Protection system must focus on child


Slew of inquiries and reports have shown the voice of children has been all but ignored, writes CARL O'BRIEN

WHEN THE British government ordered a wide-ranging inquiry into the failures of its child protection system recently, the findings were neatly summarised in a single, devastating sentence.

The child protection system, the Munro review found, had lost its focus on what mattered most: the views and experiences of children themselves.

It is a conclusion that can doubtless be applied here as well.

A slew of official reports and inquiries, including the most recent Independent Child Death Review Group, show the voice of the child in most cases has been all but ignored.

This has contributed to services that were too often sporadic and inconsistent, where vulnerable children were sometimes quietly forgotten about and where the cases of young people were only responded to when they reach crisis point.

The report of the Government’s special rapporteur on child protection identifies many of these shortcomings. In doing so, it proposes a series of measures that would place the wishes, feelings and experiences of children at the centre of the system.

They include ensuring that the forthcoming referendum on children’s rights will include a clear reference to the rights of young people to be heard in all judicial and administrative proceedings affecting them.

Children should also be given better information about all proceedings affecting them.

The report also puts a major emphasis on the State fulfilling its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. This convention establishes that a child’s right to protection from mistreatment means designing a child protection system that does not just react when things go wrong.

It should also provide support to children and families to help prevent neglect or abuse in the first place.

To this end, the rapporteur’s report says more emphasis is needed on family support services, which would allow social services to intervene earlier in children’s lives and produce better outcomes for young people and their families.

Another proposal is that children and their families would be able to make complaints directly to the UN committee that monitors international compliance on children’s rights. This would give vulnerable young people and their families an important voice.

In addition, the report calls for a renewed prioritisation of mental health services for children and young people, and underlines the need for inter-agency co-operation.

Encouragingly, Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald has already made substantial reforms in this area and has pledged to do more through the forthcoming children’s referendum.

Much of the work on rebuilding a new child protection system has started. As the rapporteur’s report reminds us, though, much more will be needed over the coming years to ensure the views and experiences of children remain to the fore.