27th April 2012
Independent Senator Jillian van Turnhout on the exploitation of children in Ireland and the urgent need for reform
1. Is child protection a serious issue in Ireland?
Unfortunately, yes! In Ireland, we believe we value children and childhood, but the evidence proves otherwise.
Over recent years, we have been shocked by high-profile cases involving the extreme neglect and horrific exploitation of children.
• Nearly 25,000 cases of child abuse are reported every year and we are still struggling to deal with them effectively.
• More than 90,000 children live below the poverty line and nearly 20% go to school or go to bed hungry. Even more are forced to endure the winter without a warm winter-proof coat.
• 23,000 children are on hospital waiting lists for speech and language therapy.
• More than 150 children are inappropriately admitted into adult wards because of mental health problems.
Fundamental reform of Ireland’s child protection system is long overdue.
It is beyond regrettable that we have so many examples of bad practice to learn from and it’s high time that we move away from the rhetoric of the past towards realising children’s rights now for the future.
2. What are the urgent steps needed to improve our child protection system?
To ensure that each child is cherished and protected equally in Ireland, we must make children visible in our Constitution.
We have reached an important juncture in the promotion and protection of children’s rights, given that it is 20 years since Ireland ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
The UNCRC has recommended that children’s rights be strengthened in our Constitution. I therefore warmly welcome the commitment by the Taoiseach and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald TD, to hold a children’s rights referendum later this year.
3. What difference will an amendment to the Constitution make to children?
Strengthening children’s rights in the Constitution will make a real difference to children and families. It will put down an invaluable marker reflecting the values of Irish society and will serve as a foundation stone for making Ireland one of the best places in the word to be a child.
It will ensure that all children will be treated equally, regardless of whether their parents are married or not. It will provide an opportunity for hundreds of children, currently in a legal limbo, to be adopted by loving foster families, many of whom are blood relatives.
It’s vital that the proposed wording for the constitutional amendment specifies the principle of proportionality. The focus should be on keeping families together. However, in exceptional cases the State must be empowered to intervene in the best interests of the child.
4. Is the Government moving fast enough?
The strengthening of children’s rights in the Constitution was first discussed in the Oireachtas over 30 years ago and so it has been a long time coming!
Currently, we are waiting for the Government to publish their wording and set a date for the referendum later this year.
Concern has been expressed by a number of children’s organisations and in the media that the Amendment of the Constitution (Children’s Referendum) Bill is included under Section C of the Government’s legislative programme rather than as a priority Bill under section A.
I am hopeful this does not reflect a reduced commitment from the Government but rather its concern to get the wording right.
Indeed, while the issues themselves are straightforward enough, the wording of the constitutional amendment must be the best it can be to strengthen children’s rights, while also reflecting the important role of parents.
5. Has there been any significant progress?
A number of significant advances in child protection are being made. I fully endorse the positive steps made by the Government towards establishing the new Child and Family Support Agency, which when operational will come under the remit of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.
The new Agency has real potential to be a powerful vehicle for reform. I hope it will ensure greater integration between child welfare and protection and family support and will ultimately lead to better outcomes for children and their families.
I am also delighted by the recent announcements by both the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and the Minister for Justice and Equality on the introduction of new child protection and welfare measures.
The Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children and the Criminal Justice (Withholding Information on Crimes Against Children and Vulnerable Adults) Bill together represent a new, radical and long overdue approach to child protection in Ireland.
6. Is Ireland ready to embrace children’s rights?
Yes. In addition to cross-party consensus on the need for a constitutional amendment, polls conducted last year confirm that the majority of the public also in favour of it.
I am looking forward to the date being set for the referendum later this year and the opportunity for us to say, through the ballot, that each and every childhood counts.