Report tops the tower of evidence we now have on why urgent action is needed to address homelessness crisis - Children’s Rights Alliance reacts to first Report from Special Rapporteur on Child Protection Dr Conor O Mahony
The Children’s Rights Alliance warmly welcomes the release of the first Annual Report of the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, Dr. Conor O Mahony. The Report highlights areas of progression when it comes to child protection in Ireland but once again, it proves to be an important indicator of the areas that require more action to strengthen the rights of children and young people.
Tanya Ward, Chief Executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, says: “The Alliance would like to congratulate Dr Conor O Mahony on the publication of this comprehensive and thorough debut Annual Report. The Report is the go-to report on child protection and welfare. Not only does it document critical developments for children and important areas of research, it pinpoints the areas that need reform and those that pose the most risk to children and young people.
In his first Report, Dr O Mahony notes particular concern around the increasing incidence of child homelessness and systemic issues including under-resourcing the child protection system. We welcome the continued focus on the family court system and the mechanisms in place that should support children to have their voices heard in child care proceedings. We have strongly advocated for reform in this area as we hear from children and their families first-hand on how the system itself fails to support them as they try seek solutions to the issues they are experiencing.”
The Children’s Rights Alliance has noted recommendations in a number of key areas:
Child Homelessness is a Child Protection Risk
“In 2019, the country was still grappling with the unbearable figures of children experiencing homelessness. Children were the single biggest cohort of the homeless population. Thousands were being denied a childhood as they crammed into one room, some moving between temporary housing and too many spending too long in inappropriate accommodation”, said Tanya Ward, Chief Executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance.
“It is not a surprise to see child homelessness identified here as a child protection risk factor by the Special Rapporteur and it tops the tower of evidence we now have on why urgent action is needed to address this crisis. The Report notes the increase in reports of suspected child abuse or neglect made to Tusla by managers of homeless accommodation during the year. Even more concerning is the fact that shared accommodations poses other risks to children and young people including exposure to adults engaging in alcohol and drug abuse or distressing incidents that have a lasting impact on a child. We support the recommendations in the Report, particularly the call to end the use of one night only accommodation and the reliance on hotels and B&Bs to accommodate families. We have also endorse the call for the best interests of the child to be considered when making decisions around where to accommodate families as we know the separation and isolation from their school and their community of supports can have a detrimental impact on a child.”
Voice of the Child in court proceedings
Amongst his chief concerns this year, Dr O Mahony points to the urgent need to review and amend the Child Care Act 1991, recommending that it should be mandatory rather than discretionary to ascertain the views (if any) of all children and to provide a range of mechanisms designed to facilitate this.
“For too long, children and families have highlighted the difficulties they experience when engaging with our legal system. The family courts should be designed and structured to best facilitate young people to have their voices heard and respected and yet this is not the case. The Children’s Rights Alliance agrees that it is high-time for Ireland to have specialised family or children’s court system as used elsewhere in Europe. The introduction of the guardian ad litem was a significant step forward to protecting children’s rights however further clarity is needed on the status and powers of these representatives. As the Special Rapporteur rightly points out, the financial implications that Covid-19 will bring should not be a reason to stall progress in this area where often it is the most vulnerable children in our society who are hit hardest by the severe under-resourcing of the support systems in place,” said Tanya Ward.
On children in care in court proceedings:
Dr O’Mahony recommends that in order to give full effect to the constitutional rights of children, the law should be amended to make it mandatory rather than discretionary to ascertain the views (if any) of all children capable of forming views, and to provide for a range of mechanisms designed to facilitate this. He also recommends that on the functions and powers of Guardians-ad-litems who represent the interests of children in child protection proceedings. For example, he states that their existing functions (such as cross-examination, adducing evidence, making submissions, seeking disclosures or participating in reviews) can continue to be performed. He also recommends that they should continue to represent the interests of children and have access to legal representation and the power to take judicial review cases on children’s behalf.
Retrospective Allegations of Abuse Investigations
Dr O’Mahony’s Report deals with the challenging nature of Tusla responding to retrospective allegations of abuse given the requirement to balance the constitutional rights of persons accused against the rights of victims or potential victims. He suggests bringing greater clarity to the law and suggests giving the National Vetting Bureau an enhanced role here. He recommends that the law be amended to include:
• The obligation to mitigate foreseeable risks of child abuse of which the State is (or ought to be) aware;
• The obligation to mount an effective investigation of complaints of abuse;
• The obligation to minimise secondary traumatisaton of victims who make complaints; and
• The obligation to protect the constitutional rights of the PSAA, including the right to fair procedures and the right to a good name.
In light of the preceding analysis, the following reforms are recommended to meet these
• The Child Care Act 1991 should be amended to make provision for:
• An express obligation on Tusla to receive and assess complaints of child sexual abuse, whether made as mandated reports or otherwise;
• An express obligation and power to share information and undertake safety planning necessary to protect identified children at immediate risk;
• The National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 should be amended to provide that in cases where Tusla notifies specified information to the National Vetting Bureau which indicates that the PSAA is working in a “relevant organisation”, as defined by section 2 of the Act, re-vetting (or, if vetting has not previously taken place, initial vetting) of the PSAA will be immediately required.
Dr O’Mahony pays particular attention to the rights of children in voluntary care i.e. in situations where parents have agreed for their children to be voluntarily placed in care without any judicial oversight. He recommends that the law should be amended to provide a proper legal basis for these arrangements with important safeguards, including:
• Voluntary care agreements should have a maximum duration of three months (renewable once) in the absence of legal advice for parents, or 12 months (renewable more than once) where parents have received legal advice.
• A formal review should be triggered at least four weeks prior to the expiry of a voluntary care agreement.
• Reviews should be chaired by an independent person with experience of child care who would be empowered to make a binding recommendation as to whether the agreement should be renewed.
• Children in voluntary care should have access to an advocate who would participate in reviews. Children who are too young to work with an advocate should have access to a guardian ad litem who could represent the child’s views and best interests in the review process.
• Cancellation of voluntary care agreements by parents should be subject to a statutory 72-hour notice period, which Tusla may waive if it is in the best interests of the child to do so.
In the Report, Dr O Mahony comments on the disparity between Ireland’s youth justice approach and our commitments under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. He recommends that the age of criminal responsibility be raised from 12 years to 14 years.
“In his first report, Dr O Mahony has presented the Government with a clear vision for what needs to change in specific areas of our child protection systems to improve and protect children’s lives in Ireland. We call for this Report to be fully debated in the Houses of the Oireachtas and look forward to supporting the Special Rapporteur in whatever way we can over the coming months as he assess the impact Covid-19 has had on these priority areas," Tanya Ward concluded.
Contact: Emma Archbold Children’s Rights Alliance, Tel: 01-662 9400 / 0879971410, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Notes to Editor:
• Tanya Ward, Chief Executive, Children's Rights Alliance is available for interview.
• Julie Ahern, Legal and Policy Manager, Children's Rights Alliance is available for interview.
The Specal Rapporteur Annual Report is available here.
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About the Children’s Rights Alliance
• Founded in 1995, the Children’s Rights Alliance unites over 100 members working together to make Ireland one of the best places in the world to be a child. Further information is available at: www.childrensrights.ie or on Twitter, @ChildRightsIRL.