken forward jointly by the Department of Education and the Department of Health. We have been, and will continue to be, involved in consultations on this work as it develops.