Northern Ireland’s new Commissioner for Children and Young People,
Chris Quinn discusses the specific issues facing the region, and his passion for the role.
‘This role is something that I always wanted to do, something that I have aspired towards,’ says Chris Quinn, the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY). ‘It feels like a vocation – it doesn’t feel like work to me – and it just feels like a good fit with regards to my career path and what I was doing prior to this.’
That career path to which Chris alludes began in youth work, volunteering in a community centre in north Belfast. Following a degree, a post-graduate diploma and then a master’s degree in community youth work, Chris had spells with various voluntary sector organisations before becoming Belfast City Council’s children and young people’s coordinator, where he set up the first youth council. He then became director of the Northern Ireland Youth Forum for 15 years and then, in September 2023, took over from Koulla Yiasouma as NICCY.
‘Koulla has done an outstanding job, as did her predecessors – I’m the fourth commissioner and each commissioner pushed the boat out a little bit further,’ says Chris. ‘Koulla worked through a particularly difficult time with Covid-19, government stop-starting, austerity, and all sorts of barriers. So, it is my vision to pick the baton up from where Koulla left off and also bring my own flavour to the work.’
Chris has always aimed to work closely with young people and to champion the voices of those at the margins of society.
‘For the past 12 weeks I’ve been out in the community meeting as many people as possible,’ says Chris. ‘A lot of the issues that I anticipated would be priorities have proven to be so. Things like poverty – which trumps most other issues as a driver of the problems young people are grappling with – along with things like youth justice, education and in particular special educational needs, Northern Ireland’s legacy of the past, youth homelessness, the long-term impact of Covid-19, and issues faced by young people seeking asylum and those who are refugees.’
However, some of the issues he’s come across have left him staggered, he says. ‘Issues around child criminal exploitation and child sexual exploitation are quite shocking. These things are under the radar and we don’t have lots of data or information about them.
‘If I look at the challenges that children from a refugee and asylum-seeking background have, or unaccompanied young people and the trauma and the lack of protection that they have, that can link back to child exploitation and trafficking. The fact that we live on an island with a land border with Europe opens up opportunities for people who want to traffic children. Some of those things are really alarming to me.’
Even without the added concerns of young refugee and asylum-seekers, Northern Ireland’s current political limbo and being a society emerging from conflict, means the region has some unique problems.
‘Part of my challenge is prioritising which issues to focus on. But I feel like I have to mention the legacy of the past in the same breath because we’re living in a situation at the moment where we have no government. Cuts are really affecting children and young people disproportionately, so every day that we have no government, every minute and every hour that ticks by is another minute or another hour or another day where children’s rights are being negatively impacted upon,’ Chris says.
‘And there are still issues around paramilitaries. Children and young people have spoken to me themselves about paramilitaries still recruiting, paramilitary money lending, drug trafficking and drug debt, and again that all links back to criminal exploitation of children and young people.’
MENTAL HEALTH NEEDS
One legacy from the Troubles is that rates of mental health problems in Northern Ireland are higher than in other parts of the UK. When Community Practitioner spoke to Chris’s predecessor (Koulla Yiasouma) in 2022, there was some hope that things were improving. Sadly, that has stalled.
‘We haven’t seen the positive change we were hoping for,’ Chris acknowledges. ‘We are still monitoring that. However, some of the data that we have looked at recently would suggest that waiting times for child and adolescent mental health services are slipping backward towards pre-pandemic levels and young people have called for more action,’ Chris says. (See our cover feature on young people’s mental health across the UK).
‘There is an interesting conversation that I have been having with Northern Ireland’s Mental Health Champion, Siobhan O’Neill, on this, and I think she is right when she says that we need to distinguish between mental health issues, and stress and distress. Why I say that is [because] some of the triggers that young people talk about are around bullying, exams, stress, body image. In order for us to sufficiently meet their support needs, we need to take a small step back.
‘I often talk about working with young people pre-crisis, and we talk about early intervention. For me, early intervention means, in the earliest years of children’s lives, wrapping support services around them and identifying their needs so that when they transition into adulthood and beyond, we can support them as best we can. Crisis work is important, but I think if we are going to make a long-term impact, then we need to adapt a pre-crisis approach that looks at psychological support as opposed to just medicalisation and institutionalisation, which can sometimes be the outcomes.’
Such awareness, Chris says, is an area where professionals in the community can – and do – play a massive role.
‘Community practitioners are absolutely crucial, in my opinion. They are working in homes and in communities and providing essential care at crucial times in children and young people’s lives. I have been out in schools and community groups and I’ve seen the work that goes on, and the reality is that these professionals are picking up the pieces of systematic and endemic failures,’ Chris says.
‘Something I would really like to highlight is signposting across services and collaboration. I know in Northern Ireland we are moving towards using encompass [a single digital care record] for sharing and capturing data, but I think there is more work to be done in terms of the data we capture, how we assess need and – crucially – how we share information. Sometimes, we find ourselves stuck in silos and working across departments can be difficult. But we need to make every contact with vulnerable children or young people count.
‘I’m not going to lie: the situation in Northern Ireland is very difficult, especially with no functioning Assembly and no ministers to make decisions. But I am not the type of person who likes to take no for an answer where children’s rights are concerned. We still have a civil service, we have permanent secretaries, we have a secretary of state, we have a prime minister in Britain, we have a Taoiseach in the Republic of Ireland, and if Covid-19 showed us one thing, it showed us that if there is a will, there is a way. This job isn’t about words, it’s about actions.’
ALL ABOUT CHRIS
Chris lives in Glengormley (North Belfast) with his wife Ciara and four sons. He says his background and home life both play a key role in him being able to do his job effectively.
What drives you? I believe in hard work. I do a lot of sports coaching for children and one of the most important things I tell them is: hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.
What sports do you coach? Hurling, Gaelic football and soccer.
What do you enjoy most about your work? I love hearing from children and young people directly and understanding their views.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned? Self-awareness. Being aware of my triggers and aware of my emotions has really helped me.
How do you unwind? I run marathons and I am a big Cliftonville FC and Manchester United supporter – I enjoy watching football with my kids.
What are your ambitions? I feel very lucky because being in this role was a personal ambition. All I want is to look back in eight years’ time and be satisfied that I’ve done a good job.
Audio Exclusive! Click here to hear more from Chris in our exclusive audio interview, including how he keeps his emotions in check when young people don’t get the support they need, and a personal message for CPs.
Image | Chris Quinn