The woman championing children’s rights
An early lesson in what socio-economic disadvantage means and how institutional prejudice can perpetuate it made Tanya Ward aware of injustice
Tanya Ward with her children Morrigan (3) and Durragh (6). Photograph: Eric Luke
Homeless mother Colleen McDonagh with her six children, Michael (11), Chloe (10), Sandra (8), John (6), Ger (4) and Ann-Harper (1), pictured in Clondalkin, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill
At her west Dublin secondary school, Tanya Ward couldn’t understand how all the girls from Castleknock were in the highest streamed classes, those from Cabra were in the lowest “and all the girls from the Navan Road were in the middle”.
“I was thinking how could this possibly be?” she recalls. As a Cabra girl herself, she then had to fight to be allowed into the geography honours class for the Leaving Certificate, despite having proved her academic abilities in the then Intermediate Certificate.
It was an early lesson in what socio-economic disadvantage means and how institutional prejudice can perpetuate it. “It made me really aware of differences and the injustice of it.”
As the daughter of a single mother, living with her grandparents who were deaf, she already had a grounding in life on the margins.
“I actually didn’t know they were deaf until I was about six because, if you live in a deaf family, everybody can sign. We didn’t have a doorbell, we had a light that flashed on and off. When I realised ‘their ears didn’t work’, as I was told, I couldn’t believe it.
“My grandmother would not go to the shop on her own because she had been in a butcher’s and the butcher made fun of her. That is the sort of thing I grew up with and it made me really aware of people’s experience in the world.”
She never met her father, who was Lebanese, but her mother married another man when she was 10 and she has three younger siblings.
Ward’s childhood was a foundation stone for her future career as a human rights campaigner. Since 2012, she has been chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, advocating for some of the most vulnerable members of Irish society.
The alliance, which was established in 1995, is an umbrella organisation for more than 100 member groups all working towards improving lives for children in Ireland. They range from Barnardos, Focus Ireland and the National Parents Council Primary to Pavee Point, Teachers’ Union of Ireland and Scouting Ireland, to name just half a dozen.
“A big part of our role has been to promote the visibility of children and then to go through all the areas where children’s rights have been violated and campaign for their rights,” explains Ward, sitting in the second-floor meeting room of a building on Red Cow Lane in Smithfield, Dublin 7, that they bought jointly with Epic (Empowering People in Care).
We’re talking in the wake of the publication of the alliance’s 2017 Report Card, assessing the performance of the Government in keeping its promises to children. The alliance’s research and recommended gradings are given to an independent panel of experts it appoints for final adjudication. The panel raises or lowers the grades as it sees fit.
An overall grade of D+ was awarded this year, with aspects ranging from the high of a B for subsidised and school age childcare, to a joint low of an E grade for child and family homelessness and for inequality affecting Traveller and Roma children. Does Ward think the Government takes notice of such judgments?
“I do think they listen – they take the grades really seriously,” she replies. The research team compiling the 128-page report works through the political commitments given “because they are sensitive to those. They are elected on the basis that they say they are going to deliver those commitments.”
The shocking number of homeless children is a well-flagged “fail” on the part of Government. According to the latest figures from the Department of Housing, there were 2,407 children among the 1,172 families who were homeless during the last week of January 2017. This compares to 1,830 children within 884 families who were homeless in the corresponding week the previous year.
Getting children out of unsuitable emergency accommodation, such as commercial hotels, has to be an immediate priority, along with the building of more social housing as quickly as possible, she says. Families are crammed into one room and “they don’t have cooking facilities, they are running out of money, they are living on fast food, travelling across the city and struggling to get children into school”.
Parent and teacher groups are reporting that certain children are turning up to school in dirty clothes for the first time because their families are being provided with accommodation that doesn’t allow them to wash their clothes.
There is “shame for a child living like this - shame of wearing dirty clothes. They are hiding that they’re homeless, they are too ashamed to tell people”.
Meanwhile, the plight of Traveller and Roma children, who “experience consistent discrimination and disadvantage”, according to the report card, attracts a lot less public attention or, indeed, sympathy.
“I am chief executive of Children’s Rights Alliance for five years and I think conditions have deteriorated for Traveller children – particularly on the accommodation front,” she says. Some 25 per cent of Traveller and Roma families don’t have access to sanitation and running water, which probably goes some way to explaining why their infant mortality rate is nearly four times higher than among the settled population.
It’s also “staggering” that 56 per cent of Traveller families experience overcrowding in their living accommodation, compared to eight per cent of settled families.
Money allocated by central government for Traveller accommodation is being sent back by councils unspent, she points out. This is indicative of the public resistance councillors experience in their communities to such developments.
“It is kind of shocking that money would be sent back when you have 500 families living on unofficial halting sites,” says Ward, who believes that very poor living conditions is the root of a lot of Traveller children’s issues. “It is very hard for children to learn when they are living like that.”
