Carol Coulter: Outrage no substitute for serious discussion about child protection

If the rhetoric that accompanies every instance of child abuse that comes into the public domain is to mean anything, we need an honest discussion of priorities and resources.

Recent weeks have seen disturbing revelations about the abuse of vulnerable children, both in their own homes and in foster care.

A case in the Galway Circuit Criminal Court revealed levels of neglect and abuse that are almost unimaginable. A Prime Time programme on abuse of children in foster care highlighted the fact that abuse could occur anywhere, although the full facts of that case are not known, and, given the constraints of the in camera rule, are unlikely to be.

Once again individual cases prompt spurts of outrage and demands for more accountability. But the issues raised in these and other cases require a wider and deeper societal discussion of what we expect from our child-protection system, whether it is possible to eliminate all risk to children and what level of risk is acceptable.

We cannot lay it all at the door of the statutory agency responsible for child protection, the Child and Family Agency, without a clear consensus on what we are demanding of it and an understanding of what such a consensus will mean in terms of priorities and resources.


We live in a risk-averse society. Among the middle class, in particular, from which most social workers and journalists come, young children rarely play in the street or fields, or walk unaccompanied to school, though they did in previous generations.

Some children are, through the circumstances into which they are born, at risk of harm. The literature on child protection lists a number of factors that are present when children are at risk of abuse or neglect. These include domestic violence, drug or alcohol addiction, single parenthood, mental illness, cognitive impairment and general poverty. This mirrors what the Child Care Law Reporting Project found in its first three years of work.

However, most of these problems are widely prevalent in society. According to a report published by the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) in March 2014, 26 per cent of women in Ireland experienced physical or sexual violence, of which 15 per cent experienced the violence from a partner. Many are likely to have had children.

One in 11 children in Ireland says parental alcohol-use has a negative effect on their lives, according to Alcohol Action Ireland. That is about 109,684 children. Drug use There are no overall figures for drug use, but we know that cannabis use is widespread among young people, some of whom are parents. The use of amphetamines, cocaine and heroin is also common.

School principal and former Labour TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin has said that 25 per cent of young mothers in poorer areas suffer from maternal depression and 21 per cent of children in these areas go to school or to bed hungry. Therefore the number of children who experience one or more "risk factors" for neglect or abuse runs to hundreds of thousands.

It is obvious from the figures that there is no possibility everyone who has one or more of these issues, and is a parent, is coming to the attention of the social services. Nor should they – we cannot answer the risks to children from poverty, drug abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, mental illness and other issues by taking the children into care.

It is impossible to eliminate all risk and some children will grow up in families which are dysfunctional to some degree. Many will survive and even develop into strong, resilient individuals, as we know from literature and countless personal testimonies.

Others will be severely damaged by their experience and may even develop into sociopaths.

There will also be cases where children are removed from their families where there was an exaggerated perception of risk and placed in foster care where they do not thrive and may even be at risk of abuse. The foster placement might break down, leading to further instability and upset for the child.

Not all children in care thrive, as we know from the number of homeless young people who have spent time in care.

All this means is that the task of assessing the level of risk to a child and predicting its impact is a difficult one, requiring a combination of empathy, intuition and judgment honed by experience. These judgments are made by human beings and it is unreasonable to expect them to be always right.

Increasing the number of social workers alone will not solve these problems. Working with vulnerable families requires a high level of skill and commitment. Young inexperienced social workers simply do not possess the life experience much of this work demands.

In addition, the search for scapegoats every time something goes wrong and the need to defend one’s judgment in court makes this a challenging profession with a very high turnover.

Our Constitution protects the family, and the Supreme Court has ruled many times that a child should be reared within its own family, with removal from that family seen as a last resort.

This is not an Irish eccentricity – the European Court of Human Rights has also ruled that removing a child from its birth family must be a last resort and the prospect of reunification should be kept alive. Resources

This emphasis requires vulnerable families to be supported, and that requires resources.

How much resources are we prepared to put into family support, to reducing child poverty, to supporting parents with addiction problems, with mental health problems, with cognitive disabilities with housing difficulties?

And what level of risk to children are we, as a society, prepared to accept? If we wish to eliminate most if not all risk it will require a fundamental realignment of our priorities as a society.

If the rhetoric that accompanies every instance of child abuse that comes into the public domain is to mean anything we need an honest discussion of priorities and resources. There will be an opportunity for such a discussion when the 1991 Child Care Act comes up for review, as is planned.

It is to be hoped that the media and the public will devote as much attention to this as they do to outrage over individual instances of failure to protect children. Carol Coulter is director of the Child Care Law Reporting Project and adjunct professor of law at NUI Galway. She is a former Legal Affairs Editor of The Irish Times