‘Hope For Every Child’ Report
Monday 5th November 2018
In March this year I decided to conduct some policy research on children’s mental health, focusing specifically on why some young people get involved so early with the Youth Justice System and how we can prevent that. This subject was something I had felt very passionately about for some time.
During the course of the next number of months, along with significant bench research, I interviewed about 35 people from a wide range of Statutory and Voluntary organisations.
The eventual result of this work was the report my party launched on the 6th November called ‘Hope for Every Child’. One of the key findings was that the mental health of babies, children and adolescents is incredibly important as it establishes the biological and value based map of the individual for the rest of their life. The key factor in a child’s mental health is the environment they grow up in; if a child faces a range of Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs (abuse, neglect etc) it will make their own personal development extremely challenging. I cannot stress enough how critical the ‘early years’ are in establishing the map for a child’s future.
The costs, both economic and societal, of not properly addressing ACEs are simply staggering. I have made 17 recommendations in the report, all of which are what economists call ‘invest to save’ and the research I have reviewed has clearly suggested that such investment should result in significant long term savings in the NI budget. There is also the clear moral imperative to simply value every child, born and unborn and to give them the best start they can have in life. As Churchill put it,
“You can measure the degree of civilisation in a society by how it treats its weakest members”
In 2016 BBC NI reported this appalling story from the High Court in Northern Ireland,
“Three young brothers were so neglected by their parents that their overgrown toe–nails curled around their toes. The boys, aged seven, nine and ten, lived in filthy homes covered in dog faeces, and two of them were sent to school in nappies. Two of the boys were unable to use a knife and fork and appeared to lack full appreciation of going to the toilet. The children were soiling themselves in school and struggling to make friends because of their personal hygiene”
Most of us have had the benefit of loving, caring and nurturing parents. They gave us boundaries, disciplined us when appropriate, read us books at night, fed us proper meals, told us we were amazing and demonstrated to us they loved us deeply. Literally thousands of children in NI at the moment are not benefiting from such an upbringing. There are nearly 3,000 children in care, another 2,000 on the Child Protection Register and over 20,000 in need of addition support in their lives. Some being born into families where drug and alcohol abuse is common place, others where they are not fed proper meals. They are subjected to physical violence. They are going to school in dirty clothes and being stigmatised by society. These children did not make this choice, rather it was made for them. They are then left to deal with the consequences. As a Christian, as a father and as a politician I have a deep burden to try to help these children make the absolute best of their lives, despite the circumstances they face.
This is the largest piece of policy research into children’s mental health and justice issues that any political party has ever produced in Northern Ireland, I hope it starts a positive political debate around this important area. I would finally reflect that the difficulties we face in positively transforming the future for all of Northern Ireland’s children are in no ways insurmountable if we manage to intervene early and with the right levels of support and intervention. The positive outcomes that we will achieve include more stable family units, reduced children’s mental health problems and a budgetary saving which are surely worth the effort.