Ideological divide failing children at risk

There are some hard questions to be asked about our treatment of children, especially those most at risk

There are some hard questions to be asked about our treatment of children, especially those most at risk. It is an area where neither left nor right has covered itself in glory.

Left-wing thinking, which has dominated the area of social work, has consistently played down or ignored the importance of family. Indeed, sometimes it has been positively hostile, alleging that the traditional family is a bastion of patriarchal oppression of women. As a result, it has devalued the most valuable resource for the protection and rearing of children.

The right, while promoting marriage, has often not been willing to admit that some families are far from ideal. It has also frequently failed to acknowledge the built-in injustices of a system where children's prospects can be predicted based on where they are born.

Then you have the nouveau right who don't give a tuppenny damn for family values but who proclaim that they were able to drag themselves out of "real" poverty and everyone else should be able to do likewise.


It is time to transcend these ideological divides and think about what is best for children. We desperately need not just emergency action but long-term planning and policies designed to support families.

Mr Justice Peter Kelly has become justly famous for championing the rights of the young people who appear in court before him. They have ranged from a suicidal 14-year-old, to a 15-year-old girl who had been ensnared in prostitution by "some truly evil people".

The more appalling the history of these young people, the more likely Mr Justice Kelly is to be forced to place them somewhere completely unsuitable, such as the Central Mental Hospital or St Patrick's Prison. This has led him to order the Department of Education to build high-support units. The fact that proper facilities do not exist is a disgrace and the David and Goliath aspect of the story ensures that it is receiving its due share of media attention.

It is scandalous that policy on children in danger has to be driven by a determined High Court judge. Why are so many young people in need of high-support care, and what kind of a system are we operating which fails so many?

Ironically, the emphasis on high-support units, necessary as they are, is distorting further a system which was already buckling. Foster parents in the Wexford area were disturbed when advertisements appeared in the local paper for "High Support Family Placements".

When the foster parents asked what was going on, they were told that this was a new project stemming from Judge Kelly's demand that the State provide high-support units, and that these family placements would have the support of a social worker, a childcare worker, a child psychologist and other staff, plus training for the parents and a generous allowance.

Existing foster carers have no such support network. They earn the princely sums of £68 to £75 per week per child for taking children into their homes. One foster mother was told she was 48th on a list of cases awaiting assignment to a social worker.

Naturally, foster parents are disillusioned. They do not begrudge this high-support care to needy children. Yet they know that they are dealing with the children who may well end up in these high-support units because foster placements often break down when official support is lacking.

This is not a criticism of individual social workers, many of whom are overworked and overstretched, but of a system which is crisis driven.

OUR priorities are skewed if we are pouring money into high-support while neglecting the very resources which will prevent children needing such support. Look at the pittance we pay family support workers or the lack of funding for the Community Mothers scheme. The latter involves experienced mothers imparting valuable parenting skills to younger mothers.

Why are so many children ending up in care? Few want to face up to that hard question. According to Health Statistics 1999, 67 per cent of children who ended up in foster care in 1996 were from single-parent or separated families. Yet to conclude that we need a push to promote the idea of stable two-parent, preferably married, families is to risk being labelled as someone who wishes to stigmatise lone parents.

It is true that a careful balance is needed here. Single parents are often successful in circumstances which would defeat many couples. Children are precious no matter what circumstances they are born into and they all have a right to our support.

But the implications of study after study are inescapable. In general, children do better in almost every way when they are in a stable, two-parent family. If we are to put the rights of children first, we have to acknowledge where children thrive best. But across all Government departments where are the practical policies, including economic policies, to promote stable families?

The kind of family breakdown which we see so often in poor areas is exacerbated by a mainstream culture of consumerist individualism which begrudges the redistribution of wealth necessary to tackle long-term unemployment and social exclusion. That same culture tells many young working-class men that they are useless. The shift from an economy based on the manufacture of goods to one based on information and services has left them without hope of meaningful employment. We need targeted and focused intensive training which would allow them to access real jobs.

They are also made to feel superfluous to requirements in a social welfare system which practically forces fathers to live apart from their children because the mother can be 25 per cent to 30 per cent better off if he does not live with her. What we really require is vision combined with structural change. As Roisin Shortall said in the recent debate on the Children Bill we need a "Department of Children which could cut through the ridiculous red tape created by the current administrative structures".

It is a start to assign a junior minister to children but he or she does not sit at the Cabinet table and has no budget. We need integration of the services at all levels so that people do not have to traipse from health to justice to social welfare to education to access their entitlements.

We also need a change in mindset so that professionals in each of these areas begin to share knowledge with one another.

The Children Bill 1999, which deals with children once they come to the attention of the social services or the Garda, is a good start, but only that. Without a coherent, child-centred policy we are doomed to go on picking up the pieces of young lives which should never have been shattered.