A champion in the children’s corner
The Ombudsman for 1.2 million children, Dr Niall Muldoon, talks about his pride in today’s youngsters and his fears about the ‘invisible homeless’
Niall Muldoon, the Ombudsman for Children, in his office on Great Strand Street, Dublin. Photograph: Sara Freund.
Every morning, on the way up to his office in a building off Dublin’s north quays, the Ombudsman for Children passes his job description, which is written up in colourful ink on a whiteboard by the youngsters who helped to interview him for the post.
“Brave”, “happy”, “passionate”, “nonjudgmental”, “approachable”, “good listener”, “honest” and “authoritative” are some of the qualities they were looking for when clinical psychologist Dr Niall Muldoon was appointed as the State’s second Ombudsman for Children, succeeding Emily Logan.
Almost six months into the role, he says when there is a complicated case or a difficult decision to be made, he still goes back to that board and reflects on what children want him to do.
“I hear their voices and that helps enormously: they really got the essence of what an ombudsman should be like,” he says of the 11 youngsters, aged seven to 17, who were involved in the second interview of shortlisted candidates for the role. The process finished with the interviewees making a short presentation to a panel of four adults and two teenagers.
He really felt he was “chosen by young people” and that made him “all the more chuffed to get it”.
Having been director of investigations in the Ombudsman for Children’s Office (OCO) for more than two years previously, he thought he knew a lot about the top position, until he went upstairs.
“It is such a vast job,” says Muldoon, who was catapulted straight into a big project – the completion of a report to help inform the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child on issues to raise with Government representatives when they appear before it in January 2016 (see panel).
The OCO’s 62 recommendations range from the State ensuring fair and equitable access to early childhood education for children with disabilities, and recognising Traveller ethnicity without further delay, to making sure that children born by surrogacy have a legal right to information about their origins and holding a referendum to lower the voting age to 16.
Legislation to provide for the rights of migrant children is also called for in this report, which was published in April, and the Working Group on the Protection Process published its recommendations to Government at the end of June. These include extending the remit of the children’s ombudsman to deal with complaints by residents in direct provision about services provided at accommodation centres.
The implementation of this would be a “very positive step”, says Muldoon. “It will support an independent, impartial and efficient resolution of any issues of maladministration that may arise in relation to children in the system, and it should strengthen confidence in the system itself.”
“It seemed like a good solution for six months but we never sorted it out.” And he fears that the escalating problem of homeless families could go the same way. Describing it as a “totally new scenario”, he says that when the OCO compiled a report on homeless youngsters in 2011, they were all teenagers who had fallen out with their families, or out of the care system.
According to the most recent figures from the Department of the Environment, there are now more than 1,200 children among the 565 homeless families living in emergency accommodation, in B&Bs or in hotel bedrooms.
As unsatisfactory as this arrangement is, at least these families have a room, remarks Muldoon, unlike the newest category of “the invisible homeless”. These are families who have declared themselves homeless but for whom no emergency accommodation can be found.
Some not only have to couch surf or sleep in cars, he points out, but also “live in fear of a knock from a garda on that car because their children could be at risk through no fault of their own”. He is not sure what the answer is, but supply is obviously the issue.
“Considering we were in a situation in 2008 where we produced 90,000 housing units and we were told we were completely oversupplied, I just wonder what has happened,” remarks Muldoon, who says he would bow to the experience of Fr Peter McVerry who advocates an increase in the rent supplement to prevent more people falling into this trap. The situation “has potential to be very, very catastrophic if it continues to grow”, Muldoon warns.
On the summer’s morning we talk, the ombudsman’s office on Strand Street is eerily quiet. Not only is it holiday time, but the staff complement of 15 is down to eight, due to promotions and people moving on.
Giant, colourful beanbags are piled in one corner of the public area where, during term time, about two school classes a week come in to learn more about their rights as children – to a family, to have their voices heard, to privacy, to practise their religion – and to hear about countries where their peers don’t have these entitlements.
“They will be in a different space with their child,” he says. “You could very easily create a huge momentum across two generations very fast.”
He is already seeing big changes among the current generation of children and recalls an incident during a school visit shortly before the summer holidays that, he says, “made me very proud” of them.
After the young visitors had been briefed about the work of the ombudsman’s office, a boy of about 12 piped up with a question: “Niall, you have 1.2 million children to look after; how do you deal with it emotionally?”And none of his classmates laughed.
“That’s what you want in children,” says Muldoon, who points out that he has 40-year-old friends who wouldn’t use the “e” word, yet mental health is a huge issue. “It was really exciting for me to see.
“You are creating a new energy and giving them a different vocabulary, not just worrying about your salary and how long you work. You can see children are changing, they are becoming more attuned to their individual personalities.”
“We look at every single case that comes in the door and, once they are within our remit, we make a decision to deal with them.”
