'Other countries pay people to have children'
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.”
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.