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Children are being put at risk because government is dragging its heels

We are failing to learn lessons from the past on child protection. It is a shameful mark of disrespect to the many children who have suffered abuse and neglect in Ireland.

IN 2012, when the report of the Independent Child Death Review Group was published, there was rightly a cross-party consensus on the need for a swift response. Statements from TDs from all parties demonstrated that our representatives took the issue seriously, and all agreed that urgency was going to be key. An implementation plan was to be produced and progress reported regularly to government and to a cabinet sub-committee.

Three years on, the patience of professionals who work with children has been sorely tested.  As the Dail has now wound up for a summer recess, it is deeply disappointing that the majority of the recommendations in the ICDRG report have not been implemented, and that there has been so little discussion of the issue in our national parliament.

Worse still, the Children First legislation – which provides a legal framework for change, is not yet enacted. In fact, it has yet to reach the Seanad.  The legislation is not controversial or contested – it merely places on the statute books a framework for institutional and practical measures that are long overdue and that are a matter of course in many other jurisdictions.  In itself, the legislation will not improve child protection – it’s the cultural, practice and service change that will make a difference.  And by delaying enactment and implementation, children will suffer.

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So, why the delay, and what impact for children?

Changes in our child protection regime will take time and will take resources.  I disagree fundamentally with the Taoiseach when he said during Leaders Questions this week that TUSLA – the child and family agency – is well-funded.  Anyone working with children today – including my Childline colleagues – will attest to an acute lack of resources for social work services, mental health services and family support and early intervention services for children.

The lack of a countrywide funded 24-hour social work service is a national scandal – it is hard to believe that a child presenting with urgent child protection needs on a Friday afternoon will – in the vast majority of cases – have to wait three nights to have their case passed to a social worker.  ISPCC Childhood Support staff have reported children as young as nine misusing drugs in some areas; these are children in acute need.  My colleagues report that in some parts of the country a child in need has to wait 18 months to see a psychologist.  That is not a picture of a well-resourced child protection and child welfare regime.

To its credit, and despite the resource constraints, TUSLA has begun preparations for the Children First law, but professionals working with children including my colleagues at the ISPCC are more than a little frustrated that the lack of momentum in the Dail means practice change is further delayed.  If lack of resources are the reason for delay, that is simply not good enough.  The lack of progress in implementing this important legislation puts the protection of our children at risk.

A shameful mark of disrespect to the many children who suffered abuse and neglect

However, if the legislation is delayed because of a lack of urgency on the part of our parliamentarians, then that would be a shameful mark of disrespect to the many children who suffered abuse and neglect in Ireland for decades; and an insult to children today who have the right to be safe.  It is our job as adults to ensure they are.

The mood among child protection professionals is one of deep frustration that the initial and very welcome focus of our public representatives on the protection of children is not being borne out in practice.  The ICDRG found evidence of many failings within our system and we promised we would never allow it to happen again.  Yet as the holiday season arrives for many, an under-resourced system and lack of an urgent response means we cannot guarantee the past will not repeat itself.

Grainia Long, ISPCC Childline CEO.

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