Meeting the needs of children


THE TREATMENT of children and vulnerable adults under the Constitution and laws of this State has amounted to an appalling indictment of politicians, administrators, churchmen, gardaí and unbothered citizens. Over many decades, they all contributed through omission or commission to the physical, sexual and psychological abuse and neglect of defenceless persons.

But they have been reluctant to admit fault or to accept the necessity for change. At last, however, traditional attitudes are breaking down and the fundamental needs of children are being acknowledged.

Publication of the wording of a children’s rights amendment to the Constitution does not offer an opportunity to right terrible wrongs. It will, however, permit society to set new standards for the protection and empowerment of children. A referendum to give effect to the wording proposed by Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald will be held on November 10th. Some people are likely to oppose change for technical and legal reasons. Others will complain that traditional family rights will be undermined. But, after 20 years of prevarication and 17 official reports that detailed unpardonable child protection failures, the changes proposed are both modest and necessary.

Formal recognition of the natural and imprescriptible rights of children and an undertaking by the State to protect and vindicate them has been too long delayed. So has an acknowledgement that marriages are not always perfect and that, where parents and others fail in their duty and abuse or neglect children, the State has an obligation to intervene in a proportionate way. Other aspects of the referendum would allow for the equal treatment of all children under adoption laws. In cases of parental failure, the child of a married couple may be adopted. In all instances, the best interests of the child and its own views are to be taken into account.

A commitment in the 1916 Proclamation to “cherish all the children of the nation equally” has always had a hollow ring about it. Within politics, the phrase was quoted more in derision than with approval. Its high-flown, utopian aspiration stood in sharp contrast to the State’s crude social divisions where poverty was the defining principle. Children, no more than their parents, were not treated equally. The wording now proposed steps away from political make-believe and is properly grounded in the United Nations charter on children’s rights. It also draws heavily on wording produced by an all-party Oireachtas committee in 2010 that involved both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin.

A referendum commission has been appointed. The proposed amendment received a broad welcome from child support agencies and from the main Opposition parties. A constitutional amendment, on its own, will not be sufficient to protect vulnerable children. New intervention protocols within the health services; early support for dysfunctional families and official accountability are all necessary developments. So is the establishment of a child and family support agency. A primary requirement, however, will be adequate funding.

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