The year of the child

Sat, Dec 22, 2012, 00:00

We strengthened children’s rights, finally chose a site for their new hospital and faced up to our recent failure to care for vulnerable kids. This was the year Ireland began to look a little more like a child-centred society

It is one of the most misinterpreted lines of Irish rhetoric. The 1916 Proclamation’s pledge that the Republic will cherish “all the children of the nation equally” is typically seen as a hopeful marker for future generations of Irish children. Except it’s not a reference to children at all. Instead, according to historians, the reference to the nation is that of a mythical mother and the children are her citizens.

The later Constitution didn’t mention children at all. They were invisible. Mother Ireland went on to to ignore the plight of tens of thousands of poor, illegitimate, abused children who were forced to endure the brutalising experience of industrial schools.

The same legacy of indifference was also to blame years later for a new generation of vulnerable children slipping through the cracks of the State’s child-protection system. Yet all the while we deluded ourselves with the empty rhetoric that suggested Ireland was some sort of Utopia of equality for children.

Almost a century later, are we any closer to being a child-centred republic now than we were at the foundation of the State? Well, yes we are, though we still have a long way to go.

Despite the party-political sniping about budget cuts and bailout packages that dominated current affairs during the year, 2012 may well be remembered as something else: as the year Ireland’s citizen children finally took centre stage.

The people voted, albeit in smaller-than-expected numbers, to support a referendum to strengthen children’s rights. It means children must be treated equally, that the voices of young people must be listened to by authorities and that their best interests must prevail at all times.

It was also a year in which the Government faced up to its failure to adequately protect children, publishing a devastating report that showed how dozens of children in contact with the State’s child-protection services died of overdoses, by suicide and of other causes over a 10-year period.

Ministers drafted tough new laws that will force the public and organisations to report abuse of children rather than keeping it hidden, as has so often been the case in the past.

A new national children’s hospital was approved to replace the drab and dilapidated conditions that face many young people and their families. And a new State agency is about to be established that will finally take over responsibility from the sprawling bureaucracy of the Health Service Executive to provide a sharper focus on child and family affairs.

Yet, just as we make such long-awaited progress with our children, are we about to let them down again? Rather than being protected from the worst effects of austerity, children and their families are being exposed to its full force.

Budget spending cuts are hitting young people disproportionately harder through reductions in child benefit and back-to-school allowances. Many young people’s life prospects are likely to be damaged as a result.

The Taoiseach has spoken about reversing decades of past neglect to ensure the State does everything possible to safeguard “our most precious possession of all, children”. It’s a reminder, if one were needed, of the gap between flowery rhetoric and grim reality.

Resilient faith

One of the most striking things about childhood in Ireland now is how prevalent it is. There are more than a million under-18s, about a quarter of the population. That proportion is higher than in any other EU state.

There is still a resilient faith in the value of having children.

Despite the economic gloom and uncertainty, the simple pulse of life remains strong at a time when it’s fading in many neighbouring countries.

Our attitudes are changing too. Children these days are precious to us: maybe more so than to any previous generation. We approach parenting with a single-mindedness that can baffle our own parents – and certainly their parents, who sometimes thought children should be seen and not heard.

It’s seen as normal to put kids ahead of careers, relationships and social lives. Even if we aren’t doing so, everyone around us seems to be. We devour research on how to build our children’s self-esteem, to keep them from being bullied and to expand their intellects.

Life in many respects has been improving for children, even at a time of rapid change. One of the best sources of information about what it’s like to be a child in Ireland now is the long-term study Growing Up in Ireland. This longitudinal research has been tracking children as they grow up in a changing Ireland.

One of the most positive changes over the past century is the idea that children enjoy going to school. The education system, especially primary school, used to be a daunting experience for many young people. It involved the ever-present threat of violence or humiliation.

The recent report shows that almost all 13-year-olds who were interviewed were broadly positive about their school and their teachers, although rates of satisfaction and positive interaction with teachers were much higher among higher-income families.

The findings show that the children generally have strong bonds with their parents. Almost half of boys and girls said they had discussed sex and relationships with their mother or father by the age of 13.

The traditional family unit remains remarkably stable. A large majority of children surveyed lived in two-parent families. But modernity also carries a new set of challenges for young people. There are troubling findings relating to obesity, discipline and poor self-image among girls.

The findings suggest girls have lower self-esteem about their appearance and are more likely to feel anxious or to worry about their popularity. Recent suicides and tragic deaths have highlighted how vulnerable some teenage schoolgirls can be.

Chilling detail

This year also showed how slowly we’re improving prospects for some of our most vulnerable children. A few years ago the Ryan report into the abuse of children in residential institutions set out in chilling detail the failure of religious orders and the State to protect vulnerable children from abuse. The country was shocked. Never again would children be made to suffer like this.

