Treasuring the rights of the child.


The child protection debate in this country has focused for many years on the damage done to children by members of the Catholic Church.
From the release of a litany of child abuse reports, we’re all aware to some extent of the massive damage that decades of institutional abuse has had on innocent children.
But making this issue the core of the debate around child protection in fact belittles the history of our society and denigrates the discussion into a single facet argument.
As professionals in the care sector, I and my colleagues have accepted responsibility for the care, nurturing and protection of the children who need it. In all cases that involve child abuse or mal-treatment, can we say as professionals that we put the needs of children above the needs of ourselves, the institution, or our employers? I don’t believe we always do.
I have seen children’s rights being measured against the needs of the accountant. I have seen children moved from familiar care settings where they were happy because a bed had become available in a cheaper setting.
I have seen children in care being given second-hand birthday presents. I have seen children in care having to make their own way to hospital because there was no one to bring them.
I have seen children going to school without breakfast. I have seen children return from school with no food available for them. I have seen teenagers who are expected to survive on €19.00 a week.
In all of the above instances, I have also seen professionals react to resolve the issue in the best interest of the child, not always with success, sometimes putting their own careers in danger in the process.
But it doesn’t always happen like that……? Cases are being highlighted through the inspection reports of HIQA and the HSE residential inspection services where children are being impacted by decisions that are based on money and not needs. For example :
Earlier this year, an advocacy group for children in care hit out at social workers for “failing” children following the Irish Examiner’s publication of HSE inspection reports of private children’s homes. Jennifer Gargan, director of Empowering People in Care, said “much of what the HSE inspectors found in the private and voluntary residential centres should have been unearthed and acted upon by social workers”. However, the Irish Association of Social Workers defended their role in such homes, saying social workers often have so many children on their books that they cannot see the children as much as they should. Furthermore, even when they are unhappy with a placement, they do not “feel comfortable” complaining, as there are no alternative care placements.
This story appeared in the printed version of the Irish Examiner Friday, June 01, 2012
We were all children once. We all have children in our lives that we care about. We, as professionals, are tasked with being the voice of the child until that voice is truly enshrined in Irish law.
But the debate goes beyond the remit of just the professionals. All adults must be the voice of the child. In essence this is easily achieved, the onus for reporting the maltreatment of children must be legislated for, it has to be mandatory and it needs to include all adults. There is no such thing as over reporting.
The care system has to be based on legally based directives not soft focussed wish lists. An example of this is in the aftercare services provided for young people who have lived in care. Latest figures show that a total of 6,015 young people and children are living in State care in Ireland – nearly double what it was twenty years ago. The vast majority are in foster care with the remainder in State residential care, voluntary care, special care or in the detention schools.
Currently once a young person turns 18, the State no longer obligated legally to support them. The experience of social care staff is that without support, many young people coming out of care struggle to cope. While some are able to make that transition to independent adulthood, too many young people end up becoming marginalised, or even homeless. Some develop addiction problems and even get sucked into petty crime. Without support they can get trapped in this cycle.
The Child Care Bill (2009) was passed through the Oireachtas in the first week of July 2011 – but without the amendment on Aftercare . Minister Francis Fitzgerald, who spoke in favour of the amendment when she was an opposition Senator, committed to returning to the issue of a legal right to aftercare when they consider child protection legislation in the autumn. She argued that the amendment was not appropriate for the current bill, as this bill deals with children’s issues while aftercare is, by definition, for over 18s.
She indicated to the Dáil that the need for legislation is still under consideration: “I note that in the North more detailed regulations on aftercare have been built into statute. That is something I wish to examine to see whether there is a need to have further legislation on aftercare. The advice currently is that section 45 of the Child Care Act does imply the statutory right to aftercare where an assessment of need has been made. However, I wish to examine that.”
If we treasure our own rights, then we must treasure the right of the child to be included as individuals in our constitution. Resources for young people cannot be implied they must be a legal right.

Adrian McKenna is a frontline child care professional; he has worked for many years with young people and adults in residential care, detention services, mental health services and post-adoption services. He currently works with a large Dublin-based charity. All views expressed are entirely my own unless otherwise stated and are not representative of any organisation or employer past , present or future.

