Child protection: The more things change...

Frances Fitzgerald may not have liked being ordered before the Dublin Children’s Court but at least she wasn’t threatened with jail, unlike three of her predecessors.

In 2000, Judge Peter Kelly issued an injunction against the then ministers for health, education, and justice — requiring them to provide a safe place for a severely disturbed and vulnerable runaway teenager. If they didn’t, he sensationally warned, he’d hold them in contempt of court and find a secure place for the three of them — in prison. Luckily for Micheál Martin, Michael Woods, and John O’Donoghue, the girl turned up and, miraculously, a place was found for her.

Judge Ann Ryan’s criminal court deals with children who break the law while Judge Kelly’s civil court handled those in need of secure care.

But those two shades regularly blend into one black hole with children out of home or in care often ending up in crime and those involved in crime often finding home is no longer able or willing to care for them.

The State is supposed to step in to fill that hole with detention centres for the juvenile offenders and residential units for out-of-homes. Both are meant to be places that nurture, not punish, and have at least as much focus on rehabilitation as on restraint.

For years what these children got instead was an improvised mix of prisons, bed-and- breakfasts, hostels, adult psychiatric wards, Garda station cells, hospital beds, and the street.

And then it all changed. Or so we might like to have thought. For in the 13 years since Judge Kelly made three ministers nervous, we’ve had the scandal of the dearth of out-of-hours services for children in crisis and the appalling revelations of the review group on the deaths of children in care.

Now we have the first Hiqa child protection and welfare inspection report that shows serious failings in HSE services in the Carlow-Kilkenny area where even the basics like notifying gardaí of suspected child abuse were not complied with.

It’s as if the Murphy Report into Catholic sex abuse, the Residential Institutions Redress Board, and the Magdalene Laundries inquiry never happened. And it begs the question how the ideology behind the children’s referendum is ever to become a reality.

Thirteen years on from the threat to the ministers, Judge Kelly is now in the Commercial Court dealing with bankrupt companies. But all along, there’s been a bankruptcy of ideas, compassion, commitment when it comes to children at risk.

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