Yet the Report of the Independent Child Death Review Group, published in June, was more shocking still.

It documented the deaths of 112 children in contact with the State’s child-protection system of non-natural causes such as drug overdoses, suicides, road-traffic incidents or unlawful killings.

When the review group inspected the records of the deceased young people, after the Oireachtas was forced to pass special legislation forcing the HSE to surrender them, what they found was “chaos”. Several were missing birth certificates, many contained no evidence of care plans. In some cases, no social worker had ever been assigned to the child in trouble.

These were not deaths or care failures that took place in another era, during the 1930s, 1940s or 1950s. These were young people who were failed in the middle of our economic boom.

It’s impossible to summarise all the cases, so let’s focus on just one.

We don’t know that much about the boy. The official report refers to him only as Young Person in Care No 8. But from the brief snapshot, it’s clear he didn’t have a chance in life.

“He suffered from severe neglect as a toddler,” it states. “He was found at one stage trying to eat fish fingers from the freezer. When his mother died [of a drugs overdose], he was discovered with her body. At that time, his father was serving a long-term prison sentence overseas.”

After years of broken care placements, he drifted into a rough-and-tumble world of drugs and crime.

He died in a car crash at the age of 16.

“What we have found, in one word, is a disgrace,” Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald said after the report was published. “If ever evidence was required of the scale of the challenge which this Government and I have had to face into, then this report is it.”

The Government’s reaction has been encouraging. Instead of hand-wringing, it is going to move from a position where child and family welfare was barely a priority to a position where it will be the sole focus of a single dedicated State agency, overseen by a single dedicated Government department. The new Child and Family Support Agency is due to begin work early next year. Changing the nameplates will be the easy bit. What will prove far more challenging will be getting the kind of resources and reforms necessary to meet the needs of vulnerable children much earlier in life.

Legacy of debt

For all the economic progress we made until the economic crisis, it’s striking to see how precarious life still is for many young people. The legacy of debt being handed on to a younger generation threatens their prospects in life.

Austerity measures are hitting young people and their families harder than any other section of society. The latest research shows that children still have a far higher risk of poverty than adults, and these young people are more likely to be in low-income and jobless households.

This year’s across-the-board cut to child benefit, and the targeted cut to the back-to-school clothing and footwear allowance, will add to a sense that younger people are being made to pay for mistakes that were not of their making. Cynical cuts to special education and to carers also threaten to worsen the lives of children who need them most.

Amid this torrent of bad news it was easy to see the referendum on children this year as a distraction. Judging by the low turnout, it didn’t engage most of the population. Abstract legal principles are rarely exciting. The botched handling of the information campaign may also have prompted some to stay away from the ballot box.

But for many children’s-rights advocates it felt like a historic moment. From the rubble of lost childhoods came a binding commitment from the State to ensure it recognises and protects children’s rights. The referendum holds the promise that, in a modest but significant way, children will be treated equally in the eyes of the law and that their best interests will be the primary considerations in court cases concerning them. It is a set of instructions that the State cannot choose to ignore. Considering our previously shameful legacy, these are important steps.

There will be further legislation on adoption, on the best interests of children and on the voice of children. It is now a constitutional imperative that Ireland gets its child-protection act together.

The real work now begins to put in place the legislation and policies to build better child-protection and children’s-rights services.

At the minimum, it holds the promise of providing a clear sense of values and priorities, a benchmark against which to measure the ways we are meeting the needs of children.

It is a long road, for sure, and we’re a long way from the destination. But there are signs that the State is finally serious about seeking to ensure that the real flesh-and-blood children of the nation are truly cherished equally.

My year, my life Children reflect on their experience of 2012

Harry Moran Software developer, 14

If he hadn’t had pesky Christmas exams and studying to do, 14-year-old Harry Moran would have spent the past few weeks developing an app.

“The next one will be called Robot Run, but I’m not sure when exactly it’ll be ready,” says Harry, who is a triplet, and lives in Cork city. “My parents remind me that I should be spending more time studying.”

His first app, Pizza Bot, topped the paid-games category in the Apple iTunes store when he was 12.

But in many other respects he’s just a regular kid. “I wouldn’t say I really enjoy school. I like science, English, maths . . . I’m also into reading and athletics.”

The game was the result of an assignment for CoderDojo, a computer-coding club run and taught by volunteers. “It’s very laid back and a nice environment to learn in . . . It’s not like the teacher is the boss,” he says. “I think the education system can learn a lot from what goes on at CoderDojo. It’s relaxed. It’s like the opposite of the classroom.” CARL O'BRIEN

Sam Norris Carer, 14

Every day Sam Norris gets up just after 7am to help care for his disabled brother and sister. “There isn’t a typical day, really. It’s whatever comes at you,” says Sam, who lives in Finglas with his mother, two sisters and brother.