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Self Injury “Is it just another way of coping”


 

 

Many years ago my first job in the social care/child protection sector was in a Dublin child and adolescent detention centre. I was unfortunately under skilled and ill prepared for what lay ahead of me. This was for all intents and purposes a prison for Children and as such was an environment that was emotionally damaging to the young people who were placed there.

What I didn’t recognise at the time was how damaging it could have been for me as well.

One day a young lad of 15 arrived up direct from the children’s court, he was handcuffed to the Gardaí and had apparently given them a tough time in the squad car on the way to us, not surprising really as he was about to be locked up.

We took him in, processed the paper work and got the Gardaí to escort him to his room/cell, he fought like a young lion, and eventually he was restrained and placed in his room, as one of the Gardaí was leaving he said that we would have to watch ourselves as “that young fella is mad”. He had been charged with assault causing actual bodily harm.

He started calling for a cigarette almost immediately, and when he was told he couldn’t be allowed out on the grounds for a cigarette he went ballistic, and I mean ballistic, the room he was in was supposed to be indestructible, he set to task and deconstructed it bit by bit, from breaking the solid wood sleeping platform to tearing out the cages that protected the light bulb to trying to dismantle light switches. The power supply to his room was cut and a decision was made to go into the room and restrain him using our training in these therapeutic crisis intervention methods.

One of the team was observing him through a small porthole in the wall, he informed us that the young man had calmed and that he wanted to go to the toilet, the manager spoke to him and said that we would allow him go to the toilet and then we would give him a new room, when this was done we would get him checked by the onsite nurse.

We stationed staff on both ends of the corridor and let the young man out to go to the toilets at the end of the hall. The toilets had lockable doors but could be opened from the outside, they also had a gap top and bottom to allow staff access (observation) when working with young people who were suicidal.

He seemed to be in there for an eternity so I approached the door, when he saw me getting near he told me to back off as he has put some of the glass (broken bulb) from his room behind his scrotum. This meant we could do nothing even if he was lying we would have to think of another way to get him out of there. As the team met in the office I sat on the floor outside the toilet and just chatted with him. I asked him to open the toilet door and leave it open so I could talk face to face with him, he pushed the door open and what greeted me was a 15 year old boy with a piece of glass in his hand who was slowly but surely and very deliberately cutting small lines in his arm. I felt that I couldn’t move, I had to stay there and just be with him. I didn’t understand the nature of self-injury at that time and why someone would use self-injury to cope with their emotions.

When the manager realised what was going on she made the decision to call a psychiatrist, being that this was now after 8pm on a Friday this was something that was going to take hours. I sat with this young man and we talked about everything and anything , at no stage did I think of moving, I just stayed, I offered him first aid several times but he kept returning to the fact that he wanted a cigarette, and as that was against the rules he wasn’t getting one.

He cut his arms, legs, chest and stomach, there was blood everywhere, eventually the psychiatrist arrived and took over, I stayed nearby, at the end of the chat with the young man the doctor said “give him a cigarette”. The young man got his fag, he got his first aid, he also got some meds to calm him down and he was moved that night to a psych unit. I don’t know if he had a psychiatric illness, but I do know that we were not equipped to deal with that situation, we didn’t have the skills or training to help that young man. However emotionally overwrought he was coming into the centre he was much worse when he got there.

Many years later I went to Trinity college to study self-injuring behaviour with Dr Kay Inckle, this opened me up to the idea that this behaviour is a normal behaviour for those who use it as a coping mechanism. It focussed on the relationship component of working with those in distress and of just being there. Many things were done wrong that night, but with reflection it was one of the big learning milestones for me. Hopefully anyone entering into the care or detention system now will be met with a much more skilled and empathetic care worker than the ones that, that young man met….

Adrian McKenna is a frontline child care professional; he has worked for many years with young people and adults in residential care, detention services, mental health services and post-adoption services. He currently works with a large Dublin-based charity. All views expressed are entirely my own unless otherwise stated and are not representative of any organisation or employer past , present or future.

