independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

NEWS FOCUS CHILDREN'S REFERENDUM

ON SATURDAY THE PUBLIC WILL GO TO THE POLLS TO VOTE IN THE CHILDREN'S REFERENDUM. BARNADOS CEO FERGUS FINLAY ARGUES THAT CHANGING THE CONSTITUTION WILL SEE OUR CHILDREN 'BETTER PROTECTED, BETTER RESPECTED AND BETTER HEARD'. HOWEVER, SOCIAL CARE WORKER AND LECTURER JOHN BYRNE SAYS CHANGING THE CONSTITUTION WILL 'FURTHER MARGINALISE SOME OF THE MOST VULNERABLE AND DISADVANTAGED PEOPLE IN IRISH SOCIETY'

NO - John Byrne

On Saturday people go to the polls to vote on the 31st amendment to the Constitution.In some respects this amendment has already been passed because the Yes campaign has done an excellent job of selling its agenda by dubbing this the "children's rights referendum" rather then giving it its official title. A cynic might say that this was a cunning act of political manipulation. I say that it is unintentionally misleading, and it doesn't tell the full story.

If the amendment is passed, it will further marginalise some of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in Irish society, including victims of domestic violence, people with addiction/psychiatric difficulties, prison populations and the homeless.

The amendment proposes that if a child is deemed to be abandoned (after only 36 months) in care, then the State can make the decision to have the child adopted against the will of the birth parent. This is a proposal which shows no understanding of the reality of child protection services in Ireland and/or no regard for the birth parents of children in care.

In theory, when a child is taken into care, the State is supposed to place the child in a place of safety. Social workers are then supposed to help the parent and the child with whatever the presenting problem is. The aim is always to reunite the family in the shortest possible period of time. In reality there are not enough social workers or placements in care for children, so services are fire-fighting all of the time, crisis managing a dysfunctional system that has never actually worked properly. If you are in any doubt about the reliability of this statement, please see the Prime Time Investigates programme In Harm's Way, broadcast on May 12th, 2008.

The result is that in very many cases children come into care and as soon as they are settled, the social worker moves on to another crisis. Very little if anything gets done with the child or parent and the child invariably ends up drifting in care. The parents' difficulties are compounded because they are faced with the reality of not being able to parent their own child and they often deal with that the only way they know how, which is with alcohol or drugs. And so the problem gets worse instead of better.

Before anybody knows what is happening, months and years have passed and nothing has changed, the child has become part of the foster family (often referring to the foster parents as Mam and Dad) and there is virtually no hope of ever replacing them with his or her birth parents. Meanwhile, the life situation of the birth parents has become progressively worse as a result of their inability to cope, compounded by inadequate and/or dysfunctional State support services.

If this amendment is passed in its current form we are giving more power to a dysfunctional system to take children from some of the most vulnerable people in society. I am conscious that the popular view is that many of these people should not have children in the first place and that everybody should take responsibility for their own actions.

While I understand this perspective, it shows no understanding of the life experience of the birth parents of children in care, many of whom are victims of failed State care services themselves and have experienced the most horrendous of life situations.

I am not saying that children should not have rights, but giving one group more rights should not mean disadvantaging another. Surely children's rights should be equal to those of their parents, not greater than. On the issue of abandonment, it is impossible to know whether a child has been abandoned in care until we have sufficient support services to reunite them with their birth families.

If a birth parent has been given all of the supports that they need and the child is deemed to be "abandoned" then I absolutely support a system that allows the child to have a second chance at a "functioning" family, but only after everything has been tried and this has been independently verified. We are a long way from that situation at present.

It is not that long ago that some religious orders took a high moral ground in our society and encouraged birth parents to give their children up for adoption so that they would have a "better opportunity" in life. In hindsight, we know they were wrong. Campaign groups are still struggling to get justice for the female residents of Magdalene homes who suffered as a result of this policy and were deprived of the right to be parents.

I have never (in 20 years) met a parent of a child in care who didn't love their child. I have met very many that could not (at that time) care for them, but that is a different issue. There is no doubt that many of the parents of children in care have done terrible things but that doesn't necessarily make them terrible people. It makes them people who need help and support, not punishment.

If you think that adult survivors of abuse, neglect and maltreatment should take full responsibility (without support) for all of their actions and be punished for their mistakes then you should vote Yes to the proposed amendment, but if you believe that we are a Christian society with a moral obligation to protect our most vulnerable citizens, then you should vote No and send this proposed legislation back for amendment.

Either way, you should be clear that this is not a child protection issue. There is already a very sound legal mechanism for protecting children in Ireland. It is the implementation of the existing legislation that is the problem.

YES - Fergus Finlay

This Saturday, let's make our statement of intent. Let's send the strongest possible message that we, the people of Ireland, can send. Let's Vote YES. So our children will be better protected, better respected, and better heard than ever before.

Our Constitution belongs to us. We are the only ones who can change it. And when we do, our Government, our policy-makers and our Judges must listen. So let's take this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to put our children into the heart of our Constitution.

Terrible things have happened to children in Ireland over the years. Again and again they have been failed by systems in which they didn't matter. Perhaps as many as 100,000 children were sent to cruel, terrible institutions where they were neglected, tortured and worse. All those children had two things in common. First, they were all sent to those awful places by judges in a court of law. And second, not a single one of them was ever represented or heard in the courts that dealt with their

futures. There have been many reports about what happened to those children. And to other individual children. Like Kelly Fitzgerald, a little girl who was starved to death by her parents. Or the brave children of Joseph McColgan, brutalised by him in the most terrible way. Or the children of Roscommon. Or the children who died unnatural deaths while either in the care of the State or whose issues were known to the State. And many, many more.

When you read all these reports, two things pop out at you. The first is the word "culture". All these children were damaged, some of them destroyed, by a culture in which children should be seen and not heard. Children didn't matter. The reputation of powerful institutions always mattered far more. We have to change that culture. An amendment to the Constitution, that puts children at its heart, that gives them an Article of their own, is a first powerful step on the way to doing that. It's not the whole story, of course. We'll need more resources, new laws, better practice and management, more accountability.

All of that is being worked on. It must be underpinned by a Constitution in which children and childhood is truly valued.

The second thing that stands out from all the reports, over nearly thirty years now, is that we didn't intervene early enough, and we didn't intervene well enough. The constitutional amendment will change that too.

It will enable the State - public health nurses, social workers, teachers, the Gardai, the courts - to report their concerns earlier, and to take action earlier, when a child is in danger or at risk. But it will oblige the State to do it better. Proportionately, and in exceptional circumstances, are the words used. That means only intervening to the extent that is necessary to avert the danger.

It means that if support around parenting issues is the solution, that's what the State will have to offer.

What this amendment won't do is simple. It won't damage, or threaten, families. Everyone who works with children knows that the best place for a child to grow and develop is surrounded by the love and care of his or her family.

We're all struggling these days to do our best by our kids, and we're all going to have to cut back on things like Christmas. But most families never cut back on love. That doesn't alter the fact that some children need better, quicker protection. And it also means that some families need more support than others. That's just a fact of life.

There are no circumstances in which I would support an amendment that enabled anyone to deprive a child of his or her family without deep, pressing reasons. There is nothing like that in this amendment. Instead, this is an amendment that I believe we will all be proud of in years to come. Ireland can be, and it should be, the best place in the world to be a child. For many it already is, and we can make it that way for each and every one of our country's children.

Voting YES on November 10th will be a significant step on that journey. Let's do it. Let's put our children in the heart of our Constitution.

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