Tackle child poverty as crucial rights issue, says top adviser

Special rapporteur on child protection Prof Geoffrey Shannon has 97 recommendations

While Prof Geoffrey Shannon commends Ireland’s role in embedding human rights principles in efforts to eliminate poverty overseas, he says efforts are “somewhat in contrast... at home where child poverty is at a high level”. File photograph: Getty Images

While Prof Geoffrey Shannon commends Ireland’s role in embedding human rights principles in efforts to eliminate poverty overseas, he says efforts are “somewhat in contrast... at home where child poverty is at a high level”. File photograph: Getty Images

 

Child poverty must be tackled as a human rights issue with legal implications rather than from a charitable perspective, the Government’s most senior adviser on children’s rights has said.

Prof Geoffrey Shannon, special rapporteur on child protection, said “direct provision should be abolished”, accommodating homeless families with children in hotels needs to end, and “more imaginative” sanctions than prison or detention are required to stop child offenders drifting into adult lives marked by imprisonment.

In his 182-page report to Government, Prof Shannon makes 97 recommendations on addressing the rights of children.

While he commends Ireland’s role in embedding human rights principles in efforts to eliminate poverty overseas, he says efforts are “somewhat in contrast... at home where child poverty is at a high level and the austerity measures drafted and implemented by Irish authorities disproportionately affect children”.

He said: “Measures to tackle child poverty are not human-rights based” in Ireland and the United Nations, he added, is “urging Ireland to change practice in this regard”.

“The direct provision [DP] system should be abolished, and in the interim living standard at DP centres should be improved.”

He added: “The State has an obligation to progressively realise the right to adequate food. Concrete measures should be taken to address the nutrition needs of poor families.”

Adequate housing

The housing crisis must be tackled and, in line with international human rights obligations on the right to adequate housing, “the needs of vulnerable groups should be prioritised, social housing units should be built and homelessness adequately dealt with”.

He said “a significant proportion of children still highlight violence in the home as being their primary concern”.

“These children note the absence of specific supports for them.”

Existing supports are are focused on parent victims - usually mothers - of domestic violence, with little specifically for the children experiencing or witnessing it. These children need their own supports.

Too many children, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, have insufficient play facilities, including homeless and Traveller children.

Play is a “crucial children’s rights and child protection issue”, the report continues.

“The lack of understanding of the significance of the right in the lives of children is evidenced by inadequate investment in... children’s play and leisure.”

A difficult issue is balancing the rights of children to access information online and protecting them online. “Blanket censorship is not the answer...Children should be guided to think critically in order to support their ability to play a part in their own protection.”

He describes as “most surprising” the omission from the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill of a definition of “consent”.

Sex education

“Greater efforts are needed to ensure that sex education challenges ‘victim blame’ in respect of sexual violence and to ensure children fully understand consent.”

Legislation currently being debated in the Oireachtas, the Education (Admissions to School) Bill, “should be amended to ensure the principle of non-discrimination in school admissions policies” including on the basis of religion, while the experiences of children in religious schools, who are exempt from religious classes “should be urgently examined”.

As Ireland prepares to dramatically increase the number of unaccompanied minors, Prof Shannon said a guardian ad litem should be appointed to all such children.

Describing the report as a “blueprint” for child protection, Minister for Children Katherine Zappone called on each of her Cabinet colleagues “to study and act” on it.

“While progress has been made on many issues there are others which require action.

Each Minister and department must take a lead for their own areas of responsibility,” she said.