Poignancy remains for 3,600 youngsters
AT ANY one time there are about 3,600 children in the care of the State in this country. They form one of the most marginalised groups of people in our society. Readers can gauge the level of such exclusion very simply by asking themselves how many children in care they know. The chances are they know none.
When most people think of growing up in care, they think of adults like Paddy Doyle who wrote of his childhood in The God Squad, or Christine Buckley, whose story was so dramatically told in the RTE documentary Dear Daughter. While these stories are extremely valuable in telling about the past but they don't necessarily illuminate the present.
Most children growing up in care nowadays do not have the type of dramatic lives that will form the basis of future autobiographies or documentaries. They do not, for example, suffer the same physical deprivation yet, in many ways, their stories are just as filled with poignancy and emotion. It is this ordinary life of the child in care that the report prepared by the Children's Research Centre in Trinity College for the Mercy Sisters tries to address.
The report is an immensely valuable document. It gives us much more than snapshots of these children, the staff who look after them and the issues that dominate their lives. The purpose of this report was to guide the Mercy Order in deciding the policies and practices it should adopt for the 17 residential centres it still runs in this country.
That number is far less than it was in the past. At the turn of the century they ran 71 industrial schools and since their foundation in 1846 up to 1997, it is estimated that they dealt with over 43,000 children. It is more than a little surprising that no mention is made of the important events that immediately proceeded the establishment of this review i.e. the controversy over Goldenbridge, following the Dear Daughter programme.
Neither is there any reference to St Kyrans in Rathdrum, which was also run by Sr Xavieria, the nun at the centre of those stories. No explanation is given for that which leaves the Order open to accusations that it has tried to air-brush this part of their history out of the picture.
Such a conclusion would be most unfortunate and would not do justice to the report or the thinking behind it. This was an internal report which could have stayed confidential. There was no obligation to publish it and, in places, it is very critical of parts of the Mercy Sisters' system, when examined in the light of good practice guidelines.
At the core of this report is an attempt to see how practice on the ground measures up to the high standards found in the 1996 Department of Health Regulations on residential child care.
The report finds major variations in the standard of care provided to the children. For example, it states that, regarding emotional and psychological well-being of the children - which is, or should be, their core business - only a small minority of centres seem to be innovative, child centred and flexible.
Many others, in contrast, do not seem to perform adequately in these fields and fail to reach the standards defined by the department's regulations. That fact does not just have implications for the Mercy Order, but has enormous significance for the whole child care system. What is the point of having regulations setting down standards if they are not met?
The long awaited Social Services Inspectorate will play a crucial role in this regard, but it can't in itself bring about the necessary changes. Like this report,the Inspectorate will only be able to suggest ways in which they can be achieved.
It has been known for quite some time, from anecdotal evidence, that the equivalent regulations with regard to children in foster care are being flouted every day of the week. There are many children in care, for example, in the Eastern Health Board who do not even have a designated social worker. How can regulations be followed when one of the key professionals required to carry them out is not in place? Is it any wonder that children are allowed to drift in care, placements breakdown, families get hostile and, in the end, the children suffer.
Some of these children go on to be considered out of control and in need of secure care. One of the most valuable parts of this review for me was the fact that the children's views were explicitly sought. Not surprisingly, it discovered that their two main concerns are (a) that they be listened to and (b) they want to be reunited with their families.
The point about listening is not just about hearing complaints, and the report criticises centres that don't have a comprehensive complaints policy, but is also about being in touch with child anxieties. One child is quoted as expressing suicidal thoughts: ``I was going to kill myself a few months ago, my sister was the only one I could talk to but I didn't want to tell her all that stuff. I told staff (named) ... he is the only one who understands me.''
It is not only the Sisters of Mercy who need to read this report. The whole child care system can find elements of their own struggles mirrored in it. It may have taken Dear Daughter to create the impetus for it but regardless of its origins, it is a very valuable contribution to our knowledge of this highly marginalised group of children.
Kieran McGrath is editor of Irish Social Worker.