Opinion by Tanya Ward: Ireland’s most vulnerable children remain invisible

Published date: 
23 Feb 2017


Ireland's Most Vulnerable Children Remain Invisible


Opinion by Tanya Ward, Chief Executive

The Children’s Rights Alliance awarded the Government an overall ‘D+’ grade in our Report Card 2017 yesterday. This year’s grade equates to a barely acceptable performance, having little or no positive impact on children’s lives and securing no outstanding achievements yet. 
The Report Card is our annual publication that considers how the Government has, or has not, implemented its own commitments to children in important areas like health, education, poverty, equality, protection and early years. As always, our independent panel of experts graded the Government’s performance, chaired by Judge Catherine McGuinness, former Supreme Court Judge.
Since 2009 we have been writing these reports but this year is the first under A Programme for a Partnership Government. Given the new formation was only made official in May 2016 this report is grading the Government on its first seven months in office.
Last year, the outgoing Government received a record five ‘C’ grades for five years in a row so this year’s D+ clearly lags behind those scores. 
How can this grade have fallen given that there have been significant developments even in that short time? 
The proposed Affordable Childcare Scheme is a major step forward for families and receives the highest grade this year, a ‘B’. We have some of the highest childcare costs in the European Union. And the introduction of this scheme will mean that every child in the country under the age of 3 can benefit from this scheme. 
The introduction of two weeks’ paid paternity leave for new fathers and partners is welcome and since it was introduced over 4,500 families have benefited. 
Another highlight is the fact that we have strengthened our laws protecting children online. The Seanad just passed the Sexual Offences Bill. That legislation will make it easier for to prosecute people who try to groom children for abuse using social media. That Bill also closes out loopholes in our laws which should lead to more prosecutions of people who view images of child abuse.
However certain groups of children are being left on the margins, and this is the story behind this year’s D+ grade. 
Not enough is being done to support child victims of crime, including children who have been sexually abused, children who are homeless, Traveller and Roma children, child refugees and asylum seekers, and children with mental health difficulties.
Ireland has a despicable history in its treatment of children who have been sexually abused yet today such children face shocking delays in accessing counselling services. The CARI Foundation reported an increase of over 200 per cent in a year, compounded by the fact that there is only one 24-hour state service provision for forensic examinations in Galway. During the last two years, this service temporarily closed twice, most recently due to lack of funding. Yet, the total cost of providing the centre is just €212,000 – a mere pittance. 
The law does little to protect child victims of crime. Child victims face delays in their cases proceeding through the courts – up to six months in the interviewing of child victims or witnesses of sexual or physical abuse or serious neglect.
The two lowest scores this year were awarded to ‘Child and Family Homelessness’ and ‘Traveller and Roma Children’ – ‘E’ grades. This reflects an unacceptable performance that is taking steps in the wrong direction with no positive impact on children. Here’s why.
Tonight, 2,549 children will go to sleep in homeless accommodation. The impact of this is catastrophic on every level from children’s health, education and development. Toddlers are experiencing delays in reaching developmental milestones, such as walking because they are living in such cramped conditions. 
Children have to travel long distances to school. Families have nowhere to store or cook food and are going hungry. Some families are forced to live in unhygienic conditions with insect infestations, mould and used syringes left in bedrooms. 
One parent families account for 65 per cent of homeless families and more than a quarter of the same group lives in consistent poverty. This has to end.
Traveller and Roma children continue to experience discrimination and disadvantage. Traveller children are more than three and a half times more likely to die in infancy than non-Travellers –probably the most horrifying statistic in the whole of Report Card 2017. 
Traveller children leave school an average of five years earlier than non-Travellers as they are experiencing the true impact of the disastrous decision to remove specialised educational supports some years ago. 
Still, almost six out of ten Travellers live in overcrowded accommodation. Many in mobile or temporary accommodation have no access to adequate water and sanitation facilities, or safe and appropriate play areas for children. We desperately need to see the publication of the promised Strategy on Travellers.  
‘Refugee and Asylum-Seeking Children’ received a fairly pitiful ‘D-’ grade. More than 10,000 young people arrived in Greece and Italy in the first half of 2016. Ireland committed to accepting 4,000 refugees by the end 2017. Just 14 young people have been relocated to date. 
The 1,098 children living in Direct Provision accommodation for asylum seekers continue to be among the most marginalised of all children. Important recommendations for children in state’s McMahon Report have not been progressed.  Despite promises, no national standards have been introduced and children in Direct Provision are the only group who are denied the right to make a complaint to Ombudsman for Children. 
The government published the Bill in 2015. This is important for children because we have a serious problem with alcohol related harm and binge drinking in Ireland. And this starts in the teenage years. A recent found that about 50% of young people between the ages of 13 and 17 years are drinking at least once a month. And young people are exposed to huge levels of advertising aimed at normalising and glamourising drinking. 
The Public Alcohol Bill introduces restrictions such as minimum pricing to tackle the availability of cheap alcohol which makes drinking more attractive to young people. And the Bill also puts restrictions on advertising in sports grounds for events where the majority of competitors and participants are children. But this Bill still hasn’t passed through the Oireachtas and so we can start with breaking the cycle of alcohol misuse in Ireland.
Children with mental health difficulties continue to be left struggling. ‘Mental Health’ has never risen above a ‘D’ grade in recent years and 2017 is no different. The remit of the new Youth Mental Health Taskforce is narrow and does not address some of the most serious issues for young people. 
Children continue to be placed in adult psychiatric units. There were more than 2,080 children waiting for an appointment with the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service in September 2016. Astoundingly, 170 of these waited more than a year – up almost 20 per cent on the previous year. 
Add to this the fact that the promised roll-out of GP care to the under 12s has stalled, almost six out of ten LGBT+ children report having self-harmed, one in four children is overweight or obese and food poverty rates have increased from 10 to over 13 per cent. 
Important infrastructural developments for children have taken place in the last decade – a full government department for children and a Minister for Children and Youth Affairs with a seat at Cabinet. 
The Government held a children’s referendum in 2012 and we have seen lots of new legislation to support its realisation. 
A lot is happening but many of Ireland’s most vulnerable children remain invisible.