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ESRC Festival Event: Relationships Matter Putting Children at the Centre of Professional Practice

30 Oct

Dr Karen Winter: Relationships Matter Putting Children at the Centre of Professional Practice

An ESRC funded ethnographic research project underway in the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust (SEHSCT) that seeks to:

Identify how social workers communicate with children in practice;

Enable practitioners to reflect on specific practice encounters, helping to identify the barriers and enablers to attuned communication;

Identify how practice in this domain could be improved and develop paper-based and video/digital resources to enable these improvements to be realised.

The event represents an opportunity for practitioners and policy makers to engage with the findings of research in which they have been involved and consider their practical applicability.

Learn more about this project at:

Lisburn Civic Centre

12.30 – 4.30

5 November 2014

Further details available from:


Inside Probation and the Possibilities for Penal Reform

30 Oct

Irish Criminology Research Network

When viewed alongside international comparators the use of supervised community sanctions (such as Probation and Community Service Orders) in Ireland is relatively low. The marked increase in the prison population in Ireland in recent years has focused attention once again on the under-utilisation of community sanctions. The recent report of the Strategic Review on Penal Policy echoes calls made in numerous policy documents over the past 30 years, to reduce the use of imprisonment, particularly for short prison sentences, and to strengthen the range of community sanctions available to the courts. Alongside cost imperatives – prison is an expensive sanction – the detrimental effects of prison have been noted. Temporary incapacitation, particularly in the form of short prison sentences does not help to reduce offending in the long-term. In fact a wide range of evidence suggests the opposite effect.

However, lessons from other countries suggest that caution should be…

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Residential care and sexual exploitation: sound bites versus reality

7 Oct

Watching the recent Stephen Nolan show regarding the ongoing police investigation into allegations about the possible sexual exploitation of 22 young people who have gone missing from residential care in the last 18 months, I was struck by the fact that the discussion centred on panel participants providing a ‘yes/no’ answer to the question ‘can care workers restrain young people to prevent them leaving care homes when there are real concerns about the risks they may be exposed to?

Although based on the understandable desire to find a quick and effective solution to address the problem, setting the parameters of the discussion in this way does a disservice to everyone involved. The public may well be left with the impression that, once again (bearing in mind the horrific examples of historical institutional abuse), residential homes can never deliver on their promise to safeguard the well being of the young people they care for; that care workers are ineffective and that young people living in children’s homes are out of control to the extent that they need to be restrained. The reality is, of course, far more complicated than these sound bites.

Sexual exploitation involves the coercion or manipulation of a young person under the age of 18 years into engaging in some form of sexual activity usually in exchange for gifts (money, cigarettes, alcohol, clothes), affection and/or status. It can happen to any young person from any background and of any age. It is largely hidden. It is therefore wrong to make the assumption that it is only young people who live in residential care who have been or who will be sexually exploited.

With regards to residential care there are 41 children’s homes in Northern Ireland, which provide care for about 250 children and young people. There are also 9 other residential homes that provide respite and longer term care for disabled children[1]. Of the 41 children’s homes most young people enter residential care when they are in secondary school and most stay there for short periods of time and often return home. Given the numbers that the police are concentrating their investigation on, it is clear that the focus is not all young people in residential care and neither is it all children’s homes. It is wrong to conclude therefore that residential children’s homes per se place young people at risk.

The role of residential care in parenting young people has recently been the focus of positive policy and practice initiatives. In May 2013 the DHSSPS published draft Minimum Care Standards for Children’s Homes, which have been developed with the involvement of children and young people who live in children’s homes. The new standards will strengthen the role of the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority in its legal duty to inspect all residential units. The publication of these new standards alongside the launch of recent regional guidance regarding police involvement in residential units when children go missing[2] and the introduction of therapeutic approaches within children’s homes across Northern Ireland[3] indicate that there has been a lot of work behind the scenes to improve residential child care in Northern Ireland. It is inaccurate to imply that during the period covered by the police investigation, nothing has been happening.

The children and young people who live in children’s homes have said that they value residential care and that they want ‘the home to be their home, to be homely and similar to those of their friends not in care’ (DHSSPS, 2013, p. 1). Most young people experience residential care as a good place, value their relationships with their care workers and feel that their time in residential care has helped them deal with their problems. We also know that there are care workers who go ‘over and beyond’ what is expected of them to make connections with young people in attempts to address risks in their lives.

