The Children's boss

Ex-nurse and 'kid-friendly person' Emily Logan, Ireland's first Children's Ombudsman, is a persistent critic of Government policies on childcare and outspoken on child sexual abuse. By John Byrne.

The first panel that grilled her for the job was made up of six children and was chaired by an 11 year old girl. They may have noted her MBA from UCD, the years of management experience gained in one of London's premier hospitals, the impressive CV that included Directorships of Nursing at Crumlin and Tallaght hospitals. But what probably struck the 18 children (and the three adults) who interviewed Emily Logan for the job as Ireland's first Ombudsman for Children was her attitude to young people.

"It was a new experience in terms of interviews, but the sense of directness was refreshing," she said. "Adult interviews are quite contrived, you give the usual answers. But this was different. One girl asked me if I could give an example of situation where I had listened to children's views about something where the children didn't agree with the adult view. She asked me how I felt about dealing with it. If it had been an adult environment, I probably would have said something like, 'Oh, it was very challenging,' and all that kind of stuff. But I found myself saying that I was really tired and exhausted afterwards, so there was a kind of an honesty about it that you don't always get in an adult situation."

The children liked her. She got the job.

It was ten years ago that Fine Gael's Austin Curry suggested Ireland should have an Ombudsman to promote children's rights, and eight years since the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called for the appointment. The latter pointed to the lack of a comprehensive policy on childcare in Ireland, the low age of criminal responsibility, and the lack of any measures to ensure that children maintained contact with both parents after divorce. Children's rights organisations and Father Peter McVerry called for action, but nothing was done. Eventually in 2002, legislation was put in place for the office.

By her own admission, Emily Logan was not the most obvious candidate for the job. "I knew I could do it, but there were lots of people in Ireland who had been in the country much longer than I had, so I was surprised that I got it for that reason." She had spent 11 years as a paediatric nurse working in London, mostly in the prestigious Great Ormond Streeet Hospital. Limerick born and Dublin raised, she had gone straight from school in Manor House in Raheny to Temple St hospital to train as a children's nurse in 1982. She had some key formative experiences here.

"I remember, at the age of 18, seeing a child coming in to Temple St having been burned. It was what we called an NAI – a non-accidental injury. As a child, I wouldn't have been used to seeing children in those kinds of situations. It was a real eye-opener. In terms of developing a passion, or a sense of injustice, it began there, where I was seeing children who were being mistreated."

Having completed her training in Ireland, she left for London. She found the restrictive culture in Irish hospitals difficult to deal with, and enjoyed the sense of autonomy and responsible that was bestowed on nurses in the UK system. She intended staying for six months. She left after 11 years. She moved quickly up the ranks in Great Ormond Street, becoming a ward sister at the age of 26. Colleagues would have noted her directness, her intelligence and her sense of humour. She moved into senior management in Great Ormond Street Hospital in London in 1990, and eventually returned to Ireland in 1997. The industrial relations environment in Ireland, absent in the UK because of the Margaret Thatcher era, was something she was unused to and she did a mediation diploma to bring her up to speed. She was made Director of Nursing in Crumlin Hospital in January 1998. That was followed by two years as head of nursing in Tallaght Hospital.

She was appointed as Ombudsman for Children in April 2004. Her first year was spent acquiring a premises and recruiting staff. She used children to help her interview her eight staff. Since then, she has been a persistent critic of the Government, and outspoken on Anti Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) and mental health services for children. She did a highly critical report based on complaints to her office about the HSE's services for children or parents reporting sexual abuse. She was influential at a recent Oireachtas Committee on children's welfare, securing a public advert asking for people's views on a review of the Government guidelines on child protection – Children First – and widening the scope of a Government awareness campaign on children's welfare.

The main issue facing Irish children now is the legal status of children in the Constitution. "The recent amendments to the Children's Act are fundamentally routed in the fact that we don't believe that children are equal, we don't actually believe they should be given rights as individuals. In the Constitution, they're seen as part of the family. When you talk to children, they say that family is very important to them, but their definition of family is different to the one in the Constitution. To them, the family is the person who loves them and provides them with a caring environment. It's not necessarily the constitutional definition of two parents who are married living in a house."

"Emily Logan has done a fantastic job," says Fergus Finlay of children's charity Barnardos. "She has the kind of a personality to make a difference. She's straightforward, has an air of decency, and is a kid-friendly person.

"I was up there [at the Ombudsman's Office] and the place was swarming with children. The main problems facing her will be funding for her office (the office is underfunded when compared to the international standards), and maintaining the independence of her office from Government."

Despite her passion for children, Emily Logan, who is married, has none of her own. But that doesn't matter, she laughs."People tell me that's a good very good thing because it helps me keep my idealism about children."

Additional reporting by Emma Browne