The year of the child
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