The withdrawing of the Traveller education support service was another blow, when youngsters in this community continue to leave formal education almost five years earlier than their non-Traveller peers.
Mainstream schools need more support in working with Traveller and other marginalised children, such as those with disabilities, says Ward. In the meantime the alliance is getting reports of such children having shorter school days because they are sent home after a few hours because schools say they can’t cope with them.
“Up and down the country children with psychological issues, children with disabilities, Traveller children – they are on reduced hours,” she says. The inspectorate is not documenting it because the child is marked in and it is only if a family reports it that it comes to light.
Unsuitable living conditions for families is something the 1,098 refugee children in direct provision have in common with other vulnerable youngsters.
“The key there is getting families into self-catering accommodation,” she stresses. This is needed even from a basic child protection point of view because in shared accommodation, “people have access to your children”.
The Health Information Quality Authority (HIQA) has expressed “grave concern” about the high number of children living in direct provision who have been referred to Tusla, the Child and Family Agency – approximately 14 per cent in one year, compared to a referral rate of 1.6 per cent in the general child population.
We need national standards for direct provision and we need independent inspections to make sure they are complying, says Ward, who contributed to the 2015 McMahon report on direct provision.
“I went to one place in 2015 and the children were telling me that they treat us like dogs here. I went to Galway and the children were not saying that.” There the children told her they were treated well, the kitchen was open all day and they had a room where they could do their homework.
“There is such a contrast in experiences of children because we are not managing the accommodation effectively,” she says. On the positive side, the Ombudsman for Children’s Office is going to be allowed to take complaints from children in direct provision for the first time from next month.
On the subject of Tusla and how its handling of the McCabe case has created serious public distrust, she stresses that the HIQA review of this is going to be really important. “The public has to know the child protection system hasn’t been used in corruption.”
The rights of refugees are of particular interest to Ward who once worked with City of Dublin VEC looking at education needs of refugees and unaccompanied minors. She then moved on to spend eight years with the Irish Council for Civil Liberties before taking up her current post.
The Children’s Rights Alliance is launching a project to encourage the Government to act on its promise to take in 4,000 refugees, giving priority to unaccompanied minors.
“By the end of 2016 it had only taken four unaccompanied minors and 10,000 unaccompanied minors went missing in Europe last year. It is an extraordinary figure, as all our countries have child protection systems in place and somehow 10,000 children went missing.
“What that means is that they have most likely been trafficked – they are being exploited for sexual purposes or they are in enforced labour situations. That is why we are going to bring attention to it.”
For her it’s personal too, being half Lebanese. “I do think about it a lot. I look at the Syrian children and think about my own children.”
Becoming a mother to Durragh, now aged six, and Morrigan, aged three, gives a new edge to what she encounters through her job.
“There is something about having children in your life when you are doing this kind of work, it brings it to life,” she says. There is always the feeling, “This could be my child . . .”
For the majority of families, Ireland is one of the best places to be a child. World rankings compiled by UNICEF in 2013 put us at 10th place in a list of 29 industrialised countries that was topped by the Netherlands, followed by four Nordic countries.
“Ireland is one of the best places in the world to be a child,” agrees Ward. “But it’s not if you have mental health issues, it’s not if you’re homeless or if you’re a Traveller or if you’re experiencing poverty or have a disability – depending on where you live, it’s a bit of a lottery.”
There’s a layer of children who continue, it seems, to be invisible to the State and society alike. We have one of the highest child poverty rates in Europe yet also one of the highest amounts of “social transfers”, ie welfare payments.
Ward argues that the reason we have such high levels of child poverty is “because we don’t invest in our public services”. In other countries, which have less child poverty, welfare payments are lower but educational and medical services are better funded.
“We have not as a people made the investment. We have opted for tax cuts or we have opted to give people cash – we have increased child benefit payments. If we had invested it in services we would probably have got a better return on our money.”
The announcement of the Affordable Childcare Scheme, which is due to come into effect from September, earned the Government its highest mark on the report card, for subsidised and school-age childcare. Currently we have the second highest childcare costs in the EU after the UK, which creates a real barrier for people living in poverty, particularly lone parents, to get back into the workforce.
The percentage of lone parents living in consistent poverty increased from 2014 to 2015 – from 25 to 26 per cent. “Making sure they get a subsidy for childcare will make a huge difference,” says Ward. “It’s how you raise these people out of poverty, getting them into workplace.”
The alliance, which wants parental leave to be paid so that parents can stay at home with their children longer, had to consider whether it should support the new childcare scheme for children as young as six months.
“Ideally you want to keep children with their primary carers as long as possible – and then [have] flexible working arrangements for parents.” So they wondered if they should be arguing for the money to be invested in paid parental leave instead of subsidised childcare.
But most countries with good outcomes for children have both.
“Some families will have to go to work – it is an absolute necessity; they could be in debt and so there is no point in punishing them in that situation. But you need to encourage them to stay at home as long as they can.”
For more information on the 2017 Report Card see childrensrights.ie