“My mam does the lunches while I make my brother’s breakfast. Adam is five, and he’s autistic. My older sister, Aoife, helps get Demi dressed. She’s 15 and has Cohen’s syndrome and can’t talk.”

It’s a carefully choreographed routine. “If Adam has a tantrum, then it makes it all very difficult. You have to be careful around him, though he’s improved a lot.”

School often feels like a break, though Sam doesn’t complain.“I have my days when I feel that maybe some other kids have it easier,” he says. “But you calm down and get over it.”

When evening comes around he’s on caring duty again. His mother is careful to try to ensure he gets enough free time to go to the youth club or meet his friends.

Over the past few weeks he and his mother and sister have protested about the cuts to the respite care grant and other allowances.“If I could change anything, it would be to reverse the cuts,” he says. “It will make life hell for many carers next year.”

Despite all the responsibility, he doesn’t see himself as very different from other kids. “Like every other kid on the planet, the only things I really hate are getting up and having to do homework.” CARL O'BRIEN

Bianca Paun Student, 15

Bianca Paun spent her first five years with her family in a village outside Bucharest, in Romania. She now lives with nine of her 10 brothers and sisters, and her parents, in Kilcock, Co Kildare. One of her sisters, Emmanuel, who is 17, lives nearby with her husband.

“I like it here in Ireland,” Bianca says, in an Irish accent. “The schools are better. In Romania we lived in the countryside. It was very poor.”

The family are Roma. The children sit attentively, beaming for the visitor from Dublin. “I don’t really tell people I’m Roma,” says Bianca. “In my first few days in school, when I was small, I heard some kids saying nasty things about Travellers, saying they always get into trouble, that they steal. I didn’t want them to know I was Roma. People see Roma as bad, as a negative.”

She wants to be part of the Irish community. She likes music and wants to be an architect. In Romania they were forced to live in a Roma community outside the village, as Roma were “not allowed live in the village,” says her father, Marian.

“The schools for the Roma children were no good. I knew there would be no opportunities for the children. I want them to have a better life. Here we don’t tell everyone we are Roma. People have a bad feeling about Roma. It is better if not everyone knows,” he says. “Here [in Kilcock] we have no trouble.” KITTY HOLLAND

Aoife Gregg Maths student, 17

Even by her own exacting standards, Aoife Gregg has had an “amazing year” with her subject. From Harold’s Cross in Dublin, she won the Intel Student award at the BT Young Scientist competition in January, earning her the opportunity to go to Pittsburgh, in the United States, to take part in the International Science and Engineering Fair (Isef) in May.

“My project was called Cryptography: A study of the Irish Language, and it examined the frequency of letters used in the written language, and how that has changed over 1,400 years of written Irish, to find out if you could date documents from the frequency. Irish is one of the oldest written languages.”

She scanned documents into a website that counted the frequency of each letter in the texts. “I found you could get a general idea of the time the document was written.” She had started work on the project in September 2011.

“The Isef fair in May was amazing. It’s the biggest science fair in the world for students, with about 1,500 people, and really interesting.”

Since then Aoife, who is a student at Loreto College on St Stephen’s Green in Dublin, has been preparing for the Leaving Cert. “I always get a lot of encouragement from school but, more so through life, from my parents, who always challenge me, have encouraged me to ask questions about the world, how and why it works the way it does.” KITTY HOLLAND

Nicole McCabe Recovering from cancer, 16

Two years ago Nicole McCabe, who lives in Monaghan, was diagnosed with cancer of the lymphatic system, the part of the body’s immune system that helps fight infection.She spent nine months at Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital in Crumlin.

The treatment was excellent, but she says the facilities for teenagers were appalling. “The biggest problem is that teenagers are inbetweeners. We’re not children or adults, but we have our own needs, very basic ones such as privacy when you’re in hospital.”

Simple things such as using the toilet or getting sick can be acutely embarrassing when all that separates you from groups of visitors is a thin curtain.

“I spent most of my time in the ward with children as young as two, so I had to listen to cartoons all day, and sometimes I couldn’t get a good sleep.”

Although there are play areas for kids, teenagers are forgotten about, Nicole says. There’s no internet access or place to hang out. And as if that isn’t bad enough, there’s also the trauma of dealing with sickness, hair loss and losing your eyebrows and eyelashes.

When she’s not studying, Nicole campaigns to improve facilities at the hospital. Work recently started on a specialist teenage cancer unit.

“I’m back at school now and enjoying life, and doing all the things I missed out on over the past two years,” she says. “I am still fighting for funds for the unit and will do in the future.”

To donate to the new unit, see fixcrumlin.ieor call 1890-507508 CARL O’BRIEN

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