'Every public representative in Ireland knows ... We have failed utterly to break the cycle of poverty'

The launch this afternoon of Barnardos Ireland's 2017 annual report marked the last address by Fergus Finlay as the charity's CEO. Read a partially edited transcript of his moving and thought provoking final address below..

SHORTLY after I started work in Barnardos I was told the story of a little boy we were working with in our Bereavement Counselling Service. I’ve always thought of him as Tom, and he was 10 when he discovered the body of his father in their garage at home.

There was a note beside his father’s body, addressed to Tom. It simply said, “I’m sorry son, but you’re the head of the house now.”

I’ve never forgotten that note, or the feeling it generated in me. It represented a burden that no child could carry, or certainly that no child could carry alone. A burden of responsibility, of guilt, of unanswered questions.

Sometimes there are no answers to the questions. But one of our counsellors worked with that little boy for a year to help him realise that he didn’t need to know all the answers, that he could put down the burden of responsibility and go back to being a little boy.

He came to know that it wasn’t his fault, and that he didn’t have to be the head of the house, and that it was alright just to be a kid.

I’m conscious of the fact that I’m getting close to the end of my time in Barnardos, and I think it’s appropriate to ask how successful we’ve been?

We’re bigger, that’s for sure. We reach more children than ever, in both intensive and in less intensive ways. We work to very high standards, and we try as hard as we possibly can to be completely accountable and transparent.

We have built a team that supports the work on the ground in an extremely professional way. We have an amazing set of supporters and volunteers – some of them nearly as old as I am! We have stuck together as a team in Barnardos through good times and some bad times, and I’m very proud of that.

But have we done what we set out to do?

Throughout my time as CEO of Barnardos, we’ve had the one vision – to make Ireland the best place in the world to be a child.

And we have aimed at the same mission over the last thirteen years - to help transform children’s lives through our services, support parents; and challenge society where it fails our children.

I wish I could say that we have succeeded in all of those aims, but the truth is that there is still an enormous amount to be done.

I am often asked what the core of our work is. The short answer is that wherever a child needs us, we want to be there. In the world we live in, of course, we’ve had to focus and prioritise.

We’ve had to seek to reach a defined number of children each year, and to reach them in a way that will leave, we hope, a lasting and beneficial imprint.

The numbers have grown each year. Over the last ten years or so, we have had an impact on the lives of not far short of 90,000 children.

In our family support work and in our early years work, that impact has been targeted and sustained over a long time in many cases. In other situations, where it has been possible, our approach has been lighter and less time-intensive.

For instance, we have concentrated on rolling out Roots of Empathy in Ireland. It’s a thoroughly evaluated programme that works with children in their classes in primary school.

The programme, which is simple but revolutionary in its impact, has been shown to increase empathy, reduce bullying, and positively affect classroom behaviour and interactions between children.

What’s more, every school that has undertaken the programme on a trial basis has asked us to come back again and again. So, from very small numbers initially, the programme has grown to the point where it worked with 4,800 children in 2017.

Another school based programme, one we developed out of an American model, is Wizards of Words, a reading programme that pairs older volunteer adults with children who have fallen behind in their reading.

Giving a young person the confidence to read, and a trusting friendship with an older adult, is extremely rewarding, it turns out, for both of the people involved. And as young people’s confidence grows, so too does their participation school and their ambition for the future.

Last year I was invited to give out certificate to a group of 11-year olds who were graduating from their Wizards of Words classes. One girl, beaming from ear to ear, pulled me down so she could whisper in my ear “this is the first thing I’ve ever won in school!” I have no doubt it won’t be the last.

But the numbers are only part of the story. All our children carry burdens, and it’s our job to try to ensure that they don’t carry them alone.

That’s why it’s so important to us to work alongside them, and especially alongside their families. Early years work is, in substantial part, about helping mothers and fathers to support the things their child needs.

Family support work is exactly what it says on the tin. It’s about supporting families to be the best they can for their children through times of adversity or trauma.

Adversity is caused by a lot of different things. Domestic abuse can destroy a child’s life just as surely as hunger. Emotional abuse can do more long-lasting damage than the cold or damp in which many children have to live.

Children can get lost where there is really acrimonious parental separation. These types of adversity can cause real trauma to children.

And not all these things are caused by poverty. But where they happen, poverty makes them worse. Even in loving stable families, poverty can be a trigger that causes terrible stresses and strains. There are undeniable links between poverty and mental health, undeniable associations between poverty and different addictions, undeniable differences in outcomes for children who can’t access the supports and help they need because of poverty.

We’ve persuaded ourselves in Ireland that we’re doing everything we can through our social welfare system to ease the burdens of poverty, and that ought to be enough.

But in recent decades we have not had the vision nor the gumption as a country to attack some of the root causes of intergenerational poverty in the consistent, year after year way that will break the cycle of poverty and create a situation where a new generation does not have to fall victim to what happened the previous generation.

In a recent paper published by the Tax Strategy Group of the Department of Finance, the claim is made (and it’s an undeniably true one) that social transfers play a pivotal role in alleviating poverty.

The same paper goes on to point out that “given changes since 2011, 95,000 children now have to be lifted out of consistent poverty to meet the child-specific poverty target by 2020”.

When that target was originally set, back in 2011, the number requiring to be lifted out of poverty was 75,000.

