IT IS ESSENTIAL THAT WE PUT OUR CHILDREN FIRST
Norah Gibbons, Director of Advocacy, Barnardos
On 28th September 1992, Ireland ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention, then just four years in existence, outlines the responsibilities of state parties to protect and promote children’s rights through their laws, policies and practice. There is no doubt that we have come a long way with regards to children’s rights in the last 20 years. In 1992, Ireland was just at the very beginning of our climb towards the Celtic Tiger. The Child Care Act 1991 was in its infancy and was transforming the powers of health boards to intervene on behalf of children at risk of abuse and neglect. In 1992 (as per the 1991 Census), Ireland’s population was 3,525,719. Children comprised over 34% of this, amounting to 1,212,380 children. 20 years on our population is now 4,581,269, and children aged 0-18 comprise over 26% of this, amounting to 1,206,527 children.
The Shameful Failure
The year following our ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Justice Catherine McGuinness published her landmark investigation report into the Kilkenny Incest Case. The report clearly outlined the gaps in the system that allowed abuse and neglect of children to go unchallenged throughout the State. In the intervening decades numerous other reports have outlined our shameful failure to challenge cultural and societal norms that too often left children to fend for themselves against horrors many of us would be incapable of coping with. The Ferns, Monageer, Ryan, Murphy, Cloyne, Roscommon and most recently, the Independent Child Death Review Group, reports all reflect the value Ireland placed on its most vulnerable children in the past. They were cast out of normal society, abandoned by State structures that were unable to adequately respond to what was happening and ignored by Irish society at large, because we did not know and did not want to know what was happening. We have not had that excuse for many years now and the progress we have seen in recent years is testament to many dedicated social workers, policy makers, politicians and others who have fought hard for lasting change in the area of child welfare and protection.
Progress has been encouraging
As we assemble here in Glenties in 2012, approaching the 20th anniversary of our commitment to enshrining the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, I am encouraged by the strides we have made to finally put in place a child welfare and protection system that is fit for purpose. Many of the recommendations of Justice McGuinness’ report are now, finally, close to being implemented through legislation including the Children First Bill and policies including the Child Welfare and Protection Practice Handbook and the development of a child protection register. Most importantly, the Irish public will be given the opportunity to vote on a referendum to strengthen children’s rights in the Constitution this autumn, marking what will hopefully be a new era for our State in how we respect, value and protect children.
In addition, the proposed establishment of the Child and Family Support Agency, announced formally last week, marks, for the first time in Irish history, our joint commitment to put in place a distinct body solely dedicated to working with and for families and children to improve family support and protect children at risk of abuse and neglect. In 1992, Justice McGuinness commended the introduction of the Child Care Act 1991 but recognised the urgent need to ensure the proper resources were available to ensure its full implementation. 20 years later, this is still something we have failed to do. The recent Report of the Independent Child Death Review Group, which I wrote with child law expert Geoffrey Shannon, proves that we haven’t quite cracked the challenges of child welfare and protection yet. There are many lessons I took from the tragic stories contained in the case reports we read but, of all, none made the same impact on me as those cases where concerns about children were known but not acted upon – where children were left in horrendous situations until it was too late to really help them in a meaningful way. The lives of those children whom we failed must be honoured through a renewed commitment to getting it right this time.
We have failed to adequately invest in our children
We have learned much from our past and we have put much of that learning into practice. The Report on the Task Force on the Child and Family Support Agency was published last week and many of its recommendations reflect that learning. The report, if implemented, will transform services for children and families and will set Ireland on a new course with regards to child welfare and protection. However, it is now time to put our money where our mouth is, so to speak. The new Agency must be provided with the necessary resources to ensure it can do its job properly. Notwithstanding the economic climate facing the country, we have choices to make about how we use our resources and nothing can be considered more important than investing in the childhoods of Ireland’s future adults. There is endless evidence that proves the economic sense inherent in investment in prevention and early intervention. I don’t need to expound it here. The point is that, despite many reports outlining previous failures and recommendations for how we can do better, we have been slow to back up our vision for children in meaningful ways. We have failed to adequately invest in them. We need to ask ourselves where we want to be in another 20 years. And then we need to really think about how we spend the increasingly restrained resources we have to prioritise our investment in our greatest assets.
Child Poverty is complex and challenging
One of the greatest challenges in the establishment and work of the new Agency will be its role in combating the impact of intergenerational poverty on children in Ireland. There is a significant crossover between child welfare and poverty. While it is obvious that child abuse can and does occur in families across the full spectrum of socio-economic background, it is undeniable that welfare issues are often exacerbated by the deprivation and disadvantage experienced by children, families and communities. Child poverty is a complex and challenging issue. No one is under any illusions that eradicating it will be an easy task. However, it is undeniable that, to date, Ireland has failed to adequately address child poverty in any meaningful way.
In 2002, the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and the then Minister for Social, Community & Family Affairs Dermot Ahern launched the revised National Anti-Poverty Strategy containing a set of ambitious targets and a framework for action to tackle poverty. In the Strategy, Government committed itself to eliminating poverty, or at the very least reducing consistent poverty to 2% from the 6% it stood at as of 2000. Well, ten years on and our consistent poverty rate remains essentially static at 6.2%. Even during our most affluent period, we did not make the kind of progress we might have expected. This was largely due to policy decisions that relied heavily on income supports to redress inequalities in society, rather than tackling underlying causes of poverty and disadvantage and seeking a balance that would help to permanently level the playing field for all children in Ireland.
