Kitty Holland: Too many Irish children will have a poor Christmas

Broadside: The rights of these children, set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, are not being upheld

A shocking 11.2 per cent of our children – 140,000 of them – were in consistent poverty last year. Photograph: Thinkstock

A shocking 11.2 per cent of our children – 140,000 of them – were in consistent poverty last year. Photograph: Thinkstock

 

Some weeks ago, Marie, an 11-year-old from Dublin, told me what it was like to be in a B&B with her family at Christmas due to homelessness.

The family, who are still in emergency accommodation this Christmas, had no access to cooking facilities and almost no storage space for things such as presents.

“We were worried Santa wouldn’t come, and about the Christmas dinner. We were worried about the Christmas tree and [her younger siblings] were worried about their presents. It wasn’t nice,” she said.

On Friday, the last Christmas before we begin the centenary year of 1916, more than 1,400 children in Dublin will wake up homeless, some in supported accommodation, the majority in single hotel rooms.

Last Christmas the number of homeless children in Dublin was 726, a figure that shocked most of us. That it has doubled is appalling.

According to the latest data from the Central Statistics Office, 11.2 per cent of our children – 140,000 of them – were in consistent poverty last year, almost double the number in 2008, when the proportion was 6.3 per cent. A shocking 18.6 per cent of our children – or 230,000 – were at risk of poverty last year, up from 17.9 per cent in 2013, an increase of 12,000.

To be “at risk of poverty” is to be dependent on an income set at 60 per cent of the median, which last year was a threshold of €10,926 per year. To be in consistent poverty is to fall below this meagre threshold and to be deprived of two or more basics, such as a warm, waterproof coat, a meal including meat at least every second day, and a warm home.

Food poverty

This writer has met many such children and their parents.

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At the front doors of homes in Ballyfermot, west Dublin, last month, children could be seen behind their mothers, peering to see what food a local soup-run volunteer was delivering.

“The kids in the houses love when we arrive with pizza on Mondays. Sometimes they come to the door almost grabbing it,” said Ann-Marie Gleeson, a local woman who started the soup and food run last year. “The children can be very hungry on Mondays, after the weekends, when the food is running low.”

Across the State – in Dublin, Clare, Cork, Wicklow and Waterford – I have talked to beautiful Traveller children beaming with potential but living in abject poverty. Their parents have shown me the single rooms or caravans they share with up to seven other people. They share single beds or sleep on the floors of rooms where the walls are damp, the ceilings scarred with mould and mildew and where windows won’t open, a risk in case of fire. In one house, 20 people shared one bathroom.

They live like this partly because their parents, who grew up in similar poverty, have not progressed to become fully participating members of society, but partly too because of the inability or disinclination of local authorities to provide appropriate housing.

Lucy, a five-year-old from the settled community, who is livingin a B&B, told me last year that she had no memory of where her house was.

“I can’t draw my house. I don’t remember what it looks like.”

Billy (10) told me how embarrassed he had been by his homelessness. “It has made me feel lonely, a bit left out. I saw one of my friends last week. We were playing against each other in a match, and he asked how come I haven’t been out as much, and I said ‘We moved’. I just said to him, ‘We moved’.

“We had a dog, Milly, and [my sister] asks where she is. We have to say Nana is minding her. We had to give her away.”

Stressed households

The Growing Up in Ireland study found that mothers under serious economic pressure had an 84 per cent increased risk of suffering clinical levels of depression compared with other mothers.

“Parents who experienced increased psychological distress tended to employ harsher styles of parenting and less warmth. This change was true for parents across levels of education . . . Worsened relationships between children and parents were associated with higher child anxiety and worse conduct as well as lower child happiness . . . Worsening child conduct and emotional symptoms during the recession led to lower educational test scores.”

The rights of these children, set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to such basics as health, to develop to their full potential, to nondiscrimination and to participate in society, are not being upheld.

These children have lost too much, and contrary to the burgeoning rhetoric of economic recovery, their numbers are growing. Amid the rhetoric there is a danger their stories might get lost.

Next month, the Minister for Children, James Reilly, will represent the Government before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in Geneva to be examined on our compliance with the convention.

It is to be hoped, as with so many issues, that outside scrutiny of our failures will force change and bring less worry, less embarrassment and better Christmas memories for Marie, Billy and hundreds of thousands like them.

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