Children must be both seen and heard
Ireland has a poor record when it comes to children’s rights. In our political system children have long been set low on the list of priorities for Ireland’s leaders. This has been especially true for children who live in marginalised communities; communities struggling with disadvantage and all the difficulties that can bring - unemployment, poverty and crime. The State has failed to adequately provide for or protect children living in these communities. By Catherine Joyce of Barnardos
The systems in place have continuously shown that they are not meeting the needs of children. Children continue to struggle with access to crucial services and supports. They continue to be let down by a system that puts bureaucracy first and their needs second. In 2008, 6.3% of children (aged 0-17) continued to live in consistent poverty in Ireland, amounting to 65,270 children. In 2009 this went up to 8.7% or 91,954. That’s 26,684 more children the State failed in just one year. Sadly it is likely that this figure will increase again for 2010 and 2011. Barnardos estimates that this could rise to approx 150,000 by the end of 2011. How many more children are we going to allow fall victim to the recession before their childhoods and futures are prioritised by our politicians?
Barnardos wants to see a renewed and real political commitment to children. There is much to change. The challenge for the next Government will be in closing the gaps between rich and poor and policy and implementation that continues to make often good policies effectively meaningless. The last 15 years have seen endless reports with recommendations and resultant policy and strategy documents proposing and promising positive change. Barnardos recently welcomed the appointment of Gordon Jeyes as HSE National Director for Children and Family Services and certainly there is promise in the new role and restructuring now taking place. However more needs to be done to ensure that we make good on the promises of change we make to children. We need to rethink how we approach support systems for children and reform current systems and practices that simply don’t work for children.
Barnardos has four priorities for the next Government:
- We need to develop a National Programme for Prevention and Early Intervention:
This Programme must underpin a rethinking of our approach to policy development and implementation. They say that an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. We need to focus on prevention and early intervention services that aim to get in early and support children and families through difficulties before they become entrenched. These services have proven to have better outcomes for children and save the State money in the long run. Services based on prevention models are crucial to breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty and disadvantage.
- We need a child welfare and protection system that is accountable, transparent and consistent:
Recent years have proven the need for a full reform of our child welfare and protection system. One way to do this is to set up a new Department for Social Care to take responsibility for child welfare and protection services, family support services and services for other vulnerable groups of people including those with disabilities and the elderly. This Department would bridge that gap between policy and implementation of services on the ground, leading to greater consistency. How these services are to be delivered across the country must be based on a common set of values and principles, sufficient allocation of resources, regularly evaluated and independently assessed.
- We need to hold a Referendum on children’s rights in 2011:
The Constitution is at the heart of Irish law and represents the core principles that we as a nation stand for. The lack of clear, strong rights for children in the Irish Constitution highlights the lack of priority placed on children in Ireland. 2011 must be the year we make the Constitution stand for children. Any amendment proposed must ensure that the best interest of the child is always the paramount consideration in decisions that affect children’s lives and that the voice of the child is heard in all matters affecting them.
- We need to protect children in the recession:
Poverty is the root cause of many challenges facing children. The recession has compounded the difficulties for children living in poverty. Family incomes have been slashed by cuts to social welfare and increased taxation while cuts to public services have left many children without the support they need in health and education. We must make it our priority to protect children as we try to rebuild our economy.
Changes based on the State’s need to cut spending are foolish when they impact on children; they are inevitably short sighted and have long term implications for both children and Ireland.
Much of the political debate during the current election campaign has focused on jobs and the economy. Children haven’t been mentioned much though all the Parties have made tacit commitments to them in various ways. Barnardos particularly welcomes Fine Gael, Labour, Green Party and Sinn Fein commitments to hold a Referendum on children’s rights in 2011. All Parties have also made a commitment to introduce various specific child welfare and protection changes including legislative reform. Notably, both Fine Gael and the Labour Party have made commitments to reforming the system through the current structure of the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. The concept of the Office is a good one and it has achieved much for children over the last five years. However, the difficulty with the current structure is the lack of authority allocated to children. If we are to break from the legacy of the past, we must think bigger and better with regards to child welfare and protection. What is clear to us is that children and welfare and protection services must be represented at Cabinet level. They must not be relegated to a junior ministry.
All of the Parties have made various commitments to reduce child poverty and protect education, although they differ in their approach to the solutions needed. While the commitment to these issues is very welcome, what remains crucially important is the agenda driving change. Any changes to income supports, poverty reduction and education must be child centred and based on the best interests of children. All changes must be properly child proofed and poverty proofed if we are to avoid plunging more children into poverty. Changes based on the State’s need to cut spending are foolish when they impact on children; they are inevitably short sighted and have long term implications for both children and Ireland.
The potential for positive change is fundamentally based on what the Party or Parties elected to Government do when the time for action comes. What we need for children in Ireland is action. Children in Ireland have played second fiddle to the agendas of individuals, institutions and politics for too long. We need to radically re-imagine how we view children, their needs, rights and protection. We need to undo the legacy of a culture that silenced and sidelined children and act to undo that legacy as it is manifested in our laws, our policies and our practice. Election 2011 is an opportunity for a new dawn in Ireland where children are heard and respected. Our children deserve no less and have a right to expect much more.
Ask your local candidates to prioritise children in Election 2011: support Barnardos’ Stand for Children campaign at www.facebook.com/Barnardosireland
[Image top via LindaH on Flickr]