Children in Ireland deserve reforms - Ombudsman

Children are being let down by public bodies such as the HSE and Tusla and by a mental health service where psychiatrists are not routinely available to suicidal young people, according to Children Ombudsman, Niall Muldoon.

Here is Dr Muldoon's opening message in the Ombudsman's annual report reproduced in full.

Message from the Ombudsman for Children

I am pleased to submit to the Oireachtas my Annual Report for the period January 1 to December 31 2017, pursuant to Section 13(7) of the Ombudsman for Children Act, 2002.

I am extremely honoured to hold the position of Ombudsman for Children and I aim to fulfil my duties at all times with drive and passion.

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The 25th Anniversary of Ireland’s ratification of the UNCRC in September 2017 was an appropriate occasion to consider achievements over the past two decades, and to assess the challenges still faced by children in Ireland.

It underlined a number of key areas where children are still not afforded the opportunity to live safe, fulfilling and happy lives.

In my first days as Ombudsman for Children I set out two goals for this Office – one was to continue the work of the Office to bring an end to the detention of children in adult prisons and the second was to ensure children in the Direct Provision system have access to our Office.

I am pleased to note that in 2017 these two particularly vulnerable groups of children within the State system were, finally, afforded increased respect and dignity.

After over 100 years of placing children in prison, the Irish Government ended that practice in April 2017 and now all those under 18 years who are remanded or convicted for a criminal offence are sent to Oberstown Children’s Detention Campus.

These young people will be held in a setting that has a responsibility to support their reintegration into the community by providing psychological, social and educational support.

In April 2017, 17 years after the setting up of the Direct Provision system, the last group of children who could not bring a complaint to this Office about the system, were finally allowed to do so. In our first year, we met with over 170 children and young people in Direct Provision centres and informed them about their rights.

The rights of these children have been adversely affected by this system, and their lack of access to this Office has compounded that failure.

Many individuals, NGOs and politicians have fought for this change and my Office aims to provide a strong, positive and fair complaints service to all children and families within the Direct Provision system.

In December of 2017 this Office finalised a report on a young girl, Molly, with severe disabilities who had been in a caring foster home for 14 years.

Her case shows the challenges faced by her foster mother to get the assistance needed to carry out the role she was asked to do on behalf of this State. Our Office has observed a constant battle between the HSE and Tusla, with no clear lines of responsibility for funding to meet Molly’s needs.

There can be little doubt that poor cooperation between the HSE and Tusla represents a stark failure to act in the best interests of the child and is, unfortunately, a theme we have seen too often.

This case highlights the road we have yet to travel as a nation to fulfil our promise to cherish “all the children of the nation equally”.

Despite signing the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities (UNCRPD) in 2007, there were unacceptable Government delays in its ratification. The ratification of the UNCRPD will, I hope, help children like Molly, but there are other changes required within the systems that support her and others in similar circumstances.

We are delighted that the Department of Education and Skills is advancing the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016 which will provide for the designation of a school place for children with special educational needs where no school has offered a place. I hope this will offer more certainty and assurance that no child will be left without education.

It is clear at this point that the Rebuilding Ireland programme has made little progress in meeting targets to address our accommodation needs. There is an over-reliance on the private sector to provide housing and a failure to provide sufficient social housing. To our shame as a society we are tolerating a situation where almost 10,000 people are in emergency accommodation, including 3,500 children.

A new way of thinking is required from Government. The State needs to move away from prioritising financial interests that view housing as a commodity to recognising it as a social good offering children and families a secure place to live in dignity.

I am also concerned about the lack of progress for children and young people suffering from mental health issues. In 2017, I met with two Ministers for Mental Health to discuss my concerns.

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The National Youth Mental Health Taskforce, which reported on its work in December 2017, offered less than I had hoped for children and young people suffering across the spectrum of mental health issues.

This Office is concerned with staffing problems in the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) which means that children experiencing escalating levels of stress and anxiety are often unable to access the emergency supports they need. It is crucial that the HSE addresses issues relating to the out-of-hours contracts of consultant psychiatrists to ensure that children and adolescents have access to the services they need, when they need them.

In my presentation to the Seanad Public Consultation Committee on mental health, I again recommended that the Government, as part of its review of A Vision for Change strategy, develop a dedicated Vision for Change for Children & Young People.

In 2017, this Office began a consultation with young people in adolescent psychiatric in-patient units across the country. We sought to speak to young people in all of the six units and I am grateful to the many young people who engaged with us. This consultation will help to generate a report in 2018 which we believe will offer policy makers and health services important insights into the views of young people who experience mental health services.

In 2017, we published a report that highlighted grave difficulties in the treatment of children with scoliosis. This demonstrated how the system is failing children with profound implications for their health. I am encouraged by the Government’s response in committing to changes in the short term and to developing a longterm strategy to avoid such a crisis in the future. We will review progress on these commitments in 2018.

In response to the vote for Brexit in the UK, this Office and the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People brought together young people, north and south, who had no opportunity to have their views heard by those with influence in the Brexit negotiations.

In a significant cross-border collaboration, a joint report, It’s Our Brexit Too: Children’s Rights, Children’s Voices was generated following a conference in Newry, in November 2017, and we expect that in 2018, these young people will present it to MPs in Westminster, and to MEPs and the EU’s Article 50 Taskforce in Brussels.

In May 2017, Dr Geoffrey Shannon, the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection published his audit on the use of Section 12 powers by the Gardaí.

This followed a recommendation from a report by my predecessor, Emily Logan, into the handling by An Garda Siochána, of the removal of two Roma children from their families. In a joint initiative, Dr Shannon and I agreed that a number of areas should be pursued to progress child protection in Ireland.

We called on the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to progress a proposal for co-located working by Tusla and An Garda Síochána on child protection matters.

I am happy to report that all these parties have actively supported this initiative and Minister Zappone facilitated visits to co-located centres in New York, Belfast and Oxford to understand what can be achieved when children are prioritised in both the child protection and the criminal justice system.

The centres we visited reported improved criminal procedures and therapeutic outcomes for children as a result of this co-operative approach. Children in Ireland deserve such reforms as soon as possible and I am very hopeful that the inertia that has delayed progress in this area can be overcome.

The OCO has worked tirelessly to influence positive change to ensure that the rights of children are at the forefront of laws and policies within the State.

In 2017, this Office made a positive contribution in respect of a number of key legislative frameworks, such as the General Scheme of the Data Protection Bill 2017, reforms to the Guardian ad litem service in the General Scheme of the Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2017, as well as legislation on domestic violence, education and adoption among other areas. I am pleased to note the Government made key changes on foot of our submissions.

We engaged with the wider public service on an increased number of complaints made by, or on behalf of children, and also developed a new Guide to Child-Centred Complaints Handling which we will roll out in 2018.

I am heartened that the work of this Office has helped to strengthen the rights of children in 2017, and remain fully committed to working to protect the rights and welfare of children and young people into the future.

The names of the children and young people in all examples of complaints have been changed to protect their anonymity and confidentiality

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