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Ombudsman for Children criticises Government and declares 2020 a 'devastating year' for young people

The OCO said most complaints were centred around education in 2020 and particularly associated with the Leaving Certificate.

Image: Sam Boal

THE OMBUDSMAN FOR Children’s Office has declared last year as a “devastating” year for children and strongly criticised Government for not listening to their concerns.

Dr Niall Muldoon, head of the OCO, launched a scathing attack on Government inaction around a number of issues raised in complaints to the body.

He said the highest number of complaints, 49%, were around education and said that despite receiving less complaints this year the amount of children contacting the office directly has risen.

“2020 was a devastating year for children. We heard heart-breaking stories of children with additional needs regressing and about the turmoil the uncertainty caused.

“Children were grappling with the digital divide and they worried about parents who had lost their jobs as the pandemic wreaked havoc on the economy,” Muldoon said.

“More children contacted the office themselves to complain about issues last year which is positive and down to our outreach but it also shows how the voice of the child was not being heard by Government and decision makers.

“Many children with parents or siblings who were medically high risk, wrote to us expressing their fears of causing the death of that parent or sibling. Many were facing into their exam years and had been told by their schools there was nothing they could do to help them if they decided to self isolate because of a family member.”

The OCO received 1,187 complaints in 2020 – 316 fewer than 2019, as many services were closed. The body said that it expects the number of complaints to increase in 2021 as new issues emerge.

Last year 6% of the complaints made to the OCO came directly from children, this is an increase from 3% in 2019.

The OCO said it believes this increase can largely be attributed to those who contacted us in relation to education issues and is an indication of the level of upset among students.

100% of the children who contacted the OCO mentioned the impact of the pandemic on their mental health.

Muldoon said that he expects an increase in complaints this year as unreported cases of abuse during the lockdowns come to light. 

“We believe firmly in keeping the voice of the child to the fore and I was delighted the Department of Children was retained rather than subsumed last year, however its status or retention should have never been up for discussion. 

“While we were all told to stay at home, it is not always a safe place, and we fear that children who were at risk of abuse or neglect and other issues that went under the radar due to school closures will come to the fore this year,” he said. 

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Muldoon said that the old methods of dealing with the concerns and issues faced by children must not return after the pandemic.  

“There can be no return to the old normal  – where babies learn to crawl in emergency accommodation, teenagers in severe physical pain wait years for scoliosis operations or those in mental turmoil wait years for psychological intervention and where Traveller children are bullied for where they live. That is not the normal we should accept any longer.”

“The pandemic has shown the need for proper investment to bridge the inequality gap and ensure all children are given the support they need to thrive.

“This is a once in a generation opportunity to reflect on the huge learnings since the pandemic started and recognise how much we can do when we focus on what can be done instead of what can not. We must build upon the momentum and transformative change that was the hallmark of the pandemic and use this energy to ensure no child is left behind.”

The report will be launched this morning in St Mary’s Holy Faith School in Killester.

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