Every year, the Parliamentary Ombudsman receives complaints concerning contact between children in care under the Care of Young Persons (Special Provisions) Act and their guardians. Against this background, the Parliamentary Ombudsman decided to carry out an investigation into how Social Services process cases relating to restricted access under the Care of Young Persons (Special Provisions) Act. As part of the investigation, the Parliamentary Ombudsman inspected six Social Welfare Boards and examined cases of restricted access. The key question of the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s investigation has involved how the boards take into account the principle of the best interests of the child.
The Parliamentary Ombudsman notes that all the boards stated that they worked actively with the principle of the best interests of the child, and that this underpins all decisions to restrict access. However, the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s review reveals a clear discrepancy between what the boards themselves have stated about the best interests of the child being taken into account in the processing and what has been documented and reported in the cases reviewed. The Parliamentary Ombudsman points out that the individual children were not highlighted at all in the cases where no assessment of the best interests of the child was expressed in either the decision or the decision guidance document, and the Parliamentary Ombudsman takes this very seriously.
The child’s right to participation consists of different elements: the right to information, the right to speak and be listened to, and the right to influence depending on their age and maturity. The child’s right to information is a prerequisite for allowing the child to be able to express their views on the issue of contact, for example. Speaking and being listened to are also an important prerequisite if the child is to feel that they have been given the influence that they are entitled to in a case. As regards the right to participation, the Parliamentary Ombudsman’s review shows shortcomings in all areas, which is worrying.
In the decision, the Parliamentary Ombudsman also states an opinion on certain formal issues in the handling of cases relating to restricted access and provides views on how these should be handled by the boards.