Thursday 29 September 2016

Yes to equality, but not it seems for our most vulnerable

Paul D'Alton

Published 19/08/2015 | 02:30

'Our children are our most vulnerable citizens. They require the fullest protection and care of our State. We agreed to provide them with this when we voted in favour of the Children's Rights Referendum back in 2012'
'Our children are our most vulnerable citizens. They require the fullest protection and care of our State. We agreed to provide them with this when we voted in favour of the Children's Rights Referendum back in 2012'

The text read "everything has changed" with two smiley faces. It came from my mother on the morning following the marriage equality referendum. The two smiley faces were from her and my dad or maybe they were to me and my husband. It felt like everything had changed that day.

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In many ways the resounding Yes in favour of same-sex marriage was something of an atonement for our treatment of vulnerable minorities in Irish society in the past and a commitment to treat our most vulnerable better in the future. My mother, raised in Ireland of the 1940 and 50s, witnessed and lived the harshness of an intolerant, moralistic, religiously motivated, highly socially controlled country. Her text on that historic morning reflected the longing and hope that things would never be the same again. That we would do better by our most vulnerable citizens.

As the marriage equality referendum day approached, the focus of the debate increasingly centred on the welfare of children. As the referendum day neared, the welfare of children dominated the airwaves and our lamp posts. Striking visual images of children and highly emotive catchphrases festooned our streets. There were passionate and emotive debates about the best interests of our nation's young people. It seemed we really did care about our most vulnerable citizens. It seemed they were being put at the heart of our national discourse. It seemed we were concerned about equality for all and were committed to do better by our most vulnerable.

Marriage equality was granted for same-sex couples but what about all the concern expressed for our children? What has happened to the deep concern expressed for our children on the path to marriage equality? Our homeless children, our children in Direct Provision, our children with mental health difficulties?

During the week of the marriage equality referendum, the Dublin Region Homeless Executive revealed there were 1,034 homeless children in Dublin. Exactly a month later the number of homeless children in Dublin has risen to 1,112. One homeless child is one too many - 1,112 and rising is shameful.

There are currently 1,600 children in Direct Provision - the State's shelter and accommodation system for asylum seekers. Hiqa has expressed grave concerns about the psychological welfare of these children in direct provision. Some 14pc of these children are referred to the Child and Family Agency, the State body responsible for supporting child welfare, in one year, compared to 1.6pc of the general child population.

Direct Provision has seen children born in this country spend their entire lives in one room and never, for example, being able to share a cooked meal with their families. Several substantial reports have detailed the damage done to the children condemned to live in institutional settings and excluded from wider society - they experience greater levels of clinical anxiety and depression, and many face increased likelihood of drug and alcohol addiction.

Direct Provision has been referred to as the Magdalene Laundries of our day. This time we don't have the Catholic Church to blame. This is all the more unacceptable given the harrowing accounts of the lives destroyed in religious-run institutions as documented by the Ryan Report in 2009. It is hard to describe the psychological damage such a system is causing to thousands of people, the impact of which will be felt for many generations to come.

Responding to such psychological damage requires comprehensive, targeted services. Services that we are sorely lacking. In 2013 alone there were 89 children admitted to adult mental health units in Ireland. And this is happening despite the pledge in the 2011 Programme for Government to end this practice of placing children in adult mental health facilities. John Saunders, chairman of the Mental Health Commission, described this situation as simply 'unacceptable'. Dr Niall Muldoon, Ombudsman for Children, said recently: "These are wards where violence, tension and threat are not uncommon … such an environment is upsetting for an adult but one can only imagine how it must leave a child or adolescent feeling."

Our children are our most vulnerable citizens. They require the fullest protection and care of our State. We agreed to provide them with this when we voted in favour of the Children's Rights Referendum back in 2012. Yet time and time again we witness instances where the care and protection of these most vulnerable citizens is totally inadequate - 1,112 homeless children, 1,600 children in Direct Provision and 89 children in adult psychiatric hospitals is way beyond inadequate. It is morally reprehensible.

I'm immensely grateful for the resounding Yes vote in the marriage referendum. But everything hasn't changed.

If the Yes vote was the moment of social revolution that people said it was, then we need to see action for our most vulnerable.

If the Yes vote was a form of national atonement for the past it needs to be translated into ensuring such appalling mistreatment of vulnerable minorities cannot happen again.

If the debate about children's welfare in the lead-up to the marriage referendum was genuine, then it must go beyond mere words. Following a very lengthy delay due to legal challenges, the Children's Act 2012 was eventually signed into law in April of this year.

This provides the essential constitutional framework to now be the country that values their most vulnerable by building their capacity to protect themselves, listens to their voices, and pro-actively supports families by early intervention and prevention. It is up to our Government now to lead and legislate. The people have spoken.

While one child remains in Direct Provision, one child is homeless, or one child in an adult mental health hospital our "Yes to equality" is only just beginning.

Dr Paul D'Alton is a clinical psychologist and president of the Psychological Society of Ireland. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Irish Independent

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