“Suicide” affects all those involved.


Many years ago a family came to live on our little terrace of six houses, Mom, Step-Dad ,Sister and Brother, that’s when I met a young man of perpetual motion (we will call him Tom). Tom was a lovely, cheeky, sociable, complex young lad. In a very short time I was out playing golf with this young divil every Sunday morning rain or shine, we’d go with his step Dad, his Grandfather and another neighbour Steven. I spent a good deal of time chatting with Tom as we wandered around the golf course bating the little white ball everywhere but where it should have been. He was a great kid who was the light of his Mothers’ life, she loved the bones of him, he had an older sister and she loved the bones of him too and his step dad was there for him every step of the way.

But Tom was at war with the world, not in any great way but in a way that is now quite normal amongst our teenage children, he was rebelling, against what we didn’t know but the signs were there, he had been found sniffing gas cans several times by his mam, we had found gas cans out the back of the terrace of houses, he smoked a bit of weed, he came to the attention of the Gardaí for nothing more than cheek. He was full of questions that were never asked and looking for answers that were never given. He didn’t know how to ask for help and we didn’t know how to give it to him. He got bundles of love from all his family, he was universally popular with all the neighbours, but that wasn’t enough.

One night I was just about to go to sleep when my front door (all Glass) was nearly put in with a ferocious banging. I ran down the stairs quickly followed by my missus, when I opened the door Tom’s sister was crying and asking me for help, she had had an argument with Tom over a cigarette twenty minutes earlier, their parents were out and she didn’t want him smoking in his room, she hadn’t heard anything from him for a while and she couldn’t get into his room and he wouldn’t answer her. Our neighbour had heard the banging and had come out; he was an old army man and a very straight and capable individual. I asked my wife to look after Tom’s sister and I headed in to talk to Tom with the old soldier in tow.

I called Tom several times and he wouldn’t answer, we got our shoulders to the door and without much trouble I got in. Tom was hanging on the back of his bedroom door, I shouted at the old soldier to call the police and ambulance as I cut Tom down from the coat hook on his door. I worked on Tom and then the ambulance service arrived but unfortunately he had died.

The Gardaí arrived and I gave my statement to them, we talked and consoled his sister and the Gardaí went looking for their parents, I headed to the hospital so I could be there when they arrived. The pain that was etched on their faces when they arrived at the hospital will stay with me for ever. There was nothing I could do or say that would bring back their beautiful son.

The next few days were a blur as people analysed the why and how, the what we didn’t see and what we should have seen, there was the funeral and the inquest. I took part in all these in a state of numbness. The family was in a complete state of shock, everyone tried in their own way to sympathise or empathise with them and in the middle of all that, I needed someone to ask me how I was.

Now, today in 2012 and many years after Tom took his own life I am still affected by this traumatic event. There is not a week goes by that I am reminded of that fateful day, that day changed the lives of many people, it changed my life forever. It left me with lots of unanswered questions, many which I have managed to  answer over the ensuing years through counselling, study and training. It led in some part to me becoming a social care worker and it has left me with a very powerful tool to help me when I am working with young people in my care or when I am working with and chatting to young social care workers.

Feeling that a life has passed through your hands is not something that many people get to experience and as much as it has left a deep wound inside of me it is a wound that I will happily carry for the rest of my life. In Future when anyone comes to you for a chat and it is just not the right time, think twice you may be the last person they will ever talk to.

Adrian McKenna is a frontline child care professional; he has worked for many years with young people and adults in residential care, detention services, mental health services and post-adoption services. He currently works with a large Dublin-based charity. He is a Member of The Irish Association of Social Care Workers, Social Justice Ireland and the YES Campaign for Children.

All views expressed are entirely my own unless otherwise stated and are not representative of any organisation or employer past , present or future.

What do we tell our Children. “surrogacy and anonymous donors”


Is anonymous donor assisted pregnancy and surrogacy the ethical solution for the many childless couples out there? In fact what is ethical pregnancy/surrogacy? For me there is only one question that needs to be answered in order for us to progress this debate. What is in the best interest of the child? We, in Ireland are about to have a referendum to put the child at the centre of the legislative decision making process. This is not before its time in relation to surrogacy as the current laws and guidelines are so convoluted as to be almost incomprehensible.

