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Opinion: Government plans to tackle child neglect - but we've heard it all before

The First 5 plan is one in a long line of strategies to protect children but nothing ever changes on the ground, writes child protection expert, Shane Dunphy.

Shane Dunphy

MARY* IS THREE. She is small for her age, in fact she is tiny.

The experts call it ‘non-organic failure to thrive’, which means she is not being cared for well enough to reach her developmental milestones.

I met Mary at her local community crèche which she attends three days a week. Well at least the bus calls for her three mornings per week – but more often than not no one answers the door, so her seat remains empty.

Mary often presents with bruises at the crèche. Despite the fact the children are supposed to bring a packed lunch she never has one – instead the staff provide it for her. During the 14 months I have known her, Mary has always worn the same two outfits mixed-and-matched, regardless of the weather.

Her clothes often reek of ammonia – she is clearly a bed-wetter, but this seems to phase her parents not one iota. The staff dress her in a spare outfit they keep for emergencies, and wash her clothes before sending her home. If her parents notice this, they never let on.

Not serious enough

If Mary happens to attend crèche on a Friday, the mission of the staff is to get as much food into her as is humanly possible before she goes home. Every time she passes, one of them sticks a morsel in her mouth.

The simple reason for this is that between leaving the crèche at 4pm on a Friday evening and returning on Monday morning, if she does return, her meals are likely to consist of a packet of crisps or a fun-sized Mars bar – whatever she can scavenge at home.

To be clear, social services are well aware of Mary’s plight, and she is far from the only child in that crèche whose family is known to Tusla.
Her situation just isn’t seen as serious enough to warrant being taken into care.

So the staff in the crèche do their best to ensure that she receives the highest possible level of care they can provide – a philosophy they extend to all the children they work with.

This story makes me proud and angry at the same time. I am bursting with pride to be part of an industry that offers a child like Mary the only positive adult role models in her life, and goes above and beyond the call of duty every day to try to help her.

But I am furious that children like Mary continue to exist in 21st-century Ireland, that is simply not good enough.

As a society we need to do more.

First 5 

A new initiative launched this week by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Katherine Zappone, suggests that a change might be on the cards. On Monday she launched her First 5 plan saying that it is the first ever cross-departmental strategy to support babies and young children under five years of age. 

This 10-year plan aims to tackle the problems Mary faces in her young life, and theoretically should support her parents and the staff who work with her, in ways that we have not seen before.

First 5 promises a new model of parenting support including a specialised parenting unit, better funding for the early years sector as well as taking steps to address childhood poverty.

It envisages the creation of a dedicated child health service for both physical and mental health, including a dedicated child health workforce.

This plan also proposes to make it easier for both parents to access more paid parental leave during a child’s first year.

These are all important, worthwhile goals and the details of how each will be achieved will be published over the coming months.

So why are those of us who work in child protection not feeling more positive?

Because numerous similar programmes have been promised by previous ministers and previous governments on a depressingly regular basis.

If any one of these plans had ever yielded fruit, the chances of a child like Mary slipping through the cracks would be far less likely. But you do not have to be working on the frontline of child protection to see that realities like Mary’s are all too common.

Let me offer one example of the numerous strategies that come to mind.

In 2013 the then-Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald launched Right From the Start, a report by the Expert Advisory Group on Early Years’ Strategy.

That proposed a 10-year programme that would increase investment in early years’ services, extend paid parental leave, strengthen child and family support, enhance governance of the industry and enhance the quality of experience for children, including their physical and emotional health. 

Sound familiar?

Of course, within a year Fitzgerald had become Minister for Justice. Likewise both previous and subsequent ministers commissioned their own studies and programmes, which declared more or less the same goals, all to fizzle out when the next person took up the job.

And children like Mary go on surviving and staff in early years’ services, with wafer thin resources and little support, continue to do their best to help.

I really hope I’m wrong this time and that the First 5 initiative is the turning point that I’ve been waiting for since I started working in social care 25 years ago.

Nothing would make me happier than to be wrong about this. 

*Not her real name

Shane Dunphy is a child protection expert, author and broadcaster. He is Head of the Social Studies Department at Waterford College of Further Education.

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