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If we truly care about our children, we should prove it

Services for children and families are caught in a cycle of fire fighting, without the structures or the resources to attack the roots of the problems.

Marian Quinn

LOOKING AFTER OUR children, or not, is a policy decision – simple as that. And to date, our Government has chosen not to see our future generation as being a core priority.

It is clear that Ireland’s children, and the services and structures responsible for them, are in crisis. It is equally apparent that this cannot, and must not, continue.

A recent Higher Education Authority (HEA) report highlighted that if you are born in a disadvantaged area you are up to 84% less likely to go on to higher education.

One in four children is overweight or obese. By age 13, one in three children will have experienced a mental health difficulty.

And these health statistics, as with education, impact very disproportionately on disadvantaged children and families.

Early intervention 

These problems are complex and multifaceted, but even intuitively we know that problems are easier to solve when they are addressed earlier.

However, we do not need to rely on intuition as we have volumes of scientific and experimental evidence which prove the effectiveness of applying a prevention and early intervention approach.

The evidence tells us that it is more effective, and cheaper, to intervene earlier rather than later to improve outcomes. This approach has already been successfully taken on board by some services in Ireland, such as BreastCheck and the other national health screening programmes. Despite this knowledge, services for children and families are caught in a cycle of fire fighting, without the structures or the resources to attack the roots of the problems.

Each key phase of childhood can – and should – be supported 

Our new Child and Family Agency is overburdened with crisis cases – crises that absolutely need to be addressed and resolved, but many of which could have been halted and perhaps even avoided altogether, had the proper supports been available when difficulties first emerged.

If we offer quality supports to vulnerable families during each key phase of childhood, equipping them with the skills and resilience to overcome whatever difficulties they are experiencing, the results are outstanding. We know this.

Services that support parents have been shown to result in higher infant birth weights, improved attachment with caregivers, as well as improved child social, emotional and cognitive development and school readiness.

We know that the first three years of a child’s life are crucial in laying the foundation for future outcomes, yet just 0.4% of our GDP is invested in early year’s services, well below the OECD average of 0.7%.

Older children that receive appropriate supports during key transitions are less likely to use drugs and alcohol, have unplanned pregnancies, or be involved in crime, and are more likely to achieve higher school grades and lifelong earnings.

Improving lives and reducing costs to the State

All of this leads to a reduction in the use of health, justice, welfare and special educational services, at a huge saving to the State. Recent research in Ireland has estimated a long-term saving of €4 for every €1 invested in prevention.

In contrast, keeping a single child in residential care can cost €150,000 a year. Overweight and obesity issues cost €1.3 billion a year, while poor mental health costs €3 billion a year.

In late 2014, a UNICEF report found that child poverty in Ireland increased by 10% to 29% between 2008 and 2012. It would be obvious to claim that this poor performance was inevitable in a country experiencing economic crisis. However, the report also found that other EU countries which also experienced financial slumps had managed to deliver austerity measures and simultaneously reduce their levels of child poverty.

Prioritising children

The Hands Up for Children campaign, being launched today, is a coalition of organisations and individuals including Barnardos, the Children’s Rights Alliance, social ambassador John Lonergan and many more who want to see a move away from crisis driven responses, to an incremental realignment of resources to a prevention and early intervention focus.

We want to see policies being informed by evidence about what works in improving outcomes for children and families and to see children’s better outcomes being prioritised.

Our European colleagues have demonstrated that economic challenges do not excuse poor outcomes our children and future adults.

Marian Quinn, Chairperson, Prevention and Early Intervention Network. See www.handsupforchildren.ie

The number of homeless children is still rising

I feed my children when they’re hungry. Parents in direct provision don’t have that choice.

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Marian Quinn

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