Saturday an opportunity to take next step on children's services
OPINION:The referendum on Saturday next is very important as it enables us to give children a prominent position in Bunreacht Na hÉireann. It is crucial that everyone uses their vote.
It allows the people of Ireland to put down a clear marker on the road to improved services for children in Ireland. It is the next step.
If the referendum is passed it will be Fianna Fáil’s job in Opposition to ensure that the Coalition lives up to the high expectations it has created and delivers on the legislation required by the new article.
The challenge for the Government will be to ensure that if the referendum passes it is matched by the resources and actions that people are demanding in this vital area. If the referendum is the next step, the steps to follow will be even more challenging.
The two pieces of legislation at the heart of our children’s services are the Child Care Act 1991 and the Children Act 2001. These engines for change have been added to through the Ombudsman for Children Act 2005, the Children First Guidelines 1999 and the establishment of the Health Information and Quality Authority.
The most exciting elements of the proposal are the voice of the child, the provisions in relation to adoption of children of married parents and the clear statement of the natural and imprescriptible rights of the child.
What is especially exciting about the “voice of the child” provision is that it will require the Oireachtas to provide a legislative basis for giving practical effect to eliciting the views of a child in certain court proceedings. In private family law proceedings, the views of the child are rarely represented in court while in less than half of public law care proceedings is this the case.
If the new article is added, it removes any excuse for delay and the Opposition parties will be failing in their duty if they don’t force the Government to act quickly in giving legislative form to the new requirements.
In some of the landmark cases, such as the Baby Ann case and the PKU case, there was no representation for the children affected. It’s impossible to say that this would have altered the decision in the two cases but it is fair to say that the decision-making process would be markedly improved if the voice of the child was represented.
It is remarkable how often a child’s views are unfairly relegated when in conflict with the interests of the State or those of parents. For example, the State, in care proceedings, can often approach the issue from the point of view of the scarcity of resources. However if the referendum is supported, it will remove any excuses.
The area of adoption is a sensitive one, touching on the most basic concepts of personal identity. It is this powerful personal concept that makes it one of the most valuable childcare interventions. Who would deny a child who has already experienced tremendous upheaval in their lives from having a second chance?
By voting Yes we will ensure children are treated equally in this matter and that the marital status of their parents would not get in the way of doing what’s best for the child.
This may affect as few as 200 children but the question of how many is irrelevant. We cannot tolerate any number of children living on the margins of society whose childhood is denied through official neglect and worse. It would be a pity if we were to excuse inertia again on the basis that proposed improvements would only affect a small number.
Those opposed to the amendment have articulated various concerns, which I think are misplaced. I heard Kathy Sinnott debating on television, implying the loss of article 42.5 would be detrimental and that she felt it had been crucial in her case against the minister for education. In fact, her case revolved around article 42.4, which is not proposed to be changed.
I welcome this referendum and I believe it is one of the next critical steps in making Ireland one of the safest places in the world for children.
Barry Andrews is Fianna Fáil director of elections for the children’s referendum campaign and a former minister of state for children