Will courts be understanding when disadvantaged children are in trouble with the law?
Opinion: Schools at breaking point over cuts in provision for special educational needs
‘What about justice for children who are short-changed in education, or social services? If they fall foul of the law, will they receive the same understanding?’ Photograph: Getty Images
Twenty years ago when I had my first baby, a social worker friend of mine named Helen came to visit me in hospital. She was pensive and sad. She had just come from visiting a client who was in another maternity hospital.
Helen held my son. As she gazed at him, she told me that the other baby had been born to a young mother who was drug- addicted, but that he was just as beautiful as my son. She talked about how unjust it was that the child in her arms would have security and support but the other little boy born on the same day probably would not.
I often thought about that other little boy and for some time was able to track him through my friend. For his first few years, despite my friend’s fears, things had gone surprisingly well. He was fostered within his wider family and he did indeed have security and support.
I thought about him again recently for the first time in years, when a different friend told me about another child who had been fostered very successfully, until the foster parents had a child of their own. As the baby grew, the older child became more and more insecure and resentful, until eventually the foster placement broke down, as did subsequent placements.
At the age of 12 this child is now in secure care in a place with much older and more hardened children. If, God forbid, this child ends up drifting into crime, will the judge take into account the loss of not one but two families, as well as inadequate State intervention?
Judge’s decision not unreasonable
When Judge Martin Nolan gave non-custodial sentences to former Anglo directors William McAteer and Pat Whelan, he did so on the grounds that one institution of the State had failed to carry out its duties properly and therefore it would be unjust for another institution of the State to send the men to prison.
As Dr Diarmuid Griffin and Dr Joe McGrath pointed out in this newspaper last Thursday, the judge’s decision was not unreasonable. The pity is that the same reasoning is not applied to others who are not already privileged.
For example, the joint managerial body that represents voluntary schools reported during the week that schools are at breaking point trying to cope with cuts in provision for special educational needs. The body said it is not just the students with special needs who are affected but often the whole class, and that it will have serious, long-term impact on many students, particularly those already experiencing disadvantage.