(http://www.dfa.ie/uploads/documents/Passport_documents/surrogacy%20guidance%20document.pdf )

Two core areas really concern me in relation to surrogacy. Firstly the countries that are the leading producers of surrogate mothers are some of the poorest countries in the world, and secondly what and how do we tell our children when they start to ask questions about their conception. In India right now there are thousands of very poor, mostly un-educated women living in Mother and Baby homes who are carrying babies for couples pre-dominantly from the west. These women can earn up to 50 times their husbands monthly salary and the growth in the surrogacy business in India has risen accordingly, demand outstripping supply. There are many ethical and moral questions to be asked surrounding the use of these very poor women and the issue of informed consent and contract law etcetera needs much deeper analysis. See here ((http://www.stanford.edu/group/womenscourage/Surrogacy/index.html)

How do we explain all of this to a child or young adult as they grow up, how do we explain to a child or young person that the attachment process was disrupted because practice dictated that they (the baby suppliers) didn’t want the child to bond with their Mother. How do we explain to a child how their genetic makeup is constructed and the fact that they may have no shared genes with their parent’s? And what do we do when the child/young person asks to meet their biological Mother and /or Father. This article is worth a read (http://sonofasurrogate.tripod.com/).

Are we as parents responsible to be honest and truthful with our children, are we as a society responsible to be truthful to our societies’ children, I think in both cases the answer has to be yes. This is where the problems start because the majority of the clinics protect the identity of their donors and therefore the chances of a young person ever being able to construct their own lineage are slim to none.

In Ireland and indeed a lot of countries worldwide the practice of secret or closed adoptions was and is still commonplace. We now know through extensive research (http://www.adoptionhelp.org/open-adoption/research) that open adoptions where there is a continuing relationship with the birth family leads to better outcomes in later life for the young adopted adults. Using this as a basic template should point us in the direction of non-anonymous donor assisted pregnancy and surrogacy. Every child has a right to know who they are and how they got here. The only way to answer those questions is with complete transparency and honesty. Anything else, any other way, leads us down the path of failing the children that we the adults bring into this world

Adrian McKenna is a frontline child care professional; he has worked for many years with young people and adults in residential care, detention services, mental health services and post-adoption services. He currently works with a large Dublin-based charity. All views expressed are entirely my own unless otherwise stated and are not representative of any organisation or employer past , present or future.

“ADOPT”ing a different stance


The forthcoming Children’s referendum will hopefully be truly Child centred. It will hopefully give Children a greater voice in decisions made for and about them, one area that I am particularly interested in is whether they will look at post adoption tracing and support legislation. This is one area that affects us as Children and Adults.

In Ireland now in 2012 adopted Adults require permission from their natural Mothers whom they have probably never met to get a copy of their original birth-cert. Permission for a document that is a matter of public record, permission to get a document that all of you, those not adopted have as a matter of course. As a 47 year old man I’m a bit pissed off that I need permission to have the legal record of my own birth.

In Ireland there is no formal mechanism for tracing and reunification services, these are either left up to the HSE or the original agency, this can be very problematic for adopted people and natural Mothers as you are asking them to re-engage with the agency that initially facilitated the adoption and therefore were intrinsically involved in the process.

Adopted people are precluded from requesting information on their adopted selves under the freedom of information act, if you were precluded based on gender, colour or nationality there would be wigs on the green. We need to have a much more positive system whereby birth-certs are available without having to jump through hoops, natural Mothers and adopted Adults should be encouraged and supported to meet if that is what they want, but as a minimum your lineage should be available as a matter of course, it should be enshrined in the forthcoming Children’s legislation and should be retrospective so it is available to the 50,000 legal adoptions and the god only knows how many illegal and de-facto adoptions since the inception of the adoption act in 1952.

There is no good reason to prevent people from accessing their past and having some sort of a relationship with blood relatives if that is what they want.

