Any decent society prioritises children and people most in need of care
Opinion: Sometimes the people who need it most receive neither justice nor mercy
Jennifer Akandu (16), Owen Brennan (18), Unicef executive director Peter Power, Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald and Clara Barry (16), at the launch this week of Unicef’s Report Card 11 on child wellbeing in rich countries. Photograph: Julien Behal/PA
Our children have the 10th highest sense of wellbeing in a league of 29 industrialised countries? Well, that’s something to be thankful for, but it is amazing, when you dig behind the headlines, how much they manage to conceal.
In Ireland, the Unicef report card could be summed up by saying that when children are doing well, they are fine, but when they are disadvantaged, they are really disadvantaged.
Take the statistics on poverty. The majority of children are not poor – but those who are fall off a cliff, in a way that is worse than in many other countries. That’s even before the austerity measures of the past three years are taken into account, because the statistics date back to 2010.
In the report, Ireland is commended for having relatively low child poverty rates, although St Vincent de Paul now reports that 11 children out of 100 live in consistent poverty. However, when it comes to the child poverty gap, that is, the distance between the comfortable and the poor, it is more than 30 per cent, which is very high.
In the dark
Barnardos tells the true story of Aoife (not her real name) to illustrate the conditions in which some children live. Due to her mother’s problems with addiction and agoraphobia, Aoife lived until the age of three in a house with curtains drawn. She did not know the difference between day and night.
Her diet consisted mostly of tuna straight from a can, and she had no idea how to play. She was well on her way to becoming a hardened individual at an age when other children are still considered to be toddlers. Aoife is doing fine, two years later, because of intensive intervention. Her mother is doing better, too. But there are other Aoifes out there.
Any decent society prioritises the ones most in need of care – children, the elderly, people with disabilities. The International Monetary Fund warns that austerity is not working even on an economic level, but we charge merrily along, and the ones we should be most careful of are the ones who are most damaged.
It is about priorities. Even when we were fooling ourselves that we were rich, we did not prioritise education or health.
We did not renew children’s hospitals during the boom. We still have young people like Donal Walsh from Kerry, a 16-year-old who is facing death from cancer, talking about what it is like to be a young teenager sharing a single room with a very ill baby in Crumlin, along with members of his and the baby’s families.
We hear him describe what it is like when a baby dies beside you, and how he lay there, listening first to to the sound of emergency responses, and then of grief.
We hear his story, and we are not ashamed. Or at least, not ashamed
enough to demand that children and
their health move up our national priorities. Donal Walsh is a fine young man whom any parent would be glad to claim as a son. Selective deafness afflicts us
even more when it comes to children
who are not our own, but guests in our country.
We tolerate the fact that entire families live in two small rooms, in scenes reminiscent of nothing so much as the tenements of Strumpet City . We consider it acceptable that a small child should fear going out to the bathroom at night, because she does not know whom she will meet.
We tolerate endless delays in the processing of her family’s claim for asylum. An asylum seeker wrote to me recently, talking about how children in his direct provision hostel often talk wistfully of “Justice” granting them status, so that they can experience what it would be like to have their parents cook them a meal.
Justice refers to the Department of Justice, of course, but there is a profound irony in their choice of words.
Poverty has even begun to creep into the middle classes. I think of the guidance counsellor from a south Dublin girls’ school talking at a recent conference of the Association of Secondary Teachers, Ireland about teenagers coming to school hungry.
There was one little statistic tucked away in the newspaper reports that should worry us. One in four children in Ireland would not describe their classmates as kind.
As a teacher, I have become aware in the last decade that what we used to call ordinary kindness can no longer be taken for granted. There has been a sharp increase in behaviour that can be described only as mean and nasty, and especially in exclusion of others who are deemed not to meet whatever criteria are currently in vogue.
It is good news that three out of four children can be described as kind, but does the fact that a quarter cannot reflect our lack of kindness as a society, and our skewed values?
Justice is an important virtue. Mercy is to be prized above it. In a country where it is difficult to be in the minority who are poor, outsiders, or sick, children sometimes receive neither justice nor mercy.