Vicki's story: Council calls on Western Trust to implement findings

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Derry City and Strabane council has unanimously passed a motion urging the Western Trust and the Department for Health to ensure that no other child is subjected to similar failings to those contained within Vicki’s story, a report by the Commissioner for Children and Young People into the care given to a young person by the Western Trust.

The council urged the Western Health and Social Care Trust and the Department of Health to take all necessary steps in a safe and timely manner to ensure all provisions are taken to enable Vicki to return home to her family.

Council will now write to the Trust and the Department for Health requesting a time-line for implementation of all recommendations.

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SDLP Councillor Brian Tierney brought the motion before council after the report entitled, ‘A Formal Investigation Into The Life Of A Child In The Care Of The State’ was published.

SDLP Councillor Brian Tierney.SDLP Councillor Brian Tierney.
SDLP Councillor Brian Tierney.

Vicki, not her real name, who is now 21 years old, has been in the care system since she was 10 months old.

Colr. Tierney said: “The Commissioner’s report finds that there were systematic failings in her case since she was a little girl. The Western Trust is the girl’s legal parents, however, Vicki is currently placed in a medium secure hospital in England and it’s from the secure hospital that Vicki herself wrote the opening pages of the report: ‘I have had a lot of social workers, some of them scared me by telling me that I was going to be taken away from my mum. But I had some very nice social workers who played with me and took me to the swings and showed that they cared about me. I know that you’re going to read about my life in this report. But all I want you to know is that I want to go home to Northern Ireland and live close to my mum because my family are really important to me’.”

Colr. Tierney focused on three of the many recommendations on how the Western Trust can support Vicki in preparation, during, and after the process of returning home. “I feel that if these recommendations are implemented in full and in the proper caring manner which they should be, it would give Vicki and her family some reassurance that all involved in her care have learned some lessons from the outcome of this report.

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“I don’t know of any other children or families going through similar situations to Vicki, but what I do know is that I don’t want any other child or family coming behind Vicki having a similar experience.”

The 'Looked After?' report.The 'Looked After?' report.
The 'Looked After?' report.

Independent Councillor Raymond Barr said: “This child was failed at every level. If it hadn’t been for the care and support of Vicki’s foster family or real family, God knows what situation this young woman would be in now.”

He highlighted the need for the Western Trust to develop bespoke care and living arrangements adding: “There’s other children and young adults from our council district who are separated from their families and in situations which are causing severe emotional and financial stress to families who feel unsupported and helpless at the lack of facilities in the North West for children and young adults who suffer with mental health problems.”

“I hope Vicki’s case will be the catalyst for major improvements in the provision of proper mental health care for children and young adults in our council area.”

“The support isn’t there at the minute with parents having to make daily trips to Belfast and places like Downpatrick to visit their children.”

Alliance Councillor Rachael Ferguson said, “As a mother, I was horrified. Reading the report and the voice of Vicki asking why she was taken under care? What were parents like when she was young? When can she go home? You can hear Vicki has been ignored for far too long.

“She was failed before she was born. There was no pre-assessment at birth. She was then failed after because there was no post-assessment. Everything has been reactionary and not proactive. Her family, her mother has tried and had no support. There’s been an absence of adequate preparation or a development plan for everything to do with Vicki’s life.”

Cllr Ferguson made an amendment to the motion that ‘Council commits to train at least 70% of elected members in the Introduction to Child’s Rights in Practice to ensure members consider the rights of a child in every future.’

Sinn Féin Councillor Michaela Boyle supported the motion and paid tribute to Vicki’s foster family. She said that they had “fought so hard throughout Vicki’s life to get the proper support to place in the protection of her rights and for the most part that fell on deaf ears.”

She also highlighted the Children’s Commissioner’s opening comments in the report, which stated that the North’s social work system had failed in Vicki’s case.

“The report found 29 adverse findings against four relevant authorities here. The Western Health and Social Care Trust as her legal corporate parent bear the vast majority of the adverse findings and recommendations within the report,” Councillor Boyle said.

“The report found that they consistently failed to discharge their legal and moral duty to this young woman from the day she was a baby to this very day.”

She continued, “There’s an onus on us to ensure that all 45 recommendations are implemented as soon as possible so no other family and no other child goes through their life like this.”

Alderman Maurice Devenney voiced his support for the motion and amendment, stating that it is imperative to implement the recommendations promptly to prevent a recurrence of the situation. He added that he is fully in favour of reuniting the daughter with her family at the earliest possible opportunity.

Meanwhile, People Before Profit Cllr Maeve O’Neill said, “This is another symptom of the crisis that’s in our health and social care system.”

“Social care is underfunded and on its knees and there is that lack of support and for families and for children in need like this it is actually really hard to get support. The system is so hard to navigate, it’s so hard to tick the right boxes in a way to get the support that you need.

“It’s so important that we hear this real life story so that improvements can be made, lessons can be learned, and we can actually improve the lives of children and young people here.”

Aontú Colr. Emmet Doyle expressed his concerns.

“I’m sure like other members I’ve had to deal with some cases that involve social services on behalf of constituents. Certainly, the experiences that I’ve had in terms of cases with the Western Trust have been absolutely harrowing.

"I don’t for the life of me understand how cases like Vicki’s and many, many others, get to the stage where agencies like this council and the Children’s Commissioner have to step in.”

UUP Alderman Darren Guy voiced his party’s support for the motion, however he drew attention to the difficulties faced by social workers in the current system.

The UUP alderman spoke of the challenges that those in the profession face.

“The pressures that have been put on the social workers from those above is absolutely disgusting,” he stated. “They can’t get enough workers through the doors to look after these children and they try their hardest.”

Alderman Guy emphasised that social workers ‘are human too’ and would prefer to focus on the work they were trained for rather than being bogged down in paperwork and red tape. He called for more resources and support to be made available to social workers in order to improve the system.

SDLP Colr. Steven Edwards noted the significant failures outlined and acknowledged the pressure facing social care services, but emphasised the importance of following up on such reports and implementing recommendations. In closing, he stressed the importance of providing a supportive and loving environment for children to grow up in.

In his summing up, Colr. Tierney stated that it would be unfair to blame any individual social worker for the failures identified in the report. He emphasised that the responsibility lay with the corporate parent, the Western Trust, and called for them to take full responsibility for the shortcomings detailed in the report. The fact that the Western Trust had apologised for their failings was welcomed, but Cllr Tierney stressed that it was now imperative that they implement all of the report’s recommendations in a timely manner.

He concluded: “There are 45 recommendations within this report, each and every one in my opinion shows a failure to this child and her family right throughout her entire life and it’s appalling.

“I certainly commend the family for all of the battles that they have been through over the last number of years to try and make sure that Vicki gets the care that she needs.”

Gillian Anderson

Local Democracy Reporter