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'Sarah is 7 and has hydrocephalus. Her homeless family spent nights sleeping in their car'

There are thousands of very vulnerable children living in Ireland today, writes Dr Niall Muldoon.

Dr Niall Muldoon Ombudsman for Children

THERE IS A perception that children nowadays have everything they could ever want, and that loving, hands-on parenting is the norm for every child, in every part of Ireland. That, unfortunately, is not the case.

There are thousands of very vulnerable children living in Ireland: children with disabilities, children who are homeless, children who have mental health issues, children on waiting lists, children in care, children living in domestic violence situations, children who are being abused, children living in Direct Provision, children who are being bullied, undocumented children and many more.

These children interact with various parts of the public service in their everyday lives: they go to school, they use the health service, they use public transport, they need housing, some interact with the Gardaí or the courts services. Every public organisation, and all departments should therefore be thinking about how they operate in relation to children, and whether their actions promote children’s rights.

A tokenistic gesture

In dealing with complaints made by children, or on their behalf, it has become abundantly clear to me that children’s rights, children’s views and children’s best interests are all too often an add on, an afterthought, or a tokenistic gesture from too many public services.

Considering young people’s rights to express views and to be heard is not a gift to be bestowed by adults. It is not just a nice thing to do, or even the right thing to do, it is our constitutional obligation under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child which Ireland signed up to twenty-five years ago.

Although many steps have been taken to incorporate children’s rights into legislation, these rights are often limited and not compliant with our obligations under domestic, international and European law.

It is not good enough to write a policy and ask children afterwards what they think, and it is not good enough to consult with children only if you have time. This is a discretionary approach that does not comply with Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Impact of rising rents on children

We received a complaint on behalf of Sarah, aged 7, who has hydrocephalus and other medical needs. Sarah’s family had become homeless following the sale of the private accommodation they were renting.

Despite contacting the local authority in advance of becoming homeless, support only became available to them when they presented as homeless. Sarah’s family were living in hotel accommodation and had spent nights in their car as they could not find affordable accommodation.

We had concerns about the amount of time that a child who was on both the medical priority list and the homeless waiting list, was spending in hotel accommodation. We were concerned about the effect that this was having on her health, access to services and education. We also had concerns about how the case was being dealt with by the local authority.

After we became involved a suitable property became available for Sarah. However, this is just one case where children with disabilities are struggling in inappropriate housing.

It’s easy to ignore children

Policies and laws always filter down to determine how children are actually treated on a day to day basis, and often that is as secondary to adults. In many ways the penny has still not dropped that young people are themselves rights holders in all areas of their lives. They are individuals who have a right to have their views heard and considered, the same as adults.

It is easy to ignore young people, especially those who have nobody to speak on their behalf. The fact of the matter is, children are a vulnerable group with no vote and little influence and thus the onus is on the public system to account for that by upholding their rights at all times and in a proactive manner.

Young people may not be shouting loudly, they will not organise a protest or block the streets but they have a voice and they have opinions. It is therefore the duty of every organisation funded by the State and who interact with young people in any way, to ensure that they consider children’s rights in a meaningful and in an effective way that is fully underpinned by human rights laws.

The rights are there, but they must be respected and taken seriously, and put into action because to not do so is to renege on our obligations to the next generation.

Dr Niall Muldoon is the Ombudsman for Children. His job is to make sure that children in Ireland are being treated fairly. He investigates complaints and promotes children’s rights. The Ombudsman for Children’s Office offers a free and independent service. The Ombudsman for Children’s Office Annual Report 2016 was published recently and is available here.

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About the author:

Dr Niall Muldoon  / Ombudsman for Children

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