Frances Fitzgerald TD, Minister for Children & Youth Affairs           


1980 – The Taskforce on Child Care

1993 – Kilkenny

1995 – Kelly Fitzgerald

1998 – West of Ireland Case

2005 – Ferns

2009 – Dublin, Ryan, Monageer

2010 – Roscommon

2011 – Cloyne

2012 – Gibbons-Shannon

And there were more…

Seventeen statutory reports since 1980.  A litany of failure.  This is our history. It need not be our future.  This autumn there will be a children’s referendum. The people of this state will be asked to enshrine the protection and rights of children in Bunreacht na hEireann. This constitutional change, alongside the legislative change and service change which my Department and I are currently pursuing represents the single most important set of reforms that have ever been made in the history of child protection in Ireland.  Not just ‘symbolically’ important. Not just ‘legally’ important. Not just important in ‘principal’. It is literally the most important move we can make to protect our children. Because cumulatively these changes are about something more. They’re about a cultural shift in our attitudes and behaviour. They’re about fostering a culture where child protection is everyone’s responsibility.   All of us.

We have failed our youngest and most vulnerable

We have a nationally shameful record when it comes to protecting our children. We have, since the foundation of the state, failed huge numbers of our youngest and most vulnerable. And as those failures became clear we attributed blame to the most obvious targets.  Some were perpetrators, some scapegoats, some who sinned by omission and some not at all.  But we as a nation felt that someone, or some entity had to be at fault.

We started with the Catholic Church. Members of that church ran the industrial schools in which children were beaten, raped and exploited. Representatives of the Catholic Church in many of those institutions – men and women of a Christian god – perpetrated abuse beyond belief.  So we as a nation blamed the church.  But it was not the church who put the children in those institutions.  In fact, in some instances, it was prominent members of the Catholic Church who first raised questions about the performance and appropriateness of industrial schools. So maybe we should blame the state?  The state’s judiciary that heard requests for committal orders and with the bang of a gavel ended childhoods.

The state’s legislators failed for year after year and decade after decade to assess, analyse and arrest what was happening to our youngest citizens. The state’s legislators and law enforcers removed children from families and condemned them to a life of – in some instances – quasi imprisonment.

But it was not the legislators or the law enforcers who found the children; who made the decision to remove them from their parents.  That was the ‘cruelty man’.  An unfortunate euphemism.  Unfortunate because it allows us to forget who the ‘cruelty man’ was. He was the man, as the Ryan Report recounts, (and they were nearly all men) who would visit families and who had the power to take children from them.  And his proper title was ‘Inspector’. A paid employee of an archaic child welfare society, who could ship children off to industrial schools.  So maybe we should blame Inspectors?  Or maybe we should blame parents, the other big deliverer of children to the Industrial School system.  It is difficult to confirm precisely, because of the lack of good record keeping, but there is evidence that children, sent en masse, ended up in reform schools because their own parents sent them there.  So let’s blame them.

Except, in many cases those parents thought they were doing the best for those children. Poverty was so bad for some that children grew up with malformed bones through rickets and lived in – as reports of the time say – filth and squalor. So some parents decided that their children would be better off in the care of a religious order. We can look at the church, the state, TD’s, Gardai, child welfare agencies and parents and with each group we see horrendous failures. And we also see tremendous care, love and effort. In every sector, in every decade since the foundation of the state there have been people doing their very best for children. And the way we ensure that the problems in child welfare are never solved is by allowing one sector to carry the can for what is everyone’s problem.  It is much easier to assign blame than to accept that a problem is complicated, systemic, cultural and societal.

The problems did not go away

And let me be very clear; the complicated, systemic, cultural and societal problems did not go away with the closure of the industrial schools. The problems did not go away with the publication of the Ryan report.  They didn’t go away with the state apology to survivors.  They didn’t go away with the set-up of the redress scheme. Many of the settings changed; but problems remained; as is proven by the Report of the Independent Child Death Review Group. That report – which Norah Gibbons and Geoffrey Shannon did such a professional painstaking job in preparing – showed that as recently as 2008 children were being failed by the exact same sectors as they were in 1998 and 1988 and 1958 – the state, the Gardai, non-governmental agencies, voluntary groups, communities – and families. The report shows that some individuals did their best, some did nothing, some did harm. It shows social workers going over and above what could be reasonably expected of them. And it shows some falling far short of what could be expected.  It shows Gardai doing everything in their power to intervene where problems existed. And it shows some doing the opposite. It shows families struggling to cope with the burdens placed on them by poverty and fate and it shows some creating their own problems by neglect and indulgence.

It shows voluntary groups engaging in heroic fashion to protect children and families. And it shows some pawing ineffectually at a problem beyond their competence. It shows communities of care and compassion. And it shows some communities of cold indifference. It shows that child protection is everyone’s job. And it shows that those from whom children must be protected are not easy to stereotype.  We have had to learn the same brutal lesson again and again and again. The villain and the saviours are sometimes the same. Over-zealous intervention by inspectors destroyed lives, yet interventions by the same group undoubtedly saved countless childhoods and innumerable families.

Parents have been found to have subjected children to the most appalling abuse.  Others have gone to endless lengths and through endless suffering to give their children the best lives possible.  Relatives have been sexual and physical abusers. And they have been saviours who have stepped in to replace parents lost to children. And the state has been inept and ignorant. And it has sometime been better than that.  Sometimes!  It is my belief that it can be much better than it has been.  We have already made progress.

