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15 years of abuse, 15 years of rape, broken arms and bruises. Why did that go on?, asks Minister

THE State must hold its hands up and admit to failing Irish children time and time again, a Government minister has stressed.

In a revealing interview the Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald said some of the worst scandals that have rocked the country over the years were mishandled at the highest levels.

The State, the judiciary, health services and communities have all turned their backs on abused children in the past, said Ms Fitzgerald.

Young people have regularly slipped through the system in their early years, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Ms Fitzgerald highlighted the cases of abuse victim Kelly Fitzgerald (15), the horrifying Roscommon abuse case and institutional abuse.

Dreadful

"There is a dreadful history of Irish society, not just the State, of us failing our most vulnerable children," she said.

"Lots of people knew about those institutions, it wasn't just the few people around, it wasn't just the Irish State.

"The whole question is what are we doing now? How will the State do better?

"It is just one part of change, the services have to be changed, the way we deliver them.

"The State has to do better on a lot of fronts."

Ireland's youth, under the age of 18, may have a voice for the first time under the proposed amendment to the Constitution.

But this will not cut out parents' rights and does not give the State a favoured position, the Minister for Children insists.

"I just want to dispel a myth about this referendum -- this is not about giving more power to the State," she told the Herald.

"This is about putting children more centrally in all of the circumstances where decisions about children were made. It is in relation to a particular group of children (and in the area of) adoption, access, custody.

"It is about the whole system doing better for these children.

"You have to have high standards about child protection.

"The absolute presumption in the Irish Constitution is that the best place for children is with their parents, with their family," she added.

Damaged

"Nothing about this amendment changes that -- except where their welfare is being damaged, where their protection and safety is being affected."

The Fine Gael TD is in the midst of her most high-profile assignment to date -- encouraging people to vote Yes in the Children's Referendum.

Most agree that Ireland's youth deserve a voice now -- but many are concerned that it will undermine the rights of the family.

And there is the question of trusting the State to look after our most vulnerable when in the past, thousands of children were subjected to abject cruelty in State-run institutions and were abandoned by the services put in place to protect them.

Ms Fitzgerald believes the amendment, which says that the best interests of the child should be the paramount consideration in any legal proceedings, does not supercede the original rights of the family.

Ireland is slowly facing up to its dark past in relation to child protection -- where hundreds of institutions and families failed in their duty to look after those most in need.

And this amendment aims to change all this.

The minister believes this move will mean there is a greater obligation to intervene in serious cases.

"What the people do in relation to the referendum matters -- to the courts and then everybody down the line -- they have to interpret that this was put into the Constitution for a reason," she said.

"My view is that it will answer not just law, but practice."

The Fine Gael minister identified landmark cases of appalling child abuse, including the Kelly Fitzgerald case who died aged 15 in 1993 following years of neglect and abuse by her parents. The girl in the Kilkenny incest case was continually assaulted and raped by her father between 1976 and 1991.

These cases could have been prevented before they came to a tragic conclusion, the minister believes.

Failed

"This is a generational message about the centrality of child protection and what you have in a whole series of cases -- nobody acted or, extraordinarily, failed to act and there was huge damage done to children," she said.

"This is about saying that children's rights matter and the balances have to be thought about in this new way.

"If you look at Kilkenny -- 15 years of rape, 15 years of attendance at A&E, 15 years of various forms of abuse, broken arms, bruises. Why did that go on? What is the worry about protecting children?

"The worry was about intervening with that family. Why? The rights of the family, in that case, were superior to the rights of the child."

The Children's Referendum takes place on Saturday, November 10.

clairemurphy@herald.ie


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