Sunday 24 September 2017

Protecting all our children

Frances Fitzgerald, Minister for Children.
Frances Fitzgerald, Minister for Children.

Frances Fitzgerald Minister for Children

Seventy five years have passed since the Constitution was adopted by the people.

I believe our constitution should be updated to explicitly reflect the values of Ireland today. As it stands, our Constitution does not provide an express statement of rights for children. Under current constitutional arrangements, some children can be denied the opportunity to be adopted. This Referendum will strengthen the provisions regarding the protection, equality and rights of children, regardless of their parents' marital status. I am very pleased it has received such broad support from all of the political parties, as well as Barnardos, the ISPCC and the Irish Foster Care Association. The Referendum will be held on Saturday, November 10th 2012. Holding the Referendum on a Saturday is a child centred approach to a child centred Referendum. I know that for a lot of people, Saturdays can be very busy, but I hope that citizens will make time to vote in one of the most significant Referenda in the history of the State. Between now and November 10th the public will receive a lot of information about the Referendum and what it will do. Citizens will receive explanatory booklets to your home from both the Referendum Commission and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. In the meantime, citizens can get more information on the dedicated information website I would encourage everybody to read the wording, which is less than a page long. If you do, you will see that, as Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said: it is very well balanced; and that it is very clear in its objective. It's about Children. Firstly, and most importantly, it's about treating all children equally, in particular by removing inequalities in adoption We are very fortunate in this county country that over 91% of all children in care are living with a foster family. So already, in this country, the focus is very much on family care. This Referendum supports that principle of family care. In fact, there are over 2,000 children who have been living with the same foster family for over five years. Not all of these children would want to be adopted or indeed because of their family circumstances be suitable for adoption. However, in each of 2011 and 2010, only 16 children in foster care were adopted. This is because of the current Constitutional situation, where children are treated differently on the basis of their parent's marital status. This Referendum will bring an end to this and will give children in foster care a better opportunity of being adopted. This will be the most tangible impact of passing this Referendum. This reform will also allow for voluntary placement of a child for adoption. Secondly this Referendum is about protecting children from abuse and neglect. In 2011 there were over 36,000 child abuse or welfare concerns referrals to the services. Regrettably, despite having had 17 major reports on child protections failings in Ireland in recent years, it is clear that child protection concerns haven't suddenly gone away. This Referendum will strengthen child protection and is guided by some of those 17 major reports, in particular the Kilkenny Incest Case which first called for this constitutional change. This Referendum will place the protection of children at the centre of decision-making. The wording supports the assumption in law, which is shared in Irish society, that the best place for children is with their families. As I have often said, protecting children and supporting families are simply two sides of the same coin. This takes me to another key objective of this Referendum. It's about supporting families by re-affirming and underpinning early intervention and family support services, to protect children in their homes. Finally it's about recognising children in their own right by providing, for the first time, an express statement of their rights and giving Constitutional standing to their views and best interests in court proceedings affecting their day to day lives. These principals are already established in Irish law. This Referendum will give them constitutional backing. For children at risk, this Referendum will ensure that they are protected from harm. It will allow for children to be adopted, irrespective of their parent's marital status, and it will also provide that the rights and protections enjoyed by children are to be enjoyed by all. The debate on this Referendum must not belong solely to constitutional lawyers or politicians. This is a debate for all of us. This Referendum is needed, it will change how our Constitution treats our children and will improve the lives of Ireland's children, in particular our most vulnerable. Our children are our future and it is up to us to ensure that they are protected and that they can enjoy the childhood they deserve with loving families around them.