'Other countries pay people to have children'
It is time to make the most of a ‘fantastic resource’, says Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald, writes SHEILA WAYMAN
The baby boom is often seen as a problem, raising issues from overcrowded maternity hospitals to the need to build new schools, but the 70,000-plus births here every year are “a fantastic resource” for the country.
That’s a message the first Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald, feels she needs to get across. “Other countries are paying people to have children,” she points out.
But, as every parent knows, what comes with babies is responsibility and it behoves the State, she says, “to get as much focus as we can on those early years”.
The benefits of early intervention have been proven beyond any doubt, by both international and Irish research, yet “I don’t think people really understand this yet”.
Children who get the right services early enough will stay in school longer, have a better chance of employment and their risks of addiction go down, she explains. “The cost savings are enormous. So this is about a country thinking long term.”
The Prevention and Early Intervention Programme for Children, which has been operating in three areas of Dublin – Ballymun, Darndale and Tallaght – and has been jointly funded by Atlantic Philanthropies, will be extended to three more areas this year, with a view to bringing the total to 10.
Although the new areas are yet to be identified “that should be the 10 – on objective criteria – most disadvantaged areas of the country”, she stresses.
Preparation of a national early years strategy is one of her priorities for 2013, following the appointment of an advisory group last April. “We don’t have a national policy on 0-3 years, which is kind of interesting when you think about it.”
In Ireland we focus more on economic issues than on social policy issues, she suggests.
“At a serious policy level, or news level, I don’t think we have the kind of debates yet in this country that we need on the kind of choices facing us on social policy.”
Take the question of whether there should be universal or selective social services, for example.
“I think that is a really important debate and we didn’t have it when we had all of the money around – when we could have done anything. Now we are having it and it is a really hard debate.”
There has been little “joined-up” discussion about the universality of services such as speech therapy and occupational therapy and their importance to children. All the evidence is that it is critical to get these to children under three. Yet the system in Ireland “has been completely ad hoc and sporadic and parents have had to reinvent the wheel”, she says.
The creation of a standalone Department of Children and Youth Affairs for the first time is an attempt to look at all the services for children and how they might be brought together, explains Fitzgerald.
While the passing last year of the children’s rights referendum was about “drawing a line in the sand” on Ireland’s “dreadful legacy” in relation to children, so too is the setting up of proper child-protection systems.
She hopes to have the legislation later in January for the establishment of the Child and Family Support Agency (CFSA). It will have 4,000 staff and has been allocated a budget of €546 million for 2013.
“It is about finally dealing with that legacy, which is such a humiliating legacy for the country. And it is not all historical – we have contemporary echoes,” she points out.
Almost every day she hears of some situation relating to child abuse, where somebody is asking for her advice.
“We have 1,500 cases confirmed every year of physical and sexual abuse and I suppose what we are hearing from England, in terms of recent events there, serves to highlight that kind of scary reality of what can happen and who can be involved and how persistent it is as an issue.”
The thinking behind the CFSA, she explains, “is that you have to take these areas of family support and child protection away from the big monolith of the Health Service Executive, which is changing anyway. It has been fairly lost within it.”