Almost 40,000 children in Northern Ireland were referred to social services during a one-year period, shocking new figures have shown.

The statistics from the Department of Health show that in the 12 months leading up to 31 March this year, 37,618 children were referred to social services – an increase of more than 3,000 from the previous 2015/2016 period, when 34,124 children were referred.

The largest proportion of these referrals were made by the police (29%), followed by Social Services (20%).

Figures are published by the Department annually as part of the ‘Children’s Social Care Statistics for NI’, and give an overview of the situation for some of the province’s most vulnerable children.

As of March 31 of this year, 22,737 children were known to social services as being a ‘child in need’. A child is defined as being ‘in need’ if it is thought they are unlikely to achieve a reasonable standard of health, if their health or development is significantly impaired, or if the child has a disability.

This figure means that out of every 10,000 children in Northern Ireland, 522 are defined as being ‘in need’.

The picture varies across Northern Ireland, with children in the South Eastern Trust area the least likely to be classified as being ‘in need’, and those in the Western Trust area the mostly – with the difference between the two being more than 100 children per 10,000.

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A graphic showing the number of children per 10,000 that are considered ‘in need’ / Credit: Department of Health

The Child Protection Register records the names of children in a certain area that are considered to be at significant risk of harm.

As of the end of March, 2,132 children were on the list, representing 49 children per 10,000 area of population under the age of 18.

For this statistic, children in the Southern Trust area were found to be most at risk, with a rate of 60 per 10,000 population.

In Northern Ireland there were 2,983 children that were looked after by an authority at the end of March, which was the highest number since the introduction of the Children (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 – the act which governs the responsibilities of public authorities towards children in Northern Ireland.

The number of looked after children in Northern Ireland has risen by 19% since 2011, and by 28% since 1999 – which was the low point for the number of children looked since the introduction of the 1995 Children Order legislation.

More than three quarters of looked after children (78%) were in foster care, while 12% were placed with parents, 5% in residential care, and 4% in other placements.

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