By Jim O'SullivanFor this government to pretend that it cares for the welfare of children is incongruous: don’t let the referendum posters kid you.
The referendum posters proclaiming the maudlin “Every Child Matters” and the pious “Children Should Be Seen and Heard” are nothing other than Fine Gael/Labour/other Ivory Tower dwellers patois---on the simple basis that actions speak louder than words, the government care nothing for children at all, unless of course the children happen to be members of a “deserving” family---the well-heeled or connected. In the upcoming referendum all other children are merely bit players in what is most probably nothing but an elaborate and expensive windbag distraction.
When it is all over, for those children caught up in poverty---by a country mile the most significant factor that impacts negatively on their lives---life will remain a painful and bitter experience which will be made even worse by cuts and more cuts planned to vital supports and social services---cuts that are wholly avoidable if the will existed to justly share what we have more equitably. The unsavoury reality is that this government has spent the past 18 months cutting financial supports to the family and hacking away at other practical measures that might give struggling children the opportunity to equip themselves to get out of the poverty trap cycle.
We know for example that children attending school who are under-nourished cannot concentrate sufficiently to absorb the teaching. We also know that children who live in cold and damp homes are more susceptible to illness---illness that can linger right through to adulthood greatly stunting development. Yet we have seen incomes in such households cut which is resulting in children going hungry and by the proliferation of electricity and gas disconnections, and the introduction of pre-pay meters, their homes are now in a constant power on/power off merry-go-round.
While the referendum is merely words--and there is one thing that we all have learned in spades this past decade or so, empty politicians are good at making noise but little else—we can however be sure of one thing; should the powers envisaged in the referendum ever be used, there will be victims, natural parents who will have their children inappropriately removed from them by direction of a court. And we can be even surer of another; the parents that will lose their children will come from a single cohort, those struggling at the lower end of the socio-economic ladder. The moneyed that live in the leafy suburbs can rest easy in their child rearing failures---their position will render them above this particular law.
The overriding fact is that this referendum will have no impact whatever on the lives of those children who are in the most need of help. A recent case dealing with a child heard Judge Ann Ryan remark in obvious frustration at the lack of governmental engagement with the plight of very vulnerable children coming before her court;
“It is a joke listening to the Children's Referendum, nothing changes, and nothing will change with the referendum, the bottom line is the same as the first day I sat in this court.”
Her comment was prompted by information before the court that a special care bed was not available for a child who was in desperate need of one---a social worker explained “there are only ten special care beds in the country” and the decision on whether the girl will get one is in the hands of a HSE committee---this is the same HSE who are making decisions every day with the sole and prime objective to save money, people’s needs come a very bad second.
There must be a concern that the referendum is about something other than the needs of children and is very dangerous because of that. Aside from the real danger that the HSE would exercise the new powers to take short cuts in dealing with problems, the government may take a backseat again resting on its laurels and the real work of tackling the issues that destroy the lives, and the life prospects, of children will remain unaddressed should the amendment be passed
As it happens there are very good guidelines available to any government seriously embarking on a programme to give every child an equal chance at life. Take for example the programme from which the Fine Gael campaign most probably took their catch phrase, “Every Child Matters”. That is the title of an in-depth study and report on the issue undertaken in the UK. They started at the beginning and proposed a range of actions designed to prevent family breakdown being reached. Here is a small snippet of that report which captures both its thoroughness and the clear intent of those involved to genuinely address the problems involved
“Key underpinning principles include: more closely integrated frontline delivery of educational, health, social and specialist services; earlier intervention to provide support before problems become serious; closer working between professionals who might be involved with the same child or young person; more coherent planning and commissioning of services at the combined local level—and the establishment of Children’s Trusts (or similar arrangements) to support this; and greater involvement of children, parents and carers in the development of services.”
At no point, unlike with this referendum initiative, is “parent failure” referred to. In fact while the rearing of children is seen as the responsibility of parents in the first instance its own research demonstrated the need for practical State support and the value of “early intervention to prevent serious problems developing, coupled with targeted and specialist support where necessary.” What this clearly implies is that should a situation be reached whereby the State is forced to consider placing a child for adoption against the agreement of the natural parents, the failure is a joint one.
Therefore the focus is on adequate supports and early intervention to correct matters should they begin to go wrong. In this context there can be no doubt that the authors of the report conclude that government’s main responsibility in the rearing of the next generation is to ensure that each child, from birth, is not disadvantaged and is given equality of opportunity and all that entails.
It is worth reminding ourselves of just how unequal and unfair Irish society has become and the environment in which struggling parents are left to rear children in. The SILC report (CSO EU SILC 2010) shows that families with children are suffering the worst consequences of the recession - many are now going without essentials such as electricity, clothing and food.
In 2010, it found that 8.2% of children (aged 0-17) continued to live in consistent poverty---that means that these children are living in households with incomes below 60% of the national median income and experiencing deprivation based on the agreed eleven deprivation indicators. This can mean going 24 hours without a substantial meal or being cold because parents are unable to afford to heat the home.
Children at risk of poverty rose from 18.6% in 2009 to 19.5% in 2010. Significant increase in income inequality between 2009 and 2010 was evident as the average income of those in the highest income bracket was 5.5 times that of those in the lowest income bracket.
Households with 2 parents and 1-3 children saw their risk of poverty rise from 11.4% in 2009 to 17.2% in 2010 and the consistent poverty rate up from 5.4% in 2009 to 7.0% in 2010.
This data shows what the real danger for our children is and changing the constitution as proposed will have little or no impact on that. At the core of this problem is of course general societal inequality, address that and much of this problem will disappear.
To deal honestly with this we need a suite of legislation which guarantees that each child will have access to nourishment as required, a comfortable and safe home environment, access to healthcare needs and to proper screening so that progress on all fronts can be assessed and intervention as required. That is the starting point in all of this and those who are suggesting that the referendum in itself is a starting point are seriously in error and likely to mislead voters into doing the wrong thing for the right reasons.
In fact extending to the State the power to remove children from their natural parents should be a last step, a final safety net where all else has failed. When it happens it must be regarded as not only parental failure but the State’s too and any legislation must reflect that and ensure that parents are fully represented in any proceedings and are afforded the opportunity to “re-adopt” their own children should the issues that posed the threat to the child are eradicated.
If we say “NO” in this referendum might that force the government to revisit the matter and do what is necessary---bring forward proposals that will tackle the real issue, child poverty, thereby making the forcible removal of children from their natural mothers and fathers the remotest necessity.
In light of the SILC data, and best practise guidelines from elsewhere, a “NO” vote in this context is at least worthy of our consideration.