Geoffrey Shannon told an audience of educators and lawyers, over the weekend, that the legislation on cyberbullying was “not fit-for-purpose”.
“I do not think the law has caught up with the technology,” he told a conference on education and the law at St Angela’s College, Sligo.
Dr Shannon, chairman of the Adoption Authority of Ireland, said this issue was being dealt with under harassment legislation, but warned “we need legislation that is fit-for-purpose, legislation that reflects the technology that now exists”.
The new child-protection frontier was in this area of technology, he told the conference.
“We know the physical challenges and the physical risks, but it is that online world that seems so remote and so innocuous, and yet has devastating consequences for children.”
The child-protection expert called for a strong disciplinary response from schools to cyberbullying of children, whether they are children from the Roma community or from any foreign national community, or from the LGBT community.
“Victimisation online takes on a different reality, because it follows the child outside of the school yard,” he warned.
Mr Shannon also criticised the lack of inter-agency cooperation regarding vulnerable children, saying this was “one of the issues where we continue to spectacularly fail our children”.
He said professionals had not made “that quantum leap”, but it had to change.
“All of the state agencies need to start talking to each other.”
Having chaired the review into the 196 children who died in state care over a decade, he said this had given him a unique insight into the experiences of children in care.
“I still carry with me the memory of many of these files,” he said.
Stressing the importance of education in the safeguarding of children, he said that, having reviewed 500 children-in-care files and the treatment the children received at the hands of the State, he was struck by how many of these had dropped out of school.
Without proper investment in the education system, he said, there was a risk of young people being alienated and of ending up in a “downward, irreversible spiral”.
The reality was that many would end up in adult prisons — “and at what cost to the State?” he asked.
Maria Cambpell, a lecturer in education at St Angela’s, expressed concern about the ability of the new Admission to Schools legislation to resolve widespread lack of integration in schools around the country.
She said “white flight” was an issue in many areas, where Irish parents were not sending children to local schools with an ethnic mix.
Ms Campbell pointed out that there are 20 schools where 80% or more of the school population are from immigrant communities, while 23% of schools have no “non-Irish” children.
“We need to question and challenge that unequal distribution,” she said.
“There is a need to have these uncomfortable conversations at every level of society.”
The lecturer said it was significant that in the recent election campaign this had not even been an issue.