Norah Gibbons, Chairwoman of the Child and Family Agency


My focus today is on children and young people; one quarter of the population of Ireland, 1,148,687, are children and young people aged under 18. Since 2002 the number of children in Ireland has increased by over 13%.

The history of Ireland’s services for children has largely been written in the reports of inquiries concerned with historical abuse in institutions established to care and educate  children, institutions where children should have been safe. Other reports have been concerned with abuse in families where children should be loved, cherished and protected. The publication of each report has brought painful truths to the fore; knowledge and evidence that we have too often failed our children particularly those who, due to their circumstances should have had first call on the resources of the State. The question now is; do we continue to fail or are we as a nation going to stand by the children of the Republic.?

Hart reminds us of how children were viewed historically, both in Ireland and in our nearest neighbouring countries, I quote;

For hundreds of years children have been treated primarily as property.

Recently, they have begun to be considered to be persons.”(Hart, 1992)

Historically in Ireland we did not hear the voice of children. Children were not regarded as citizens, but at best were seen as emerging citizens: seen and not heard was the norm. Frost and Stein (1989) remind us that while children were the objects of society’s good intentions they did not have a voice and were too often subject to abuse. Children’s perspectives were rarely recorded and not often actively sought.

An authoritarian attitude to children was still dominant until well into the 1970s with some notable exceptions. Stein’s paradigm of childhood “has long been viewed as a time in life when children are both dependent and powerless” chimes with experiences here in Ireland.  The other paradigm through which children and young people were viewed is described by Colton et al in 2002 as “troubled and troublesome” and a threat to society.

Today, we look at the concept of childhood through the lens of a 21st century, first-world view; we would proclaim that ideally we view children as nurtured and protected but Hart reminds us that this is still a minority view internationally (Hart 2008).  Throughout the world today, the majority of children contribute economically to their families and society.  That is their norm.

Since the MacGill Summer School last year, four extremely important events have either changed, or have the potential to change, things in a positive way for children and young people in Ireland. This is what gives me hope.  In autumn 2012, the Irish people voted yes and inserted a new Article 42A into the Constitution concerning children and children’s rights. We await the final determination of the Courts on this matter and Geoffrey Shannon, Special Rapporteur for Children, advises that it is too early to state definitively what the final results for children will be because if the referendum result stands the Government has to draw up supporting legislation.  Specifically, Dr Shannon draws attention to the need for provision to be made in law to enable the views of children, who are subject of childcare, custody, adoption or access proceedings, to be heard – having regard to the age and maturity of the child.

Another key change for young people who are involved in the Juvenile Justice System was the announcement that 16 and 17-year olds would no longer be placed in St Patrick’s Institution.  Calls for the closure of St Patrick’s have been made consistently since the “Report of the Committee of Inquiry into the Penal System” chaired by TK Whitaker.  Finally, a report by the Inspector of Prisons, Judge Michael Reilly, published earlier this month set out in uncompromising language the total fear of a newly admitted young person lying in a cold and dirty cell.  In six months’ time, St Patrick’s will no longer have young prisoners and Ireland’s record on human rights will be greatly enhanced, even though we know there is much more to do.  We owe a debt of gratitude to Judge Reilly, to Emily Logan and to all the other campaigners who continued to advocate, often in the face of hostility from the justice system.

A third significant change this past year has been the introduction of independent standards and inspections of our child welfare and protection systems by HIQA. Reports have been published; some areas are better than others but the critical thing is that we now have a benchmark to work from, we know where the challenges are and we will have an agreed plan to remedy the shortcomings. There is a transparency about how services are working in a way that was not there previously.

The fourth significant change this year is the announcement that Ireland will finally have a Child and Family Agency (CFA). I am greatly honoured to be proposed by Minister Frances Fitzgerald TD, both as Chairperson of the existing Family Support Agency and as first Chairperson of the Board of the new agency.

The need to have key services for children and families removed from the HSE to a position where it was the sole focus of a single dedicated agency was articulated at the 2010 MacGill Summer School.  The Task Force, appointed by Minister Fitzgerald and of which I was a member, was clear that this was a once in a generation opportunity to reform fundamentally children’s services in Ireland.   We are now, in 2013, on the cusp of developing just such a national service, the Child and Family Agency. The establishment of this agency, which will align key services into a single, cohesive integrated and accountable delivery system, is a very welcome development towards modernising our child welfare and protection services.  Policy objectives will be set by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and the Board of the Agency will be responsible to the Minister for its performance.  Each of the senior managers of the agency will have children and families as their exclusive priority.  Below that management level there is an emphasis on strong local management operating within a clear national framework.

The CFA will bring together the Child and Family Services of the HSE, the present Family Support Agency with 106 Family and Community Resource Centres and the expertise built up in the National Education Welfare Board.  In addition, the Agency will also have responsibility for Pre-school Inspection Services, for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services and for services related to the psychological welfare of children.  Together with strategic partnerships with other key providers across the voluntary and community sectors, the new agency will be better placed than at any other time to offer real support to children and families in their own locality in a way that is open, inviting and with links to a range of other services as the needs of children and families dictate.

In addition to improving Ireland’s child protection services, the new Agency will focus on prevention, early intervention and family support, which are equally important.  Most importantly the Agency must be based on the needs of children and families rather than on existing professional or organisational boundaries.  It will have a staff of over 4,000 and a budget of approximately €580 million.

