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Column: Children, especially vulnerable ones, are not this society’s priority

Yesterday’s shocking report exposes our tendency to blame young people rather than listening to their cries, writes Catherine Joyce.

Image: Alvaro Barrientos/AP/Press Association Images

THE EXTENSIVE COVERAGE and analysis of the Independent Child Death Review Group report into the deaths of 196 children involved in the care system reflects our collective horror in the face of yet more evidence that we continue to fail children in Ireland.

The report does not allow us denial that this is Ireland of a different era or the comfort of believing that our cultural attitudes have changed substantially since the tragic events it covers. This report sets out hard evidence of our ongoing failure to place the proper priority on children, particularly those made vulnerable by a variety of experiences none of us could cope with alone.

At its heart, the report of the Independent Child Death Review Group is about the consequences of not listening to children. It is about our failure to see past the behaviours that children are engaged in; our failure to stop and really hear their voices when they ask for our help. We have all failed to listen when children and young people have most needed the adults around them because we have not built a system that allows us to work together effectively to respond to the urgency of giving them the help they need, when they need it.

Our child welfare and protection system has failed to meet the needs of children because it has reflected our inability to prioritise the protection of vulnerable members of our society. In particular, it reflects our attempts to deny and sweep under the carpet the difficult issues that arise from inequality in Ireland. Our cultural attitude towards children who are marginalised, those who are disadvantaged and those who have mental health difficulties has influenced the priority we place on the support we offer to them.

‘Our cultural attitudes continued to fail children’

The child welfare and protection system is a sad indictment of just how far down the list of priorities they come. During the Celtic tiger we invested significantly in roads and infrastructure but did not put the necessary investment of time, energy and resources into reform of child welfare and protection or mental health services. We did not use our unprecedented wealth to create a more level playing field for marginalised and vulnerable children. Instead, our cultural attitudes continued to fail children and young people because of our inability or unwillingness to properly acknowledge their need. The attitudes reflected in some of the cases dealt with in the report highlight our inclination to blame young people, to demonise and criminalise them, view them as trouble rather than look behind the behaviour and listen to their cries for help.

As a society we have failed to recognise and prioritise children’s right to welfare, their right to protection. Yesterday’s report is another marker in the road to the change that is already underway and the Minister for Children and Youth Affair’s commitment to implementing its recommendations is very welcome. Sustained and ongoing political will, influenced and supported by our collective will as a society to see this change through is what we now need. We must build a child welfare and protection system that is holistic, focused on prevention and early intervention and offers a wide range of supports that meets the needs of children and families. We have begun this process of change and we must strive to keep the momentum going until we have a child welfare and protection system we can all stand behind.

The lives and deaths of the children and young people within the report must not be lost in fallout from its publication. We must keep them at the centre of the change we are undertaking, look to their experiences to continue to learn the lessons from our failure to protect them. At the core of this is our responsibility to put children first, to respect their rights and hear their voices. There is no better way to make good on this commitment than changing our Constitution to reflect a new era in Ireland where all children are our collective priority.

Catherine Joyce is advocacy manager of Barnardos.

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