Changing the Narrative: Improving Outcomes for Disabled Children and Young People in Care and Leaving Care

Impact: Public Service Impact

Description of impact

Whilst disabled children and young people are at greater risk of abuse or neglect than their non-disabled peers (Stalker & MacArthur, 2012) and are over-represented in the population of children living in out-of-home care (DoH, 2012, 2013, 2014), very minimal attention has been given to disabled children’s experience of out-of-home care and leaving care. The impact reported here is based on the first studies in NI to examine the characteristics and experiences of disabled children and young people living in, and leaving, care (funded by the OFMDFM & PHA R&D Office). The impact includes: (1) Improved annual statistics from the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) due to the study’s amendment of disability questions in its bi-annual return on children in care; and (2) Appointment of implementation officers in 4 Health and Social Care Trusts to develop an action plan for coordinated services for disabled children living in and leaving care in Northern Ireland (approximately 600 children and young people regionally).

Who is affected

Disabled children in out-of-home care in Northern Ireland


Based on the above studies, four key areas of impact are: 1.Population data monitoring impact. Whilst there was some indication of the over-representation of disabled children in the care system, routine Departmental data did not provide clear disaggregated data on disability and could not account for duplication of cases of disabled care leavers across data returns. The YOLO study worked in partnership with the Health and Social Care Board’s information manager and commissioning lead for care leavers to change the disability question to facilitate a linked survey for the study but also to improve the disability question for future data returns. This change was implemented by the commissioning body who monitors the population data on care leavers in NI and will continue to be used for future data collection returns across Trusts in NI, providing more accurate data on types of disability within the population of children and young people living in and leaving care across Northern Ireland. This is an important change in annual data returns on the leaving care population in Northern Ireland as service providers and commissioners can use this data to become more attuned to the diversity of need within the care leaver population and develop more effective services to meet that identified need. Improved data recording systems also enable more accurate tracking the population of disabled young people exiting care and potentially use this population data to develop services to meet their young adult service needs. 2.New research evidence to inform policy and practice. Prior to these studies, there was no research on the experiences of disabled children and young people living in and leaving care. There was no available data on the reasons for their entry to care, their placement experiences or how well their needs were being met. There were no plans in place to develop services to more effectively meet their needs. For the first time in NI, the research produced rich data on the characteristics and experiences of the population of disabled children and young people living in and leaving care, including the challenging issues they encounter and how best to improve services to meet their needs. The researchers have held two policy roundtable events to discuss the policy implications of the findings, followed by individual and small group meetings with key policy leads for children, education and mental health/learning disability. As a result of this engagement, Dr Kelly was invited to act as a peer reviewer of the draft Ten Year Children’s Strategy (OFMDFM) and the draft Strategy for Looked After Children (DoH & DoE) (out for consultation in 2018 but not yet implemented due to the closure of the NI Executive). The previous versions of these strategic policy documents failed to give full attention to issues affecting disabled children and young people with little reference to disability, however, both Strategies now make full reference to disabled children in the care system and also clearly cite the research evidence and recommendations from both research studies in its plans for the review and development of services for looked after children in Northern Ireland (see pg. 26 of the LAC Strategy available at - This new focus on including issues relevant to disabled children in Looked After Child Strategies is a first for Northern Ireland and marks an example of good practice for other UK jurisdictions. 3.Developing an integrated service approach for disabled children in and leaving care. The evidence from the research highlights the needs of this population and how best to develop and configure services that meet their needs via the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) and the five Health and Social Care Trusts (HSCTs). The research studies clearly show a need for more integrated service systems for this population across disability, mental health and child care services.The research team presented the study findings to the HSCB and to the Directors of Social Work in each Trust in spring 2017. The aim was to share knowledge of the study’s findings but also to encourage a step change in the provision of transition services for disabled care leavers. Following this meeting, the research team have been connected with the regional lead for developing services for disabled children NI who has been tasked with taking forward the recommendations from the research. Key stakeholders in the HSCB and HSCTS in NI attended the launch of the research findings in December 2016. Presentations/workshops were also delivered to the HSCB and Directors for Social Services in each Trust in 2017 focused on the implementation of the recommendations of both research studies (SBNI Disability Conference, Craigavon in April 2017, HSCB Directors’ meeting, Belfast in Sept. 2017. HSCB workshops on developing an action plan to meet the needs of disabled children in care, June 2018 and June 2019). Based on these events, the HSCB have identified disabled children as a priority area for policy and service development and have employed Lead Implementation Officers in 4 HSCTs who are taking forward service development for disabled children living in and leaving care in their areas. These developments have the potential to impact on up to a quarter of the population of disabled children and young people living in and leaving out-of-home care. The research team are working closely with these Lead Implementation Officers in 4 Trusts who are tasked with bringing forward service developments for disabled looked after children in their area.
Impact statusOngoing
Impact date20172021
Category of impactPublic Service Impact
Impact levelBenefit