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Scandal of vulnerable children who have fallen through cracks

AFTER so much controversy about the rights of the unborn, it was timely to see the body politic turn its attention to born children this week. Not for the first time, the plight of children in trouble with the law and in need of detention or protection rose to the top of the agenda. This time it was Ms Justice Ann Ryan who made it her business and ours to point out that she had nowhere to place juveniles in need of detention and rehabilitation following sentence.

This was a state of affairs, she said, that was not something to be dealt with by reports and audits; it was short term and urgent. She rightly pointed to the danger of releasing juvenile offenders into the community with the capacity to do harm to themselves or others. The clear implication was that the State could be liable for such crimes or misdemeanours.

There was an air of theatre as the two senior officials representing Minister Frances Fitzgerald were dispatched down at the court to explain themselves. It all stemmed back to the decision last year to no longer send 16- to 18-year-olds to St Patrick's Institution; a decision long-awaited and welcomed by anyone who cares about the welfare of children. A series of prison reports had been scathing for decades about the conditions and dangers of housing children in this adult prison.

I officially visited Mountjoy and St Patrick's Institution as a member of the Justice Committee in the mid-'90s.

I recall being shocked to see a young man in solitary confinement, lying in a foetal position on a cement floor, naked except for a grey woollen blanket. He was crying like a baby. His skinny legs stuck out beneath the blanket.

When I asked why he was in this pathetic condition I was told he was there for his "own protection". Each report of the Inspector of Prisons recorded the same shamefully inhumane conditions.

This writer is an admirer of Ms Fitzgerald; I whooped with joy when she was appointed to a full cabinet position as Children's Minister. She is very effective; wise, caring and eager to tackle reforms in this and other areas of her brief.

Her response to the judge's criticism was swift. She was proud of the decision not to send children to St Patrick's Institution any longer, and was working hard to provide the additional places required that would have facilities appropriate for these young offenders.

But I was baffled by the figures quoted. How could it take more than a year to provide a small number of detention places for young offenders in this day and age?

With all the NAMA properties lying empty and a construction industry on its knees, surely a facility could be provided in a matter of weeks, even months at a stretch, to meet the immediate needs of the justice system? So, while the policy is right, the operational response is inadequate.

To add to the minister's woes, a Health Information and Quality Authority report was damning about the HSE's frontline child protection services. We have heard it all before in the reams of reports, 17 in all over 20 years, ranging from the Kilkenny incest case in the 1990s to the most recent Shannon/Gibbons report on the deaths of children in care.

The same appalling accounts of poor co-ordination, record keeping, delayed interventions, and failure to share information with the gardai.

Most depressing of all was a finding that the Children First Guidelines set 10 years ago were not being followed. What was revealed was essentially a shocking but familiar finding of maladministration leading to poor outcomes for vulnerable children.

A new system is planned to take responsibility away from the HSE to a new agency. But the fear is that the same bad practices and culture could transfer to the new statutory body. Very clear recommendations have been made in this first independent investigation into child protection services in Carlow/Kilkenny. There are more to follow.

Ms Fitzgerald's legacy as a minister may depend on the delivery of the key recommendations of this inspection process.

In this, she is breaking new ground and deserves public support, as both church and State have failed abysmally to protect previous generations of vulnerable children.

Is it not ironic that one does not see religious vigils and marches organised by the bishops for these living children, or TDs threatening to vote against their own Government in protest at these systemic failures?

Nor do we see an American cardinal boycotting an event to honour a visiting Taoiseach on the grounds that he is not a "fit person".

No cleric has been excommunicated for heinous crimes against children to my knowledge.

Our Government deserves credit for respectfully noting but ignoring those brandishing croziers at our Parliament and Constitution.

Irish Independent