2010: The European Year Against Poverty and Social Exclusion: a chance to end child poverty in Europe?

2010 provides an opportunity – across Europe – to take steps that lead to the elimination of child poverty once and for all.  And it is about time: 19% of children in the EU are at risk of poverty compared to an average of 16% for the total population; 15% of children leave school without achieving a secondary education; and 10% of Europeans live in jobless households.  Still, we are far from the realising article 27 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which recognises every child’s right to a standard of living adequate for their physical, mental, spiritual, moral and social development.

In Ireland, even during the Celtic Tiger years, child poverty did not disappear.  Still, in 2008, 18% of children – one in every six – were at risk of poverty, living in households with income below 60% of the median; and over 65,000 children, or 6.3%, were living in consistent poverty.  Consistent poverty means that these children were living in households with an income less than 60% of the median and without access to two or more basic goods; like an overcoat or a warm home.  These figures are even more striking when we consider Ireland’s wealth during the boom –  a 2008 report ranked Ireland the second richest country in the EU; but 21st out of the 27 EU countries on rates of child poverty.   This says a lot about our Government’s priorities.

Even in harsh economic times, child poverty can, and should, be addressed.  It won’t disappear in a year, but with the necessary commitment and resources this problem can be solved.  The European Year Against Poverty and Social Exclusion 2010 provides the platform we need to draw international attention to this issue, and to push Governments into making genuine commitments to address poverty at home.  The evidence is clear: children are the group most at risk of poverty, and among children it is those living in lone-parent families or with unemployed or disabled parents that are most vulnerable.  The solutions are well-rehearsed: adequate income support to the poorest families; investment in public services; and constructive policies to get parents into work that pays a decent wage.  The answer does not lie in more research or analysis; but in action, plain and simple.  The 2010 is a chance to mobilise around this issue and solve it once and for all.

Eurochild, the European network of children’s NGOs, is running an ‘End Child Poverty’ campaign to mark the 2010 year. The campaign calls on all European citizens to log on to www.endchildpoverty.eu and sign the petition to end child poverty in Europe. The Alliance wants Ireland’s voice to be strong in calling on EU Governments and on the European Commission to make genuine commitments to end child poverty in Europe. Europe is rich, yet the numbers of children in poverty is proof that still, we are failing our children.  Act now, by logging on and signing the petition…

Niamh Gallagher, Policy Officer, Children’s Rights Alliance

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“Why Was I Not Protected By You?”

Altar Boy, by Andrew Madden

Altar Boy, by Andrew Madden

One in five children in the care of the State does not have a social worker. 

Hundreds of children in the care of the State have gone missing. 

Thousands of children live in poverty. 

The HSE fails in its statutory obligations to children every day.

Many children leaving the care of the State quickly become homeless. 

It is a criminal offence to fail to have a television licence, but not to fail to report the abuse or neglect of a child. 

Until very recently the HSE had not published a single report into the death of a child in its care, though there have been over 20 such deaths since the HSE was formed.

And a Catholic Church, which covered up the rape and sexual abuse of children for decades in this country, enjoys major involvement in our national school system; a school system that the current government claims it has no responsibility for the safety of children.

***

The next Government has a huge job of work to do in order to advance the safety, welfare and protection of children.  In health, in education and in the care of the State, children have been failed appallingly for many years.

The Children First Guidelines need to be put on a statutory basis as a matter of urgency – the current Government’s plans do not go far enough in this regard and the promise to have legislation drafted by the end of this year does not demonstrate an appreciation of the need to enhance child protection measures now.

It is imperative too that the rights of children are more properly protected in the Constitution; it is deplorable that the current Government cannot even guarantee to a hold referendum by the end of this year.

The monitoring and support of convicted sex offenders in Ireland is almost non-existent.  Sex offenders who have served their sentences are generally released into the community without supervision, though some may be under the supervision of the Probation and Welfare Service for a period of time.  The requirements of the Sex Offenders Act 2001 do not mean that there is any real supervision.  And this is not just my view: they are the words of Judge Yvonne Murphy in the Murphy Report.

