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Dublin: 5°C Thursday 21 October 2021

Column: Care system had been well funded - so why didn't it work?

The Report on Deaths of Children in Care revealed horrific failures, writes Fianna Fáil’s spokesperson on Children Charlie McConalogue, but will everything be fine once we pass the Children’s Rights referendum?

Charlie McConalogue

I HAVE ONLY been a TD since last February, but already I’ve learned many lessons about national political life in our country. One is the striking demand that we all have for simple explanations and a villain for even the most complex issues. Another is how quickly the political and media agenda moves on if it is looking at anything other than the fortunes of individual politicians or their parties.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these particular lessons over the past few days as I have read and reflected on the Report of Deaths of Children in Care.

The Report is a harrowing and tragic catalogue of personal tragedy. I would challenge anyone to read it and not be emotionally affected by the stories of some of the most vulnerable and neglected children in our country. The Report is also an indictment of how our country responded to these children’s needs.

As my party’s frontbench spokesperson for Children, I was called on to speak to media to respond to the publication of the Report. Media also spoke to experts in the field, some of us appeared on the evening news, the next day’s newspaper carried the story and then the cameras moved on.

In this case, apart from the shock and sorrow genuinely felt across the board, the drive to simplify the issue meant that two central themes emerged – it was shocking that these 196 individuals could have died in care during the ‘Celtic Tiger’ and that we must now pass the Children’s Rights referendum later this year.

It is easy to simply agree with two statements of basic fact. I agree with both and will be campaigning hard to pass the referendum. In the limited bits of media I was involved in, I did my best to convey that sense of shock and determination to help stop it happening again.

“Is it enough for politicians to give a few lines in response to a report and then move on to the next issue?”

But is it enough for politicians to give a few lines in response to a report and then move on to the next issue? I don’t think so. I certainly don’t think that we as a country should get away with concluding that it was terrible that these things could happen when we had lots of money, that we’ll pass the referendum and everything will be grand.

I don’t think it’s good enough for lots of reasons, but mainly because not seeking to properly understand how it happened in the first place and probing whether a constitutional amendment is going to be the magic wand that fixes it, is a further dishonour to the children we read about in the Report.

It is of course shocking and sickening that children were failed when the country had money, but much of the commentary around this has had an unspoken subtext – that had the money been spent in this area there wouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, when you pick at the policy detail, this doesn’t stack up. Hundreds and hundreds of millions were spent, hundreds of extra social workers were recruited, new organisations and institutions were established and funded to tackle youth disadvantage and improve the quality of care for disadvantaged children. It didn’t work for these 196 people.

“Would we not be better employed in a conversation about why interventions didn’t work?”

Rather than slip into comfortable condemnation, would we as a country not be better employed in a much more uncomfortable conversation about ‘why’ these interventions didn’t work?

Similarly, are we satisfied that just by passing the Constitutional amendment we’re really going to see the end of vulnerable young people lying in the streets of Dublin and other towns and cities across the country? From January to May this year, 13 additional young people in State care or known to the HSE have died – are we going to have any discussion about how this is able to happen when we now know the scale of the problem?

I don’t pretend to have the answers to these questions, but I’m pretty confident that unless we start asking them, we are going to be in the same situation in another ten years. I, or someone who replaces me, will be asked to appear on the plinth at Leinster House to respond to another report and vow that this should never be allowed to happen again.

Before the cameras move on to the next story.

Charlie McConalogue is Fianna Fáil TD for Donegal North East and the party’s spokesperson on Children.

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Charlie McConalogue

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