Wayne Dignam: State can now help to save people like me
THE people of Ireland have said Yes to the Children referendum, showing they truly believe that every child matters. But what does that really mean now?
Let me explain by giving you a simple example. Imagine society as a swimming pool, where adults are swimming in lanes, and the children are playing in the shallow end. The State acts as a lifeguard, with the responsibility to make sure children don't drown.
But there's a young boy who is drowning. I was once that boy. This new wording in the Constitution now gives a greater obligation on the State, as lifeguard, to jump in and help. To protect children.
So if a child is drowning, the lifeguard has a greater obligation to save that child. Social workers, teachers, the gardai, all of whom represent the State, must now be trained up to meet up these obligations.
From today, judges have to do things differently in court cases concerning children. This has the potential to bring about a dramatic shift in how we treat children in this country.
I was born to parents who could not look after me. I needed the State to protect me, and as a result I spent 12 years in foster care and residential care. Now, as well as running my own business, I am also a board member of the Irish Foster Care Association.
So over the last few weeks, I have been speaking on this issue from the perspective of my own personal experience. I welcomed the wording, having carefully considered its contents and its implications for children who are going through what I went through. I sought justice for my experience by supporting and campaigning for a Yes vote. And I sought to change the way children in my own situation would be treated in the future.
I am very grateful that I got the opportunity to tell my personal story on my own terms, and relate it to how the wording would have made a difference to my life and so many others. There was a time when I was fearful of speaking about my background, as if it were somehow wrong. But those who needed to be protected by the State deserve the right to own and live the memory of their own childhood.
In the heat of the debate, the No side said that the State cannot love and that we cannot trust the State to look after our children. The State was my guardian. I grew up in a foster family from age eight to 18, where I was loved and protected. My foster parents certainly did not do it for the money. Foster children have it tough enough as it is, without being stereotyped in this offensive and hurtful way.
Superman was my hero when I was a child. He gave me the ambition to believe in myself. It was many years later when I realised that Superman was a foster child.
He was taken in by foster parents, who loved and supported him. Each foster child is a super hero in their own right. They have come from adversity, and now, with the passing of this referendum, we have all given them a much better chance to win the battle against that adversity.
Wayne Dignam is managing direc-tor of Tender Team and a director of the Irish Foster Care Association.