Will courts be understanding when disadvantaged children are in trouble with the law?

Opinion: Schools at breaking point over cuts in provision for special educational needs


Twenty years ago when I had my first baby, a social worker friend of mine named Helen came to visit me in hospital. She was pensive and sad. She had just come from visiting a client who was in another maternity hospital.

Helen held my son. As she gazed at him, she told me that the other baby had been born to a young mother who was drug- addicted, but that he was just as beautiful as my son. She talked about how unjust it was that the child in her arms would have security and support but the other little boy born on the same day probably would not.

I often thought about that other little boy and for some time was able to track him through my friend. For his first few years, despite my friend’s fears, things had gone surprisingly well. He was fostered within his wider family and he did indeed have security and support.

I thought about him again recently for the first time in years, when a different friend told me about another child who had been fostered very successfully, until the foster parents had a child of their own. As the baby grew, the older child became more and more insecure and resentful, until eventually the foster placement broke down, as did subsequent placements.

At the age of 12 this child is now in secure care in a place with much older and more hardened children. If, God forbid, this child ends up drifting into crime, will the judge take into account the loss of not one but two families, as well as inadequate State intervention?

Judge’s decision not unreasonable
When Judge Martin Nolan gave non-custodial sentences to former Anglo directors William McAteer and Pat Whelan, he did so on the grounds that one institution of the State had failed to carry out its duties properly and therefore it would be unjust for another institution of the State to send the men to prison.

As Dr Diarmuid Griffin and Dr Joe McGrath pointed out in this newspaper last Thursday, the judge’s decision was not unreasonable. The pity is that the same reasoning is not applied to others who are not already privileged.

For example, the joint managerial body that represents voluntary schools reported during the week that schools are at breaking point trying to cope with cuts in provision for special educational needs. The body said it is not just the students with special needs who are affected but often the whole class, and that it will have serious, long-term impact on many students, particularly those already experiencing disadvantage.

People who end up in prison are generally poor, have been failed to some degree by the education system and often have significant problems with mental health and addiction.

In the case of McAteer and Whelan, although they were found guilty the judge declared that the attitude and behaviour of the regulator, as well as the two men’s belief as to the legal situation, made it unjust to jail them.

Children who are short-changed
What about justice for children who are short-changed in education, or social services? If they fall foul of the law, will they receive the same understanding?

Mind you, it is also disturbing to see that community service is being seen by the public as akin to a slap on the wrist with a wet bus ticket.

We are obsessed with punishment and retribution in this country, but putative community service does not mean escaping scot-free.

Meaningful community service is always helpful and comes close to what advocates of restorative justice call “reintegrative shaming”, or shame that leads to reacceptance into society.

(One definition of restorative justice is that it is a way of seeing crime as more than breaking the law – it also causes harm to people, relationships and the community. So a just response must address those harms as well. If they are willing, the best way to do this is for the parties to meet to discuss the harms and how to bring about resolution.)

In our society we are much more interested in shaming that leads to exclusion and condemnation. However, that kind of shaming just allows us to scapegoat people. It doesn’t allow us to understand fully someone’s motivation, much less what could help them change.

While Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s claim that “people simply went mad borrowing” during the boom was unhelpful and inaccurate, some kind of collective psychosis definitely gripped our society, one that did not allow many of us to see that selling houses at ever-inflating prices was just a Ponzi scheme.

Have we learned from that experience? Every time I hear someone touting the increase in house prices as a sign of recovery, I shudder, given that it is evidence that we have learned very little. No more than we have learned that vengeance and retribution only perpetuate injustice, I suspect.

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