By Jim O'SullivanProtecting children cannot be a singular endeavour, it requires a commitment to deliver overall social justice.
The proposed amendment to the constitution, to insert rights for children, is to be welcomed---however there must be grave reservations regarding its effectiveness because this very important task is being led by a government that has paid scant attention to the “rights” of the vulnerable thus far.
In its short period in office it has demonstrated an enormous capacity to look inequity in the eye and fail to see it. It also has demonstrated panache for seeking to “solve” problems by cutting services and in the process ensuring that it is those least able to carry the burden that are landed with it. The fact is that never in the history of this state have the interests of the gentry been so stoutly defended at the expense of the vulnerable---and children in particular.
Why would the care and protection of children be regarded any differently than what has gone before by such a coterie so deeply imbued in the values of the Victorian age? Children, in that society, were regarded at best as production units and at worst as disposable inconveniences. Are we to seriously believe that a government, who has spent its time in office cutting, and kite flying proposals that will further cut, the incomes in vulnerable homes---with children in the front line---are motivated by the right priorities that might honestly address the issue of child disadvantage, abuse and neglect? Are we seriously expected to think that a government that has hacked away at child centred services, such as special needs teaching etc., are in the slightest bit concerned with the well being of our children?
In this context it can hardly be surprising that the proffered solution to the myriad of social problems which impact on children’s’ well being are ignored and the constitution will only contain a clause which will extend to the State the power to take children from their “troubled” family homes and offer them for adoption. Closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. The fact is that once this stage is reached the damage has already been done, the child’s life already irreversibly damaged---not to mention the fact that much unavoidable suffering has already been endured. The amendment will allow the state to continue on its merry neglectful way with regard to children’s needs.
Whenever I hear a member of this government speak on such social issues I am instantly reminded of the infamous “Edgbaston speech” delivered by Margaret Thatcher’s guru Keith Joseph. The speech is an extraordinary window into the thinking of those who have banished from their mind the fact that where children are in danger, deprived or abused, the core issue in the vast majority of cases is poverty---which is the result of disaffection and exclusion that is the outfall of societal inequity. But the problem is identified as “parental neglect” only and the solution is to remove the children from the family. In the process, otherwise good people whose humanity has been robbed by searing hardship, humiliation and degradation, are regarded as the sole authors of the child’s difficulties.
As it happened when Thatcher came to power children’s rights were soon forgotten about and it was not until the late 80s that a Child Protection Act was passed. However the Act, still resolutely ignoring the causes of the problems, focused solely on the symptoms and on the State building a case to have children removed from the “erring” family free from court challenges by the natural parents---what appears to be a mirror image of this Children’s Amendment. The Child Protection Act in the UK had a secondary serious negative impact on child protection generally in that social workers were required to complete inordinate amounts of paperwork for each case opened, part of the building of the legal case for any eventual removal of the child, and this resulted in massive amounts of time being spent filling forms and not responding to reports from teachers etc expressing concerns for the well being of children who had come to their attention. The general outcome was very poor, the inevitable consequence of an approach that refused to acknowledge the core causes involved because the ideology in vogue could not withstand the scrutiny should it become plausible that inequity was the mother and father of the problem and tinkering with symptoms only went to make matters worse.
The proposed amendment smacks strongly of the same “fiddling around the edges” approach and that conclusion is compounded by the fact that there is no proposal to enshrine in the legislation at the same time, and as part of this amendment, the right of every child to necessary nourishment and comfort, access to proactive healthcare and education---with particular mention of any special needs requirements etc. The constitution already contains a number of “protections” which are essentially nothing but aspirations that can be easily batted away by slick lawyers whenever they are challenged by those seeking social equity. Legislation is what is required, making it a duty of the government to ensure that aspirations are delivered.
If the government is as genuine as they claim about child protection and care then they should look to the Nordic model which consistently is rated as best by the OECD and UNICEF. This model places the emphasis on the provision of vital services in full sight of the authorities. Children are continuously assessed regarding their mental and physical development and where necessary intervention is fast and designed around the needs of the child. At the most basic level the existing system here falls down. In all developed countries for example children are issued with a hot meal. The School Meals Programme here only “aims to supplement the diets of school-going children from disadvantaged backgrounds” Many slip through this safety net and we know that many children in modern Ireland go to bed hungry. This proposed referendum simply fails to address the issues at this vital level.
The reason for the achievements attained by the Nordic countries is their rejection of neo-liberal monetarism. This permits the implementation of welfare policies which emphasise the civic role of the state in facilitating quality of life and well-being among all its citizens. In short, it values people above money and the fact is that it is not possible to provide adequate social services in an environment where the state plays a passive detached role to placate the hawks that brood over everything as they watch the interests of those that have amassed unto themselves a gigantic and grossly inappropriate share of the spoils.
The danger now is that following a period of hype and faux political debate, the referendum will be passed and enshrined in the constitution there to remain a limp ineffectual instrument while children will continue to have their life chances blighted by an indifferent system that listens only to those with the means to be heard. Mainstream Irish society will breeze along under the misapprehension that the constitutional amendment has fixed the “problem”.
We, and the children, are about to be duped---again.