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Fergus Finlay: At last children will be seen and heard when it matters most

EVERY single day across Ireland there are families who struggle. They struggle with the demands of raising children in often difficult situations. I'm talking especially about families who are particularly vulnerable for any number of very complicated reasons.

They're the kind of families Barnardos works with each and every day. What has always struck me is the enormous efforts the majority of parents will go to to make sure their children have what they need, to provide the kind of care we all want for our children, even in the most horrendous conditions.

Of course, there are a minority of families where the abuse, violence or severe neglect are such that no amount of intervention is sufficient to adequately protect their children. For these children, the State must be able to intervene to protect them from harm.

Yesterday, the Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald published a proposed amendment on children's rights that, once finalised, will be put to the people of Ireland on November 10. This amendment has been a long time in the crafting and the wording reflects many of the principles those of us who work with children have espoused for many years.

This amendment is absolutely necessary and has the potential to make a huge difference to children in a number of ways.

For a start, it will make a distinct and clear commitment to children in the foundation stone of Irish law for the first time in the history of our State. This monumental step reflects the journey we have collectively taken over the past few decades. We have come a long way in terms of our cultural attitudes and treatment of children.

The Constitution as it stands, at present, does not reflect this journey. This amendment will set out the rights children have by virtue of being children and human beings and it will mean that those rights can never be taken away. It will reflect the value our society places on children and the respect and protection we want to uphold for childhood.

The amendment will also mean that the State can do more to protect children and support their families. In the kind of cases where parents are struggling to care for their children, it will mean that the State must provide better support to vulnerable parents to strengthen their ability to give their kids the care they want to give them.

It will mean proportionate supports, earlier on and it will hopefully mean that, over time, we will be able to provide services to ensure fewer families reach crisis points that place children at significant risk of harm.

At the other end of the scale, this proposed amendment will mean that in exceptional circumstances the State will be able to provide equal protection to all children, regardless of whether the parents are married or not. There are some situations in which families are not the best protectors of their children.

We all know the kinds of cases we're talking about -- Roscommon, Kilkenny -- and I don't think any of us would argue that they were not exceptional circumstances. In those situations where children are living with horrors we don't even want to begin to imagine, the State will be better able to protect them.

There has already been discussion about adoption surrounding the Children's Referendum. The proposed amendment, published by Ms Fitzgerald yesterday, will simply remove the current inequality that makes it nearly impossible for children of married parents to be adopted.

In practical terms it will mean that where children are in long-term foster care and where there is no hope that they will ever be able to return to their birth parents, they will have the opportunity to be part of a loving and stable family.

There will be a number of steps in that process and it will remain the case that the High Court will make final decisions in adoption cases, as is appropriate. But in very real terms it will mean that some children who now spend their lives in a family that they do not have a firm legal connection with can be fully part of that family for life.

There are numerous instances where children find themselves at the centre of court proceedings.

There are two significant and historic measures that this proposed amendment could potentially make in these situations.

The first is to ensure that the best interests of children are the paramount consideration in care proceedings and guardianship, custody and access cases. The second is to ensure that the views of the children involved in these cases are heard. This means that, for the first time, children will be seen and heard when potentially life-changing decisions are being made about their lives.

There will be much debate over the coming weeks as the proposed constitutional amendment is discussed in the Oireachtas and yet more debate once the final wording is published and we all begin the debate proper about what this referendum will mean.

For me, this referendum is about taking our final step out of a sometimes shadowy past and stepping fully into the Ireland we have carved from that -- an Ireland where children are protected, respected and heard. This referendum is about putting that commitment down on a weighty piece of paper.

Fergus Finlay is the CEO of Barnardos

Irish Independent