‘I was advising a woman with five kids about budgeting. What she needed was a f***ing washing machine for cloth nappies’

Less advice and more action are needed to support familes in their homes and keep children out of social services

One of the questions that went through the mind of Prof Pat Dolan when he heard about baby Maria, who was found abandoned on the side of a road in Co Dublin in May, was did her distressed mother know how to seek help?

“I don’t just mean informally through her family,” he says, but rather through social services. “We know what number to ring if we need the fire brigade. We need to have the same approach to social issues, particularly around child welfare.”

People might say she may not have been willing to get help, continues Dolan, who is head of the Unesco Child and Family Research Centre in NUI Galway, “but it is not as if we haven’t had this story before. We had Ann Lovett [who died at age 15 after giving birth in a grotto in Granard, Co Longford, in 1984, along with her infant son].”

He does not accept that such tragic but rare cases are inevitable. “That is an easy cop-out,” he remarks. While it’s sad that somebody might decide not to use social services, “we have to make sure that we make it as easy as possible and that people have the information”.


The need for ease and clarity of access to services is a key issue in family support and one that will come up at a biennial international conference hosted this week by the Child and Family Research Centre in Galway. With the theme “Building Family Support Systems”, the focus of attention will be on prevention and early intervention that can keep children out of the State’s protection services.

“Most of us take our family support for granted,” he points out. “You notice it only when you don’t have it.”

Natural networks

One of the problems is that services often replace natural networks by professionals, he argues, instead of supporting them. He gives the example of social workers needing to visit a lone mother regularly, where a much better form of intervention would be to help her resolve issues in the relationship with her sister.

Support from within the family is vital, he says, and should be bolstered by State services. “It is available [outside] 9 to 5 – you can’t find a social worker at 2am – and it is every day of the week. Secondly, it is more natural and it is reciprocal: you can do something in return. It is non-stigmatising and it is cheap.”

Yet resources are almost inevitably sucked into the “firefighting” of child protection, with little left for measures that would reduce the need for those services in the first place. Atlantic Philanthropies has provided €8.3 million for a three-year family-support programme that was announced in April to “embed early intervention and prevention” within Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, with support from the Unesco Child and Family Research Centre.

Dolan, who is 56, is no “ivory tower” academic. He is the youngest of 11 children from Manor Street in north inner-city Dublin and was only seven months old when his father, a carpenter, died.

He moved into academic research after many years as a social worker and is joint founder and director of the Child and Family Research Centre. He was appointed to the Unesco Chair in Children, Youth and Civic Engagement – the first in Ireland – in 2009.

The centre works both nationally and internationally. For example, Dolan is about to start a major project with UN general secretary Ban Ki-moon on the radicalisation of youth.

Although he and his colleagues in Galway produce “great policies”, he is candid in saying that “the problem is we don’t need more policies; we need implementation”. And the centre wants to be more involved in that end of things too, “because talking about [things] is different to doing”.

He recalls doing youth work in Dublin’s inner-city flats in his 20s. “I was going up to a woman with five kids and advising her about budgeting and what the woman needed was a f***ing washing machine for cloth nappies.

“The evidence is that professionals give way too much advice,” he says. “What people need is emotional support, and they need practical support.”

Services either don’t use enough of people’s natural networks or, at the other extreme, overburden families, he says.

“How many adults are toileting a parent, and it has just got too much for them; but they are left doing it because there are no services?”

Supervision orders

Dolan would like to see better use of supervision orders under the Childcare Act – that’s a step before taking children into care – and the placing of mentors can also prevent problems escalating.

There is a tendency to “vilify parents”, he says, but the number who give up on their kids are few. “There is a big difference between not being willing to and not being able, and we have to make that distinction very clear.”

The whole idea of family support is not that it is “soft” child protection. No child should be left at risk, he stresses, but there are many cases where children can be supported.

We also need to realise that most families are only a pay packet, or one life crisis, away from needing a service.

“Some people think of kids in care almost like a classified, alien race,” he remarks. “They’re not. It’s you and me; it’s just life circumstances.”