Adrian McKenna is a frontline child care professional; he has worked for many years with young people and adults in residential care, detention services, mental health services and post-adoption services. He currently works with a large Dublin-based charity. All views expressed are entirely my own unless otherwise stated and are not representative of any organisation or employer past , present or future.

Aftercare support – let’s empower young people leaving care to start new, healthy lives


Turning our back on young people leaving the care system is doing nothing to break the cycle of abuse and neglect, writes frontline social care worker Adrian McKenna, originally published on http://www.campaignforchildren.ie

As a professional working in the care sector, I have accepted responsibility for the care and protection of the children I have been assigned to.

Can I say I believe that the needs of those children have always been placed above the needs of the care sector and the State? Unfortunately, I can’t.

I have seen children’s rights being measured against the needs of the accountant.

I have seen children moved from familiar care settings they had adjusted to because a bed had become available in a cheaper setting.

I have seen children in care forced to make their own way to hospital because there was no one available to bring them.

I have seen children going to school without breakfast.

I have seen teenagers who are expected to survive on €19.00 a week.

These things happen because gaps exist in our child protection system, gaps that are allowing children in need to fall through the cracks.

As a social care worker, I am tasked with making sure the voice of the child is heard in the decisions that affect their lives, until this right is finally enshrined in law.

But my task is made difficult, by overloading of case files, a lack of resources and the fact that my work is not supported by laws that protect the rights and the voices of children in Ireland.

So how do we make things better? The care system has to be founded on legally-based directives, not soft-focus wish lists. One tangible example that needs immediate attention is the lack of aftercare services that are available for young people who have lived in care.

Latest figures show a total of 6,015 young people and children are living in State care in Ireland – nearly double what it was twenty years ago.  The vast majority are in foster care, with the remainder in State residential care, voluntary care, special care or in detention schools.

As it stands, once a young person turns 18, the State is no longer obligated to legally support them. The experience of social care staff is that without support, many young people coming out of care struggle to cope.

While some are able to make that transition to independent adulthood, too many young people end up becoming marginalised, or even homeless. Some develop addiction problems and even get sucked into petty crime. Without support they can get trapped in this cycle.

We must return to this issue as a matter of huge urgency. Children and young people in care need support the whole way through the system but it can’t simply stop there. Turning our back on young people once they turn 18 isn’t doing anything to break the cycle of neglect and instability that many of these young people are finally beginning to recover from.

As a social care worker, it’s intensely frustrating to see young people that I have helped to care for thrown out of the system without a helping hand or support system in place to help them make that transition.

We owe them more than that – let’s give young people exiting the care system the chance to start living safely, secure in the knowledge that they’re not alone, that aftercare support is there for them when they need it. Empowering young people to take care of themselves will help prevent future generations of children entering into a cycle of neglect and abuse. Let’s make it happen.

Adrian McKenna is a frontline child care professional; he has worked for many years with young people and adults in residential care, detention services, mental health services and post-adoption services. He currently works with a large Dublin-based charity. All views expressed are entirely my own unless otherwise stated and are not representative of any organisation or employer past , present or future.

Challenging ourselves, Professional Social Care


Today all over Ireland there are professional Social Care Workers doing great work with a myriad of different service users with a myriad of different needs. Today all over Ireland there are Non-Professional Care Workers doing great work with a myriad of different service users with a myriad of different needs. What unites all these people is that they want to help, they want to care, they want to make a difference and where this becomes problematic is when the organisations they work for does not have the same goals.

The residential care sector for children has been subject to statutory inspection for a good few years now, and this is right and proper, and in that time some service providers have not passed these inspections and have had to be closed down , again right and proper. The adult service providers have not been subject to this level of scrutiny, vulnerable adults whether physical, intellectual, or sensorial disabled or old aged are living in environments where close external scrutiny is not the norm, the most vulnerable in society are being let down by us the professionals. The longer Professionals remain quiet the more vulnerable our service users are.

