CHILDREN’S MINISTER Frances Fitzgerald has said the referendum on children’s rights would in no way be a “charter” for children to be taken from their families.
The minister said there was “no evidence in Ireland” – either through the courts system or the child support services – that there was any motivation to take children from their families in ways that could be permitted under the proposed constitutional amendment.
The government’s amendment, published this morning, would alter the constitution so that the State could step in to “supply the place of the parents” – though this would be strictly limited to “exceptional cases” only.
Speaking to reporters as the amendment was launched, Fitzgerald said the focus of the Irish legal system was always to ensure that families in difficulty were given the necessary supports, while putting children into alternative care was a last resort.
“There is a huge focus from a regulatory point of view to intervene first to help families,” the minister said. “The whole focus of our childcare legislation is to work with families in a supportive way.”
The minister also added that Ireland had an ample supply of foster families so that any children who did require alternative housing did not require care in a residential setting.
“There is no evidence in Ireland, either through our courts or through our services, that there is a huge wish to move to a situation” where children were being removed from their family homes, she said.
Equality to all children
Fitzgerald had earlier commented that the referendum would give legal equality to children irrespective of the status of their parents – saying it would end the current circumstances where children living in foster homes try unsuccessfully to have themselves put up for adoption.
She said there were many cases of children about to turn 18 who had gone to court to try and be legally adopted by their foster parents, so that they would be recognised as the person’s legal parents into adulthood, but who had failed the rigorous test laid down by the courts to do so.
The minister also commented that the Courts Service of Ireland would need to make the appropriate arrangements so that the opinions of children – which would also be safeguarded and given a constitutional standing under the amendment – could be heard appropriately in cases involving them.
Fitzgerald acknowledged that a courtroom setting could place difficulties on children, particularly those coming from vulnerable circumstances, and the Courts Service would need “to examine how precisely they might” address this.