News Colette Browne

Tuesday 2 September 2014

Ireland didn't cherish all its children equally. We still don't

Published 06/06/2014 | 02:30

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A statue of Jesus in the grounds of the Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Tipperary, which was mother and baby home operated by the  Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary from 1930 to 1970, as the Government has bowed to national and international pressure over the scandal of the death of 4,000 babies who were buried in unmarked, unconsecrated and mass graves at homes for unmarried mothers. PA
A statue of Jesus in the grounds of the Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Tipperary, which was mother and baby home operated by the Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary from 1930 to 1970, as the Government has bowed to national and international pressure over the scandal of the death of 4,000 babies who were buried in unmarked, unconsecrated and mass graves at homes for unmarried mothers. PA

It is too late to help the 800 children whose bodies were dumped in a septic tank in Co Galway, but there are thousands of children living in poverty and suffering from neglect today who can be saved.

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Speaking about the shocking discovery of hundreds of tiny corpses in a mass grave in Tuam, Children's Minister Charlie Flanagan said it was "a reminder of a darker past in Ireland".

The notion that back then, in a dim and distant past, Ireland didn't cherish all of its children equally is both distressing and reassuring.

We grieve for the long-dead children of unmarried mothers, who were condemned to a life of torment for the crime of being born, but salve our consciences with the knowledge that today things are better.

We tell ourselves that the callousness and cruelty of the past are interred with the remains of those children in their tomb.

But for many, the suffocating gloom of that dark past never lifted. We just choose to ignore it.

The evidence of the unequal treatment of children in our society is all around us if anyone cares enough to notice.

There has been widespread revulsion at the revelation that the mortality rate for children in mother-and-baby homes was five times the national average, yet indifference to the fact that infant mortality rates in the Traveller community are nearly four times that of the general population.

Traveller children today are dying in disproportionately large numbers simply by virtue of the circumstances of their birth.

There is no public outrage. There have been no hand-wringing statements from politicians. No calls for an inquiry.

Instead, since the start of the economic crisis, the Government has cut funding to Traveller programmes by 80pc.

Traveller children are not the only ones who are suffering. There is plenty of misery to go around.

Deprivation rates in Ireland more than doubled, from 11pc to 26pc, between 2007 and 2011. Consequently, there are 375,000 children – enough to fill 469 mass graves in Tuam – experiencing deprivation in Ireland today.

They go without food, shiver in winter because their parents can't afford to heat their homes and get wet when it rains because they can't afford a waterproof coat.

Children growing up in lone-parent families suffer more than most. Thirty-four per cent are at risk of poverty and 50pc are materially deprived.

The response of Government to this escalating crisis has not been to ring-fence funding or provide more support. Instead, allowances have been cut and benefits have been slashed. In July, lone parents will lose their one-parent payment, €86 a week, once their children turn seven – 27pc of their income gone with the stroke of a pen.

Other vulnerable children who are being failed by the State are those with mental health problems.

Currently, nearly 3,000 children and adolescents are on waiting lists for mental health services, with 452 waiting more than a year for an appointment.

Children are also still being treated in adult psychiatric units – despite rules being introduced to ban the practice two years ago.

Instead of determining to address this scandal, the Government slashed funding for mental health services from a paltry €30m in 2013 to a risible €20m this year.

Meanwhile, as we decry the perverse morality that resulted in the children of unmarried mothers being stigmatised and marginalised in mother-and-baby homes, history is repeating itself under our noses.

Nearly 4,800 asylum seekers, including 1,791 children, are housed in 30 direct-provision centres around the country, in which whole families are accommodated in single rooms.

Some 60pc remain living in these purgatories for up to three years. Ten per cent have languished there for more than seven years.

They cannot work and are not entitled to social welfare. Instead adults subsist on a weekly allowance of €19.10 while children are entitled to €9.60.

Retired Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness has described the direct-provision system as "an example of a government policy which has not only bred discrimination, social exclusion, enforced poverty and neglect, but has placed children at a real risk". She was ignored.

A 2012 report from Geoffrey Shannon, the Special Rapporteur on Children, highlighted the "real risk" of these children suffering abuse because of the cramped, institutionalised conditions in which they live. It was ignored.

So forgive me if I find the sight of politicians crying their crocodile tears over the fate of children from mother and baby homes nauseating.

If they really wanted to memorialise the dead, they would stop immiserating the living.

Colette Browne

Irish Independent

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