Amendment will do nothing for hungry asylum children

Sat, Sep 22, 2012, 01:00

Passing the children’s referendum may be seen as a great victory when it is no such thing, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

A TRULY shocking report was published this week about conditions endured by children in our country. The report described small babies without adequate food, weight loss in children, and chronic gastric illness in children of all ages. The same children were identified as being at risk of abuse due to overcrowding in their accommodation, which included sharing toilet facilities with numerous strangers.

The report, State-Sanctioned Child Poverty and Exclusion, about the plight of children in the State’s “direct provision” asylum accommodation centres, was published in the same week as the wording for the proposed 31st amendment to the Constitution. The coincidence might have seemed fortuitous, and likely to increase discussion of the issues raised about caring for children. Not so. And the fact that little attention was paid to the report published by the Irish Refugee Council, apart from Eoin Burke-Kennedy’s report in this newspaper, shows how far we are from being truly child-centred.

Do we care so little because these children are not “us”, but strangers dependent on our care? Imagine a system of direct provision by the State where aside from often inadequate accommodation and food, adults receive €19.10 a week, and children €9.60. Any parent who has ever reared a child should see how derisory those sums are.

Let’s talk about Irish children. In 2009, one in 11 Irish children lived in consistent poverty. That means they may not have two pairs of strong shoes, or a warm coat, or may be able to buy only second-hand clothes, or may be unable to eat a decent dinner with any regularity.

At the same time, the numbers of children being taken into care have risen dramatically. Last July, it was revealed that an average of 43 children a week were the subject of care orders, a total of 2,300 children in 2011.

Geoffrey Shannon, special rapporteur for children, in his fifth report to the Oireachtas, said about these figures: “Is enough being done to protect the rights of families at an early stage so as to prevent the necessity of taking a child into care? . . . This is not simply a funding issue but also one that needs to be addressed by management.”

He added: “The court placed the child into care. It therefore has an ongoing obligation to ensure the State care provided is superior to what was available within the family. The reality is that the State has a poor record as a good parent.” His comments show remarkable restraint, given the repeated failures of the State to protect children.

It has taken nearly two decades to frame this proposed amendment, and yet it will do nothing to address the problem of hungry children receiving direct provision from the State.

As Carol Coulter pointed out, “the best interests of the child need not prevail in actions taken by Government departments: for example, in the placing of the asylum seekers’ children in direct provision accommodation, condemned as unsuitable by many NGOs, or the widely criticised practice of placing children with mental health problems in adult psychiatric wards, or the provision – or lack of provision – for the education of children with special needs.”

The provision for adoption of children of married parents, when they have effectively been abandoned, is worthwhile. However, some legal experts have said it is odd that there is a contrast between the threshold test to be applied in cases where the State will intervene and the threshold test to be applied in cases of compulsory adoption.

While article 42A.2.1 requires that parents must “fail in their duty towards their children to such extent that the safety or welfare of any of their children is likely to be prejudicially affected” before the State can intervene, 42A.2.2 (on compulsory adoption) requires only that parents “fail . . . for such a period of time as may be prescribed by law in their duty . . .”

Is it possible that the threshold for 42A.2.1 is higher than the threshold for 42A.2.2? If this is true, it is very strange that the threshold test for intervention is less stringent for a permanent and far-reaching solution such as adoption, than it is for the State to intervene in other ways. Other constitutional experts, however, believe that the two have to be read “harmoniously” and therefore, there is no problem.

It is above my pay grade to make a judgment on which interpretation is accurate, and no doubt it will be clarified in the coming debate. I can see myself voting for this amendment, as there does seem to have been a real attempt to listen to concerns about earlier wordings. However, I don’t think that it will address other fundamental problems.

My worry is that passing a referendum will be seen as a great victory or an end in itself, when it is no such thing.

The constitutional amendment will not redress issues such as lack of resources or the damage done by an adversarial legal system.

Education is central to a child’s life trajectory, and even more so in homes that are unstable or unable to care for their children, and yet education cuts are already biting hardest there. The hard work ahead lies there.

The proposed amendment may be a symbolic gesture, a marker that we intend to take the needs of children more seriously, but the proof of our commitment to children will be when stories of children in 2012 at risk, and without adequate food, cause a national outcry.

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