We all remember it. The dreaded letter in the door, shortly after Christmas, or just in time to rain over your summer holidays. The exam results; the report card.
The latest Children’s Rights Alliance report card on the Government’s performance on delivering on its commitments for children shows a struggling student. There’s potential there, but many will ask — with some justification — ‘where’s the application?’
After one dodgy set of exams too many, my parents employed the nuclear threat: Much more of this, and you’re going boarding. Ministers and TDs may not have that hanging over them, but make no mistake, their grades are in the doldrums.
I had the honour of being involved in the final review of this year’s report card, produced for the ninth year by the Children’s Rights Alliance, and can personally attest to the rigorous work and fact-checking that goes into this document.
The CRA takes the whole process incredibly seriously, as did the assessment panel, which included child law solicitor Catherine Ghent, UCD law lecturer Liam Thornton, representatives of Chambers Ireland and Irish Rural Link, and retired High Court Judge Ms Justice Catherine McGuinness, among many others.
However, the work was 95% done at the point through researchers and experts combing through all the announcements, pronouncements, policy changes, and promises that have been issued since the current Dáil staggered into existence last May, more than two months after that election.
At the end of it all, the Government has scored a parlous D+. Surely the only way is up, but the wealth of information contained in the latest report card shows that, held against its commitments in the Programme for Government, words have so far not been backed by actions.
It is the worst performance by a government in report card terms for six years, but at that stage we were deep in the mire of the economic collapse and recovery seemed very far away.
For every positive initiative over the past year, such as the introduction of paternity leave or moves on subsidised and school-age childcare, there are plenty of negatives.
Just yesterday came claims from Focus Ireland that in January, 87 families with 151 children became homeless. The ‘Standard of Living’ chapter in Report Card 2017 was awarded a C- with child homelessness marked E.
Given the gravity of the situation, this is one area where it’s hard to give marks for effort — and there has certainly been a surfeit of proposals and plans — when the day-to-day reality for so many children is so dire. The reality of families living in hotels has been with us for so long now, it has almost become normalised.
Last year’s report card featured an A, yet this time the Government barely cobbles together a B. It is in issues big and small that the Government’s inert performance is starkly apparent.
The report card gives credit to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs for introducing the General Scheme on Guardian Ad Litems, who represent the voice of the child in court proceedings, yet outstanding issues remain, not least independence from Tusla, leading to a D grade.
There’s a D- for refugee and asylum seeking children, largely due to slow progress in resettling and relocating refugees, an E for its performance regarding Traveller and Roma children, and a D for its response in assisting child victims of crime. Look at the D- grade for mental health. Is it any wonder the Government did not achieve a better grade when there is so little tangible evidence of improvement?
Yesterday the Sligo Champion reported that there were 350 open cases for local Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, and no child psychiatrist. Writing in response to the report card, Paul Gilligan, CEO of St Patrick’s Mental Health Services, said “over the last five years the report cards have demonstrated consistent failures in this area”. He queries whether it is just a matter of resources, adding: “The shift in culture necessary to address what is effectively a national scandal has not occurred.”
Last year in these pages our political editor, Daniel McConnell, wrote of the ‘do nothing Dáil’— an Oireachtas that was paralysed by inactivity. The composition of the Government produced by the last general election means less clout.
Everything takes longer to get over the line. The whole show is still on the road only with the support of Fianna Fáil and some will claim that all this is like governing with one arm tied behind your back. Yet in many of the areas that directly affect children, it’s an open goal where little, if any, opposition would be expected.
Reading through an earlier draft of this year’s report card, I noted 36 pledges, promises, commitments or actions delayed from previous years that were all due to be delivered at some stage this year. Were even half of those made reality, the Government’s grades would unquestionably improve. Success is within its reach, and the report card even includes a list of actions, a handy ‘how to’ guide to point everyone in the right direction.
It might be time for the government of the day, whoever is leading it, to boil the coffee and get cramming.