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Padraig O'Morain: We still don't protect our children properly

We think we're so sophisticated when it comes to children's rights that we would never allow the crimes of the past to occur on our watch.

Institutional abuse, we think, occurred under the eyes of a naive society which didn't much care anyway for the children locked up in the industrial schools and reformatories. We are not that naive.

Yet the latest annual report from the ombudsman for children, Emily Logan, makes it clear that for all our wringing of hands, we still ignore children in danger and, if they fall below a certain level of vulnerability, we let them take their chances in an unequal world.

And this applies even where parents are desperate to get help for children with difficulties. Among the factors she commented on was "the amount of time, energy and resources needed by parents or guardians to advocate on behalf of their child and the effect that this is having on family life."

That's bad enough. If that's the reception we give to families looking for help, then the outlook for the child whose family doesn't care enough to fight the system is dire.

The thing is, we know all this. For years we've been hearing parents complain about the impossibility of getting help for children with psychological issues that are leading them straight into trouble. We've been hearing about the weakness of our response to children who are left to their own devices. We've been hearing about children who come here on their own from abroad and who disappear from State care.

We hear all this, say it's terrible and then forget about it.

Many of these children have complex problems, as Ms Logan points out. I would add that many are difficult to help. They don't want to be in care and they don't really see that they need help. Behaviour can be very challenging in some cases.

What this means is that to work effectively with these children we need a high quality, child protection service. That's not what we've got. Why? Probably because there isn't a single vote to be got from child protection. No TD will ever put his or her career on the line for these children.

That's why we need a referendum on the constitutional rights of children - and Ms Logan has repeated her demand for such a referendum. A referendum, if carried, would not improve matters overnight but it would give children's advocates, including families, a weapon to use to force the State and child protection system to do its job.

Meanwhile, the funding for Emily Logan's office was reduced last year. Even the most vulnerable children are not immune from the cuts. But then, what's new about that?