Kathy Sheridan: State should intervene if that means a decent childhood

Child Care Law Reporting (CCLR) Project report is hard to read without falling into a pit of despair

In what brutal universe are children neglected to the extent of being lice-infested, seriously underweight, unable to straighten their legs due to spending long hours strapped in buggies?

In what brutal universe are children neglected to the extent of being lice-infested, seriously underweight, unable to straighten their legs due to spending long hours strapped in buggies?

 

You need a licence to own a dog (€20) and a television (€160). It’s the law. As a car owner, you will have discovered that finding the €25 driving licence fee is the easy part. To earn it, applicants are required to find a State-approved driving tutor and complete 12 one-hour lessons; total cost about €400 (more if you fail the first time), plus the time invested in the sessions. Then comes the test; €85, please. Test completed, you then have to drive around for two years with a couple of very uncool N-plates stuck on the windows that say here comes the novice. For many who live in rural areas, a driving licence is essential for work and life. The Road Safety Authority makes no apology. A licence to drive is a privilege not a right, something that must be earned, it says.

In recent days, details from the final report of the Child Care Law Reporting (CCLR) Project, have prompted some in the child protection field to wonder quietly and not for the first time, why similarly uncool, demanding conditions are not attached to rearing a child. In what brutal universe are children neglected to the extent of being lice-infested, seriously underweight, unable to straighten their legs due to spending long hours strapped in buggies?

Care orders

The report is hard to read without falling into a pit of despair. Although, in practice, three-quarters of the respondents were said to be parenting alone- usually the mother, just a third of the cases named one parent as the sole respondent. Somewhere in that morass is a lot of feckless or vanishing fathers. Given that many of the mothers suffer from addiction, mental health and cognitive disabilities and – as if often the case – many were never properly parented themselves, what chance has the child?

The CCLR notes the disproportionate appearance of families from ethnic minorities, including Irish Travellers and African families, and their emphasis on parental authority, sometimes through physical chastisement.

A boy with a broken nose told gardaí his father had been hitting him repeatedly. A teenage Muslim girl said she feared her father would kill her, because he objected to behaviour such as going out at night with friends. That family later returned to their home country with the young children, leaving the girl in care here. Such behaviour is hardly unknown in the indigenous population. Some actually believe that this is the correct way to instil respect and discipline into a child.

These cases are the extreme end of the spectrum of course, and most are strongly linked to poverty of every kind. But our own experience tell us that plenty of children from more affluent homes experience poor parenting. It’s simply wrong to assume that all or even most parents have the knowledge and skills to ensure their child gets the best start in life.

Yet, as a State, we continue to rigorously train and test drivers, but trust to parental instinct to produce happy childhoods and well-rounded adults.

Some child protection professionals have concluded that ALL expectant parents should be obliged to undergo State-sponsored training, regardless of knowledge or skills. Since it would be a universal requirement, there would be no stigma. Some will quibble with the mandatory element. Couples who choose to marry in the Catholic Church accept the mandatory, weekend-long, pre-marriage course. Expectant parents routinely attend ante-natal classes and check-ups. And after that . . . ? A child’s future can as surely be destroyed by a parent as by a bad driver. Where does the common good lie? If the concept of children’s rights means anything, surely it extends to informing the soon-to-be primary educators of their responsibilities, woven into some high quality, non-invasive training in communication and practical strategies? But suppose an expectant parent decides that EastEnders trumps parental training?

Experiencing neglect

Some would go further and link such payments to regular school attendance, to ensuring a child turns up for immunisations or speech and language appointments. Perhaps, bonus payments could be offered instead.

And yes, any requirement linked to State benefits would allow the more affluent families off the hook, but creative approaches would have to be found. The other option is to do nothing. Try reading the CCLR report instead.

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