Ireland that allows child abuse is not a Republic

The Ryan report published this year revealed horrific and "endemic" child abuse by clergy into whose care children were entrusted. Details of equally horrific abuse, concealed for decades by four Catholic archbishops of Dublin, are emerging this week from the report of the Commission set up to enquire into abuse within the archdiocese. Yet child abuse continues today in many forms, and twenty years after the inception of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Irish government has been criticised by child welfare groups for abdicating its responsibility to children.  By Deirdra O’Regan.

Twenty years after its inception, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is not operational in Ireland, the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) says.  The organisation has been joined by the Office of the Ombudsman for Children, Barnardos and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in calling for an end to the exquisitely poor state of child welfare in Ireland.

The “endemic” abuse revealed in the Ryan report shocked and horrified a nation and left an indelible stain on the history of the state.  However, a great number of children in Ireland still suffer today with poverty, physical, mental and sexual abuse, and mental health issues. 

The ISPCC is not alone in its calls for reform, in recent months the Office of the Ombudsman for Children, Barnardos and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul have also expressed concern at the poor, and deteriorating, state of child welfare in the country. 

Separated Children
Separated Children living in Ireland’, a report released last week by the Office of the Ombudsman for Children, exposed a number of failings and deficiencies in the care the state affords to separated children.  The report revealed that 124 young people under 18 years of age were living in seven unregistered hostels in Dublin, with no access to care staff after 5pm. The report further found that 419 children have gone missing from State accommodation in the last 10 years, and have not been found.

The care provided in such unregistered hostels is inferior to that which is provided to Irish children in residential care, says Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan.  Logan says that “separated children are entitled to the same treatment and rights as nationals or resident children.” Speaking on Primetime last Thursday, Fergus Finlay of Barnardos criticised the use by the HSE of a “for-profit” system of care for separated children. He said that if Ireland continues to fail to protect its children, it does not deserve to be called a Republic.

The HSE has said that it will seek to “ensure there is no differentiation of care provision, care practices, care priorities, standards or protocols between both groups of children”. By December 2010, the HSE says the remaining hostels will be replaced by alternative residential care.

Child Sexual Abuse

Official statistics on child sexual abuse reveal little about the actual levels and patterns of child abuse since only the most severe cases are reported, therefore masking the true extent of the problem. However, the statistics which are available are shocking. One in three women and one in four men have reported some level of sexual abuse in childhood. Statistics produced by the Rape Crisis Centre say that in 86 per cent of child abuse cases, the abuser is likely to be well known to the family, if not a family member. Furthermore, the least likely of all sexual abuse to be reported to the Gardaí is abuse of a child by a family member. Sixty per cent of people abused in Ireland in childhood were abused for longer than a year.

A report by Barnardos published last month called for the government to make greater attempts to combat child abuse, particularly sexual abuse.  The charity called for the establishment of a dedicated and highly visible paedophile investigation unit within the Gardaí and amendments to the Data Protection Act which would make it a criminal offence for anyone to misrepresent themselves as a child when in contact with children through electronic media.

Despite the fact that Irish youth suicide rates are the fifth highest in the EU and that it is estimated that at any one time there are 100,000 children in Ireland suffering with mental health issues, child and adolescent mental health services remain under-resourced and under-developed. According to an investigation by the Irish Independent in March of this year, the HSE is consistently failing to meet its targets in relation to mental health care for children, particularly with regard to staffing and bed supply. There has also been significant criticism of the failure to implement the mental health policy document, A Vision for Change, and of the fact that children are inappropriately admitted to adult psychiatric units. Also that children with behavioral and mental health problems are detained in prisons and places of detention rather than receiving proper treatment within the health service.

A performance-monitoring review presented recently to the HSE’s executive board revealed that more than €100 million, which was designated in the 2009 budget for new services for children with mental health problems, had still not been spent in June of this year.  This included funds for suicide-prevention programmes, services for children with mental health problems, and disability assessments for school children. The fact that the HSE had still not been sanctioned to spend the money, more than half way through the year, has led to accusations that much of the money may be diverted into other areas of the health service.