Underpinning young people’s positive experiences of residential care is one common element – the development of trusting, consistent and meaningful relationships with staff. If we think about our own families and our wider communities it is only within the context of trusting, positive and meaningful relationships that opportunities are forged to effectively educate, reason with and role model the knowledge and skills required with children and young people to help them identify and manage risk effectively and appropriately. Fundamentally the aim of residential care is also to provide these opportunities.

From what staff, children and young people tell us we cannot say that the work of care workers is ineffective. We do know though that it can be time consuming and resource intensive to build relationships. It can be very difficult to ‘reach’ children and young people when they have had few positive relationships in their families and their communities.

Within this context restraint cannot be relied on as an effective and reliable intervention for preventing risk of exposure to sexual exploitation and is not a solution. Restraining young people is traumatic for them, an intrusion into their private space and maybe experienced like another violation of their person. It is almost certainly unlikely to be experienced by them as providing a platform for the development of meaningful relationships. The process is also traumatic for staff and places them at much greater risk of complaint and investigation.

What all of this should indicate is the need for an informed discussion and one that recognizes that there are no ‘quick fix’ solutions regarding the sexual exploitation of children and young people. One issue that needs much more careful consideration is whether being in residential care per se increases the risk of young people being sexually exploited. It is convenient to ‘box off’ sexual exploitation as connected with residential child care and makes it much harder to push for the development of a shared sense of responsibility, across agencies and communities towards the children and young people living in our areas.

The recently established Safeguarding Board Northern Ireland has a vital role to play in this regard and its newly published guides on sexual exploitation have been developed on a model of shared professional responsibility and effective working relationships between professionals. Translating the principles and practices of these guides into the daily practices of people who work in settings with children requires more opportunities for adults and children to develop trusting, respectful and meaningful relationships with each other. Supporting the development of these requires resources so that we have the right number of people with the right training in the right place and at the right time.

Dr. Karen Winter is a lecturer in social work at Queen’s University Belfast and has researched and written widely on the subject of children in care. Most recently she is one of a team commissioned by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to undertake a review of research, policy and practice concerning children and young people on the edge of care and in care and their right to family life.

Sept 29th 2013

[1] DHSSPS (2013) Children in Care in Northern Ireland

[2] HSCNI/PSNI (2011) Regional Guidance. Police Involvement in Residential Units. Safeguarding of Children Missing from Home and Foster Care.

[3] SCIE (2012) Therapeutic Approaches to Social Work in Residential Child Care Settings.

Experience of conference participation

31 May

After reading a call for papers for a seminar organised by the BSA ‘New Variants on the undeserving poor: current perceptions and experiences of disability and illness’ to be held in Coventry University on 24th May, I submitted an abstract for consideration.  The abstract was based on research I had carried out for the final assignment of a third year undergraduate module, Disability and Society.  My abstract was accepted, and I was asked to be one of the speakers. 

The title of my presentation was: To what degree has the concept of social exclusion been applied to the education of children with disabilities in Northern Ireland?  The paper discussed the change in the education system in Northern Ireland from segregation to inclusion, and detailed arguments both for and against the existence of ‘special schools’.   It argued that while the current policy of inclusion has resulted in more children with disabilities attending mainstream schools, the underlying structure remains unchanged and is failing many of our children. A report by the Education and Training Inspectorate in 2010-11 found that 18% of primary schools and 38% of post-primary schools failed to meet the required standards of arrangements to identify, assess and meet the needs of Special Educational Needs (SEN) pupils.  There are fears that the assessment procedures for the new SEN system which is due to be introduced this year will lead to further inconsistences between schools.  Another cause for concern is the change from ‘Statements’ to ‘Coordinated Support Plans’ (CSP’s).  It is estimated that up to 50% of children who would have previously had the legal protection of a Statement will not now meet the much more stringent criteria needed for a CSP, and therefore also lose the right to appeal if any recommended support provision fails to materialise.  However, my paper concluded by highlighting the fact that children with disabilities themselves are rarely, if ever, included in the decision making surrounding their support provision, and until their voices are heard, SEN will remain a sub-system of education, and their social exclusion will continue. 

