12 Mar 2007

Thank you madam chairperson and everyone for your warm welcome today! As you know the Commissioner, Patricia Lewsley, couldn’t be with you today, but she sends her best wishes. However it’s a pleasure for me to be here today and not only feeling welcome but also feeling very much at home in Ballymena!

The subject of domestic violence is one that the new Commissioner has spoken on many times before. It is also one that she feels passionately about. So much so that within four weeks of her appointment Patricia spoke on the issue of domestic violence in Omagh. AND As some of you will know already, Patricia has a long track record of advocating on behalf of the victims of domestic violence, whether that was in her previous job bringing it to the attention of ministers, or speaking out publicly.

Before coming along today I spoke with Patricia about her views, and the messages she would want to send to you all in her role as Commissioner for Northern Ireland’s half a million children and young people.

Instead of messages she asked me to pose 3 questions for you to consider:

  • Why are children the silent witnesses to domestic violence?
  • Why have we left children powerless when mental and physical hurt occurs?
  • What action can all of us take to enable children to speak out?
  • In short – “how can we give a child who experiences or witnesses domestic violence a voice?”

So, take a little time to reflect and we will return to these important questions in a few minutes.

Firstly I thought I might share with you a little about the work of our office and the job we do including what we can do within our legislation to support C&YP who may be experiencing the effects of domestic violence.

The job of the Commissioner and all the NICY staff can be described simply as:

“Promoting and safeguarding the rights and best interests of children and young people to help themchallenge and change the world in which they live – in fact that’s what it says in the law that set NICCY up!”

And that means all children and young people in Northern Ireland.

No exceptions.

No exclusions.

All NICCYS work is based on the guiding principles of The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UNCRC.

The UNCRC as you may know is a list of 42 promises made by governments from almost all countries in the world to children and young people including the right to protection,education, equal treatment and the right to an opinion.

Although the UNCRC is not enshrined in domestic legislation the UK Gov.demonstrated through ratification in 1991its commitment to bringing its law,policy and practices in line with the convention.

Our office is working to see that our Government here in Northern Ireland includes the convention in practice policy and the law. Who knows, hopefully our newly elected politicians will sit down on March 26th and start that work!

But what does NICCY actually do to achieve its mission to promote and safeguard the rights and best interests of children and young people in Northern Ireland?

We are currently working on 15 priorities. Those priorities were set three years ago after extensive research by QUB and a consultation that saw more than 1,800 responses many from C&YP.

One of the headings that two of our priorities are grouped under is Family Life. Those priorities aresafeguarding children and physical punishment. We don’t explicitly say domestic violence is a priority, but I’m sure that you’ll agree that it could come under the heading of safeguarding children.

And, as I’m sure you are aware recent research shows that 11,000 children and young people in Northern Ireland have witnessed domestic violence. That is defined as “having been in the same or next room when the violence takes place.”

We also know the PSNI attend, on average 46 domestic violence incidents a day. 46 cases a day when a child has experienced or been victim of domestic violence. And how many more incidents go unreported.

When we, or the media, use the phrase domestic violence we tend to think that it is partner A being violent towards partner B. But we should remember that a child or young person in that environment is often likely to be a victim too - we call that physical abuse. But we do not need definitions to know that it is wrong.

So, we know it is wrong and it could be seen as being part of the NICCY group of priorities ‘Family Life’.

And as we are about to undertake research and consultation on our priorities for the next 3 years we are in listening mode. When we undertake our consultation on our priorities in the autumn it is a chance for you as individuals and representatives of organisations to tell us if you believe that domestic violence should be an explicit objective for the Commissioner.

So, what can NICCY do for children and young people right here, right now on their behalf?

Subjecting a child to domestic violence, and the failing to provide that child with proper information, support and counselling, violates a number of rights in the Convention, in particular:

Article 3 : The best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration in all actions concerning children, and State Parties must ensure the child such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being.

Article 19 : State Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of a parent(s) or carer(s).