Talking of a much-needed pay packet, for some parents the underfunded, expensive childcare system proves an insurmountable obstacle to earning one.

“We need to come up with a different system,” he agrees. The centre runs a BA in early childhood education at NUI Galway and the problem, he says, is that its graduates are paid so little and are least respected in the education system.

If one of the lessons we learned from the “horror” stories at the Aras Attracta care home in Swinford, Co Mayo, and certain creches before that, is “the workforce has to be given respect; they have to be trained properly, and paid properly and monitored properly. It is as basic as that.”

Neither should families be finding it so hard to organise suitable childcare and being under so much stress while “the financial difference for them between the cost and working is so marginal”.

However, while we look to the Scandinavian countries for best practice, he has done some work in Denmark and was interested to note “a slight move away from all-day care because they are finding that kids are not seeing enough of their parents”. Instead the state was looking at incentives to encourage, say, parents to work from home a couple of days a week.

Meanwhile, Irish society is not talking enough about child poverty, he says. In 2008, 6.8 per cent of children here were living in consistent poverty; by 2013 that had jumped to 11.7 per cent. There is evidence that poverty, neglect and child abuse are well correlated, he explains, so to support families, you need to help them out of the poverty trap.

The problem is family support is often talked about as an aspiration but not something there’s money for now. “The argument I would make,” he adds, “is that you have to do it – it is the most basic form of provision.”

Concealed pregnancies

Meanwhile, parallel sessions at the conference this Thursday will include a timely paper relating to concealed pregnancies. Entitled “When mothering isn’t part of your life plan: Concealed pregnancy and the links with complicated maternal-infant attachment”, it will be presented by researcher Sylvia Murphy Tighe, and associate professor Joan G Lalor, both at the school of nursing and midwifery, Trinity College Dublin.

It draws on the pair’s ongoing “Keeping It Secret” Study (Kiss), for which almost 60 women have offered to share their experiences of concealed pregnancies – the latest four coming forward since the story of baby Maria broke in the media. Murphy Tighe has interviewed 24 women so far, well over half of whom went on to mother their babies, and will be outlining aspects of their stories in Galway.

As a former public health nurse and midwife, she believes health professionals need a much better understanding of concealed pregnancy if they are to respond appropriately and not confuse it with “denied” pregnancy.

“These women I have interviewed were well aware of their pregnancy but they were keeping it secret,” she explains. While the reasons for hiding it vary, fear is the central emotion for all.

They may not disclose their condition until the last trimester (or, occasionally, after the birth) and while crisis pregnancy services can step in at that stage, “they don’t deal with the women and the parenting afterwards”, Murphy Tighe points out.

Yet, as one woman told her, concealed pregnancy “has ripples that last a lifetime”. The stigma around it means these women feel they are unable to talk about it once the baby arrives.

“The women are putting on a front while mothering their infants that everything is okay,” Murphy Tighe says. Yet, “the postnatal care they received wasn’t necessarily mindful of the very difficult experience during their pregnancy”.

She and Lalor are very concerned about some of the media treatment of the baby Maria story, not only for the mother involved but for others who have been through something similar.

She is critical too of the emphasis in the appeals on reunification of mother and baby, without seeming to offer a choice.

With Ireland’s legacy of forced adoptions, she believes there is now a certain stigma for women in relinquishing their babies.

Some of the women she has interviewed talk about the decision to parent their child not being theirs.

“These women were silenced in the past and my point is that they are being silenced today,” she adds. “It is as if society apologises for past deeds and continues to demonise them. They don’t have a voice.”

But through her research and speaking at conferences like this one in Galway, Murphy Tighe is trying to change that for women such as baby Maria’s mother.

The Unesco Child and Family Research Centre 7th Biennial International Conference, Building Family Support Systems, takes place on June 11th and 12th. For more information, see conference.ie. To contact Sylvia Murphy Tighe, tel: 087 981 7340 or email smurphyt@tcd.ie