THE SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR on child protection has suggested a significant amendment to children’s legislation which would allow any person to apply to a court to have a minor, who they believe to be at risk, placed in care.
In his fifth report, Dr Geoffrey Shannon said that identification and detection of risks to children is the basis upon which any effective child system must operate.
There is a fear that the HSE may not always identify children who are not receiving adequate care and protection, “or that even if it does it may not detect a risk to such a child”.
At the moment, the only option open to somebody who is not the guardian of a child is to institute judicial review proceedings or make a complaint to the Children’s Ombudsman.
Thus it is the HSE alone that polices the safety and welfare of children in Ireland. The question must be asked, is this sufficient?
The report recommends:
The Child Care Act 1991 should be amended so as to enable any person to apply to the court seeking an order or direction in respect of a child who is not the subject of proceedings under the Child Care Act 1991 or the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964 but who has been brought to the attention of the HSE, where there are reasonable grounds for believing that the child inquestion is not receiving adequate care and protection.
Certain limitations would apply for any such change in law and it would only be used in “exceptional circumstances”, according to Shannon’s recommendation, which was just one of 47 given to the Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald.
It would also only apply to children whom the HSE are already aware of but steps have yet to be taken or if it is deemed to have failed in its duty.
Bart Storan, executive director of Campaign for Children, said that making child protection “everyone’s responsibility within society” is a positive move.
“The report is another call for putting children at the centre and building a system around them but the only way of making sure this happens to to provide robust rights,” he told TheJournal.ie this morning.
Although the recommendation has been given prominent coverage, the central tenet and a recurring theme in the report advocates for the use of alternatives to court and better mechanisms so child protection cases can be prevented.
The child law expert’s latest report comes after the Independent Child Death Review Group outlined the devastation that occurs when the child protection system fails. “The reality is that the State has a poor record as a good parent,” Shannon wrote in his report.
He noted that the number of children taken into care had risen significantly in 2011, adding that support for families needs to be improved in some cases. ”It must be ensured that children are not taken into care because help was not provided at an earlier stage.”
As well as considering greater support for parents with intellectual disabilities, other factors such as the current economic climate should also be considered when reviewing the system of support for families.
Shannon’s 47 recommendations attempt to plug some of the gaps in Ireland’s child protection system, calling on the Government to ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to enable young people to make international complaints and to hold a referendum to include children’s rights in the constitution as soon as possible.
Although the coalition has promised to hold the vote on children’s rights, no date has yet been set. Fitzgerald confirmed yesterday that the referendum will be held during 2012.
“Every day that goes by without a referendum is another day that children aren’t as protected as they should be,” explained Storan. “It is important that the process is right and the wording is right – but it is also important that it happens soon rather than later.”
Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, echoed those sentiments. “We have one opportunity to hold a referendum and we need to be convinced that the wording is as strong as it can be to deal with the gaps in child protection law.”
“We have now been talking about this since 2006,” concluded Storan.
Indeed, Shannon was first appointed to examine developments in the area of child law six years ago. His other recommendations to the Government include providing further and appropriate training to all judges involved in making decisions about the interests of children; ensuring the adequate implementation of the Ryan Report recommendations and providing compensation to abuse survivors.
The report also calls for all non-Irish parents of Irish citizen children to be given permission to remain in – or come back to – Ireland and a greater prioritisation of mental health services for under-18s.