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Children's Ombudsman says State must ensure vulnerable children are not be 'left behind' due to Covid

Dr Niall Muldoon said vulnerable children are finding it much more difficult to manage through the pandemic.

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THE CHILDREN’S OMBUDSMAN has said the State needs to ensure vulnerable children are not “left behind” with schools now reopened after the Covid-19 lockdown.

Ombudsman Dr Niall Muldoon said that while most children are back in school, many services in particular for children with special needs still have not resumed.

Speaking to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, he said: “Covid highlights that children who are in a vulnerable position to start with, like children with disability, children in poverty, children in Traveller or Roma communities are really at the bottom of the pile and find it much more difficult to survive through the Covid scenario.”

The Ombudsman’s annual report for 2019, published today, shows there was an increase in the percentage of complaints received by the Children’s Ombudsman last year relating to education.

The office received 1,503 complaints last year, a decrease from 1,622 complaints in 2018, but 49% of the complaints in 2019 related to education, up from 42% in 2018.

Of those complaints, 75% related to schools, 17% to the Department of Education and Skills and 4% were associated with other educational agencies such as the National Council for Special Education and the State Examinations Commission.

One fifth of complaints related to family support care and protection and 14% of complaints related to health services. Just 5% of complaints to the office related to housing and planning.

“The rise in the percentage of complaints relating to education shows that while significant work and development has taken place in this area there are still many children and families who are unhappy with the way the education system is supporting them,” Muldoon said.

‘Slow pace of change’

The report details how the office raised the case of Maria* with Tusla, a young person in State care with complex needs. She complained to the Ombudsman’s office about her experiences in an emergency hostel.

“Without a proper home, Maria found herself walking the streets day and night with nothing to do. She was also exposed to drink and drug misuse and was sexually exploited during this time. The OCO [Ombudsman for Children's Office] was very concerned about the model of care provided to vulnerable young people like Maria.

“After engaging with Tusla, it was confirmed to the Office that a 24-hour service would be provided and that a number of residential respite centres to support children living at home or in foster care that require additional supports to maintain their placement had been developed.”

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The report also highlighted the story of teenage boy Conor who has a diagnosis of autism, depression and anxiety and who had been staying in a paediatric ward for nearly five months when his parents complained on his behalf.

“Conor’s parent was concerned about the inappropriate nature of the hospital placement, the delay in the HSE securing an appropriate place for him to stay and a lack of proper supports to help him.

“Conor had little exercise, no access to education, limited therapeutic input and his only social interaction was with staff and parental visits. The OCO met with Conor in hospital and raised these concerns with the HSE, resulting in more proactive planning by the HSE for Conor’s care but it was still nine months after his admission that the HSE secured an individual placement for him supported, by a private care services provider.”

Muldoon said today that his office remains concerned about the ‘slow pace of change’ to improve law, policy and provision in the area of children and young people’s mental health.

“From my perspective as Ombudsman for Children, key issues for children and their rights that I want to see government and the State pursue during 2020 include making tangible progress on putting in place a mental health system for children that is fit for purpose and upholds children’s right to the highest attainable standard of mental health,” he said.

“I would also like to see the homelessness crisis addressed as a matter of urgency, ensuring that meaningful steps are taken on the issue of enumerating the right to housing in our Constitution. New political commitments to address and indeed end Direct Provision are welcomed and I hope that these will be honoured in the quickest possible timeframe.”

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