In other words – and despite its careful language - the Tax Strategy Group is saying that spending money on social welfare, in poorly targeted and badly-distributed ways, and often at the expense of necessary services – does nothing to break the cycle of poverty for children.

Every politician, every policy-maker, every public representative in Ireland knows this in his or her heart. There is no lack of proof. We have failed utterly to break the cycle of poverty.

With all the cross-cutting, whole-of-government approaches we have been following, thousands more children have fallen into consistent poverty. And that is even before we consider the truly appalling state of child homelessness. Whatever position you hold on this issue, it is never and cannot be the child’s fault. Yet they are being punished in our republic of opportunity.

Perhaps the politicians believe the cycle can’t be broken – although it can. Perhaps they believe it isn’t worth trying, because it will take too long – and yes it will take time.

Perhaps they prefer to address issues where more votes are involved – although in the longer term, nothing could be more rewarding electorally than building a new generation that is no longer trapped.

A couple of years ago I was standing in for Santa Claus at one of our projects in Finglas. Before Santa left the building, the boys and girls – all between four and five – decided they wanted to sing him a song. So they gathered in a circle and sang Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. All except one little boy who stared at the floor, his hands in his pockets.

I thought perhaps Santa Claus had offended him in some way. So I asked Mary Corrigan, the project leader, what the problem was. “It’s simple,” she said. “He doesn’t know the words.”

I’d never met a four-year old boy who didn’t know the words to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star until that moment. But this, it turned out, was a little boy who had never had a lullaby sung to him at night, nor ever had a bedtime story read to him.

And we know what that gap in that little boy’s life can mean. It can mean that he starts school behind. It can mean that he stays behind until, frustrated and isolated, he starts skipping school, or disrupting the class. It can mean eventually that he drops out, barely able to read and write in his mid-teens.

If that happens, it may not be long before he has his first brush with risky behaviour and then with the law. Not too long before he settles into a life where maybe he has kids of his own, who never get to hear him sing a lullaby.

It’s the same cycle. I would love to think that a policy maker, listening to that and the thousands of stories we could tell, would get what’s really behind it.

If you want to break the cycle, start early. Prevention and early intervention is a phrase so often used in policy that it has become a cliché.

But someday, someone is going to grasp the fact that if it costs €100,000 a year to keep an adult in jail, it makes sense to spend €6,000 a year for a couple of years on the sort of early intervention and family support that would help him or her not to grow into that adult.

In my experience we don’t meet parents who don’t love and care about their children. We do meet parents whose lives are out of control. We meet parents who are overwhelmed, by debt, by depression, by violence in the home, who were not parented well themselves and don’t know how.

We meet parents who think they are doing their best for their children but who are simply beyond the point where they can translate their love for their children into effective parenting.

It’s why a lot of our family support work involves practical help. It’s why parenting work is such an important component of our work. It’s why we have invested the sort of research and design resources that are necessary to develop a world-class parenting programme. We call it Partnership with Parents and it has become a core component of our family work.

Everything we have done, we’ve done with support from the State. With the collapse of the Celtic tiger in 2011/12, the core funding available for child welfare and protection began to be squeezed, and the funding available for prevention and early intervention through family support services began to be cut, a little each year until it amounted to approximately 20% in our funding.

We weren’t alone, of course. Throughout the community and voluntary sector the myth was developed that we in the sector could do more with less. The vast majority of organisations in the community and voluntary sector, and the people who work in them, have carried disproportionately unfair burdens as a result

There is also a more pernicious myth that people who worked in charities shouldn’t expect to be paid. Over 400 people work in Barnardos, and without exception they are people who make an enormous contribution to the communities they work in.

They are people who are specialists at what they do, they are professionals who are excellent in their fields of expertise – and why should our children and families expect anything less?

But they are also people who have mortgages, children to raise, all the struggles that every family has. They have taken pay cuts without complaint to keep the work going, and they continue to go the extra mile whenever they are asked to.

As I stand here launching my last annual report for this organisation to which I owe so much, I have to say that there is something fundamentally unfair about the fact that no effort has been made at government level to recognise the cuts that have been made to the community and voluntary sector.

Insult is added to injury when people who work as hard as they can to meet never-ending and growing demand, have to listen to people who should know better talking about too many charities and too much bureaucracy without recognising how much they rely on the sector to provide services and fill the gaps the State leaves behind.

We hear the phrase “too many charities in Ireland” all the time. We never hear the same people wondering why there is so much need.

Oscar Wilde said that experience is simply the name we give our mistakes, and by that standard, I’ve had buckets. But he also advised us – no matter where we were - to look at the stars.

I was looking at the stars when I started in Barnardos back in 2005. I wanted to help focus and develop our services; to develop our advocacy so that we could influence change; and to enable Barnardos to become a world class organisation.

And I think I can say that we achieved this. We work with families, and we work with children, on the basis of respect. We don’t judge – ever – but we seek always to tell the truth.

The over-arching purpose was to enable Ireland to become the best place in the world for children. We still can. If we look to the Better Outcomes Brighter Futures framework produced by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, it tells us what we need to do.

We just need to have the determination, the commitment and the investment to get on and actually do it. Above all we need to take the concept of a break in the cycle of poverty seriously.

I passionately want the Ireland that my grandchildren grow up in to be a better, brighter place for all our children, where they can all get the help and support that they need when they need it. I believe it can be done. And I will continue to do whatever I can to make that happen.

Read Barnardos Annual Report 2017 here

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