LOOKING AFTER THE CHILDREN

 

The creation of 900 new permanent posts in child welfare services between 1993 and the end of this year is an important achievement. That so much remains to be done shows how low a place children occupied in the priorities of the State from its foundation. The State was pleased to hand vulnerable children over to the religious orders and then to turn its back on them. By the end of the 1960s, the practice of putting children into large institutions had been thoroughly discredited though nearly 30 years were to pass before the public learned the extent of the mistreatment which some children received in some institutions.

The falling level of institutional care was not, however, accompanied by a commensurate growth of interest on the part of governments in providing alternative services for children. The pleas of social workers and voluntary groups for a high political priority be given to vulnerable children were met with lip service but ignored in practice. Too often it was left to the prison system to do something with these youngsters. The cost in human suffering for their victims, themselves and the wider, increasingly fearful society has been high.

Today, it is their children, and sometimes their grandchildren, with which child care services try to cope. All too often they are overwhelmed. In Dublin, many cases of children reported as vulnerable lie in health centre files because social workers cannot get around to investigating them. The Eastern Health Board has found it difficult to recruit enough social workers to fill the new posts allocated to it. Father Peter McVerry who has demonstrated down the years that he knows what he is talking about speaks of children who must sleep rough or in Garda stations because there are too few emergency places.

To varying degrees, social workers throughout the country struggle with an absence of back up services and an absence of resources. Mentally handicapped children (whom it is too easy for us to forget in this context) compete for scarce services and too many get far less help than they and their families need. That £35 million has been put into child care services since 1993 is to the credit, in particular, of Mr Brendan Howlin who, as Minister for Health, won a commitment from Mr Albert Reynolds's cabinet to the expenditure of this money when the report of the inquiry into the Kilkenny incest case was published. Yet so much was left undone over the previous decades that far more is needed.

Mr Austin Currie, the Minister of State for Health, is preparing a new child care package to cover the years to the end of the century. A National Children's Authority should be a keystone of this plan. Such an authority could do much to cut through the confusion of responsibilities between various government Departments and local authorities. Mr Currie believes his regular meetings with civil servants from the Departments of Health, Education and Justice make such an authority unnecessary. But where are the fruits of these meetings between a junior Minister and a handful of anonymous civil servants? And has he not realised that the public will no longer buy the notion that our betters know best and should be left to sort everything out behind closed doors? A visible, accessible and powerful National Children's Authority is needed to cope with the tragic mess created by the indifference of politicians and senior civil servants over the decades.