I was unsure of my ability to deliver a paper at such an event, but with encouragement from School staff and great support from Dr Byrne, (not to mention an offer from the School to cover my travel expenses), I decided that it was too good an opportunity to miss.

The seminar was attended by people with a wide range of interests, and this was reflected by the other speakers: Paul Grant, a lecturer from Wolverhampton University, Jamie Beddard, an actor with disabilities, Dr Sarah Woodin from Leeds University, and Debbie Jolly, a representative of Disabled People Against the Cuts (DEPAC).

I informed the organisers of the event that this would be my first time presenting a paper, and from the start they were extremely understanding, promising a supporting atmosphere.  From the moment I arrived at the venue I was made to feel comfortable, everyone was very welcoming, and interested in what I had to say.  I learnt a lot, met some fantastic people, and came away feeling very positive about the whole experience, and really glad that I had been given the opportunity to attend.  I would encourage any Post Graduate student – Taught or Research – to submit papers if they hear a call for any in an area they are interested in.  Yes, the thought of standing up and talking in front of academics is a daunting one, but the rewards make it worth putting yourself out there.

Elizabeth Martin

Elizabeth is currently studying on the MA Sociology programme.

The Grief Study

21 May

Mark McCann, John Moriarty and Aideen Maguire are working on a project exploring the effects of bereavement on mental health. You can follow their progress on

The Grief Study aims to estimate the prevalence of poor mental health outcomes among people who have suffered bereavement. To do this, we will combine data from the Northern Ireland Longitudinal Study, the Northern Ireland Mortality Study and the Electronic Prescribing Database. The Northern Ireland Longitudinal Study (NILS) is a random anonymised sample of 28% of the Northern Ireland population whose responses to the 2001 UK Census have been held and linked to GP registration information. Like all of us, a proportion of this sample will have lost someone close to them since the beginning of the study. It is possible to identify those who have lost someone living at the same address as them, and to compare their mental health outcomes to the rest of the population.

Our proxy measure for poor mental health is prescription of anti-depressant or anxiolytic drugs in the post-bereavement period. This Distinct Linkage Project (DLP) allows for comparison of mental health outcomes between bereaved and non-bereaved individuals and for extensive analysis of particular populations of interest. The following five research questions illustrate the scope of the project and the particular bereaved groups whose experiences we want to better understand.

  1.  Does bereavement lead to an increased risk of poor mental health?
  2.  Does the likelihood of poor mental health following bereavement vary according to the cause of death?
  3.  To what extent do individual, household, and area characteristics mitigate or compound the risk of poor mental health following bereavement?
  4.  Does the ‘risk profile’, in terms of the magnitude of risk conferred by individual, household and area characteristics, differ between those bereaved following an expected death, sudden death, violent death or suicide?
  5.  To what extent does bereavement confer an increased risk of mortality, particularly when accompanied by poor mental health?

Question 1: Does bereavement lead to an increased risk of poor mental health?

Evidence suggests that bereavement is a major life event and considered a major stressor. Losing a loved one can hasten one’s own death, but we don’t know to what extent this is preceded by suffering which is significantly greater than that of the general population at large. By comparing the additional likelihood of being prescribed anti-depressant or anxiolytic drugs following a bereavement, we can attempt to measure how much suffering bereavement causes.

Question 2: To what extent do individual, household, and area characteristics mitigate or compound the risk of poor mental health following bereavement?

Grief reactions won’t be the same for everyone. By comparing bereaved individuals who have poor mental health outcomes with other bereaved individuals, we can develop a profile of individual characteristics and social factors which dispose someone to a more intense grief reaction. For example, we will be looking at whether grief reaction is more or less severe depending on sex, age, area deprivation and whether the bereaved individual provided care to the deceased.

Question 3: Does the likelihood of poor mental health following bereavement vary according to the cause of death?

The circumstances of an individual’s bereavement and the nature of the death of their loved one has potentially huge impact on their ability to cope. For example, there is widespread public concern over how a person copes after the sudden death of a young or middle-aged member of their family, particularly where the person has died by suicide. This concern reflects an appreciation for how the circumstances of death can potentially confer severe risk on a bereaved person.

