Wednesday 26 October 2016

From 1916 to 2016, children are always the first casualties

Ellen O’Malley Dunlop

Published 04/04/2016 | 02:30

'Yes, children need protection, but in order to thrive, they also need stability'. Stock image: Getty
'Yes, children need protection, but in order to thrive, they also need stability'. Stock image: Getty

In 1916, Ireland had the highest child mortality rate in Europe. Today, children's rights are protected under our Constitution, but we need to talk about homelessness and mental health.

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The current housing and homelessness crisis facing families is very concerning for lots of reasons, but for children caught in these unacceptable circumstances, its negative consequences are far-reaching.

I wonder what Dr Kathleen Lynn, who was such a champion for mothers and children after the 1916 Rising, would think if she knew that in 21st-century Ireland there are 1,054 children homeless.

One hundred years ago, Ireland had the highest child mortality rate in Europe - which was a direct result of also having one of the continent's highest poverty rates.

Only four out of 10 children survived to the age of 10 in 1916.

The recent figures published by the Department of the Environment show that there were 3,081 homeless people in the Republic of Ireland in March 2016, of whom 1,054 were children. The Greater Dublin area has twice as many homeless people as the rest of the country.

We now have a full Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. This is indeed a fitting response to the atrocities that were revealed in the Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne Reports of child sexual, emotional and psychological abuse.

While the referendum to include the Rights of the Child in our Constitution was passed, it took a further two years to implement because of a Supreme Court challenge.

The delay affected the passing into legislation of the Children First Bill. However, it was signed into law by the President in November 2015 and forms part of a suite of child-protection legislation, which includes The National Vetting Bureau, (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 and the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012.

The Government has a legal and moral obligation to improve the lives of children in Ireland. In order to do so, it must now follow through and invest properly in Tusla, the Child and Family Agency that has been set up to deliver "Better Outcomes (and) Brighter Futures" for all our children.

Yes, children need protection, but in order to thrive, they also need stability.

The preservation of a child's welfare and wellbeing is vital to the development of a healthy person and consequently a healthy and prosperous society, and stability plays a hugely important, indeed vital, part in this development.

After 1916, we seemed to lose sight of the wise old saying: "Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh siad" (praise the youth and they will blossom). Instead, children were to be seen and not heard.

While poverty was the cause of the high child mortality rate in 1916, in Ireland today, according to Mental Health Ireland, mental health problems affect one in 10 children and young people.

As a result of what is happening in their lives, children are now suffering from depression, anxiety and conduct disorder.

Things that have a positive effect on a child's mental health include feeling loved, trusted, listened to, understood, valued, encouraged and having a place to call home, to name but some of the necessary ingredients for a child to blossom.

And as a result of all of the above, a child is better able to learn and will have more opportunities to succeed in life.

Things that have negative effects on a child's mental health include feeling unloved; the loss of a place to call home; feelings of abandonment, exclusion and confusion, all of which have a knock-on negative effect on the growing child and will affect their ability to learn and succeed.

Mental health services in Ireland are far too often difficult to access. Like many Irish citizens, children and young people face unacceptably long waiting lists for mental health services, especially if they don't have medical insurance, which highlights another big inequality in our society.

There is patchy service provision across the country. In some instances, children continue to be treated in adult in-patient mental health units, which are inappropriate for their needs.

If elected to Seanad Éireann, I will work to improve Ireland's mental health system to include the expansion of counselling and psychotherapy services, particularly for children and for suicide prevention; lobby for state funding for NGOs offering free counselling and psychotherapy for victims of sexual crime and domestic violence; support the inclusion of psychotherapy and counselling services in private health insurance plans; and work to ensure the statutory registration and regulation of psychotherapists and counsellors.

And by working together, we can make a real difference.

Ellen O'Malley Dunlop was CEO of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre for 10 years and is now a candidate in the NUI Seanad elections.

Irish Independent

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