Nurture little children who come to thee

DANIEL McANASPIE was only six-years-old when Children First was published.

The document set out best practice for the protection of vulnerable children. It was widely praised in all quarters as a suitable blueprint for state services when it saw the light of day in 1999.

By that stage, Daniel’s father had been dead three years. His mother was struggling to bring up six children on her own. The family lived in a disadvantaged enclave of Dublin, trying to cope with the social and economic problems that blight such housing estates.

Eventually, five of the six children were placed in care. Daniel was taken in by the State when he was 10. That was in 2003, by which time Children First was gathering dust, while some politicians stroked their chins and proclaimed that it was indeed a fine, fine document.

When Daniel McAnaspie was 14, his mother died. He had been very attached to her. Thereafter, he was moved around various care facilities and eventually went to live with an aunt. She had two children of her own, and found it difficult to manage his needs.

Daniel couldn’t read or write. He desperately wanted to learn, but it would have taken a major input from the State to teach him the basics. There was nothing forthcoming.

His aunt eventually got him into a woodwork course in Fás, but after he was expected to read aloud in front of the class, he packed it in. He began acting out his frustration and anger.

By the time he was 17, he was back into contact with the care services. He was, by this stage, being shunted from pillar to post and was abusing various substances. As he ghosted through the care system, his grasp of life loosening at a time when his peers were just revving up, he must have been consumed with despair.

By then, placing Children First on a statutory footing would have meant little to Daniel McAnaspie. He was a long way down the road from the six-year-old who might have benefited from a properly executed intervention. Not that it mattered anyway. Children First was still gathering dust. The Government and the electorate had far more pressing priorities.

Daniel McAnaspie’s body was found dumped in a drain in Co Meath on May 13, 2010. He was 17 and had been stabbed to death. He was one of 196 children and youths who died in the care of the State or in related circumstances between 2000 and 2010. The report on these deaths, published last week, has generated much shame, anger, and reflection throughout society.

It was the same story in the immediate aftermath of Daniel McAnaspie’s life and death being thrust into the public domain. On tabloid headlines, he quickly became “tragic Daniel”. The minute details of his life were parsed over; his friends and examples of his attempts at writing; the little details that in other circumstances a parent might engage in while indulging in memory, rather than marking tragedy. All of these became public property. And the public at large looked in and felt genuine sadness that a child was subjected to all that, and some people felt angry that a civilised society could allow this to go on under its nose. Then, everybody got over themselves and moved on.

Will it be the same old story when the headlines from last week begin to fade? Will anything change? There will be tweaks here and there within the system to ensure the elements of incompetence highlighted in last week’s report will be eliminated. But the big picture? Don’t bet on it.

The current Government created a senior ministerial portfolio for children. The incumbent, Frances Fitzgerald, said last week that the contents of the report were “a disgrace”. She has resolved to make things better. Really? Right now, when the country is broke, somehow the required resources are going to be ploughed into an area that was largely neglected at a time of plenty? Fitzgerald, I am sure, is genuine in her resolve, as others have been before her. But when the harsh political realities hover into view, she may well quietly rearrange her priorities, as others before her have done.

Does anybody remember the welfare of the most vulnerable children featuring as an election issue last time around? Look at the priorities in relation to children over the 12 years that passed while Children First gathered dust.

Child benefit was increased four-fold. Over the same period, the issue of college fees kept raising its head. It was the subject of a few cabinet barneys, and featured prominently in the last general election.

Those who are reared to attend college live in a different planet from the Daniel McAnaspies who are thrust onto the spikes of fate. Students and their families matter. There are precious few votes in vulnerable children and the marginalised families in which many of them are reared.

The incompetence highlighted last week is also a product of the political culture. The HSE is dysfunctional, largely because on its inception in 2004 it was not provided with a proper organisational structure. Bertie Ahern’s priority at a time of virtually full employment was that no jobs be lost, because that might have political consequences. The system is still living with the fallout from that approach, but none more so than those who can’t fend for themselves.

Now, as we sift through the rubble, the great hope being presented for vulnerable children is a referendum on rights to be held on a standalone basis in the autumn. This must also be proofed by the political culture.

In 2007, then minister for children Brian Lenihan was first presented with a wording. Five years later, the rigmarole is still going on. Religious fundamentalists have an issue about the wording, and their power supersedes the requirements of vulnerable children as far as successive governments are concerned.

Change may come slowly. Maybe the political classes will finally wake up to the outrage that is being visited on the most vulnerable. Maybe basic morality will overcome expediency. But wider society also has responsibilities.

Sometimes, change at the top comes only after sustained moral pressure is exercised by the electorate.

It’s not good enough to load all the blame onto politicians. Society at large, as expressed through the electorate, also owes it to the most vulnerable that the deaths highlighted last week are not forgotten.

Here’s hoping for a time when the protection of the most vulnerable will actually loom large in an election campaign.

For without the political will, particularly now with resources stretched, children like Daniel McAnaspie will continue to be thrust out beyond the bounds of basic nurturing that all children require.

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