 There is an urgent need for change.
• Firstly, there is no actual sex offenders’ register.  Released offenders simply notify the Gardai of their intended residential address.  A multi-agency approach to the support and monitoring of released offenders must be developed, along with a more stringent regime of signing on procedures with regular personal visits to Garda stations by released offenders.
• Secondly, those responsible for monitoring sex offenders should have the powers and the resources to make regular unannounced visits to the homes of released sex offenders.
• Thirdly, monitoring of sex offenders should include polygraph testing, electronic tagging, curfews and other restrictions; for example an offender who only ever abuses children after he/she has taken alcohol should have it as a condition of their release that they don’t consume alcohol.
• Fourthly, parents and guardians should be able to register a concern with authorities about any individual who has access to their children about whom they are genuinely worried; and in some cases it should be possible for them to be told if such an individual is a known sex offender or not.  This measure is already being rolled out in the UK, having been piloted to great effect over the last 18 months.  A pilot scheme, in four counties, saw one in ten calls to police uncovers evidence of a criminal past. Out of 315 applications for information from concerned parents, details of 21 paedophiles were revealed; these were sex offenders known to the authorities who were putting themselves in a position of having access to children again, and they were stopped because those parents could register their concerns and access this information. 
• Finally, it is not appropriate to offer shorter sentences to offenders who participate in treatment programmes in prison, as the current Justice Minister has proposed – those who don’t participate voluntarily should be considered very high risk on release and should be monitored accordingly.
With regard to Garda Vetting, there is urgent need for Garda Vetting of people working with children to be extended to facilitate the passing on of soft information.  Organisations working with, or providing services to, children have called for this to be done for many years, but to no avail.

EMPOWERING CHILDREN with knowledge, confidence and language is an important part of the child protection process.  The STAY SAFE and SPHE programmes within schools are a significant part of this. 

• All teachers should receive a basic SPHE pre-service training as all teachers are involved in social and personal education of young people.
• There should be a module in the SPHE programme dedicated specifically to Child Safety, Welfare and Protection at post-primary level. 
• Children’s knowledge of SPHE should be assessed regularly.
For how much longer must children wait for these and other child protection measures to be implemented?    What more must happen before Government is persuaded of the need to radically enhance measures which are meant to lend themselves to the safety, welfare and protection of children in this country?  If the next Government continues this Government’s failures, then we will listen to many more harrowing accounts well into the future as today’s and tomorrow’s children ask us: “why was I not protected by you?”

By Andrew Madden, the bestselling author of ‘Altar Boy’

The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Children’s Rights Alliance.

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The Right to Education

Each person is born with the capacity to achieve their full potential as individuals, but all too often obstacles are put in the way.  One of the most important ways to overcome such barriers is through education.  It may sound like a cliché but education really is a vital key in allowing us to achieve our best.  This is true for children in Ireland and it is also true for children growing up in the developing world.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) has a lot to say about education.  The   UNCRC is an internationally binding agreement on the rights of all children everywhere.  Adopted in 1989, it was the most quickly and widely adopted Convention in history, and every country in the world, except the US and Somalia, has signed up. 

The UNCRC says that every child has the right to education, and that the State has a duty to make primary education compulsory and free to all.  So when this does not happen, States are effectively breaking this piece of international law. 

The Convention also says that education should help to develop a child’s personality and talents, and prepare them for active life as an adult.  It says that education should foster respect for human rights, cultural and national values, and for the natural environment.

The second of the Millennium Development Goals is really important because it takes the right to education, and it turns it into a target.  This target is to achieve universal primary education for all – to ensure that by 2015 children everywhere, boys and girls alike, will be able to complete a full course of primary schooling. 

Major accomplishments have been made since the commitment was first made in 2000.  In the developing world as a whole, enrolment in primary education reached 88 per cent in 2007, up from 83 per cent in 2000.  And most of the progress was in regions lagging the furthest behind.  But it is not all good news – while the world is edging closer to universal primary education, it is doing so too slowly to meet the 2015 target.

What needs to happen?  Work must be intensified to get all children into school – and to stay there – especially those in rural communities, and eliminate inequalities in education based on gender and ethnicity, and among linguistic and religious minorities.  There needs to be reform, increased investment and there needs to be a great focus on working together in partnership.  

All children in the world have a right to education.  We must not stop until this right is realised for each and every one of them.

