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.