Economic crisis had serious consequences for thousands of Irish children
‘In March, 1,054 children in 471 families were homeless. Meanwhile, over 1,400 children are currently spending formative years of their lives in direct provision’
‘Their stories offer compelling insights into the negative impact gaps in services and system-oriented practices have on the lives of children and their families’. Photograph: Getty Images
As Ombudsman for Children I often return to the question posed by Eleanor Roosevelt, at an event at the UN in New York, during the 10th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1958: Where do human rights begin? Her answer remains compelling: “In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: the neighbourhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works...Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere.”
At a meeting in Geneva early next year the State will be held to account by a panel of international children’s rights experts for its efforts since 2006 to give meaning to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) in the small places of children’s daily lives in Ireland. This will be the third such meeting between the government and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child since Ireland ratified the UNCRC in 1992.
Ahead of it the UN committee will consider a Government report and alternative accounts prepared by my office, in its capacity as an independent human rights institution for children, and civil society organisations.
In a presentation to the committee this June, I will suggest the realisation of children’s rights in Ireland is an unfinished project. Some progress has been made since 2006. Among the positive moves is a constitutional amendment, approved by the people in 2012, which affirms the natural and imprescriptible rights of all children and places children’s views and best interests at the centre of court proceedings regarding care, adoption, guardianship, custody and access.
There have been legislative developments on key issues affecting children, including family relationships and school admissions. A senior Minister for Children and Youth Affairs has been appointed and a Department of Children and Youth Affairs established. A national policy framework to guide development, co-ordination and implementation of policies and services for children has been published. There is a dedicated Child and Family Agency, with statutory responsibility for child protection and welfare services. A free pre-school year has been introduced.
A new national children’s hospital is due to be built. A phased cessation to detaining young people under 18 in prison is under way.
None of these welcome developments is a panacea, however, and some are less than optimal. Moreover, the economic crisis that has beset Ireland for much of the period has had serious consequences for thousands of children. The most recent available data indicate 138,000 children are living in consistent poverty.
Despite the efforts of many professionals to deliver effective services, resource deficits have contributed to protracted delays in dealing with child protection concerns and impeded children’s access to vital health services and education supports.
One-third of young people requiring in-patient care for mental health difficulties are still being accommodated in adult facilities. In March of this year, 1,054 children in 471 families were homeless. Meanwhile more than 1,400 children are spending formative years in direct provision, in conditions that inhibit their potential to thrive and curtail full enjoyment of basic rights.
A deficit in resources, however acute, does not adequately account for shortfalls in Ireland’s protection of children’s rights.
A State that respects human rights is one that prioritises the human rights of its citizens, including children, in budgetary, legislative and administrative decision-making. Failings in this regard are evident in different areas of public administration concerning children where policy implementation has dominated over children’s rights and best interests. Such practices are easily recognisable in the first-hand accounts of children and parents whose complaints my office has examined, and which I am bringing to the UN committee and publishing in A Word from the Wise.
Their stories offer compelling insights into the negative impact gaps in services and system-oriented practices have on the lives of children and their families. The stories illustrate why it is essential to develop a culture of child- friendly public administration in Ireland where the rights and best interests of children are a primary consideration.
Creating a society where all children can fully enjoy their rights takes time. Recommendations issued by the UN committee following its meeting with the Government next year will assist what has to be a consistent, concerted and collective effort by the State to bring children’s rights into the “small places, close to home”.
Dr Niall Muldoon is the Ombudsman for Children. He is a registered counselling and clinical psychologist who has worked in child protection for almost 20 years.