NI Children's Champion critical of lack of progress on police custody concerns

Koulla Yiasouma, NI Children's Champion Credit: UTV

A children's champion has blasted "unacceptable" failings in the treatment of young people in state care after an inspectorate said too many found themselves in police custody. Koulla Yiasouma said it was "deeply frustrating" that in 2020 the oversight body for the justice system was repeating recommendations made by numerous other reviews over the past two decades. Stormont ministers face calls for urgent action to reduce the amount of time juveniles are held by officers in Northern Ireland. They should never be in police stations due to lack of suitable alternative accommodation, Ms Yiasouma, Northern Ireland's Commissioner for Children and Young People, added.

The criminal justice inspector, which is responsible for assessing the performance of the PSNI, said young people's rights to bail should be quickly addressed. Jacqui Durkin said: "A police cell is a daunting place for anyone, never mind a child in the care system. "The longstanding issues of why these children are more likely to be in police custody, are held longer than their peers and their rights to bail need to be urgently addressed. "We have recommended the Department of Justice prioritise the legislative reform that is needed." She also said discussions between the PSNI and health and social care partners to address the issue of looked-after children being held in police custody cells, which had previously stalled, should recommence within the next three months. Ms Yiasouma expressed concern that 96% of young people in the juvenile justice centre in 2018/19 were on bail or remand. "Clearly the state has a responsibility to the children in their care and every effort must be made to ensure that they are not criminalised or experience custody of any form. "Children and young people must never be held in custody due to the lack of suitable accommodation, and custody of any sort must only be used as a very last resort." Training provided to police officers and staff working in custody suites across Northern Ireland had a focus on vulnerability, and during fieldwork for the inspection, watchdog staff reported examples of custody staff who were skilled and experienced in dealing with distressed, intoxicated and challenging people and circumstances. A new nurse-led model of health care provision was being piloted at Musgrave custody suite in Belfast in partnership with the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust and the Public Health Agency. Ms Durkin said the introduction of this new model had strengthened oversight and accountability arrangements for health care staff in Belfast and helped address weaknesses in clinical governance. "It focuses on the health and wellbeing of the detained person, providing signposting to mental health and addiction interventions and pathways as well as the essential service required within the custody environment."