First-time voter: ‘As a new voter, I ask you to think about the country you want’

Aged six, I was fostered and separated from my siblings. For 18 years I have had no voice. I’m going to make my first vote count

Stephanie Staunton: “It takes a community to make change happen, and we each have our parts to play, through our votes.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Stephanie Staunton: “It takes a community to make change happen, and we each have our parts to play, through our votes.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

As a first-time voter, this is the first time I have truly been given a voice – and I will use it wisely. Our decisions on ballot day will affect our life experiences in the future.

Often young people say that they have no interest in politics or that it doesn’t affect them. But they couldn’t be more wrong. You see, politics, and the decisions made by those we elect, affects every area of our daily lives and ultimately dictates the path we will take in life – even more so when you don’t have a voice.

In my own case, I was first fostered at the age of six, having come from an unstable family situation. Upon entering the care system, I was then passed around different foster carers, which meant my 12 siblings and I were permanently separated from each other.

At the same time, my mother, father and stepfather all died within a short time of each other.

During this entire period, my wishes were not taken into account.

In particular, in one foster care setting, I made a complaint to the social worker that I didn’t feel safe because of the alcoholism of the foster parent, who continually put me down and made me feel bad about myself. I wasn’t listened to and was deeply unhappy. It took a long time before I was able to get moved again. At no stage was I asked what I actually wanted, and needed.

We also received little support to help overcome all the trauma that my siblings and I had experienced throughout our childhood and to ensure we were equipped to make a new life for ourselves. One of the things I find difficult to deal with now, is watching my brother living on the streets, homeless – knowing there is nothing I can do about it, to make it better.

In all of this, no one ever inquired about my views and I felt I had no voice. The decisions made about me, I believe, were not made in my best interests in accordance with international law protecting children and young people.

Obstacles

Future Voices Ireland

There are many areas where our group feels we do not have a voice relating to political decisions that directly affect us. This is particularly evident in relation to accessing mental health services, which many of us have had interaction with. Sadly, in every case, the experience has been entirely inadequate, inappropriate and ultimately lacking dignity.

By way of example, one of our group, a 16-year-old, was recently left on a trolley for 19 hours in an emergency ward following a suicide attempt, before being sent to an adult unit surrounded by people twice his age. He was petrified and alone at his hour of greatest need, when society should have been there for him, enveloping him in love and support.

These unacceptable waiting times at weekends and evenings simply cannot be justified in a country which is supposed to protect its children and most vulnerable citizens. If someone had a heart attack, it would not be tolerated for heart surgeons to be available only during office hours. Why should it be any different accessing medical treatment in the area of mental health, where there is only limited out-of-hours availability of youth psychologists?

This is a result of deliberate political choices, involving an under-investment in youth mental health provision which cannot continue.

Others in the group have waited two years for a counselling appointment. This starkly brings into focus how inequality comes into play as, if we had the ability to pay, we could get an immediate appointment. By making those without the financial means wait up to two years, the government is literally playing life or death with the lives of our young people.

Austerity budgets have deeply hit the areas where many of us grew up, with life-changing negative consequences. In these pockets of deep poverty, there has been chronic and sustained underinvestment in specialist services and a closing of vital services, such as youth centres, which were lifelines for many of us. Many of us live in areas where there is a lot of drug use and violence. Some have no-go areas, in which they feel completely unsafe.

So why am I bringing up these issues now? It is important these stories are heard. We should, as a nation, be angry about this. No child should have to grow up experiencing inequality to a greater or lesser degree – entirely dictated by the postcode you come from.

Decisions

Time and time again, we repeat the same mistakes and elect the same people, with no change, no accountability and no incentive for them to act any differently.

As a new voter, I call on us all as citizens, when you cast your ballot, think about the country you want to create.

When we elect our new government, we must think very carefully about who we want to trust to make the decisions which will affect our future. We must consider who will be change-makers and who will stand up for those without a voice?

It takes a community to make change happen, and we each have our parts to play, through our votes, in ensuring the invisible are no longer silenced.

Stephanie Staunton is an 18-year-old student and first-time voter, who has participate in Future Voices Ireland since 2013. Future Voices works with teenagers and schools in disadvantaged communities, encouraging participants to act as voices for their communities. See futurevoicesireland.org

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