Niall Muldoon, whose appointment as the next Children’s Ombudsman has been approved by both houses of the Oireachtas, also stressed his hope that his office will soon be able to investigate complaints made by children living in direct provision accommodation.
He also said key pieces of legislation which have never been commenced in law could also, if implemented, standardise the way complaints regarding schools and the education system in general are dealt with.
Dr Muldoon, who is a clinical psychologist, has spent more than two years in the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman as director of investigations, dealing with hundreds of complaints each year.
He said that many of those involved aspects of the education system, yet due to the individual nature of schools, parents, and children could not expect consistency in how those complaints are dealt with.
“This office has consistently pointed out the gap in the system,” he said.
“A parent or someone who has a difficulty cannot be sure that the same system of complaint they had five years ago will pertain now, or from one school to another.”
He said one act from 1998 which was never commenced would have opened up a standardised complaints system for schools, while a teacher “fitness to practice” system was also proposed “but has not come to fruition”.
He said the gardaí had done “great work” in restorative justice and youth diversion programmes but the appointment of a commissioner with responsibility for youth affairs should be considered.
“If there was one single leader with a voice to guide it and make strategic decisions that would not be a bad thing,” he said, citing the cases of two Roma children wrongly taken from their parents.
“One of the things that is very clear from the Roma case was that there is no specific focus on children and young people, in the gardaí, and no commissioner with responsibility at that level,” he said.
Regarding approximately 1,200 children who live in direct provision, he said: “Clearly it is time we should be allowed to look at complaints for those children.”
He said the timing for such a change could be coming, after Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald, alongside Minister of State Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, had moved to appoint a special taskforce to look at issues related to direct provision, chaired by retired High Court Judge Bryan McMahon.
Dr Muldoon said the very low number of complaints officially registered within the asylum seeker system “clearly shows a mistrust from the residents in the system”.
Among the organisations welcoming Dr Muldoon’s appointment as Children’s Ombudsman was the Irish Refugee Council.
Its CEO, Sue Conlan, said: “The Irish Refugee Council will continue to seek an end to the system that has become known as direct provision, on the grounds that the system itself is not in the interests of children. But in any asylum reception system, access for children to the Office of the Children’s Ombudsman is essential.”
Dr Muldoon said “huge strides” have been made in recent years in enhancing the rights of children, adding that the establishment of the Department of Children and the Child and Family Agency were evidence of this.
He said the referendum passed in 2012 that boosted the rights of the child would also make a difference.
He said “part of the purpose of our office is to get less complaints”, so the OCO would be focusing on ensuring that public bodies ensure that children are at the forefront of decision-making, and not an afterthought.
“That is something we are going to have to look at. The best interests of the child are not the focus; there is adherence more to the policy than to the individual complainant.”
He said a lack of resources was often cited by public bodies and others as a reason why certain actions could not be taken and “resources are used as a way to allow a system to stay as they are”.
Niall Muldoon has spent the past two and a half years as director of investigations at the Ombudsman for Children’s Office (OCO), during which time he was responsible for handling almost 1,600 complaints per year made by, or on behalf of, children and young people about public bodies such as the HSE, schools and voluntary hospitals.
Before joining the OCO he spent five years as national clinical director of Cari (Children At Risk in Ireland), which has offices in Dublin, Limerick and Cork, and which works to support children and families affected by sexual abuse.
A registered counselling and clinical psychologist, Mr Muldoon has spent almost two decades working in child protection, including 10 years working in the Granada Institute providing therapy, risk assessments, and support to adults who had sexually offended. He now becomes the second Children’s Ombudsman.