Thursday 14 December 2017

It's time we gave our young a hearing

Olivia O'Leary

Canvassing on a windy street in recent weeks, I met a grandmother, a strong admirable woman, and she told me a tale of such hurt that it has stayed with me ever since. Her son's partner had left him and taken their little girl and this woman and her son had battled for years to get joint custody. Eventually they won. But years of bitterness could have been avoided if only somebody had listened to the child. She would have told them that she wanted to be with all the people she loved: her mother, her natural father, and her grandparents. Nobody listened to the child.

Children aren't stupid, you know. In most cases, they know who loves them and who will care for them and they seek out that caring love like the roots of a plant will seek water. We must listen to children. That's one of the most important things that the proposed change in the constitution in next Saturday's referendum will bring about: where practicable, the voice of the child will have to be heard in all proceedings relating to them. At the moment, Guardians ad Litem, who represent the child's views, are used in less than 40 per cent of child care proceedings. In any case, as the independent referendum commission booklet says: ''There is no explicit constitutional reference to the views of the child as a consideration in determining proceedings.'' If the referendum is passed, there will be.

I have waited all my adult life for this referendum, watching government after government dodge the issue as a procession of reports into cases of child abuse or neglect or even death called for constitutional change. What difference will it make? Well, as well as putting children's rights explicitly in the constitution in a whole separate article, 42A, it says that in all proceedings concerning them, the best interests of the child shall be of paramount consideration. Isn't that already the case, you might ask? No. As Judge Catherine McGuinness, who chaired the Kilkenny Incest Investigation, said in its report: ''The very high emphasis on the rights of the family in the Constitution may consciously or unconsciously be interpreted as giving a higher value to the right of parents than to the rights of children."

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