Suzanne Connolly: Axing children’s seat at Cabinet table will leave many voiceless

Suzanne Connolly: Axing children’s seat at Cabinet table will leave many voiceless
Some children are voiceless with no parental support. For the most vulnerable, the importance of having a voice at the table to represent their best interests can make all the difference. A dedicated department signals how well we value our children.

Ireland has a shameful history in how the State has treated children, particularly the most vulnerable, writes Barnardos CEO Suzanne Connolly

Recent reports and rumours from the talks on government formation suggest the Department of Children and Youth Affairs is at risk of being absorbed into the colossal Department of Education and Skills.

While these rumours are bitterly disappointing for Barnardos and others working on the frontline in child protection, they are sadly not surprising given Ireland’s sordid history of failing its children.

The proposal to axe the children’s seat at the Cabinet table comes as we exit a period where children sacrificed their social, emotional, and educational development for the greater good.

Missing out on formal learning, play with other children and contact with loved ones has untold significance for how a child develops. We know children bore the brunt of the last recession when vital support services were cut and the percent of children living in poverty doubled.

As we face into an even deeper recession many of the children, families, and communities Barnardos works with are still dealing with the consequences of the last recession. Now, if any, is not the time to cut these children’s advocate in government.

I am deeply concerned about the effect removing the Department of Children and Youth Affairs would have on the children we at Barnardos work with.

These children are voiceless. They may live in homes with addiction, parental mental ill health or domestic violence, or maybe living in emergency accommodation or direct provision.

Parents cannot control the ups and downs that life throws at their children, but they can support them and guide them through challenges in their childhood. Sadly, some children simply don’t have that support.

For these children, the importance of having a voice at the table to represent their best interests can often mean the difference between a bright future or the tragedy of an unfulfilled life.

Ireland has a shameful history in how the State has treated children. There have been 19 inquires and countless more scandals highlighting how children who relied on the State to protect them were abused, neglected, and harmed.

Time and time again, from the Ryan Commission Report to the recent reports of mistreatment of children in early years services, we have seen how systems in Ireland have failed children. We must not become complacent and naively believe that history does not repeat itself.

The creation of the department and a dedicated Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in 2011 was borne out of this need to protect children and young people.

It was also founded on recognition that children and young people are citizens who have fully fledged rights, needs, and aspirations. This dedicated department signalled a change in how we value children as a society.

Giving children a minister with a seat at the Cabinet table embraced our commitment to “cherish all of the children of the Nation equally”.

To close the department would send a signal that we do not care about vulnerable children, we do not value children and we do not protect children.

When Barnardos advocated for the creation of a Minister for Children and Youth Affairs our vision was that children would not just have their voices heard at Cabinet level, but that children’s needs and best interests would shape the policies affecting their lives.

The department’s biggest successes reflect these changes – from the constitutional referendum on the rights of children, to the enactment of the Children’s First Legislation, to the launch of the First 5 Strategy for Babies.

But the department has more to do. To close it now would undermine the work to date and put future progress in jeopardy.

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone

Moving the children’s brief under the Department of Education is a regressive step which ignores so many important facets of children’s lives. Children are more than just pupils, in the same way adults are more than just employees.

At a practical level, without a dedicated department, children will become a subsection in any policy or strategy on core issues affecting their lives — such as health, housing, justice and social protection.

However, my greatest concern is that the most vulnerable children — those living in situations with mental ill health, direct provision, homelessness, domestic violence, neglect and abuse — will become mere footnotes.

Barnardos’ vision for the future is that vulnerable children should have a voice, a defender and a champion in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

As we struggle to cope with a global pandemic and face into a steep recession, vulnerable children face a very uncertain future. Now is not the time to cut a department that has the potential to protect the most vulnerable members of our society.

Children need their voice and vulnerable children need it now more than ever.

Suzanne Connolly is Barnardos CEO

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