Ombudsman report: 2020 was a devastating year for children

School closures meant some at risk children went under the radar, says Niall Muldoon

Almost half of complaints were in relation to education. File photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

Almost half of complaints were in relation to education. File photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

 

The Ombudsman for Children has raised fears that some children who were at risk of abuse or neglect went under the radar during 2020 due to school closures.

In the Ombudsman’s annual report, published on Wednesday, the Ombudsman Niall Muldoon highlighted the wide-reaching impacts of school closures on children and their mental health.

Dr Muldoon said 2020 was a “devastating year for children”. He said home was “not always a safe place” for children, and he fears that children who were at risk of abuse or neglect and other issues that were not visible due to school closures will “come to the fore this year”.

There were 316 fewer reports to the Ombudsman last year than in 2019 when there were 1,503, as many services were closed. Six per cent of complaints to the OCO last year came directly from children, up from three per cent in 2019. This rise can largely be attributed to children contacting in relation to education issues and the OCO has taken it as an indication of the level of upset among students. Every child who reached out to the office mentioned the impact of the pandemic on their mental health.

Almost half (46 per cent) of complaints were in relation to education, a similar proportion to previous years, but with new issues arising such as remote learning difficulties, lack of clarity about exams, and the impact on children with special education needs. Dr Muldoon said his office heard “heartbreaking stories” about children with additional needs regressing.

The pandemic has shown the need for “proper investment to bridge the inequality gap and ensure all children are given the support they need to thrive”, Dr Muldoon went on. He described a “once-in-a-generation opportunity” to reflect on the learnings of the pandemic and recognise how much can be done when energies are focused.

“We must build upon the momentum and transformative change that was the hallmark of the pandemic and use this energy to ensure no child is left behind.”

Dr Muldoon said there can be no return to “the old normal, where babies learn to crawl in emergency accommodation, teenagers in severe physical pain wait years for scoliosis operations or those in mental turmoil wait years for psychological intervention and where Traveller children are bullied for where they live.”

The Ombudsman also noted that the Department of Children and Youth Affairs was under threat in May of being subsumed into other departments which would have led to an “abdication of responsibility and accountability when it came to upholding children’s rights at a pivotal time”. The retention of the Department is “vital” for the success of children’s rights, he added.