State must provide tangible support to our families

We must learn from Icelandic experience

A demonstrator shouts slogans as hundreds protest outside the Parliament in Reykjavík in October 2010 over the financial crisis – Ireland can learn from the country’s “Wellbeing Watch”.  PHOTOGRAPH: HALLDOR KOLBEINS, Getty Images

A demonstrator shouts slogans as hundreds protest outside the Parliament in Reykjavík in October 2010 over the financial crisis – Ireland can learn from the country’s “Wellbeing Watch”. PHOTOGRAPH: HALLDOR KOLBEINS, Getty Images

Thu, Sep 12, 2013, 01:00

The tragic death by suicide of Fiachra Daly and powerful plea by his partner Stephanie Meehan should be more than enough to awaken in us the reality that in Ireland we have made the mistake of bailing out banks ahead of bailing out families. We have treated the issue as a purely economic issue, and not what it is, a humanitarian disaster.

The core purpose of Irish society is to meet the needs of our citizens . That in part is why there are banks in place – to serve citizens, including their customers. But, if we want to prevent further tragedies concerted action led by government through local authorities, communities and individual citizens is required.

Families are increasingly suffering hard poverty trying to cope. Children too, daily witnesses to the stress and strain of parents and families, have to be helped.

We can learn from Iceland. In October 2008 its banks collapsed leading to the same feelings of anger, disbelief, desperation and lack of confidence we experienced. Significantly,however, the Icelandic government established a nationwide “Wellbeing Watch” to monitor the consequences of the crisis on families, and particularly on vulnerable children.

In partnership with NGOs, social actors and local/state government, including universities, they established a consortium whose sole focus was to uphold the wellbeing of affected families.

This intergenerational welfare watch group operated at a range of levels from the individual to the state. It provided advice to families for example, to continue with basic living, to exercise, eat, sleep and mingle socially. It created a system of alerts, enabling local communities to flag serious concerns about members under strain to prompt crisis intervention.

More broadly , Welfare Watch ensured no cuts in social protection, instigated and pressurised for reasonable and human negotiations with banks on debt, including proper moratorium arrangements with mortgage holders. The consortium challenged politicians to ensure a focus on the needs of the most vulnerable. Importantly, the initiative also watched to ensure that cuts in one area of social service provision were not diverted to fund other services.

While poverty is still an issue in Iceland, this example of a real social support network has so far resulted, research confirms, in preventing serious consequences of the economic crisis impacting on children and families. Surely we can learn and act on from their success.

With the establishment by new legislation of the Child and Family Agency and with the lessons from Priory Hall, there is an opportunity to set up an Irish version of Welfare Watch .

But it is notable that the words “family support” appear nowhere in the Bill, and for some reason the term “support” was dropped from the title of the agency. And, while there is an understandable focus on child protection, specifically against sexual and physical abuse, this should not mean that tangible support to children and their families should be overlooked in the agency’s work. Interventions that are supportive and enable prevention and early intervention have to be prioritised.

It is also notable that while we have Children First Guidelines we do not have Family Support Guidelines. These are needed even if only to remind us of the simple fact that children, youth and families in real or threatened poverty tend to get much advice from professionals and not enough practical tangible support.

In my early career I spent many years working in childcare and youth work and was struck by the fact that I was often giving advice on budgeting to parents who simply needed a washing machine that they could be sure would work. Years later I am now teaching social work community and youth work students and directing a research centre in NUI Galway and to my horror the same problem still exists.

If the legacy of last autumn’s children’s referendum is to be worthwhile, there needs to be a concerted initiative to create a Welfare Watch for children and families in Ireland and I am willing to play my part. Children and young people are entitled to a secure home life and we have to now support parents like Stephanie Meehan for this to happen – it’s the least we can do.

Prof Pat Dolan is UNESCO Chair for Children, Youth and Civic Engagement at NUI Galway

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