State needs to raise its game on welfare of children


OPINION:The constitutional amendment on children’s rights will be of limited benefit unless institutional mediocrity is tackled, writes CONOR BRADY

AS MUCH as anything can be certain in public affairs, it is likely that the 31st amendment to the Constitution – the children’s referendum – will be convincingly carried when the people vote on November 10th.

I shall vote Yes. The amendment will at least notionally bring us into closer alignment with the more interventionist values that underpin child welfare in societies such as Denmark, generally accepted as best-practice models.

But a disquieting aspect of the public dialogue as we approach referendum day is the general silence on the other aspects of the child welfare reform programme that were outlined by Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald earlier in the year.

The amendment was promulgated as part of a suite of measures to include the establishment of the new Child and Family Support Agency (CFSA), the recruitment of additional care workers and the streamlining of practices to ensure consistency and accountability.

This multilayered approach reflected a recognition by the Minister that merely putting new words into the Constitution was not going to save a single child at risk. The State has to raise its game very significantly in the operation of child welfare services on the ground.

The Report of the Independent Child Death Review Group, published in June, reviewed the cases of 110 children who died of “unnatural causes” while in State care between 2000 and 2010. It revealed an appalling catalogue of incompetence, evasion, failure in basic procedure and abdication of duty on the part of some so-called professionals in the front line of child welfare and among some of their supervisors.

Gordon Jeyes, then the Health Service Executive’s national director of child and family services, and now the chief executive of the upcoming CFSA, has since stated that while some disciplinary action had been taken, it had not happened in all cases, “though it should have”. If the culture of tolerance and slovenliness is not eradicated, the new agency is doomed.

It must break with the inheritance in this regard from the HSE. If the standards of performance and supervision on the ground do not change, the referendum will be an exercise in futility.

We do not have a great track record as a State in delivering always on the laudable aims that we set down with great solemnity in our legal framework. We are better at promising than doing.

We created elaborate and high-sounding regulatory institutions to supervise our banks. But they didn’t do so. We set down good building standards but we have the residents of Priory Hall banished from their unsafe, jerry-built homes. We add penalty points for breaches of road traffic law that are never enforced anyway. We beggared the people, promising to renew the banks, but nothing much seems to have changed for businesses seeking cash flow.

There is no guarantee, having passed the amendment and told ourselves that we have “done the right thing”, that anything in practice will actually change. We have a long record of announcing the “transformation” of public services that, in reality, just carry on much as before.

I am hopeful rather than confident that things might be different this time. Frances Fitzgerald has shown that she well understands that the task in hand has to go beyond noble aspirations. She knows that in spite of 17 major reports to government since 1980 the delivery of services has been inconsistent, often incompetent and sometimes scandalously uncaring.

I am hopeful too because the head of the CFSA has a reputation as a skilled manager and leader who comes from a tradition that does not tolerate excuses from those with whom he works. Fergus Finlay of Barnardos has likened Gordon Jeyes to General Ulysses S Grant, who was picked by Abraham Lincoln to get results – which he did – when the tide of the American civil war was running against the north.

Jeyes has already shown a refreshing streak of independence. He has described the culture of the HSE in relation to child welfare as “appalling”. He has described the bar on recruitment to the public service as “daft”. And he has indicated that while he recognises the difficulties faced by staff working with reduced resources, this will not be an excuse for failure in duty.

He will have to be adroit and brave. The bulk of the personnel with whom he will work will transfer directly from existing services when the CFSA opens for business in 2013. He has to bring them with him.

But he also has to make it clear that for the future there will consequences for those who fall short of required professional standards, who do not adhere to required procedures or who take short cuts with the welfare of children.

Prof Pat Dolan of the Unesco Child and Family Research Centre at NUIG and a member of the advisory taskforce set up by Frances Fitzgerald, set out a number of things that are necessary if the CFSA is to be a success.

It needs some additional resources. But more so, he writes, there needs to be “joined-up thinking” among the Government departments involved in child welfare. In particular he cites the need for the Department of Education to review its procedures.

He argues for an enhanced “street work” service; there must be early crisis intervention and more family support; and there must be no tolerance of failure by professionals, which, he says, has been “consistently ignored”.

Fergus Finlay put in another way. “There are parts of the HSE,” he wrote, “where child protection, and the national standards around it, has been seen as an a la carte menu. If there are tasks they don’t feel like doing, they don’t do them.”

The “elephant in the room” when we talk about child welfare in Ireland has been the tolerance of institutionalised mediocrity. It must not be ignored while we focus on the grandeur of Bunreacht na hÉireann and congratulate ourselves – as we have tended to do in the past – on the wisdom and humanity of our decisions.

Conor Brady was editor of The Irish Times from 1986 to 2002

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