Government files from 1980 released this week by the National Archives reveal little appetite for the reforms recommended by the Task Force on Child Care Services which reported that year. Notes for a cabinet meeting in October 1980 describe the report as follows: “It proposes an elaborate bureaucratic structure to look after what is essentially a family problem.”
Ministers agreed that the report, which was six years in preparation, should be made public, but stressed: “The Minister [Health Minster Michael Woods] wishes to emphasise that agreement to publication of the report would not be taken as commitment to the recommendations which it contains.”
Recommendations from the Task Force included the provision of a wide range of residential units and services for children who were homeless or had behavioural difficulties and needed special educational and other supports.
Children’s charities and social workers have continued to plead for action to provide such services to this day and children’s solicitor Gareth Nobel takes up the cause again today when he describes the lack of an after-hours service for out-of-home teens as the biggest scandal in the country’s childcare system.
“The system is rotten from bottom to top,” he says.
The files from 30 years ago also reveal that the issue was being raised at the highest level for several years. A 1979 report from a joint committee of Dublin Corporation and the Eastern Health Board called specifically for a 24-hour reception centre for children begging or sleeping rough.
“The Reception Centre should be linked to an Assessment Unit with adequate accommodation, equipment and staffing to assess the needs (physical and psychological) of any child transferred there,” they said.
In another recommendation yet to be adopted, they also called for a Charter for Children’s Rights to be written into the law.
Gardaí had also highlighted the lack of facilities to accommodate and care for out-of-home children. A letter from justice minister Gerry Collins to the taoiseach’s department in 1979 states: “The Gardaí feel strongly about the provision of a place of safety where children who beg and sleep rough can be committed by the courts.”
Collins was writing after the taoiseach’s office received letters from the public about street children in the capital. A note from a senior official urges the issue be investigated because, as he put it: “We will be having some important “tourists” this year and could do without the type of publicity child vagrants could bring.” The most important ‘tourists’ that year were Pope John Paul II and his entourage.