20% of Irish children are at risk of poverty and with no ‘child-proofing’ of policies cuts are falling on them disproportionately – Niamh Murray
The Children’s Rights Referendum, if passed, will strengthen the position of children in Ireland. Though critical, the referendum is not a panacea. There are still many children at risk in society. Constitutional rights alone will not improve their lives. Children’s rights are useless in a vacuum. Statutory and policy change is also necessary to reflect children’s needs and their best interests.
Statutory bodies have a duty towards children. The National Education Welfare Board (NEWB), the body with responsibility for school attendance, is failing children. Several anomalies are apparent. Children need to be aged six before the NEWB tracks their attendance. This means most junior and senior infants fall outside its remit, particularly in DEIS (Delivering Equality in Schools) schools where children tend to start school at a younger age. In practice then, children can miss a sizeable chunk of their formative school years, with no repercussions from the state.
It is unacceptable that children are allowed miss up to twenty days per year. The number of school days missed needs to be monitored cumulatively over more than one year, so chronic absenteeism is intercepted sooner. The NEWB needs to be radically overhauled to ensure children are attending school. In the Report of the Independent Child Death Review Group, published earlier this year, school absenteeism is flagged as a warning sign, usually indicative of other problems. This report, which revealed that 196 children died in the care of the state between 2000 and 2010, is the most damning indictment of the state and of society in recent times.
The Budget 2012 decision to cut the lone parents allowance to parents of children aged seven or over was a regressive move, which will simply increase child poverty. Barnardos estimate that one in five children in Ireland is at risk of poverty and 8.2% live in consistent poverty. Speaking at a Children’s Rights Alliance seminar last May, Professor Aoife Nolan of the University of Nottingham argued that this budgetary move was in contravention of Article 4 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which refers to the implementation of rights by state parties. Ireland has ratified the Convention and is bound by it, although it has not been incorporated into domestic law. The universal child benefit payment, despite being a specifically ‘pro child’ payment, is currently under threat. The economic recession is largely generational, with young families under particular financial pressure, so targeting child benefit is a retrograde step.
Ireland cannot currently consider itself a beacon in terms of how children are treated. A report from the Irish Refugee Council in September outlined how many children in the asylum process living in direct-provision accommodation are malnourished. Writing in The Guardian Gavan Titley of NUIM described this situation as “the Magdalene Laundries of our time”.
Recent education cuts have badly hit the most vulnerable children. Resource teachers for traveller children were abolished and language support for children with English as their second language drastically reduced. Special Needs Assistants have been cut and more worryingly children who enter the education system are far less likely to be granted an SNA, irrespective of their needs. With capitation reduced, schools can’t afford to pay for extra psychological assessments if they have concerns about children.
The main cuts to DEIS schools were reversed only after concerted protests by those of us working in the sector. However, the rationale for the reversal was not about children, but “because we have a lot of TDs in the inner city area” as an advisor in the Department of Education remarked on the recent RTE television documentary ‘Inside the Department’. Indeed, many cuts currently manifest under the phrase “revised ratios”. If a school loses a teacher, children are adversely affected. This year fewer children are availing of learning support, not because they don’t need it, but because it hasn’t been made available. The current situation whereby many schools in the inner city are sharing teachers is resulting in ‘musical chairs’, where teachers are spending time travelling to and working in other schools, when they are badly needed in their own.
This is the current legacy for children. Simply holding a Children’s Rights Referendum will not ameliorate the status quo. In addition to the referendum, the government must ensure that all departmental policies are ‘child-proofed’ and social policy and budgetary decisions are made in children’s best interest. Only then can Ireland reflect the spirit of the 1916 Proclamation and the wording of the 2010 Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children Proposal Article 1 ‘to cherish all the children of the state equally’. As always, reality trumps rhetoric.