A LOT OF people may think that the Children’s Referendum will have absolutely no impact on their lives if it is passed, or on the lives of their children. And they’d be right. It won’t have any effect on the vast majority of children in Ireland who are lucky enough to live in happy, safe homes, where they are loved and cherished. But the Referendum is vitally important for those other children, the one per cent of children who are abused and neglected. Who up to now have had no voice. I was one of those children.
I was first taken into State care when I was three, because my parents couldn’t care for me. My home, my family home, wasn’t a safe place to be. But despite that fact, I was continually brought back to my family, to unsafe conditions, because in the eyes of the law my family’s rights superseded my own. I was never given the opportunity to say how I felt, to explain how I just wanted someone to take care of me. My voice wasn’t just irrelevant, it wasn’t even heard.
What happened to me was wrong. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, my family was considered to be the best place for me. So for five years I was moved in and out of State care, in foster families and residential homes. But luckily, when I was eight, I was put in long term foster care, and I took every opportunity I got. Now I have a successful business and a family of my own. I’ll be voting Yes in the Children’s Referendum on Saturday November 10 because I don’t want future children to be denied their rights like I was. I want these children to be heard, to be listened to, and to be offered the protection they need.
I’m now a voluntary board member of the Irish Foster Care Association, representing the foster parents who look after children who need to be brought into State care. So as well as having my own experience, I continuously hear of other cases similar to my own. Every day, the courts make life changing decisions about children, but the Constitution doesn’t always allow them to consider what is best for the child. And there is no obligation on any judge to consider the views of a child, when making life changing decisions about their welfare. Voting Yes means judges, taking age and maturity into account, will have to consider what a child has to say, before making their final judgement.
This Referendum isn’t about giving the State more power; on the contrary it will help us hold the State to account. By explicitly recognising children’s rights in the Constitution, we can finally ensure that a more child-centred approach is taken. The proposed amendment sets out how the State can intervene, in exceptional circumstances, to help families and provide support where children are at risk. I so badly needed someone to intervene in my own situation when I was a small child. But when that intervention came, it was too late. This Referendum is about stepping in and helping families who are struggling, rather than waiting until crisis point – helping to keep families together where possible and helping to ensure children are in a safe environment.
I don’t think the State failed me; in fact if it wasn’t for the State and its eventual intervention, things could have been a lot worse. But systems did fail. Under our current system, the courts are constrained. And children are denied the protection and opportunities they deserve. More than 90 per cent of children in care in this country live with foster families, often with relatives. And for many of them, if this Referendum is passed, they will have a second chance to be adopted into a stable, secure family. Voting Yes will mean anomalies in our adoption laws can be addressed, so all children can be treated equally, regardless of the marital status of their parents. This means every child will be given the same chance to live in a loving and safe home.
This Referendum obviously can’t change my past. It can’t erase the legacy of child protection failures that have blighted this country in recent decades. But it can give us a fresh start. By voting Yes on Saturday November 10 we can make a bold statement about who we are as a nation, and how we value our children. And crucially, we can give future generations the rights that I and so many others were denied.
Wayne Dignam is Managing Director of Tender Team and a board member of the Irish Foster Care Association. He is working with the campaign for a Yes vote in the referendum on Saturday, November 10.
Byline photograph by Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland.
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