Fresh hopes for better child protection services


OPINION:The proposed child and family support agency will provide long-awaited and much improved services

LAST FRIDAY, the publication by Minister Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald of the report of the taskforce to establish the new child and family support agency marked a much under-reported watershed moment for children in Ireland.

At long last it offers hope that past mistakes by professionals in the protection of vulnerable children will not happen again. Sadly, and as we know with horrific consequences, it has taken 20 years since the Kilkenny incest case report of inquiry, led by Catherine McGuinness, recommended that those who have responsibility for the support and safeguarding of children be brought together under “one roof”.

This will now happen with the establishment of this agency.

However, despite the best intentions of the authors of the report (I being one of them), this new agency will only work if four basic conditions are put in place.

This is outside of the obvious need for more resources to fund services. Financial investment in the Irish childcare system is not a silver bullet and, in itself, will not solve the problem.

Firstly, we raise our children not just for our families but also for our communities and society as valued citizens. The protection of children has to be viewed as a community concern and not just that of social workers. All of us have to think more on the part we can play both in supporting and, where needed, safeguarding all our children.

Similarly, the needs and interest of vulnerable children and youth are not just the responsibility of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and there has to be joined up thinking by all governmental departments that impact on the lives of children. The role of the Department of Education is particularly noteworthy in this regard.

Secondly, if the agency is to work, failure by professionals to safeguard and support and “put children first” is no longer tolerable.

Since the Kilkenny incest report and right up to the recent report by Dr Geoffrey Shannon and Norah Gibbons into the deaths of children in care, there has been a consistent call for better co-operation between professionals including teachers and child and adolescent mental health services, and consistently it has been ignored.

Under the new agency there should be no more excuses and professional collaboration should not be seen as a lucky bonus for any child but a guarantee for him or her.

Where there is blatant failure or inaction, those responsible will have to be held responsible.

Thirdly, there is an urgent need for an enhanced street work service to be created that works directly on the street out of hours with vulnerable youth, particularly in parts of inner city Dublin.

This requires a full out-of-hours and weekend service from social workers, ideally, working in close collaboration with youth workers who have the direct work skills in engaging young people who resist or are reluctant to engage.

There is urgency in relation to this, which is obvious to anyone. If established and effective, this would be an early win for the agency and a very tangible sign of improved services.

This initiative, coupled with a need to ensure better outcomes for the more than 6,000 children who are in the care of the State, is an essential requirement.

Children in care in Ireland are being parented by the State and the same State has to be a better parent. This means we (indirectly) are the parents and we should want for children in care what any one of us would want for our own child – to be safe, nurtured, cared for and growing up with some degree of hope and happiness.

We need vastly improved in-care and aftercare services and these are needed now.

Last and by no means least (in fact almost firstly), if we want to ensure we have fewer children and youth in dire need, vulnerable and at risk of harm, investment in prevention and early intervention through effective family support is the one and only obvious solution.

By solely investing funding in services that attend to crisis situations, this will only bring more crises over time, resulting in the vicious cycle many families currently face. An investment rate of at least 20 per cent of funding in prevention and early intervention services is vital.

We are fortunate that, in part as a result of the recent investments by the Chuck Feeney-funded Atlantic Philanthropies in programmes such as Foróige’s Big Brothers Big Sisters youth-mentoring programme and Barnardos’ Wizard of Words literacy programme for younger children, there are proven programmes that work. Continued investment in these and similar successful initiatives is a vital ingredient in the future landscape of services in Ireland

Rather than seeing this as deckchair rearrangement, we have a very positive opportunity for better services for children and youth with the creation of the child and family support agency.

As the first full Minister with responsibility for children, Fitzgerald is to be commended for this and other initiatives she has taken since her appointment.

Let us not waste this once-in-a-generation opportunity, but embrace it positively. Our children will thank us for it.

PROF PAT DOLANis director of the Unesco Child and Family Research Centre NUI Galway and a member of the task force on the establishment of the child and family support agency.

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