Today’s child summit marks a turning point as it brings together agents of change with the very policymakers who have the power to implement them, says Tanya Ward
Ireland’s first-ever child summit in Croke Park takes place today bringing together the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Government, Oireachtas members, young people, and civil society representatives.
In January, State officials travelled to Geneva where Ireland’s record on children’s rights was scrutinised by the UN committee.
Today we are bringing two members of that same committee to Ireland to sit down with home-grown policy- and decision-makers to help forge positive change for children who live here.
I witnessed the impact the UN committee made on the Irish State when I attended the examination in Geneva earlier this year. When the former minister for children and youth affairs attended the session, he was asked to address issues of concern raised by the committee and provide frank answers to the questions that we have been asking for years around child homelessness, funding for mental health services, child poverty, and slow legislative change.
Were the system changes being made having a positive impact on children’s lives?
Today’s summit, put simply, is a forum at the highest possible level. Based on the UN’s recommendations, the Irish powers-that-be for children will take stock and thrash out their clear intentions to improve children’s futures.
The presence of these two international experts makes the UN process all the more real and brings it home to Irish soil. There is a global significance especially at a time when so much about the world that we live in is uncertain: World solidarity has never been so vital.
All the Government departments with responsibilities to children will be there: Children and Youth Affairs; Social Protection; Justice and Equality; Health; Education and Skills; and Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government.
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone will address proceedings, as will the Children’s Ombudsman, Dr Niall Muldoon, and child rights experts like Prof Geoffrey Shannon, the special rapporteur for child protection, and Prof Ursula Kilkelly of UCC.
Everyone will be using the agreed national policy framework on children, Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, to show how they are planning to integrate and make changes for children in many areas of their lives. It’s a good framework — what we need to do now is make sure everyone in Government is playing their part.
You could say that the very best thinkers will be present — those who well understand where the gaps are for children. Not only is it a very tangible way to progress rights in many areas of children’s lives but at best it will help determine important actions that can drastically improve outcomes for future generations.
Over the last 10 years, there has been progress for children. Much of this has been infrastructural. We now have a minister and a department dedicated solely to children, we have an agency — Tusla — to protect and empower children and families.
There are many new laws to protect children from the types of harm suffered by previous generations. The challenge now is about making sure all children reap the benefits of such changes and that certain vulnerable groups do not continue to be left behind.
We have our work cut out for us and the picture for many is far from sunny. More than one in 10 children live in consistent poverty and food poverty is on the increase with almost a quarter of older children having gone to school or to bed hungry.
There are almost 2,500 children living in homeless accommodation. There are more than 6,000 in state care and 1,200 children growing up in direct provision. One in three experience mental health difficulties before the age of 13 and Traveller infant mortality is nearly four times higher than the settled population.
We haven’t even properly begun to assess the needs of children coming to Ireland under the Refugee Resettlement Programme.
What can we do to change life for those whose childhoods are not perfect or, indeed, are downright miserable? Commitments and policies on paper are seriously undermined if they are not addressing the needs of the children who need them most.
For now, today’s first child summit represents a turning point. Bringing together agents of change for children’s lives is serious. It demonstrates accountability and a genuine desire across government departments and beyond to put political needs aside and put children first.
There was a 10-year lacuna between Ireland’s examination earlier this year and the previous examination in 2006, twice the wait it should have been.
Looking back, critics might say the 2006 recommendations wallowed on the proverbial shelf as they were not integrated into national policy. So far, 2016 is proving far from a tick-box exercise.
The infrastructural building blocks for change have been laid and I for one am excited that today’s event shows there is the political will to follow through on these commitments. We now need action and resourcing to allow the system and its people do their job properly.
We still have a long road to travel. Ultimately, we will know we are successful when there are better outcomes for all our children and when they have the brighter futures they deserve.
Tanya Ward is chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance
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