Words to protect children must translate into action


OPINION:Having voted to amend the Constitution, we must each ensure that our State is a great place for every child.

Citing an urgent need for the reform of services for children and families in September 2011, I wrote “ . . . there needs to be a debate within Ireland that is centred on respect for the humanity of each child. We need to focus on the need for collective responsibility . . .”

Post-referendum it is for the citizens of Ireland to decide whether or not that opportunity has been taken. Ireland is a democracy and the people have spoken. Now there is a need for careful reflection and consideration of what the people have said.

The limitations of the debate on the children’s amendment, the low turnout and the close result of the referendum point to significant matters warranting deeper societal analysis.

An informed debate focusing on our responsibilities and our contribution to society can perhaps more easily flourish post-referendum rather than in the heat of electoral angst. Such debate is critical to decisions made for and on behalf of Ireland’s children. It takes a whole community, engaged and responsive, to keep a child safe.

I believe that everybody who voted last Saturday, and those who did not, wish to see children supported by loving families who set clear boundaries.

Our shared aspiration for children in Ireland is that they will fulfil their potential and be healthy in every aspect of their lives, physically and mentally. We want children to develop a keen sense of themselves through participation, through the projects they take on in the world. We want them to be optimistic and hopeful, valued contributors to the life of their communities. Seen, heard, listened to and respected.

There is much written about a strong correlation between child safety and the traditional marriage-based nuclear family. This argument has merit. However, while we wish every child to be supported in loving families there are families who struggle to support their children. There are occasions when families do not fulfil their obligations effectively and those within the nuclear and extended family are insufficiently vigilant.

I believe those engaged in support of struggling families need to be natural allies and more dependable partners, professionals who recognise that children in the vast majority of cases thrive best in families, professionals who always put children first.

Parenting is difficult

Families struggle and children are put at risk because parenting is difficult. Risk cannot be removed by policy and statute. Children are resilient but they are failed as a result of family breakdown, as the result of violence, as a consequence of the abuse of drugs and alcohol – all of which create circumstances of child-endangerment, resulting in children who need to be in State care because they are at risk, not children who are at risk because they are in State care.

The State must be supportive when appropriate, assertive when necessary. The legal system plays a pivotal role in protecting children. I believe the recently accepted amendment to the Constitution will help put a child’s right to protection at the centre of legal proceedings when welfare is the key consideration.

There have been, in the past, occasions when scrupulous fairness to others, the protection of personal and institutional reputations, jeopardised justice for the child. In balancing rights, sight cannot be lost of our obligation to protect children.

Vital next steps include the reform of the family court system, increasing as appropriate its openness and transparency, reducing worrying trends of family courts which have become too legally bound, too adversarial and not sufficiently focused on the interests of the child.

The adult world is very hesitant towards children and young people collectively. Children when consulted with respect provide common sense and wisdom. We must learn to listen to their voices, and consult them without laying on them the burden of decision-making.

The “Children First” guidelines need to be given statutory effect although this alone will not progress the change needed. It cannot be a case of “seek ye the State and the State will sort it out”.

There is a need for a model of child support that does not limit effectiveness to crisis interventions.

As chief executive of the first State agency dedicated to the needs of children and the support of families, I welcome the fact that the Child and Family Support Agency will not only have responsibility for child welfare and protection services. It will also look after community services such as psychology; services such as those provided by the Family Support Agency; educational services of the National Education and Welfare Board; and domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services.

The aim is to achieve an integrated, holistic approach to the delivery of effective, efficient and proportionate services. I am conscious of my responsibility to provide services which are timely and well integrated, and which offer support but do not promote dependency.

Much of the opposition during the referendum focused on the weakness of State provision. There is a need for a model of care that emphasises the personal, absolute and demanding responsibility on parents to care for their children.

Support for families

There is an obligation on community and society to support families in meeting their obligations. And there is a requirement for proportionate but authoritative State intervention when a child’s welfare is at risk, a State intervention that provides stability, security and compassion. Always Children First.

The soon-to-be-established Child and Family Support Agency will restore the credibility of child welfare services. It will also recognise that State intervention has severe limitations and ensure that the needs and interests of children are assertively pursued.

As consumerism is challenged, there is a real opportunity emerging to create a new set of values for society.

Every individual has a role to play in ensuring better and safer childhoods for children in Ireland and for ensuring that effective action is taken when things go wrong.

The recently passed amendment could be more than a form of words, it could be the catalyst for real change if that is the will of the people.

Gordon Jeyes is the HSE’s national director for children and families, and chief executive-designate of the Child and Family Support Agency

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