Children and young people have the right to be protected from all forms of violence and NICCY believes that more needs to be done to protect them from the devastating experience and impact of growing up in households where domestic violence is taking place. To effectively support children and young people in overcoming the trauma they have in the past or are currently experiencing, and also to help prevent the intergenerational cycle of abuse, a suitably resourced multi-agency approach must be taken. And one which can provide child victims of domestic violence with the right amount of information, support and counselling services.

The NI Commissioner unlike many other Commissioners can take individual complaints from a child or parent – over 600 to date. What that means is that if that child or parent believes not enough is being done to protect them by statutory agencies we can help. Please don’t hesitate to contact our Legal and Complaints team if you need details about our service.

We can also – if necessary undertake specific research or a service review into an area such as this; not to repeat existing work, but to explore and reveal areas of best practice and where more can be done. Examples of this is our work on Bullying and Child Centred Care. And we are currently involved in a Judicial Review of the Gov decision not to afford children equal treatment in the law relating to Physical Punishment in NI, unlike many of our European neighbours.

I head up the Communication & Participation team, which has the responsibility to communicate NICCY’s role and children’s rights to young people and amongst everyone involved with C&YP.

One of the key ways we do this is by encouraging children and young people’s participation in decisions that affect them. We have outreach staff working across Northern Ireland, reaching out to schools and organizations helping children and young people understand the role of NICCY and the UNCRC.

Principle in my role is making sure that participation is high up the Government agenda. In our strategy which we use to influence best practice at the ‘top table’, Ministers meet members of our 42 strong NYP on a regular basis to hear their views. These YP also act as a consultation forum to advise us in our work.

But they do more than that. They are involved in real participative work, including peer research and mentoring programmes designed by themselves. And for those that doubt that young people can participate in the tough day-to-day tasks - we at NICCY can without hesitation say we know they can. For example young people sat on the recruitment and selection panel for each and every member of NICCY staff.

Here in Ballymena we have an outreach office, from which a member of the Participation team, Eamonn Keenan provides training on the work of NICCY and the UN Convention to schools, youth groups and organisations engaged in working with children and young people. Indeed 10 days ago the Commissioner, Eamonn and I were with community groups here in Ballymena and also listening to what local school children & YP had to say about the problems they face living and growing up in Ballymena.

You can find out more about our work and our priorities here on our website.

And now to the questions posed earlier.

  • Why are children the silent witnesses to domestic violence?
  • Why have we left children powerless when mental and physical hurt occurs?
  • What action can all of us take to enable children to speak out?
  • In short – “how can we give a child who experiences or witnesses domestic violence a voice?”

The Silent Witnesses –

When the “Tackling Violence at Home” strategy for addressing domestic violence and abuse in NI was launched in 2005 it did not highlight children – their voice wasn’t heard – they were again left silent.

We believe that everyone in this room can and is helping to end that silence. I hope that you will use today as a launching pad to answer those questions and I know you have a question and answer session planned later.

I believe that we can all look at ways to give children a voice and to take action; whether that be in implementing the Barnardos assessment models; or strengthening regional policy or through inter-agency action and working together. AND today in this room we have a living example of how this is working has become a reality.

Northern Ireland has a rich and diverse network of statutory, voluntary and community organisations that can be mobilised to give children a voice, to end their powerlessness, to speak out…

Speak Out

I mentioned earlier the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 12 of that Convention says, explicitly that children and young people have a right to a say in the decisions that affect their lives.

When you are considering services that may answer the questions posed; when you are planning the future of those services; when you are deciding how those services will look under the Review of Public Administration you must consider and listen to the views and opinions of children and young people.

They will help answer those questions for you – they will help you see the service from a user’s point of view – they will make the service better.

In conclusion can I remind you all of the global study Behind Closed Doors. In that research it explained the effects of domestic violence: impaired mental and emotional growth; distress; bedwetting; stomach pain; disturbed sleep; low-self esteem; poor educational achievement; aggression; suicide attempts; and, perhaps worst of all, establishing violence as a ‘normal’ part of future relationships.

We must end this cycle and I’ll leave you with the words of a member of our youth panel, which perhaps puts some context on the fears and concerns of young people.

She said: “If my father hits my mother she can ring the police but I have no marks - so I cannot ring anyone.”

Thank you again for your time.