State is failing vulnerable children: We have to address crisis in child care

The Taoiseach’s recent warning about the dangers of an unsustainable expansion of public spending did not stop him promising an increase this year in the overseas development aid budget. But if there is a limit to public spending, which there clearly must be, and if allocating funds requires the setting of priorities, which they do, he should first read — and read them very carefully — the latest deeply alarming reports published today by the Child Care Law Reporting Project (CCLRP) before he and his cabinet authorises a bigger cheque for overseas aid.

The 16 reports reveal, not for the first time, the views of judges who handle cases concerning alleged or possible child sex abuse, and highlights exasperation at shortfalls in the state care amenities for vulnerable children. In one contribution, a judge accepts that there has been sufficient investment in providing secure care — normally when allegations are first made and the police and judicial wheels are set in motion — but goes on to bemoan the absence of planning for placements at later stages, and the anxiety that creates for vulnerable youngsters.

Another judge talks of the need to recognise the country’s failure to remedy what the CCLRP’s director succinctly calls the absence of a national system for the robust detection of child sexual abuse, the dearth of co-operation between the criminal justice and child protection systems, and the need for timely therapeutic support for victims of abuse.

The reports, based in part on recent court hearings and including a number of case histories, do feature positive

outcomes, albeit that one of them was the result of sending a profoundly disturbed youngster — who had survived multiple suicide attempts — to a special unit in Britain, returning after some months to Ireland for privately-financed care in an adult psychiatric clinic.

But, for the most part, they describe failure arising from a toxic cocktail of factors: Complex legal disputes around criminal investigations and evidence that result in delays, and the same cases rolling at great expense in and out of the courts; difficulties in getting specialist assessments; and frustrated judges ordering the Child and Family Agency to find the right placements — all too often the placements they know do not exist. This happens, says the CCLRP in its most damning indictment, “week after week”, adding that it’s been noted by judges for the past 25 years.

It has, therefore, been tolerated by successive governments for a quarter of a century, during which there have been many fine words about the key role the State and society has in protecting children. Many changes promised by the then government in response to the 2009 Ryan Report on child sex abuse have been made. The aim of its 99-point implementation plan, however, was to strengthen child care policy and improve the organisation and delivery of children’s services. But it is, as we have been told yet again today, still a work in progress.

If the Taoiseach can find the funds for upping overseas aid, dealing with this resource problem at home must be given at the very least equal priority.

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