Taking care of our children

 

THE PUBLICATION last May of the Ryan report into institutional child abuse was a truly shocking moment in Irish history. It provided a graphic insight into the extraordinary and horrific scale of abuse and neglect which faced tens of thousands of vulnerable children in institutional care over many years. And in doing so, it focused attention on how the State is continuing to fail vulnerable children in its care.

By outlining details yesterday of its plans to implement the recommendations of the report, the Government provided an opportunity to measure the political will that exists to ensure lessons have been learned. On that basis, there are some grounds for cautious hope. The Government has accepted the 20 main points set out in the report, such as introducing independent inspections for all children in residential care settings, improving after-care services for young people leaving the care system, and providing ongoing counselling to abuse victims.

But the Government plan goes further, pledging to put the so-called Children First guidelines for reporting abuse on a statutory footing, to fill more than 270 social work vacancies and to ensure every child in care is allocated a social worker.

These measures are a step in the right direction though much more will be needed. The gaps and failures within the child protection system are immense. Thousands of reports of suspected child abuse are not being adequately responded to. As many as a third of children in foster care in many parts of the country do not have an allocated social worker. There are hundreds of children without care plans. It is questionable whether relatively modest amounts of funding, as well as reforms and cost savings within the Health Service Executive, can resolve these issues in the space of a year or two.

Beyond the rhetoric of strengthening child protection services, a key test will be whether funding will be available to implement the plans. Minister for Children Barry Andrews said yesterday he had “complete confidence” that the cost of the proposals – an estimated €25 million – will be met. Time will tell.

Many of the measures contained in the Government’s implementation plan are not new. Pledges to introduce better co-operation between State agencies, a standardised approach to dealing with abuse concerns and more emphasis on preventive measures have been features of previous reports which have been ignored. What gives tentative hope that the plan may be properly implemented is the scale of public revulsion at the findings of the Ryan report, and a public pledge by a Government Minister to take direct responsibility for implementing the new measures.

The recommendation to establish a national monument to commemorate victims of abuse may prove to be the easiest to implement. But the ultimate memorial to those who suffered will be a State which can offer vulnerable children protection from abuse and neglect. Too many children have been abandoned by the State in the past. We cannot allow it to happen again.