Northern Ireland abuse inquiries' heads questioned

Teenage girl Of the 22 cases under examination, 18 involved young people in the care system

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MLAs have questioned how effective two child sexual exploitation inquiries can be without statutory powers.

The assembly's health committee has heard evidence from those leading inquiries into the abuse of young people in Northern Ireland.

Two inquiries were launched in September after it was revealed that police had identified a group of 22 young people who may have been abused.

The alleged victims were aged between 13 and 18.

The health committee was told the profile of victims in Northern Ireland was always changing.

In the past it was predominately young women, but now many young men are also victims of abuse.

The former children's commissioner for Scotland, Kathleen Marshall, is looking at the extent of child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland and what needs to be done to protect young people.

The Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland (SBNI) will look at exactly what happened to the 22 alleged victims, and what systems were in place at the time to protect them.

During the hearing, health committee chairwoman Maeve McLaughlin asked Hugh Connor of the Safeguarding Board for assurance that the review would not simply result in the responsible bodies reviewing themselves.

Mr Connor said he had engaged three experts to provide independent scrutiny.

Kathleen Marshall gave evidence at the assembly

They are children's services consultant Marion Davis, Prof Jenny Pearce from the University of Bedfordshire, and Peter Davies, the chief executive of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP).

Speaking to BBC Northern Ireland after Wednesday's assembly hearing, Ms Marshall said: "We'll be looking at what kind of child sexual exploitation is happening in Northern Ireland and, as far as we can, how much of it there is going on.

"We'll be looking at how well current systems are able to protect children from this and what should be done to actually make these protections more effective.

"We won't be looking at those specific 22 cases. The police are investigating them and there is actually another review going on by the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland looking at the 22 cases.

"Our job is to look more widely at the issue. We'll be looking at young people not just in the care system for example, but young people in general."

'Proper truth'

She said the fact that people were being asked to voluntarily give her information could mean they were more likely to tell the truth.

"So far, from what we've heard from the agencies we've already met with, people are very willing to engage with us and we will be trying to create mechanisms that will allow us to get at the proper truth, not just what people like to put out in reports.

"If we find that current systems haven't been working effectively, we'll obviously make comment on that."

Children recorded missing

Of the 22 cases under examination, 18 involved children in the care system.

They had been recorded as missing a total of 437 times.

More than 30 arrests have been made as part of the police investigation.

The question being asked in the two inquiries is whether enough was done to protect children in care who were sexually exploited.

SBNI's chair, Sharon Beattie, told BBC Radio Ulster: "What we will be looking at are the case files of those 22 young people, we'll be reviewing what professionals have done to protect those children and young people.

"We will be carrying out a desktop study and we will be interviewing, where possible, the practitioners who have been involved in the cases of those young people."

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