We promise to improve care for children, but we demonstrate that we don’t really mean it
Opinion: ‘Early intervention and support could prevent a great deal of grief later on’
‘The report points out astonishing anomalies in the way that children’s cases are treated. Take the issue of care orders, where children are taken into the care of the State, usually into foster care, for their own safety.’ Photograph: Getty Images
Sometimes, the news is good. In Dr Carol Coulter’s latest report from the Child Care Law Reporting Project, the case of a very bright and very angry little boy is described. He was in a foster care placement with his younger brother, but the placement was breaking down, because he was so difficult to manage.
The boys fought constantly and no foster carer could be found to take the two of them. Yet everyone acknowledged the importance of maintaining the sibling bond for children who had already lost so much.
The boys were doing well at school. An educational psychologist explained that the boys were developmentally about three years behind their peers. They behaved like pre-school children, and would present a challenge to even the most experienced foster carer.
They have two half-siblings who are getting on well who are in the care of a close relative, but she said that while it broke her heart, she could not take the younger two because her house was too small.
The judge saw a solution. An extension should be built to accommodate the boys. The Child and Family Agency (CFA) agreed, so all four siblings will be looked after by the relative and her husband.
It’s a sane, humane solution taken by a judge in a rural town, and acceded to by the CFA.
Yet the same report points out astonishing anomalies in the way that children’s cases are treated. Take the issue of care orders, where children are taken into the care of the State, usually into foster care, for their own safety.
In Letterkenny, Mallow and Clonmel, there were respectively 217, 267 and 276 recorded applications for care orders. But in Tullamore, Longford and Monaghan, the numbers were as low as 13, 29 and 30 applications respectively.
This shows an alarming variation in practice across HSE areas. The same is true of granting care orders, with every request being granted in some areas, and far fewer in others.
Professionals involved in care of children have also frequently pointed out that some district court judges insist on granting care orders for very short periods, while others are happy to grant them for longer.
Some form of rationalisation is long overdue, although, of course, the key focus should not be on courts, but on how to prevent such cases ever needing to reach the courts.
Early intervention and support could prevent a great deal of grief later on, when it is often so much more difficult to stage an intervention.
Probation officer Majella Hickey, featured in a new programme on probation on RTÉ, while talking about opportunities for change for convicted criminals had this to say: “I can’t do anything about what happens in the early years, and we all know that 0-4 are the years where most of the damage is done to a human being in terms of their emotional development. But it’s never too late.”
She was able to describe cases where against all the odds, people had managed to turn their lives around.
But that is a triumph over adversity. We continually hide behind the fact children are resilient, but do we have to give them so many opportunities to develop resilience?
We pay a lot of lip service to our care for children, but again and again we demonstrate that we don’t really mean it. Jonathan Irwin is the CEO of the Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation, a charity that provides services for children with brain damage, many of whom have very limited life spans.
Any GP in the country would be happy to certify that these children need constant care. Yet Irwin described how grieving parents are subjected to means tests, and feel that they have failed their children all over again when they fail to secure a medical card.
The Jack and Jill Children’s Foundation has been battling for a long time for automatic medical cards for these children, who are among “the most fragile in Ireland”, as Irwin said.
For example, the late Brian Lenihan saw immediately that these children should have medical cards, but was cautioned by civil servants that this might have ‘resource implications’.
Callous words when it comes to brain-damaged children. But resource implications affect so many decisions concerning children, including the children in asylum-seeker accommodation.
Hidden up long roads, or hidden in plain sight in busy urban areas, these children often live in one room with their parents and siblings. Many of them have never seen their Mum or Dad cook a meal. Despite the fact that many of them come from cultures where not working is seen as humiliating dependency, their parents are not permitted to work, often for years on end.
They see their mothers working in the black economy as cleaners of toilets, or worse, in order to make ends meet.
There is a promise that the system will be improved for new entrants, but there are no plans to help the many who are already trapped.
Sometimes the news about children is good. More often, it is a source of profound national shame.