The 2005 National Economic and Social Council (NESC) report, The Developmental Welfare State, called for the development of an improved social protection system that would deliver social justice, a more egalitarian society and a dynamic and flexible economy that could sustain Ireland in a globalised world. Key to their recommendations for achieving this is a balance between income supports and access to services, including health, education and housing. It is true to say that during the economic boom, investment in income supports and public services did increase. In relation to income supports, Child Benefit became the Government’s preferred vehicle for addressing child poverty, with that payment accounting for 6% of all social welfare spending in 1993 increasing to 15% in 2002. There is no doubt that increased investment in Child Benefit resulted in reduced child poverty rates over the 1990s and 2000s. Relative poverty declined from 27% in 1996 to 19.9% in 2007. This is an important statistic to remember in light of the debate about Child Benefit in recent weeks. While we need to look at how we tackle child poverty in Ireland, as I will outline now, it is imperative that we don’t progress any measures that push more children into poverty. Means testing Child Benefit would, I believe, result in that outcome.
We need to drastically re-think our approach
The failure to engage in fundamental and meaningful social protection reform has seen significant regression in poverty rates since the onset of recession. The percentage of children at risk of poverty rose from 18.6% in 2009 to 19.5% in 2010, a figure likely to increase in coming years. Equally, increased investment in public services delivered little by way of significant changes in outcome during the boom years. A Department of Education report showed that 1 in 3 children from disadvantaged areas continued to leave school with literacy and numeracy difficulties in 2004, a figure that had remained static since 1980. The number of young people who leave school early has remained consistent since the 1990s, with around 9,000 leaving each year. This indicates that, while investment in monetary terms is important, how we spend it is also crucial. It shows us that we need to start thinking differently about how we provide supports to children who need them and we need to start by looking at the interplay between income supports and access to services. We need to drastically re-think our approach to poverty, beginning by making a meaningful commitment to the protection of those with the least in our society.
A recent Social Justice Ireland report indicates that we are not succeeding at this. The report, using statistics from the CSO, shows that Ireland’s poorest families experienced an income drop of almost 20% in one year while the income of the richest increased by 4%. In 2010, the top 10% of the population received almost 14 times more disposable income than the poorest 10% — it was eight times more in 1980. What this tells us is that successive budget decisions have not spread austerity evenly. They have targeted low and middle income earners and we are now seeing the impact of that in families across the country. There were many children and families who never really felt the benefit of the Tiger; those who continued to live in poverty and disadvantage throughout the last decade. It is telling, in fact, that the at risk of poverty rate for 2007 was 19.9%, a figure that then represented the modest success of State interventions between 1996 and 2007. The fact that we are now sliding back down the scale should be a warning to all of us who are concerned about children’s welfare and well-being.
The new Child and Family Support Agency will undoubtedly take on much of the responsibility for the delivery of services to children living in disadvantage. But it is essential that the Agency is not seen as the sole player in this goal. If we are to succeed at eliminating child poverty, as initially targeted in the National Anti-Poverty Strategy, we need a whole Government approach. It is not sufficient to land the burden of child poverty on any one Department but to look at the interplay between the work of multiple Departments, including Health, Education, Social Protection, Environment and Children and Young People for solutions that will deliver the kind of reform we need. We need a system that puts children firmly at the centre of legislative, policy and practice decisions. We need a system that can put the immense knowledge and learning developed over the many years we’ve been providing social protection in its numerous incarnations to work to reform, grow and make better those protections. This has never been more important than now.
Strong political and policy will is needed to ensure that the Programme for Government commitment to combat child poverty is pursued as the demands on our dwindling resources increase. While the welcome commitments made to maintain social welfare rates were upheld this year, other decisions to target low income families are creating and will continue to create real hardship for children unless brave political choices are made to protect them in the coming Budget. This is particularly true for lone parents who are facing changes to the One Parent Family Payment. The proposed measures will, I believe, reinforce the poverty traps that continue to plague our social protection system. These poverty traps make the decision to work difficult for many parents who struggle to maintain low paid, often part-time, employment that allows them to balance working with their parenting responsibilities. It is wholly insufficient to make inadequate, short term moves towards creating afterschool care places for one cohort of children. The provision of early childhood and education care and afterschool care services must always be based first on the best interests and developmental needs of children. We need to create an environment that meets the needs of children whose parents are at work. We have made significant progress towards the delivery of affordable, quality early years childcare in recent years, through the free pre-school year. Any attempt to put in place interim measures that affect only one group of children and that allow the system of childcare to continue to develop in an ad hoc and scattered way does a severe disservice to children in Ireland. We need to work together now to deliver lasting solutions that will benefit our children now and into the future.
In the debates that followed the publication of the Ryan report, our now Tanaiste quoted James Connolly’s challenge to the Labour party to achieve a country where “every child in our Irish soil will by the mere fact of its existence be an heir to, and partner in, all the country produces; will have the same right to an assured existence as the citizen has today to his citizenship.” Deputy Gilmore followed this saying “More than 100 years later, the 21st century must become the century that the Irish people hold true to and deliver on our obligations to all our children.”
I wholeheartedly endorse these words. We are living through perhaps the most difficult economic period we have faced to date. There are no easy decisions and no easy wins when it comes to how we spend our limited resources. But it is essential that we put our children first when we are making the kinds of choices that no one wants to have to make. We need to deliver opportunity, possibility and hope for all the children of Ireland. Anything less than that is a failure on our part to deliver the kind of childhoods and the kind of society that will make us strong long into the future. The decisions we make now will be felt for generations to come. It is crucial that we make the right ones.