‘A clear break from the past’
This Government has sought to right the shameful legacy of past failings in a determined way
Minister Frances Fitzgerald: “I look forward to continued engagement with the Ombudsman for Children and her staff in achieving a shared vision.” Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
Making Ireland one of the best small countries in which to grow up and to raise a family is a key government objective. It starts with ensuring our children are protected and safe. Lest that be considered obvious, we must remember that for too long our society turned a blind eye to abuse and neglect. Children suffered. Our society and our institutions did not affirm the rights of our most vulnerable citizens to protection and advocate for them when they sought help. This Government has sought to right this shameful legacy of past failings in a way that is both determined and comprehensive.
Our response is not just focused on the past, it also looks to the future; as we seek to put in place policies to improve outcomes for all children and young people.
The goal is to ensure children’s rights are at the heart of decision-making and service delivery by this Government and by Irish society. Pursuing this goal has required the implementation of many unprecedented reforms, in terms of our Constitution, our laws and the services we provide or oversee. In some cases, the rights-based focus is evident. In others, it may be more nuanced; for example in reforming, enhancing services or delivering new initiatives aimed at promoting and ensuring specifics rights, such as the right to be protected or the right to play. Cumulatively these reforms and developments represent a clear break from the past in the depth and breadth of what we are seeking to achieve.
Within 18 months of coming to office, we held the long-awaited Children’s Referendum to strengthen the rights and protection of children in our Constitution. As a result, children in the decision-making framework have more visibility, and they must be considered in all relevant future legislation.
In recent days we have published the Children First Bill, to place the Children First guidelines on a statutory footing, to provide for mandatory reporting of child protection concerns; and to strengthen organisations’ obligation to safeguard children.
At the start of this year, we established the new Child and Family Agency, which represents the most comprehensive ever reform of child protection, early intervention and family-support services in Ireland. Another area where this Government has made a break with the past is the development of a child-focused youth justice policy.
The objective of ending the detention of children in adult prison facilities has been a consistent theme highlighted by the Ombudsman for Children since her establishment. The need has been recognised by successive administrations since at least the 1980s and there have been numerous attempts over the years to resolve it, but it is only now that the resources needed to resolve this issue have been allocated. Construction continues on a new, integrated, national children detention facility at Oberstown, Co Dublin. This €56m project is scheduled to deliver the first three units of residential detention places later this year which will enable the transfer of responsibility for 17-year-old boys from the adult prison system to Oberstown.
Since July 2012 no 16-year-old boys have been detained in St Patrick’s Institution, and the necessary legislative measures have been put in place to extend the remit of the Ombudsman for Children to deal with complaints from boys who are detained in prisons until that practice can end.
Our approach is not just confined to our response to past failings. It is at the heart of our plans for going forward; for our economy and our society. Our children and our young people are our nation’s future. This may sound clichéd but it remains fact. We have 1.54 million citizens aged 24 and under.
In recent days I launched a new national Children and Young People’s Policy Framework, which sets out a dynamic focus and approach to improving outcomes for children and young people when it comes to decision-making and the delivery and design of policies, programmes and services.
It sets out five national outcomes which we aspire to for all our children and young people and it maps out the cutting-edge transformational goals required to support better outcomes. This Framework sets out how we can deliver developments aimed at improving outcomes, in seeking to lift 70,000 children out of poverty and in responding to the growing centrality of social media and smartphones in our children’s lives and modern phenomena such as cyber-bullying and the increasing sexualisation of childhood.
The Ombudsman for Children plays a crucial role in investigating and challenging how services are delivered to all children and in promoting cultural change so that the rights of children are to the fore in all decisions. She has shown great vision and determination in establishing the Office and fulfilling the mandate .
Her Office has had a tremendously positive influence on the Irish political and administrative system and I also know that many other jurisdictions have learned from this success. I look forward to continued engagement with the Ombudsman for Children and her staff in achieving a shared vision – enhancing services in the best interests of future generations.