Complainants must have tried to get the problem resolved locally before bringing it to him.
What sometimes people don’t understand is that his office must be impartial in its investigations, having to “walk the line” defined in legislation as being, he says, “neither an advocate for the child nor an adversary to the public body”.
“If, at the end of an investigation, I find the public body has done something wrong, then I can be an advocate but that’s after an impartial investigation.”
The criteria on which the office prioritises cases for investigation are, firstly, is there sufficient evidence to indicate it is necessary and, secondly, would that investigation help an individual or would it suggest systemic changes as well?
“You try to look at those kinds of areas but, essentially, each case is decided on its own merit.”
The majority of issues are resolved relatively quickly, he says, through a letter or a phone call to the public body that’s the subject of the complaint, which renews efforts to sort out the problem between the two parties.
Education attracts the most complaints, with 43 per cent relating to this area. However, the ombudsman can investigate only “inappropriate professional conduct” and not “professional misconduct”.
The former, he explains, could be anything from “raising your voice to a threatening comment or possibly to a suggestion of bullying or physical intimidation”, whereas the latter would relate to employee conditions.
It is “unfortunate” that there are complaints the ombudsman is unable to deal with and teaching is one of the few professions that doesn’t yet have that professional conduct oversight.
“We were meant to be part of an architecture of complaints within schools, and the Teaching Council would look after the professional conduct,” he explains.
However, fitness-to-teach inquiries are due to start this year. The Teaching Council Amendment Bill 2014 lists a range of grounds eligible for investigation, including professional misconduct.
Section 28 of the Education Act was also meant to be amended, to create a consistent complaint system throughout all schools.
“That would have allowed every parent to know exactly what is going to happen and how it’s going to work. But at the moment each school develops its own complaints system and that makes it slightly less robust and a little more frustrating at times.”
He had completed his Leaving Cert by the age of 16 and, the following year, reckons he was one of the first males in the country to do a secretarial course in the 1980s.
“It was great for the thesis later on: 60 words a minute,” he says with a smile.
He then worked in a bank for five years and “while I loved working with people I wasn’t good at the finance end of it; it wasn’t my future. I decided to go to college.”
He worked in London for a year to save money to study psychology in college there, before returning to Ireland to do a masters in Trinity College Dublin and later a PhD in University College Dublin.
He spent 10 years working at the former Granada Institute in Dublin, providing therapy, risk assessments and support to adults who had sexually offended against children and to those who had been abused as children. Before joining the OCO in 2012, he was national clinical director of the charity Children at Risk in Ireland (Cari) for five years.
His two daughters, aged 14 and 11, are now at that stage where a parent in a high-powered job in the public eye is more likely to be a source of embarrassment than pride. “They love coming in here but I’m not sure they like the media side of it.”
The lack of staff has impaired the office’s ability to progress cases during the start of his term as ombudsman, but he hopes to have a full complement by the end of the year, allowing him to “see what I can do with that and where I can go”.
In the run-up to the children’s rights referendum, his predecessor had lobbied for a broader Constitutional change, rather than the eventual wording that specified the areas of court services, childcare and adoption. But the principle is there now and Muldoon’s priorities include pushing for consideration the best interests of children across all areas.
The Government assessing the likely impact on children before deciding policy is a “crucial” part of that.
“It has started to some degree,” he says, with the Department of Social Protection doing it pre-budget. (The near doubling of child poverty levels from 6.8 per cent in 2008 to 11.7 per cent in 2013 suggests it’s badly needed.)
Even still, says Muldoon, it’s unknown how much the State is spending on children in various areas. “No sense that you follow the money and see if it is working.”
For more information about the Ombudsman for Children, see occ.ie
Rights of the child and the United Nations Committee The Government will appear before the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in January to answer questions about the State’s record on children’s rights over the past decade.
A list of issues it has been asked to respond to in the run-up to the hearings in Geneva include measures taken to reduce the negative impact of austerity measures on children’s rights.
With child poverty having risen from 6.8 per cent in 2008 to 11.7 per cent in 2013, that could be a tough one for the delegation of senior officials from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and other relevant departments, due to be headed by Minister for Children James Reilly.
It is also being requested to clarify the legal definition of “real and substantial risk” under the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act of 2014 and the applicability of this Act for pregnant girls.
The committee is seeking information on matters including: allegations that the Garda Pulse system is being misused to record Traveller children as criminals based solely on their ethnicity; on measures being taken to ensure that children are not denied placement in schools on the basis of their religion; and the State’s efforts to ensure that the direct provision system is child friendly and that unaccompanied minors are not left stateless or in a situation of legal ambiguity when turning 18.
Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, which was involved with briefing the UN Committee, welcomed the publication of the checklist in June, describing it as “a critical tool used by the committee to probe areas of concern”. The Government has been asked to respond by mid-October.