Progress has been made in child protection but challenges remain

Opinion: Teachers may often be better placed than family members to spot difficulties at an early stage

Tue, Jan 7, 2014, 00:01

The year that has just passed was a significant one for child protection and with the beginning of a new one it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the challenges we must continue to address in this sector.

As a society we have a mandatory positive obligation to prevent harm to the most vulnerable sector of our society: children. Prevention is, as always, better than a cure and it is imperative in all child protection and welfare situations that intervention should take place at the earliest possible opportunity. The right service at the right time is crucial, and we must get it right for every family and every child. Proactively supporting parents is key to the vindication of the rights of the child.

For example, the provision of a public health nursing service to families experiencing difficulties provides immeasurable support by working upstream to prevent serious problems emerging later. Prevention services comprising financial assistance and/or mediation can assist families that might have been struggling to cope amid money worries and family difficulties.

Links between extremely vulnerable individuals and the appropriate professionals, forged at the earliest possible opportunity can provide invaluable support. The provision of adequate housing for families in difficulty goes a long way to ameliorating or preventing other difficulties that might arise when accommodation is uncertain – or as it is in some cases – non-existent.

When a child reaches 18, he or she is no longer technically deemed to be in care. The Health Service Executive (HSE) is empowered, should it see fit, to make continuing provision for persons formally in its care. Section 45 of the Child Care Act, 1991 allows the HSE to assist such persons until they have reached the age of 21 or until they have completed a course of education, should it be satisfied that such assistance is needed. However, this provision is discretionary only and not mandatory.

The Government has recently approved a policy proposal to strengthen legislative provisions for aftercare. The Child Care Act, 1991 will be amended to incorporate a statutory right to the preparation of an aftercare plan. This development, an initiative of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, is to be welcomed and should result in action. The right to aftercare needs to be put on a legislative footing. In so doing, Ireland should take the opportunity to incorporate the right to housing into domestic law and place special emphasis on this right for children.

Article 27 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) sets out the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child’s physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development. Although the CRC has been ratified by Ireland, mechanisms should be put in place to ensure Article 27 is implemented in practice.

A holistic reappraisal of the causes of homelessness is required. Services need to be put in place or expanded upon to support very poor or homeless families so as to avoid the need to take children into care in the first place. A targeted response is required to deal with those who are highly represented among the homeless, for example lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) young people and young migrants. Services need to be put in place to support young people emerging from the care or justice system to ensure that the necessary help is available.

Early identification by teachers of difficulties facing children in schools is of vital importance. In many cases, they may well be better placed to identify problems than family members, friends or neighbours.

The failure to recognise mental health issues at an early stage can have a profound impact on a child. Warning signs need to be treated with sufficient seriousness. Referrals need to be timely and appropriate. Greater links between child welfare and protection services and child and adolescent mental health services are also required.

Interagency communication and co-operation are essential to ensure that children do not slip through the net. Nevertheless, shortcomings in this area contineu to be an obstacle in ensuring care is provided to children at risk. I hope the Children First Bill will resolve this issue and provide a much needed framework for the identification and reporting of child abuse. This Bill is to be welcomed in that it reflects a commitment by Ireland to comply with its international child protection obligations.

The formal establishment of Ireland’s first Child and Family Agency on of January 1st is to be commended and I hope that it will serve to harmonise the sometimes disparate aspects of the child protection service in this country. It should be used as an opportunity to review current practice, think imaginatively and question whether existing practice in fact serves the best interests of a child.

The Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence has recently indicated that the issue of the disclosure of counselling records of child complainants in sexual abuse cases will be incorporated into the forthcoming Sexual Offences Bill. I hope this Bill will provide a legislative basis, upon which judges, in limited and defined situations may order counselling records of child complainants to be disclosed.

One of the biggest challenges facing Irish society is the adverse consequences for the welfare of many children posed by alcohol. Recent reports have identified alcohol abuse as a contributing factor to children being exposed from their earliest years to poor parenting, neglect, abuse and psychological trauma. Indeed, the failure on the part of society to comprehensively address the alcohol problem leaves the child protection system to deal with insurmountable consequences. In this regard, I believe Government policy on alcohol sponsorship of sport events cannot be ambivalent.

In conclusion, there have been some significant recent improvements in the sphere of child protection in this country. However, many challenges remain that must be identified and resolved before we can say that we live in a society where our children’s rights are fully vindicated.

Dr. Geoffrey Shannon is the current Special Rapporteur on Child Protection.

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