Child protection - A battle that will never end

Some strands of history are inescapable, they live with us forever — and so they should. Just as we can’t choose our family we cannot choose our past, it is our undeniable, irreversible path to our present.

Child protection - A battle that will never end

This week we were reminded that our backstory is not always one we can be proud of or one that we would happily repeat. Nevertheless, these reminders show that things have changed for the better — but not to the extent that we can be self-congratulatory or even content.

Thirty years ago today teenager Ann Lovett was found, just after she had given birth, at a grotto outside Granard, Co Longford. Her child was already dead and she died later that day in hospital. The tragedy would have gone unnoticed, like so many others swept under the carpet by a bullying, pious and cold Ireland, had a member of the public not contacted Sunday Tribune reporter Emily O’Reilly.

It is unimaginable, or at least it should be, that any young women would feel so intimidated by social or religious mores that she would put herself in similar danger today. Of course there are always exceptions but this change can be acknowledged and welcomed with confidence. It is unimaginable too that anyone born since then could appreciate the division this tragedy provoked. It was as if different centuries, different societies collided in a battle for the future.

Earlier this week Louise O’Keeffe’s ordeal, one that began more than a decade before Ann Lovett’s death, came to some sort of an of end when the European Court of Human Rights ruled in her favour, overturning an earlier Supreme Court ruling. Her vindication brought an end to the bizarre situation where the State, in our name, stonewalled and argued for too many years that it was not responsible for the safety of a child in a national school classroom — even if that child had been brutalised by a paedophile teacher.

This ruling is another milestone in the never-ending journey towards creating strong, effective child protection services but what a shameful thing it is that our European peers had to show us right from wrong. Yesterday’s apology from Taoiseach Enda Kenny, generously accepted by Ms O’Keeffe, goes some small way towards righting a wrong but we, as a society, must find a way to be more humane and empathetic the next time a case like this presents itself. It must be hoped too that Mr Kenny offered that apology in private before he did so in public.

Yesterday’s launch of the Child and Family Agency is another piece in that essential child-protection jigsaw but its welcome is tempered by the fact that at least 200 social work posts remain unfilled despite a surge in reports of children vulnerable to abuse or neglect. Something around 40,000 referrals were made to child protection services last year and in 2012, an increase of nearly 25% on 2011 rates.

The heartrending revelations of recent decades, the formalised abuse at institutions, all of the horrors inflicted by paedophile clerics and their Church’s efforts to cover them up, all of the Ann Lovetts and Louise O’Keeffes — and today’s cases of child abuse — warn us that our efforts to ensure children are safe can never end or hardly ever be enough.

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