Failing our children

Sat, Oct 12, 2013, 01:00

When a child develops a behavioural or developmental problem, speedy intervention is critical. The early years of a young person’s life provide a precious window of opportunity to help get to the root of speech and language difficulties, emotional issues or other disorders. Delays, on the other hand, cause irreversible damage that can last a life-time.

It is deeply disturbing, then, to learn that thousands of children with developmental delays and behavioural issues are waiting more than a year to see specialists, according to figures compiled by the Health Service Executive. Almost 2,000 children who have problems with basic functions such as walking are waiting more than 52 weeks for help. More than 500 children face delays of more than a year to be seen for conditions such as autism. Hundreds of children are also waiting long periods of time to get assessed for mental health difficulties and other problems.

The scale of these waiting lists is frightening. Delays in accessing basic assessments or support fly in the face of what every piece of research tells us: every day counts when it comes to maximising a child’s chance of overcoming obstacles in their development. Instead of providing speedy access to psychology, occupational therapy or appropriate education, we are putting barriers in the way. A ban on recruitment in the HSE and cost-cutting is heaping even more pressure on overstretched services.

We should be protecting children from the worst effects of austerity. But, if anything, children and their families are being exposed to its full force during key developmental milestones in their lives. Legislation such as the Disability Act - which entitles children to have their needs assessed within six months - is being widely flouted. In addition to health and social supports, Budget spending cuts have hit young people disproportionately hard through reductions in child benefit and back-to-school allowances.

The economic crisis may mean there is not enough money to go around. However, these cuts are a false economy. Our failure to invest enough to support children means many young people’s life prospects may be profoundly damaged. Instead of saving money, we are simply storing up social and economic problems for the years to come.

Last year, we held a referendum to strengthen children’s rights. The Government said the wording would protect the best interests of children and ensure the voice of the child is heard. Next week’s Budget provides a test for our political leaders to meet these solemn pledges. Every child should have a right to the kind of support which helps fulfil their potential, without delay. To date, however, it seems the message has fallen on deaf ears.