Proposed amendment not an issue of child protection


OPINION:If you believe we are morally obliged to protect our most vulnerable citizens, vote No in this referendum, writes JOHN BYRNE

NEXT WEEK people go to the polls to vote on the 31st amendment to the Constitution.

In some respects this amendment has already been passed because the Yes campaign has done an excellent job of selling its agenda by dubbing this the “children’s rights referendum” rather then giving it its official title. A cynic might say that this was a cunning act of political manipulation. I say that it is unintentionally misleading, and it doesn’t tell the full story.

If the amendment is passed, it will further marginalise some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in Irish society, including victims of domestic violence, people with addiction/psychiatric difficulties, prison populations and the homeless.

The amendment proposes that if a child is deemed to be abandoned (after only 36 months) in care, then the State can make the decision to have the child adopted against the will of the birth parent. This is a proposal which shows no understanding of the reality of child protection services in Ireland and/or no regard for the birth parents of children in care.

In theory, when a child is taken into care, the State is supposed to place the child in a place of safety. Social workers are then supposed to help the parent and the child with whatever the presenting problem is.

The aim is always to reunite the family at the first opportunity and in the shortest possible period of time. In reality there are not enough social workers or placements in care for children, so services are fire-fighting all of the time, crisis managing a dysfunctional system that has never actually worked properly. If you are in any doubt about the reliability of this statement, please see the Prime Time Investigates programme In Harm’s Way, broadcast on May 12th, 2008.

The result is that in very many cases children come into care and as soon as they are settled, the social worker moves on to another crisis. Very little if anything gets done with the child or parent and the child invariably ends up drifting in care.

The parents’ difficulties are compounded because they are faced with the reality of not being able to parent their own child and they often deal with that the only way they know how, which is with alcohol or drugs. And so the problem gets worse instead of better.

Before anybody knows what is happening, months and years have passed and nothing has changed, the child has become part of the foster family (often referring to the foster parents as Mam and Dad) and there is virtually no hope of ever replacing them with his or her birth parents. Meanwhile, the life situation of the birth parents has become progressively worse as a result of their inability to cope, compounded by inadequate and/or dysfunctional State support services.

If this amendment is passed in its current form we are giving more power to a dysfunctional system to take children from some of the most vulnerable people in society. I am conscious that the popular view is that many of these people should not have children in the first place and that everybody should take responsibility for their own actions.

While I understand this perspective, it shows no understanding of the life experience of the birth parents of children in care, many of whom are victims of failed State care services themselves and have experienced the most horrendous of life situations.

I am not saying that children should not have rights, but giving one group more rights should not mean disadvantaging another.

Surely children’s rights should be equal to those of their parents, not greater than. On the issue of abandonment, it is impossible to know whether a child has been abandoned in care until we have sufficient support services to reunite them with their birth families.

If a birth parent has been given all of the supports that they need and the child is deemed to be “abandoned” then I absolutely support a system that allows the child to have a second chance at a “functioning” family, but only after everything has been tried and this has been independently verified. We are a long way from that situation at present.

It is not that long ago that some religious orders took a high moral ground in our society and encouraged birth parents to give their children up for adoption so that they would have a “better opportunity” in life.

In hindsight, we know they were wrong. Campaign groups are still struggling to get justice for the female residents of Magdalene homes who suffered as a result of this policy and were deprived of the right to be parents.

I have never (in 20 years) met a parent of a child in care who didn’t love their child. I have met very many that could not (at that time) care for them, but that is a different issue. There is no doubt that many of the parents of children in care have done terrible things but that doesn’t necessarily make them terrible people. It makes them people who need help and support, not punishment.

If you think that adult survivors of abuse, neglect and maltreatment should take full responsibility (without support) for all of their actions and be punished for their mistakes then you should vote Yes to the proposed amendment, but if you believe that we are a Christian society with a moral obligation to protect our most vulnerable citizens, then you should vote No and send this proposed legislation back for amendment.

Either way, you should be clear that this is not a child protection issue. There is already a very sound legal mechanism for protecting children in Ireland. It is the implementation of the existing legislation that is the problem.

John Byrne is a social care worker and lecturer in social care practice at Waterford Institute of Technology.

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