Monday, October 22, 2012

Ireland’s Children's Referendum is also a vote of confidence in the Health Services Executive

Changing the nation’s Constitution will be a futile exercise if the nation’s health services do no deliver enhanced child welfare services. Voter turnout on the day will speak volumes.

Concern has been expressed that voter turnout at the referendum on 10th November to alter the rights of children vis-à-vis their parents will be low. Perhaps this concern is rooted in a conviction by voters that this initiative will promise much but deliver little, despite the escalating nature of the underlying problem of child abuse that the referendum is intended to deal with.

Ireland eventually ratified the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in September 1992 because the Government considered that people under 18 years of age need special care and protection that adults do not require. Ratification meant that the Government agreed to be held legally accountable for this commitment.

The Child Care Act of 1991 imposes an obligation on the HSE to promote the welfare of children who are not receiving adequate care and protection.

But the definition of the corporate mission of the HSE is to enable people to lead healthier and more fulfilled lives’. Neither the ratification of a United Nations convention, nor the statutory obligations of legislation that have been in place for 21 years to deal with the welfare and wellbeing of vulnerable and isolated children, has persuaded the HSE to reflect the special requirements of the child in its corporate mission statement in the way the Government would like the Constitution to. Yet, James Reilly, Minister for Health and the Secretary-General of his Department have direct control of the HSE in all material respects.

During the decade to April 2010 a total of 196 children died who had been in the care, or after-care of the State, or were known to the HSE. The 112 children who died from non-natural causes include 30 deaths that were drug related; 28 suicides and 16 deaths attributable to unlawful killing.

While the interests of children merited a dedicated cabinet minister in the current government, it is also noteworthy that the mandate of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children concerns proposed health policy, the future planning of health services and scrutinising the way healthcare is delivered. The focus of the Oireachtas sub-committee on Children and Youth Affairs is on future legislation and the review of spending estimates. There is no special priority by these Oireachtas committees on child welfare outcomes of those vulnerable children who are catapulted from the care of their own parents, however unsatisfactory that may be, into the care of the State.

One need look no further that the recent report by the Inspector of Prisons into St Patrick’s Institution to glean an insight into the consequences of inhuman, delinquent and incompetent oversight of young people in the long-term care of the State that no constitutional referendum could ever put right.

The population of children in Ireland aged 18 years and under, has increased by 8.8% from 2006 to 2011. But the population of children in the care of the State has increased by 15.4% to 6,160 in this period. The population of children under the age of 14 increased by 12.9% between 2006 and 2011, so the demand and necessity for State intervention is likely to increase further based on these demographic trends.

The United States Congress considers a detailed report on child welfare outcomes every three years that is intended to inform the public and policy makers about the performance of the State in delivering child welfare services and the priorities that need to be set.

If the Government are to convince voters to support this referendum they will need to demonstrate that that apparatus of State has the leadership, integrity, capacity, commitment and will to deliver better and more effective child welfare outcomes and that these outcomes be deliberated on in public by an Oireachtas committee so that the public are fully informed as to what is happening.

The seriousness of the issue of child abuse is of the utmost gravity and the first step in the campaign of persuasion is for the Government to demonstrate clearly and convincingly that a change in the Constitution will be simultaneously accompanied by integrated, holistic, effective and well executed policies, not mere window dressing in the form only of a constitutional referendum that will otherwise offer few advantages to those most needing support, care and guidance.