Moved to outrage by apathy over child abuse


Dáil debate on Ryan report showed cynical indifference towards scale of problem, writes VINCENT BROWNE

THE MOTION the Dáil debated last Thursday and Friday on the Ryan report on residential child abuse included the almost clichéd resolve: “cherish all of the children of the nation equally”. The same motion acknowledged “the State has an obligation to ensure that children and young people in the care of the State receive the highest possible quality of care”. The motion was agreed unanimously without a vote. Brian Cowen concluded his speech with the words: “From this shame and evil, we will make Ireland a model of how to treat our children”. Several other deputies spoke in similar terms.

All very moving, apparently.

It would be all the more moving if it meant anything. Even meant something in relation to vulnerable children also in the care of the State. For the evidence is that it means very little if anything at all. The annual report for 2008 of the Mental Health Commission was published recently.

The report gives an insight into the real commitment of the State to children in its care, in contrast to the rhetorical blather manufactured to suit the occasion. The report recalls that “consistently” since its establishment in 2006, the commission has highlighted “the lack of sufficient child and adolescent in-patient and day centre hospital facilities”. This is for children suffering from mental health problems. The commission has repeatedly advocated that “the provision of age-appropriate approved centres for children and adolescents must be addressed as a matter of urgency”. There were nearly 400 admissions of children to psychiatric centres in 2008, an increase of 11 per cent on 2007. Almost two-thirds of the admissions in 2008 were to adult units and 10 per cent of these were children aged 15 or below.

Despite repeated demands by the commission and other mental health bodies, centres for children have not been made available on the scale required.

Of course the Government has cynically neglected the area of mental health. A commentary on the failure to implement Government policy on mental health, in the document A Vision for Change, published in 2006, states: “It is noteworthy that about a third of services, nationally, received neither commitment nor indeed new resources during the time of our survey (2006-2009). The €25 million funding set aside for this purpose would have been adequate, but that money was diverted away from the psychiatric services”.

This is taken from A Gloomy View: Rhetoric or Reality in relation to the Advancement of A Vision for Change by Siobhán Carry and Patrice Murphy on behalf of the faculty of clinical directors of the College of Psychiatry of Ireland. Among the most vulnerable children, inevitably, are casualties of this comprehensive neglect.

Among the children who supposedly are to be cherished, one in five lives in conditions that may be considered poverty-stricken, for instance, in families of four with an average income of €27,000 a year. The Central Statistics Office says “children continued to be the age group most at risk, with a rate of 19.9 per cent”.

One in 13 children lives in dire poverty, that is income poverty and lacking heat or adequate clothing or adequate footwear. Around 85,000 children also account for nearly 40 per cent of everyone in “consistent poverty”.

But what I find astonishing is the indifference to the findings of a report, funded by the Government, on the scale of child sexual abuse in society. From my reading of last week’s debate, no one mentioned the Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (SAVI) report published some years ago that revealed a shocking reality.

One in five women reported experiencing contact sexual abuse in childhood and one-quarter of these (ie, 5.6 per cent of all girls) reported to having been raped in childhood. One in six men (16.2 per cent) reported experiencing contact sexual abuse in childhood and 2.7 per cent of all boys reported having been raped in childhood. We are talking about over 100,000 women and around 57,000 men being raped in childhood .

Child sexual abuse is a gigantic problem and its scale has never been addressed. What is it that causes such denial? Only a tiny fraction of abusers (about 3 per cent) have been clerics and, this is not to let the Catholic Church off the hook, for in some respects it institutionalises abuse and, more generally, it covered it up.

But clerics are a small part of the problem. One-quarter of abusers are family members – usually not immediate family members – one-quarter are figures of authority, one-quarter are neighbours and one-quarter are strangers.

SAVI recommended initiatives to cope with the problem, but these were largely ignored. Dáil speeches about child protection from those who couldn’t be bothered to acquaint themselves with the rudimentary evidence on the scale of that abuse, are indeed moving. Moving us to outrage.

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