Ten years on, our Ombudsman for Children is more important than ever

A LITTLE over 10 years ago a group of young Irish people were brought together to conduct an interview. It was the first time in Ireland’s history – as far as I know, the only time — that the advice of young people was sought on a major public appointment.

Ten years on, our Ombudsman for Children is more important than ever

They recommended a young woman with a nursing background for the job. Their recommendation was forwarded to President Mary McAleese, and as a result, she appointed Ireland’s first Ombudsman for Children.

Emily Logan took up her post 10 years ago this week. One of her first decisions was to invite the young people who had been involved in her recruitment to form an advisory panel. From that moment on she has become known as someone who listens to children, investigates their complaints, and fights for their rights.

The Office of Ombudsman for Children has grown in importance since the day it was established. Some time in the next couple of weeks, I expect the office to publish its latest report — into the taking into care of two Roma children by the gardaí. Those children, you may remember, were removed from their families apparently for one reason and one reason only – because of the colour of their hair. It has been critically important that we know what went on in those cases, and there is no one better placed to be trusted with an investigation of that sort than the Ombudsman for Children.

That’s because, over the years the office has been in existence, Emily Logan has built a reputation for thoroughness and fairness. She has conducted numerous investigations, always with empathy for the subject and the people involved. She has managed to combine, sometimes in difficult circumstances, a high degree of accessibility with rigorous independence.

Her work might not always attract the publicity it deserves, but her findings have underpinned a lot of systemic change. For example, right now the Dáil is debating a measure to put Children First, the national child protection guidelines, on a statutory basis — effectively setting out to change the culture from “we should report” to “we must report”. Logan wrote a seminal report in 2010 into how the culture of “guideline” was failing children.

She has also published reports on children in St Patrick’s Institution, children and the experience of homelessness, the operation of child protection in the diocese of Cloyne, and a far-reaching report on the barriers in the way of children’s rights generally. All of these reports have made significant contributions to the development of public policy. They stand alongside the thousands of investigations her office has conducted into specific instances of situations where the operation of public policy has made life worse for children rather than better.

I think Logan can be genuinely proud of what a small, modestly-funded office has achieved in 10 years. But the importance of her office was further highlighted by two significant developments in the last week. The first was largely unreported — the annual release of the Central Statistics office’s poverty figures. Among other things, those figures showed that the number of children living in consistent poverty in Ireland increased again in 2012, from 9.3% to 9.9%. That means that one in every 10 of our children lives in consistent poverty — defined by reference of family income but also by other specific factors. Children in consistent poverty are more likely to be hungry, even under-nourished. They’re more likely to be cold, and to live in unsuitable accommodation. They’re more likely to drop out of school early, and to leave school unable to read and write at an appropriate level.

Children who start life in the consistent poverty statistics often go on to feature in other statistical tables as they grow — the unemployment figures, for instance. But children are much more than statistics. Every child trapped in consistent poverty is a child whose potential is trapped too. Our failure ever to tackle this one statistic during all the years of our wealth ought to produce a sense of national shame.

The other main even of last week, however, was some kind of government determination, at least on paper, to start doing something about it. The main reason children grow in poverty is because they don’t get the start in life they deserve. The publication last week of a new overarching strategy called Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures is, or ought to be, grounds for hope.

There wasn’t a lot new in the document, but that wasn’t the point. It is, finally, an attempt to draw together a whole lot of different strands, and begin to address them on a “whole of government” basis. Speeches by the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste at the launch of the document were seen as an earnest of intent that the achievement of five national outcomes for children wouldn’t be left to a couple of ministers, but would attract the political will of the entire Cabinet. The outcomes are simple. The Government is committing in this framework to set out to secure a situation where our children will be active and healthy, will be achieving in all areas of education and development, will be safe and protected from harm, will be enabled to grow towards economic security and opportunity, and will be respected and contributing to the society of which they are citizens.

Never one to fail to repeat one of his mantras, the Taoiseach said at the launch of the framework that his aim was to make Ireland the best little country in the world to grow up in. Intriguingly though, when he talked about children he’d met recently, he chose to refer to a group of children he’d met in a Traveller settlement — and he referred to it to emphasise the point that all children were the same.

It would take a lot of space to outline the details of the framework as it was published. But achieving outcomes, and translating them into better futures, requires an extraordinary degree of implementation. That, in turn, will require the spelling out of detailed and specific policies, and will inevitably mean hard choices about resources. But if we are to reverse the trend in child poverty, and actually begin to achieve the things we all say we want for our children, there’s no avoiding hard choices. The publication of a detailed and thorough framework is the right way to start, and a new start is long overdue.

In Ireland, we’ve always been great at policy. We can dream the dreams, write down the vision, even pass the legislation. But when it comes to implementation, we fall down time and again. That’s why a children’s framework matters, because it sets out the structures that enable vision and promise to be translated into reality. But what matters just as much are the mechanisms that force a government to live up to its promises. An advisory committee will oversee the implementation of this framework, but also in her own quiet and effective way will the Ombudsman for Children. And thank goodness for that.

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