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Column: Children need a change from the old HSE way of thinking

The new Child and Family Support Agency will be one of the largest public bodies in the State – and it’s going to require a major cultural shift, writes Paul Gilligan.

Paul Gilligan

LAST NOVEMBER, IRISH voters made a decision to strength children’s rights in the Irish constitution. This decision, one of the most significant made since the founding of the State, indicates Irish society’s changed perspective on children and on how we wish to look after our children in the future.

The passing of the Children’s Rights Constitutional Referendum is only the beginning. If and when the referendum result becomes law, it will require the restructuring of all services interfacing with children and a major cultural shift in how we view and interact with children. In this context, the development of the new Child and Family Support Agency – which will be one of the largest public bodies in the State with more than 4,000 employees and a budget of over €550 million – provides us with a unique opportunity to commence this cultural change by creating a truly children’s rights based, child-centred organisation.

Alternative to old system

This new agency is being formed as an alternative to the old HSE’s Children and Family Services. It is envisaged that by creating an independent agency, children’s rights, child protection, child welfare and family support will be given additional priority and resources. Within the vastness of the old HSE structures, child protection and children’s rights were not prioritised, a fact admitted by Brendan Drumm when he was departing as CEO of the organisation.

However, the creation of the new agency needs to be done carefully and strategically. There is a risk that the practices and culture of the HSE will transfer across to this new agency, particularly given that almost all of the staff who will be working in the new agency are currently working within the HSE.

Achieving a cultural shift will require a number of difference components. It will firstly require ensuring that the principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child form the fundamental principles of the new agency. Secondly, it will require putting children at the centre of all programming, planning and structure, and thirdly it will require engaging children themselves in all aspects of the work so that child participation becomes a key activity and component of this organisation and children have a real say in shaping the services being established for them.

Empowerment and protection

A central component to creating this culture will be obtaining a balance between empowerment and protection. The concept of evolving approaches whereby it is recognised that children in different environments and cultures with different life experiences will acquire competencies at different ages is central, as is ensuring that as much emphasis is placed on providing prevention and support services as is on providing child protection services.

Building a children’s rights based organisation will require a significant shift in mindset for professionals working within the new agency. These professionals are coming from an organisation where the main focus has been on responding to emergencies and emerging scandals, an environment not conducive to a children’s rights focus. For these professionals, this is an opportunity to work in an organisation that is true to the ethos of how they were trained and is in line with international best practice.

Positive and lasting change

Knowing that adopting a children’s rights based approach is the most effective way to bring about positive and lasting change for children, their families and communities, they will want to grasp the opportunity to create an organisation that is founded on children’s rights based principles. They will need to be supported in this by Government, management and all those voluntary agencies working with children.

Through the development of the new Child and Family Support Agency, the first steps towards realising the true potential of the children’s constitutional amendment can be taken. By taking this opportunity, we can begin to redress some of the ways that Irish society has failed children in the past and it is an opportunity that those working in this new agency and those seeking to support this new agency will want to grasp with energy and enthusiasm. Grounding the new agency in a children’s rights ethos is not only the best way forward but is indeed, as of last November, a Constitutional requirement.

Paul Gilligan is the present Chair of the Children’s Rights Alliance and he is also the Chief Executive of St Patrick’s University Hospital.

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Paul Gilligan

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