Another area of specific concern is to ensure with the Board and CEO that the Agency has the necessary resources to carry out its work effectively. The demand for the services of the CFA is increasing year on year, with 40,000 referrals this year, and there is a need to ensure that the correct staff numbers and skills-mix are available to carry out the functions of the Agency.  There are 6,421 children in the care of the State.  Very recent reports of inspections make it clear that there is much work to do to ensure that children removed from their homes to state care are looked after by staff and foster-carers suited to the task; safely recruited, trained and supported to carry out what is a critical role.  I understand that work is now underway to map social-work provision and need across each area and this necessary work will guide future planning.

There is significant work yet to be done in establishing the new Agency and it has to happen while the everyday work of child welfare, family support and child protection goes on. I do not underestimate the demands of this task and pay tribute to all those involved. The children, young people and families in Ireland deserve a working Agency and systems that support and protect them. There is no room for complacency. Change is very difficult for all of us, but the prize of a system “fit for purpose” for our children and families is one worth changing for.

From the recent “State of the Nation’s Children Report” (2012) we know, as we have heard from many previous reports, that the vast majority of children in Ireland are happy within their families, with their friends and communities. More children find it easier than previously to talk to their parents if something is bothering them.  This is good news.  Good news too that the retention rate to complete the Leaving Certificate is up by almost 8% and there are other positive outcomes in which we may take heart.  However, I would like to pull out some areas where children are not doing as well as their peers. Some key facts;

  • The number of Traveller children has increased by 30% between 2006 and 2011. There are now 14,245 traveller children in Ireland. Their life chances, both in childhood and later in adult life, do not compare favourably with those of many other children in Ireland.
  • The number of foreign national children increased by over 49% between 2006 and 2011. There are now 93,005 foreign national children in Ireland. Once again, how these children, who include many in Direct Provision in Ireland, are treated now, will tell a story for us in the future. Reading the 2011 “Taking Racism Seriously” report from the Immigrant Council of Ireland and the views of immigrants to Ireland that there was no point in telling anyone as complaints would only be filed away, I was reminded of the many survivors of institutional abuse in Ireland who did not report their abuse for similar reasons.  As foreign national children here grow to adulthood will they tell us that we silenced their voices?
  • Over 11% of our primary school children were absent from school for more than 20 days of the school year. Over 17% of post primary children missed school for 20 days or more. Again, disadvantaged areas have higher numbers missing school. Non-attendance at school is often an early warning sign and a strong indicator that overall child wellbeing may be at risk.  There is a clear link between missing school and levels of disadvantage experienced as a child and later in adult life.  While the vast majority of parents take very seriously their role in ensuring their children’s rights to education are fully vindicated, Geoffrey Shannon, in his recent report to the Oireachtas, suggested that Ireland might consider putting in place an Education Supervision Order as an intermediate step to ensure those parents who do not are placed under notice to do so before the ultimate sanction of criminal proceedings is undertaken.  This is certainly worthy of consideration.
  • Poverty: There are 106,827 children in Ireland living every day in consistent poverty according to EU Silc figures for 2011.  We know that these children live largely in families headed by a lone parent and in families where parents are unemployed.  There has also been a significant increase in children at risk of poverty who live in families where one or both parents are in low-paid jobs. Reductions in social welfare and other payments have hit hardest at families with children.  In 2012, a family with 4 children living in a rural area saw their family income reduced by €1,612; this resulted from reductions in Child Benefit, in Back to School Clothing and Footwear allowance and from an increase in fees for school transport.  Food poverty and fuel poverty are other experiences of children in poverty in Ireland in 2013.  By the end of 2015, the One Parent Family Payment will end when the youngest child is 7 years old and the income disregard that allowed lone parents to take up low paid employment will be greatly reduced. Where are the jobs, where are the support systems?  There is no place for complacency and we must reform our social welfare system to include in-work supports coupled with investment in public services for children.  For many children hidden in the facts above, there is more than one factor in their lives that is likely to impact negatively on them. For example, bullying at school, smoking and alcohol misuse are of serious concern for some children to a much greater degree than for their peers. Do they have an equal place in our Republic?  Why has so much more of the burden fallen on families with children?

Childcare is never done and dusted; new issues and challenges will emerge as our society develops and changes.  It is important to recognise those emerging needs, to know their extent and to develop plans, services and skills to meet them.  Again, Dr Shannon has highlighted some of the deficits in Irish Law in relation to key areas of concern that have recently arisen. Among those outlined are; guardianship for unmarried fathers, guardianship of children born as a result of assisted human reproduction and the extension of special  guardianship rights to step-parents and civil-partners or members of the extended family where the person is in loco parentis for a child.  Ireland has a great many diverse forms of family life now.  We need to adjust our laws to ensure the family life of those children is protected rather than continuing to ignore the new realities.

Over the last number of years, the emergence of cyber-bullying involving social networking, email and SMS has come into focus. The Minister for Justice has asked the Law Reform Commission to examine difficulties in prosecuting cyber-bullying. We are still awaiting an explicit offence of grooming, both online and off-line, to be introduced in Ireland to more fully protect our children. These and many other issues remain to be resolved and I have no doubt others will emerge before and after 2016.

Finally I believe that as a society we need to establish a culture of listening to children – really listening and paying attention to their voices and lived experiences. This is perhaps where we failed most spectacularly in the past.  There are new and good things on the horizon for we cannot give up on children; we owe them their future.

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