Cuts hinder any major reform of child services


Just as we are promising change, we are cutting the ground from under this generation

SENATOR JILLIAN Van Turnhout’s tweet said it all. Quoting a political correspondent who tweeted: “Report will give many TDs grey hairs and sleepless nights”, she commented, “Sadly the report in question is the Constituency Commission and not Child Deaths.”

Why is the country not in uproar over the deaths of so many young people? Is it because they are not “our” young people, but young people on the margins?

We have promises of 24-hour social work services, of “joined-up thinking”, of all sorts of reforms. Yet the bitter truth is that just as we are promising radical change, we are cutting the ground from under this generation, who are suffering cutbacks in every area that matters from education to parental support.

The area I know best is education. The report’s authors met with some family members, foster carers and professionals connected with the young people who died, and exclusion from school emerged as a major concern. There will, no doubt, be increased pressure on schools not to exclude young people even on the grounds of presenting a danger to others. How exactly will this be accomplished given the recent cuts? I know of two Deis (designated disadvantaged) schools that will lose five teachers each for the coming academic year.

Special needs classes and all class sizes will grow. So kids who are barely hanging in there will receive even less support than now. Just last week, further cuts were announced in special needs provision. The report on child deaths is littered with references to undiagnosed ADHD and dyslexia, or other learning disabilities that led to young people experiencing failure in school. Given the drop in provision for special needs, how is this going to improve?

Education at primary and secondary levels is often too late to effect change for some of these kids, anyway. There are far more references to alcohol abuse, and the resulting emotional abuse, than to educational failure.

Pointing out that it is “wholly unrealistic” to expect social workers or anyone else to remedy the damage done by alcohol to younger family members, the authors, Geoffrey Shannon and Norah Gibbons, say, “Failure on the part of society to comprehensively address the alcohol problem as a major threat to the proper functioning of individuals, families and communities is to leave child protection systems to deal with insurmountable consequences.”

Our utterly dysfunctional relationship with alcohol is something we just don’t want to face. Roy Keane may have been wrong to grumpily criticise Irish fans who continue to support their team even when they lose, but our “we’re here for the booze” attitude is a legitimate target for criticism in far more areas than football.

The authors welcome the upcoming children’s rights referendum, but the devil will be in the drafting. It is often suggested that the alleged priority given to parents’ rights in the Constitution has a chilling effect on social workers, but how does that explain the failure to keep records, or the rapid turnover of social workers on cases, or multiple care placements which break down again and again?

It was revealed this week that some parents beg, scream, get on their knees to find help. The alleged priority of parental rights in the Constitution get those parents precisely nowhere. Devlin Kavanagh’s courageous parents even revealed that he had been interviewed about sexual abuse without his parents present, and they were not informed for five weeks, while he was still in proximity to the alleged abuser.

People wanted Seán Brady to resign for interviewing a child without his parents present 35 years ago. Suggestions of resignations for actions in the last 10 years have not even arisen.

Not that scapegoating social workers will help. The authors suggest that the rapid turnover of social workers indicates burnout and poor supervision. They are critical of senior management, suggesting that they are weak and passive, an attitude which filters down, “causing a lack of urgency, a sense of helplessness, and a lack of a sense of responsibility”.

Ciara Conway, the Waterford Labour TD who worked until a few years ago as a social worker, had some important insights. She talked about the frustration and anxiety when a district justice with no training in children’s needs refuses to grant a supervision or care order, and the sleepless nights that ensue for the social worker. She referred to enormous resources being pumped into supporting parents, and when that fails, into putting the child into care, but rarely is the whole family unit supported.

When the focus is on the parents, the child is often not consulted. When it shifts to the child, the parental home is often left unsupported. Yet when children abscond from care, where do they head for? Home. She believes we need a holistic, area-based approach which recognises that the resources put into the first five years of a child’s life pay dividends again and again.

I have two great fears. Firstly, that the children’s rights referendum will be framed in a way that will weaken the rights of the majority of caring parents, without doing anything much about the minority of parents who fail miserably. Secondly, that the referendum will be treated like some kind of panacea, without real commitment to the kind of resources and supports needed in families, communities, education, social care and the justice system. I pray my fears are unfounded.

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