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Protecting Our Most Vulnerable Children at Risk

Posted by on January 20, 2016

Protecting Our Most Vulnerable Children at Risk

In this blog, Wayne Dignam of Care Leavers’ Network reflects on Ireland’s record on child protection, and suggests ways we can approach this issue differently. Join the conversation @CLNetworkIRE 

Last week the Minister for Children defended the State’s record on child protection to the United Nations Committee in Geneva under the UN Convention on the rights of the child.  It was the first such scrutiny in ten years.  Ten years too long.  This should happen every year, or even every quarter.  Child protection is not top of the agenda when the Irish people hold our Government to account at local and national elections every few years. It is important that international experts hold the Irish Government to account on child protection issues much more regularly.

Ireland signed up to the UN Convention on the rights of the child in 1992 after a legacy of failure to protect children.  Has our legacy improved?  In many ways it has.  We now have the Child and Family Agency that is focusing on children’s welfare, we have a Cabinet-level Minister for Children and in 2012 we amended the Irish constitution to allow for improved Children’s Rights.    However the impact of these reforms has yet to be felt by many of our most vulnerable children in Ireland.

The best-selling book ‘Children of the Rising, the forgotten casualties of 1916’ commemorates how the 1916 Easter Rising affected children.  Sometimes it is easier to face up to the truth of the past rather than the truth of the present.  A more apt book would be about 2016 ‘Children of the Recession, the forgotten casualties of 2016’.  The facts are startling and we should think of the human story to these figures:

  • One child in nine is living in poverty;
  • As of October 2015, 1638 children are homeless;
  • There are approximately 5,900 child protection cases awaiting assignment of a social worker.

The Government has a lot of work to do to alleviate poverty and homelessness.  The third problem is a more specific problem that the Care Leavers’ Network believes can be addressed.

The Care Leavers’ Network  represents adults who spent time in the State care system as children, and many care leavers come from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.  As an Elevator Awardee from Social Entrepreneurs Ireland in 2015, we are passionate about changing Ireland and speaking out about what could be improved. Once we were children who were assessed for child protection and then assigned a social worker because we were at risk.  So we care about this figure of 5,900 children who are currently at risk because we understand deeply what types of risks these children are facing, and the effects these will have on the rest of their lives.  We have some suggestions to improve this situation.

Consider the backlog of child protection cases awaiting social workers.  These social workers are so busy because their focus is on children within the care system.  Are they really the right people to assess child protection cases and develop a ‘family plan’ of family support to that family, when some day they may end up taking that child into the care system?  Ideally, a ‘Child welfare and protection officer’ should make the assessment, decide on the level of risk to the child, and explore all avenues of family support.  We need to give families a chance before a social worker is brought in.  By doing so, the child welfare and protection officer has gathered enough information about the family, and if a care order is required, then there is sufficient grounds for such an order.  In addition, a range of family support measures need to be implemented in some cases where there is a chance that a child can remain with their family.

Some States in America adopt this preventative approach to child protection and have seen a decrease in the amount of children entering the care system.  Those in the care system have much greater therapeutic and social care support which will most likely lead to improved outcomes.  It has been led by an Irish American social worker, Molly McGrath Tierney, who manages Maryland’s child protection system. Between 2007 and 2010 the results were dramatic:

  • The number of children in foster care dropped 28% from 6,342 to 4,556
  • The number of children placed in group homes dropped 71% from 1,251 to 365
  • The number of annual adoptions rose 59%, from 265 to 422

To get to these numbers required a lot of soul searching and leadership development.  Irish agencies still have a lot to learn, and working on a crisis basis is not the best place to start.  But there is a better way, and we must learn from the countries and States that manage their care systems better than ours.  And most importantly, we can learn from those adults who have lived through the care systems.

If you would like to contribute to this conversation, follow us and send your thoughts @CLNetworkIRE

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