SCS on Children's Rights: Van Turnhout on Care

HRinI is pleased to present this post by Jillian Van Turnhout, Chief Executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance as part of our SCS on Children’s Rights. Please read more about Jillian on our Guest Contributors page.

It’s summer time; school is out and the sun is shining – on and off.  For most of Ireland’s one million children, the summer means having fun on holidays with their families.  However, for 5,700 children, holiday time may not be so straightforward.  They may spend it with their foster families or go on a trip with their residential home; it may be a time for access visits to their families; or it may be business as usual, trying to navigate the homeless hostel scene.  These are Ireland’s care children and, for them, life can be good but it can also be very bleak. 

 For the vast majority of children, family is the best place for them to grow up.  Unfortunately, for a minority of children, family can be a damaging place.  When a child requires protection or care, the State has a moral and legal duty under law to support families in their parenting role or, where necessary, take a child into care.

 From my own experience, I believe that, for many children, the State’s care system represents safety and a chance to flourish – something they have previously been denied.  Unfortunately, for others, it is a distressing and lonely experience; not helped by a chaotic and under-resourced care system.  And this very system has recently come under the spotlight.

 Serious problems within our care system are not news for those working in this area.  Over recent months, massive and inexcusable failings in elements of the system have been unearthed for all to see.  These document grave rights violations committed against vulnerable children.  The resultant public outcry has been heartfelt and honest: no one wishes to live in a society where children are abandoned, hurt or lonely.  The public mood and media spotlight has now given fresh impetus for campaigners, like ourselves, seeking much needed reform.  

 So what actions do we need to take?  There are three pressing issues: the care system needs to be better managed; our most vulnerable families need to be supported so fewer children enter the care system; and, for those children in care, their experience should be positive and life enhancing.  The bottom line is this: the Government needs to provide us with a care system that we can all trust and which vindicates the rights of children in its care.

 Public confidence in the Health Service Executive (HSE) to manage the care system has plummeted to an all time low.  To restore public confidence, the Government must establish better lines of accountability between the Department of Health and the HSE, including a set of sanctions, if necessary.  Many commentators have called for the care system to be removed from the HSE’s remit altogether as they deem it no longer fit for purpose.  I believe that the decision of which agency should carry out this work must be based on one criteria – and one criteria only – which organisation can deliver the best outcomes for children in care, as speedily as possible.  Change must not be made for the sake of ‘looking good’ politically – the issue is too important.

 Making real the accepted principle that a child should only be taken into care as a measure of last resort is the Government’s second challenge.  Too many children, in fact 54%, enter the care system due to ‘family centred problems’ such as addiction, homelessness or mental health problems which can scupper the best of parenting intentions.  However, if the State had systems in place to intervene earlier to support families, I believe fewer children would enter the care system.

 Of course, early intervention and investing in families – often the most marginalised in society – costs money.  However, it is a morally bankrupt society that watches families crumble before it intervenes and any economist will tell you that early intervention pays dividends.  We need to break the costly cycle of pumping money into crisis management, and truly realise the rights of these children.

 A State agency that has earned the trust of the people is HIQA’s Social Services Inspectorate.  Through its inspection work and monitoring HIQA has raised standards for children in care.  To continue and deepen its work, HIQA must be adequately resourced and empowered.  Its work is central to ensuring that the care experience for children is positive and life enhancing. 

 One guiding light within Government is the Ryan Report Implementation Plan, published in July 2009.  With a budget of €25 million, the Plan contains 99 actions with timelines and clear lines of responsibility.  If implemented, it has the potential to change children’s lives.  One year into the Plan, there has been some welcome progress – though not as much as we would have hoped.  Successes include the first shoots of a social work recruitment process; the publication of HIQA guidance on child deaths in care; and the roll-out of ‘equity of care’ for separated children.  Let’s ensure progress continues, with Budget 2011 delivering the promised €10 million for the Plan. 

Investment – both financial and human resources – is vital if the Government is to restore the people’s trust in the care system and honour its responsibility to children, under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and national legislation.  A well functioning, rights-based care system is the only way forward.  The Government must rise to meet this challenge and work towards making Ireland one of the best places in the world to a child, regardless of whether you live with your family or in care. 

SCS on Children's Rights: Van Turnhout on Care

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