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Ombudsman sounds warning about 'invisible' homeless children and family hubs

Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon says the government needs to change its thinking.

THE OMBUDSMAN FOR Children has said that children can be “invisible” in housing policy and that family hubs “cannot become the norm”.

The call for action on homeless children comes as the Ombudsman for Children’s Office (OCO) publishes its annual report for 2017, noting a 4% increase in complaints to a total of 1,755.

On homelessness, Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon said that a “new way of thinking” was needed from government.

The latest figures from April recorded that there were 3,689 homeless children in the State.

The OCO’s report outlined that complaints about homelessness to the office have doubled since 2015. Four of five relate to the inability of children and families to access suitable housing.

The report contained details of a case study involving a mother who had left her home with her children due to domestic violence.

In that case, they were forced to live in a women’s refuge for three months before being moved around various emergency accommodation for a year and a half.

Following an investigation, the OCO concluded that the children had been “without a stable home for 20 months and living at times in poor quality accommodation”.

Furthermore, the woman and her family were referred by Fingal County Council to a unit for non-Irish families despite the fact that she had legal residency.

The report states that the complaints received by the OCO point to a system that sees children “as dependents rather than as individual rights holders”.

“A new way of thinking is needed from government,” Muldoon said upon publication of the report.

The State needs to move away from prioritising financial interests that view housing as a commodity and instead recognise it as a social good, offering children and families a secure place to live in dignity.

Mental health

The OCO’s report also raised concerns about children who are experiencing mental health issues or are in Direct Provision accommodation.

On the mental health issue, the OCO said it had particular concerns about the response of services when children present as suicidal.

The report stated that there were occasions when there was no specialist consultant available to assess children when they went to hospital displaying suicidal behaviour.

The investigation of one complaint found that this had been a problem for four years in that area and that up to 60 children experienced delays in seeing a child mental health specialist.

“All children who need an assessment of mental health in emergency departments should be able to access this quickly, not days after the event,” Muldoon stated.

I would urge the HSE to address problems with consultant psychiatrists’ out-of-hours contracts to ensure children and adolescents have access to the services they need, when they need them.

Direct provision

Children in the Direct Provision system have only been able to make complaints to the OCO since April 2017 and the report states that 29 were made last year.

The complaints related to a variety of issues including financial support and accommodation but the OCO has said that complaints are low because some may be wary of making them.

“We believe that the low number of complaints we receive is due to a perception that making complaints would impact negatively on living conditions or lead to an undesirable transfer within the system,” the report states.

Complaints about financial supports in Direct Provision are outside the remit of the OCO but the report noted that restrictions of such supports are “felt acutely” during a child’s life.

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