No aspect of government’s work has been so neglected

The Child and Family Support Agency legislation is being drafted, based on the report of the task force, which I published last week.  We have published legislation to put Children First into law, we’ve published important reports, and we’ve ensured that the church publishes its reports too.  We’ve also recruited additional social workers and commenced the biggest re-organisation of child and family social and judicial services in the history of the state.

But we have such a distance left to go.  I believe that no aspect of government’s work has been as neglected down through the years as child protection.  It has been ignored at Ministerial level for decades.

While everyone knows the economic challenges this government inherited, what isn’t so clear is the challenges we inherited in child protection – no national framework for service delivery; no proper data collection; no standard approach to assessing risk and referring cases; no effective interagency working between agencies funded by the public.  And the result is a chaotic system. There are still good people doing their best at all levels, but the system has operated so long without attention from the top that it has become astonishingly unfit for purpose.

Problems that should never have occurred have been allowed to grow and fester.  For instance, we still spend too much, far too much, on residential and special care both in this jurisdiction and for the small numbers of children and young people we send abroad for care.  We still have a situation where we do not have national policy for the use of Guardian ad Litems; people who act in loco parentis, to represent children during court appearances. Situations like this have been going on so long that managers have gotten used to it; and the system here has atrophied.  Let me refer also to another situation that has been ongoing; this relates to Section 47 of the Child Care Act where a judge can mandate specific treatment for a child.

I appreciate the frustration of judges constrained by a system where so many of our most challenging and vulnerable young people who come before them have not received the service or support they should have. It’s clear that as a result, judges, more and more, are relying on Section 47 and with the bang of a gavel, can demand a range of services from the local child care managers with its obvious impact on child care expenditure.  And Section 47s are happening more and more. This is often in the absence of proper national planning for the kind of resources that children with complex needs might demand.  In addition, we are seeing more and more child care cases being argued by barristers on both sides. Something that is as costly as it is combative. 

None of this is the fault of the individual; you can’t ask a social worker to take on a high-dependency young person when it would mean risking their life. You can’t ask a Guardian ad Litem not to charge.  You can’t ask a judge not to make decisions in the best interest of the person in front of them.  You can’t ask a barrister not to represent, or a plaintiff not to seek representation.

The individuals are not to blame. Nowhere in Irish society, to my knowledge is there a sector more chaotic than this; a sector more in need of reform than this.  Nowhere is there a sector with more people committed to excellence. And nowhere is there a sector with more people sharing a combined objective.

From front-line social workers, through system managers, through Gardai, through NGOs, through the child and family welfare agency, through my department all the way to the Taoiseach, we all have the same goal; providing a happy, healthy childhood to every child – a safe childhood.

The Child and Family Support Agency will be accountable

That task is going to take a long time, and a lot of change.  But we’re getting there.  Alan Shatter’s legislation will change how the courts handle child and family cases.  His legislation on reporting combined with mine on Children First will fundamentally change how child abuse cases are handled. The New Child and Family Support Agency presents us with a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to break down the barriers between agencies and services; to deliver seamless integration of policy and service delivery, not fragmentation – with a single focus – the child.  Where child protection is no longer lost in a health-focussed system; where child detention is no longer lost in a prison-focussed system; where childhood mental health services are no longer lost in an adult-focussed system.

This won’t necessarily mean all services under one roof. But it will require, that across government, we will have to ensure that services work together. It will require real interagency working.  It will take time for us to create that new reality out of the rubble of a system that has been crumbling for years. But reform has been the hallmark of this government’s approach to every sphere of national life. The establishment of this new Agency must; and will, represent public service reform in practice.

This Agency will have real accountability. It will dissolve silos between services. It will create efficiency and excellence out of a system of chaos. After decade of failings, after far too many reports, this is where the new Agency can make its biggest difference: delivering value-added through integrating service delivery for families-in-crisis, for children-in-care and for troubled teens.

We should never underestimate the human cost of the devastating impact on children of abuse or neglect; of family breakdown, of parental substance misuse, of undiagnosed mental health difficulties.  Consider a young person:

  • • who grew up in a dysfunctional and chaotic family setting – social work services were involved
  • • missed a lot of school – education welfare services involved
  • • dabbled in crime – youth justice services involved.

But not only were all three not working together, none of them engaged with adolescent mental health services.  If they did, they would have found this young person had serious undiagnosed behavioural and emotional difficulties.

By integrating services, this new Agency can do much better for these young people.  Separate services in separate settings for the same cohort of children simply don’t make sense.  But the Agency is not just about protecting children, as its title indicates – it’s about family support.

As I see it, protecting children and supporting families are simply two sides of the one coin. I believe these are complimentary goals that we can all sign up to.

This is a concept which is recognised right throughout our reform programme, and ties much of it together.  For example, providing enhanced focus on early intervention and family support in the working of the new Agency represents the practical application of a new approach towards ‘proportionate’ service responses – an approach which will also be at the heart of the Constitutional Amendment on Child Protection which will be put before the people later this year.

Passing that referendum will not be an ending.  It will not be a panacea.  Rather it will be a foundation; a foundation on which we can gradually build the new system. A system which will ultimately ensure that the children of each coming decade have a better childhood than those of the last; where we move from bleak failure to a bright future.


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