A few years ago I worked in a residential setting where I was unhappy with the level and quality of service being offered to the young people in our care. It was a privately run, for profit, residential care home. The longer I worked there the more uncomfortable I was with the way it was run. Money was the guiding hand; everything was measured against the euro. Budgets were based on profit and loss, not on care, morals and ethos. Over time we were inspected and with a bit of work we passed two inspections, at the second inspection I voiced my concerns about the way the service was run, and to be fair to them the inspectors listened and acted appropriately. Eventually the inevitable happened and I had to make the decision whether to stay or leave, and so after a short break (mandatory holidays for all staff enforced by the directors) I decided not to return to work for this organisation.

I effectively put myself on the dole as Irelands economy collapsed; thankfully my wife supported me through this. I again spoke with the inspection service about my concerns. I was well and truly sickened by my particular experience of the private residential care sector. I now know that this isn’t the norm in childcare, but while we all strive to do the very best that we can for the very vulnerable people we work with if we are not willing to stand firm against bad practice then we should find a job elsewhere. Time and time again we read of investigations into bad practice and downright abuse, this can only happen when proper oversight is not as normal as tea and toast.

We as professionals should be the driving force behind these changes, we the professionals should be instituting change from within, and we should be fighting to make sure that all the people who use our services get the very best service they can get, and that starts with trusting, honest, open and safe relationships with one another. Hopefully this year we will see the wording of the proposed referendum on the rights of the child, hopefully it will be child centred, child focussed and strengthen the hands of those that advocate for societies most vulnerable.

Adrian McKenna is a frontline child care professional; he has worked for many years with young people and adults in residential care, detention services, mental health services and post-adoption services. He currently works with a large Dublin-based charity. All views expressed are entirely my own unless otherwise stated and are not representative of any organisation or employer past , present or future.

Relationships – are they at the core of the caring Profession?


Relationships – are they at the core of the caring Profession? What must it be like to have to put yourself into the care system or worse still to have to be taken into care?

For most of us, it’s something that is far removed from our everyday existence, but for many thousands, it is a daily reality.

The care system in Ireland covers the full life span of a person from birth to death and crosses all creeds, colours, and social strata.

It is organised in a haphazard way with private (for profit), voluntary and statutory agencies providing the services. The one constant is the vulnerability of the people young and old who require our care.

The world around us functions by virtue of the relationships and inter-relationships that we have with each other. But what happens if you grow up in an environment where these relationships are dysfunctional?

Every day in care settings across the country, young people come into care. They enter the care system for a myriad of reasons but the one area that is consistent is that the relationships in their lives have broken down, sometimes irretrievably.

The rights of the child must always be paramount, but to ascertain what the needs of the child are, requires us to build a relationship with that child. That can only happen by spending time with and getting to know the child and their family, by getting a sense of their community, by trying to understand their cultural nuances, and by developing a sense of mutual trust.

This is the type of work that most social workers would like to do but are restricted from doing. This is the type of work that social care workers do and have the time to do.

The relative positions of the social worker and social care worker have changed over the years. The social care worker is now a professionally recognised member of the care field and operates academically to the same level as the other professionals.

The main difference is that the social care worker is the person that the child is with almost 24/7 in a residential care setting. This is the space in which relationships are built. It’s also where the mutual understandings start, where the advocacy starts, where the emotional rollercoaster is ridden, where the child bares its soul. It’s where the pain is on view and where a child or young person’s vulnerability can eventually be revealed.

In this space, the notion of relationships have to be re-set, relationships have to be re-enacted, built up in order to fail, so that they can be built up again. This is where a child gets to have a relationship with, first themselves, and when that has been achieved, a caring adult.

This is also where the caring adult learns, through that relationship, what the needs of the individual child are and how to advocate for them, when it’s needed.

What is clear from working at the coalface of the care system, is that we need to have a mechanism for the voice of the child to be heard.

The voice of the child needs to be listened to through this mechanism, through those that care for them, through those who have been cared for and through those of us who were once a child.

Yes that’s you, me and everyone else, we all need to speak out with our inner child’s voice and unburden this country of the silence of the children.

Adrian McKenna is a frontline child care professional; he has worked for many years with young people and adults in residential care, detention services, mental health services and post-adoption services. He currently works with a large Dublin-based charity. All views expressed are entirely my own unless otherwise stated and are not representative of any organisation or employer past , present or future.