Child Poverty
Organisations such as Barnardos and the End Child Poverty Coalition have voiced their concern in recent weeks that the recession and subsequent budget cuts are increasing child poverty levels. Irish child poverty rates are already high by European standards, the sixth highest according to a 2008 European Council and Commission study. However, there are fears that a cut in child benefit could further increase this.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul indicates an increase of up to 36 per cent in the number of requests for assistance over the first six months of 2009; most of these requests come from families with children. However, child poverty is not just a product of the recession. EU-SILC statistics from the CSO show that one in nine children in Ireland lived in consistent poverty in Ireland in 2006. That translates to almost 114,000 children deprived of basic necessities such as warm meals, a winter coat, and heating at home.

A summary of the current situation in Ireland:

  • 24,680 referrals to the HSE relating to child protection and welfare last year
  • 9.4 per cent increase in child abuse cases last year
  • 20 per cent of children placed in care do not have an allocated social worker
  • The gaps in vetting procedures, and the management and treatment of sex offenders between the North and South of Ireland continue to grow making ROI a safe haven for those who seek to harm children
  • Teenage mental health issues continue to grow; mental health services for children are underdeveloped, with a lot of children being placed in adult facilities
  • In 2008, 247 children in Ireland were admitted to adult in-patient units.  Five to 10 per cent of the mental health budget is spent on children’s mental health services, despite children making up one quarter of the population.

The ISPCC has also expressed concern at the substantial increase in demand for its services in 2009. According to the ISPCC, “Ireland has, and is, failing its children”.   Ashley Balbirnie, CEO of the ISPCC, said:  “With the December budget looming, families and children alike are fearful and distressed, and ultimately their ability to cope will be tested further. More families will need help and support as fewer resources are being provided to families from the statutory authorities. The provision of preventative services is completely under resourced as the HSE evidently cannot even cope with the level of high risk cases being referred to their services”.

The welfare of children in Ireland is protected under a plenitude of domestic legislation but by far the most important legal instrument in relation to young people is the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is because, having ratified the Convention, the Irish Government are bound by Article 4 which states, “States Parties shall undertake all appropriate legislative, administrative, and other measures for the implementation of the rights recognized in the present Convention”, meaning government have an obligation to bring domestic legislation into line with the provisions of the Convention.

The ISPCC emphasises the importance of the Convention stating that they “believe that in order to better protect children and ensure recognition and equality of rights, we need to see the full implementation of the UNCRC, legislative change and a constitutional recognition of children’s rights.”

However, Ireland has failed to fulfil its obligations under the UNCRC. Ireland has submitted two reports to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, in 1996 and 2005.  The Concluding Observations by UNCRC on Ireland's Second Report can be found here. 

Committee Recommendations include:

  • “ a matter of priority, undertake all necessary measures, including the allocation of resources to enact the outstanding provisions in the relevant Children Acts for the protection of children’s rights. The Committee encourages the State party to take further action to incorporate the Convention into domestic law.”
  • “Establish specific timeframes for the implementation of the goals and activities of the Strategy; and...Provide specific budget allocations for the implementation of the Strategy.
  • “Undertake an extensive review of the support services provided under the different governmental departments to assess the quality and outreach of these services and to identify and address possible shortcomings; and...Extend the social work services provided to families and children at risk to a seven day, 24-hour service.”
  • “Ensure that all reported cases of abuse and neglect are adequately investigated and prosecuted and that victims of abuse and neglect have access to counselling and assistance with physical recovery and social reintegration; (c) Develop a comprehensive child abuse prevention strategy, including developing adequate responses to abuse, neglect and domestic violence; facilitating local, national, and regional coordination, and conducting sensitization, awareness-raising and educational activities”.
  • “Adopt all-inclusive legislation that addresses the health needs of children;
  • ...Ensure that availability and quality of health care services are maintained throughout the country by providing targeted resources and by establishing statutory guidelines for the quality of these services”.

Ashley Balbirnie commented: “[The] ISPCC is disappointed that twenty years down the line, the UNCRC is still not fully operational in Ireland and we believe that further reform is needed in this area as a matter of priority”.

The full text of the Convention is available here

Watch ISPCC’s ‘Voiceless’ video here