Question 4: Does the ‘risk profile’, in terms of the magnitude of risk conferred by individual, household and area characteristics, differ between those bereaved following an expected death, sudden death, violent death or suicide?

This is an exploratory question to which studies to date give no satisfactory answer. If question 2 asks whether different some categories of person are differently affected by bereavement and question 3 asks whether some categories of death cause people to be differently affected, question 4 asks whether those particular deaths have a greater effect on everyone or only on particular categories of person. For example, we look at whether the extra mental ill-health suffered after a suicide is more pronounced for women or for men; whether better education protects against suffering following particular types of death, but not others.

Question 5: To what extent does bereavement confer an increased risk of mortality, particularly when accompanied by poor mental health?

Mortality is the more commonly studied outcome from bereavement, and several studies indicate that a bereaved person will die sooner than someone of the same age and physical health. However, none of these studies have had the measures available to examine why a bereaved person is at risk of dying and whether this risk is due to mental health deterioration.

We’re grateful to the Grief Study’s Knowledge Exchange Working Group for their input to date on these questions. If you would like more information about any of these research questions, please leave a comment, send us a tweet (John_ICCR ; Aideen_ICCR ; Mark_ICCR) or email j.moriarty [AT] If you have information or insight which you think could be of value to the team, please share it with us.

Public Lecture: Reflecting on the death of Savita Halappanavar, could this happen in the North?

2 Dec

Reflecting on the death of Savita Halappanavar: Could this happen in the North?


Social Society

School of Sociology, Social Policy and Social Work,  Queen’s University Belfast

Room 01/035

Tuesday the 4th of December 5pm to 7pm

Speakers:  Anna Lo (MLA), Anne Rossiter, Judith Thurley and

Dr Lisa Smyth


Lisa Smyth on: Marie Stopes in Belfast: cultural identity or women’s rights?

6 Nov

Why has the opening of a Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast generated such a storm, driven by an unlikely coalition of opponents who cross the usual divisions of politics and religion? Were those protesters who gathered in Belfast’s city centre for the clinic’s opening on 18th October motivated solely by moral commitments? Is there more that can be said about these recent events? Does this and similar protests instead tell us something about the peculiar character of identity politics in Ireland, north and south?

Those who resist legal access to abortion tend to portray their views as representative of what ‘the people’ think. Protesters in Belfast described their position as part of a wider struggle for ‘the soul of Northern Ireland’. Claims such as this are common in public debate on abortion access around the world, despite the deep disagreement this issue actually generates on the island of Ireland and beyond. It does seem particularly surprising to hear statements such as this in a society which is usually instead understood to be deeply divided. It raises questions about whether a society can be said to have a soul, and whether we all know and agree on what that soul might be. Are democratic societies, whether deeply divided or not, ever based on the sort of deep moral consensus these protesters see themselves as defending?

While it may seem that claims of this sort are simply empirical statements about social attitudes or cultural values, they can also be understood as the political claims of moral entrepreneurs, who seek to position themselves as authoritative representatives of the ‘collective conscience’.  It is possible to understand the occurrence of protests such as this not only as a specific reaction to the opening of the clinic, but also as a struggle to secure recognition, from Westminster, Stormont and the region’s inhabitants, of Northern Ireland as a single moral community. Of course, such claims that Northern Ireland is ‘more moral’ than the rest of the UK, and should be treated as such, are caught in a zero-sum struggle. Their success depends on compromising women’s status as individual moral agents, capable of making meaningful decisions in difficult circumstances. Indeed, this conflict echoes that of the Republic of Ireland, where opposition to abortion access has also provided a focus for a much broader conflict over the status of women and the authority of the patriarchal family. While bitter experience has changed the character of this politics south of the border to some extent, as pregnant young rape victims, wards of court, cancer victims and others have all made their way through the courts, the conflict in Northern Ireland has been more muted. It has played out in an apparently ‘exceptional’ region of the otherwise relatively liberal UK, and so tends to remains below the radar of international attention. The opening of the Marie Stopes clinic in Belfast takes place against this background, in a context where women’s entitlement to make major decisions over their own reproductive lives has long been compromised by the claims of culture.