Disadvantaged children being ‘knowingly failed by State’, Dáil hears

Urgent response by Government called for as Covid caused ‘huge disruption’ for children

The Government said they prioritised education above all other sectors. File photograph: iStock

The Government said they prioritised education above all other sectors. File photograph: iStock

 

The Government has been urged to introduce an immediate urgent and comprehensive response to support vulnerable children from disadvantaged backgrounds following the publication of three reports highlighting the damage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Social Democrats joint-leader Róisín Shortall said the children are “being failed and knowingly failed by the State. The pandemic has caused huge disruption to every child in Ireland, but it’s taken a particularly heavy toll on the most disadvantaged children, because it’s exacerbated underlying structural inequalities that have persisted for far too long.”

She told the Taoiseach that “I know that you understand how such disadvantage can rob a child of their childhood and their potential. I’m asking you to take the lead in a comprehensive response to mitigate the damage that has been done to so many vulnerable children.”

Micheál Martin acknowledged the challenge of the once-in-a-century pandemic but insisted that “the Government has done everything it can to support children through the pandemic, not least getting schools opened, which involved huge resources” and in providing childcare.

He said they prioritised education above and beyond other sectors, which were shut down to ensure that schools would stay open. He was working with the Ministers for Children and Education, and there was a departmental sub-committee on social affairs and education.

Mr Martin said they were doing all they could in departments to advance policies for children. “We need action and and I’m pretty keen on that, and we’ve already published the economic recovery plan, which focuses on children and young people in terms of the allocation of resources to support them.”

Safety nets

Raising the issue in the Dáil during leaders’ questions Ms Shortall said the Ombudsman for Children’s report described 2020 as a devastating year for children with school, sports and other activities closed, children could not see their family or friends and “all the normal and joyful events were stripped away”.

She said vulnerable children’s safety nets were also stripped away and the digital divide impacted children’s rights to education.

“The number of child protection referrals fell by a staggering 42 per cent, meaning children living in unsafe homes or at risk of violence fell through the cracks.”

While available supports from social workers and teachers collapsed, domestic violence rates soared.

“Children with additional needs did not have access to their usual services or routines and very many regressed,” she added.

“Children with parents or siblings who are medically high-risk lived in fear of bringing Covid home and causing the death of their family member and many felt unable to attend school, and 15 months later many are still not attending school.”

She also highlighted the latest research from the Growing up in Ireland study, which looked at 8,000 nine-year-olds and their families.

The report highlighted the widening gaps between children from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds since they started primary school.

“Children from disadvantaged backgrounds who were early high performers in school are being outperformed by children from wealthier backgrounds.

“By the age of nine, children from disadvantaged backgrounds, had lower reading test scores and more negative self-perception, poor health outcomes and more socio-emotional difficulties.”