'Other countries pay people to have children'

Wed, Jan 2, 2013, 00:00

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”.

Long-term view

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.

‘Humiliating legacy’

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.”

For the first time there will be a dedicated agency bringing together family support, child protection, education, welfare, community psychologists and the pre-school inspection service.

“We are also looking at the domestic violence issue coming into it, that has been recently agreed.”

She believes that public health nurses who work with families will also need to be integrated, “but when you are setting up an agency you can only do so much – it is a huge transition”.

Last year’s report on the deaths of children in State care showed that “the failing again and again has been the lack of inter-agency, high quality work”, she says. “You often had a huge number of professionals going into families and you still had deaths.”

While there are “inevitably” going to be some deaths, “if you want to do your very best, this is the sort of model I think gives you the best chance of delivering it. But it is a very fraught area and public health nurses and social workers are dealing with ever more complex cases, with addiction, violence and criminality. These aren’t simple situations.”

Child benefit cut

The agency is part of an expanding portfolio for the Minister of Children and Youth Affairs, whose departmental budget, in addition to the separate CFSA allocation, is up to €443 million (€417 million for current spending and €26 million for capital), which is €16 million more than in 2012. Yet responsibility for other major issues affecting children still lie, of course, in other departments, chiefly those of Education, Health, Social Protection and Justice – although this last now shares responsibility for the Irish Youth Justice Service with her department.

“Of course” she is disappointed child benefit has been cut – “obviously child benefit is used by families to support their parenting” – but she argues that it would have been extremely difficult for Joan Burton to exclude its €2 billion cost when looking for the millions she had to save.

Fitzgerald believes cross-departmental work is still in its infancy.

“We have to think much more about the citizen at the centre. The departmental structure is not always the answer and cross-departmental work is always challenging – that is not about personalities and ministers, that is just a feature of the way we run our Government.”

Experiences as a social worker, both in Dublin and London, have informed the politics of Fitzgerald, who was first elected in 1992 as a Fine Gael TD for Dublin South East at the age of 42. (She now represents Dublin Mid-West.)

While it takes all sorts to be in politics, she says, “I think it is very important to have people who have experienced family life.”

Giving birth to three children tuned her in, she says, to what women were saying about the maternity services. The first of her three sons, now all in their 20s, was born in London, where she became involved with the National Childbirth Trust, and then the Irish Childbirth Trust (now known as Cuidiú) when she returned to Ireland.

“I breastfed all my children. I was very struck by how the structure of the hospital, either in the UK or in Ireland, didn’t support it.” She recalls putting a sign at the end of the cot: “‘Do NOT give a bottle.’ That kind of tells you what it was like. I just felt furious that one had to fight to do that.”

Childcare

Now the research evidence is there to show that Irish women are not being supported to breastfeed, she points out. “We have very low rates and women who come from abroad, the longer they live here the less likely they are to breastfeed.”

Fitzgerald stayed at home for a number of years when her children were young before securing the first job-share at the Mater hospital in Dublin, as a social worker.

Childcare is another issue she would like to see debated more. “How universal do we want our childcare provision to be? We have a model of parents paying an awful lot in Ireland.”

The only initiative on the horizon is that of up to 6,000 extra after-school places announced by her and Burton on budget day, targeted at low-income families taking up employment.

It is “not the answer to universal childcare”, she says. “We are a long way from the Scandinavian model.”

However, you have to ask what model of childcare Irish parents want, she says. “I think we have a unique mix between childminders, families indeed, and our pre-school services and what we need to see is integration and accessibility – make it accessible and high quality.”

Fitzgerald has been keen to shift the focus of childcare from being a support for women in the workforce, to what it is doing for the child.

“I want to look at the quality issues – what is happening to the child, the benefit for the child, preparation for school.”

Ideally, she would like to extend the universal free pre-school year, which more than 65,000 children currently avail of at an annual cost of €175 million, to two years but the funds are not there at present.

She believes Irish parents can be slow to see play as learning and that there is an important educational job to be done here. “It is a bit like reading to our children – that is a skill that is going.”

Internet use

In this increasingly digital world, parents should also be asking their children coming home from school, “How did you get on online today?” she says.

That would be alien territory for many Irish parents, although they should be asking younger children to “show me, tell me” about their online activities.

Teenagers’ use of the internet “has to be seen as part of the risk behaviour that adolescents get involved in”, but that is not to minimise, she stresses, what government might do or what education should do to curb cyberbullying.

For babies born today, Irish childhood has changed “beyond imagination” in many ways, she says, since she was growing up in Newbridge, Co Kildare, and then south Dublin as a teenager.

Physical punishment has disappeared from most homes and there is “wonderful parenting” going on all over the country. However, she adds, “I think socially it is more challenging for children now.”

Children first Dangers of drink

Alcohol sponsorship of sports events is putting commercial interests ahead of our children, warns the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald.

Stressing that she feels “very strongly” about this issue, Fitzgerald says the link between sport and alcohol is unacceptable and we have to face up to sponsorship issues.

Her comments echo those of Róisín Shortall before she resigned as minister of state at the Department of Health last September.

Shortall had said she was committed to the phasing out of alcohol sponsorship and, after her departure, anti-alcohol campaigners said they feared the measures she was championing would be shelved.

Suicide risk

Young people who start to drink early are paying a “huge price” for society’s attitude and ambivalence to drink, says Fitzgerald

“We know suicide is linked to drink – young people are more likely to kill themselves if they have been drinking. Look at attendances in outpatients of young people, at car accidents, so many things.”

That is why supporting youth cafes is so important, she says.

“I wish we had more money for it – this is where we should be putting the money, this is really saving children’s lives.”

Youth services

Although praising the independent report commissioned by the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI) last year, which showed that for every €1 invested in youth work, the State saves €2.20 in the long run, the Minister acknowledges this sector has been cut back. According to the NYCI, the budget for youth services has been reduced by 30 per cent since 2008.

“You don’t want to cut youth services at all,” she says. “Youth work is a bit like early years – that’s what again I am saying about social policy. If we really had joined-up thinking, we would be investing more in this area. That’s my goal – to try to get to that point.”