By Jillian van Turnhout, Chief Executive

This is a piece written for St Wolstan’s Community School (Celbridge, Co. Kildare) and their book: “TWENTY FIFTEEN Thoughts and reflections on the Second Millennium Development Goal: Universal Primary Education”,  published by Self Help Africa.  For more details, visit: www.selfhelpafrica.org

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The Girl with the Number 7 Shirt: Stop Sex Trafficking of Children and Young People

Stop Sex Trafficking of Children and Young People CAMPAIGN

Stop Sex Trafficking of Children and Young People CAMPAIGN

Child sex trafficking exists in every continent, region and country the world over – from the poorest to the richest.   This summer, most of us were glued to the box watching the goings-on in South Africa: as it became the epicenter of the world’s attention and host of FIFA World Cup 2010.  As Spain returned triumphant, and South Africa estimated its economic benefit to be worth 10 billion rand (over 1 billion euros), a more sinister game also paid dividends.  There is an underbelly to any such event that attracts large numbers of visitors to a city, a darker game that provides opportunities for abusers, exploiters and traffickers to meet the increased demand for cheap labour and sexual services.

Every year an estimated 1.2 million children are trafficked for sexual exploitation and abuse.  Human trafficking is the third largest international crime (after illegal drugs and arms trafficking) and it is believed to be worth billions of dollars a year.  It is one of the fastest growing criminal activities in the world.  And where there is demand, supply will always follow.

The award-winning photo-journalist, Hazel Thompson (www.hazelthompson.com), visited South Africa’s brothels ahead of this year’s World Cup and witnessed shocking scenes of abuse.  Hazel investigated whether there had been a rise in child trafficking and sex tourism in South Africa, due to the forthcoming sports event.  She learnt about the rising problem of organised crime surrounding the sex trade, and the increase of internal trafficking owing to the high rate of child-headed families in South Africa’s poor and vulnerable communities.

In her investigation, Hazel accompanied the newly established ‘Vice’ Squad on their operations and documented their discovery of trafficked girls in this hidden world; she experienced at first-hand the Squad’s frustration of not being able to rescue a trafficked girl owing to South Africa’s poor anti-trafficking laws.  This is Hazel’s eye witness account:

Stop Sex Trafficking of Children and Young People CAMPAIGN

Photo: Hazel Thompson

“We enter the building quickly, with only the torch lights of the team guiding us through the blackened alleyway to the entrance of the apartments. The gang which runs this place purposely removed lighting from the majority of the building, so that neighbours cannot see what is going on.  A female officer knocks firmly on a boarded door, with the whole team right behind her.  A tall man stands back; he looks bemused as the team enters the building they suspect is being used as a brothel.

“The flashes of light expose the dilapidated rooms: the smell of the place hits the officers as they scramble into the house and an officer starts searching a soiled sofa for evidence.  The team is navigating around vomit and faeces on the floors – so filthy that the surfaces appear to move in the shadows.

Stop Sex Trafficking of Children and Young People CAMPAIGN

Photo: Hazel Thompson

“In the only room with a light bulb, an officer finds a large box of condoms.  And then, there she is: a young girl in a bright green and red striped football sweatshirt with the number 7 on the back, slumped over at the end of a single bed.  She seems confused and scared. Her movements are slow, as if she has been drugged.  In a voice, hardly audible, she tells the officers she is 19-years-old and from Pretoria.   She had been offered work in Cape Town, but had been tricked and forced to work in the brothel.  It is not the first time the officers hear this kind of story, but unless the girl agrees to come with them voluntarily, the laws of South Africa preclude them from doing anything.

“The tall man who was at the door comes into the room, and the girl hangs her head lower, as if life is draining out of her.  She is visibly shaking with fear.  An officer begs the girl to come with him, offering to pretend that she is under arrest so she can leave the house.  But slowly her voice grows quieter, the fight leaves her and she gives in to her situation.  The team will have to leave her there – in that house, on that bed.”

In August 2009, The Body Shop and ECPAT International began a three-year global campaign in 66 countries entitled: Stop Sex Trafficking of Children and Young People. The three aims of the campaign are to raise awareness of child trafficking; influence governments across the world to implement stricter anti-trafficking policies and legislation; and empower ordinary people to make a difference.

Launch of the Global Petition in Dublin

Launch of the global petition in Dublin, with The Body Shop's Chris Davis; Jillian van Turnhout, Chief Executive of the Alliance; Fair City's Lisa Harding; and PrimeTime's Keelin Shanley.

In each country the campaign focuses on domestic issues.  In Ireland, the campaign seeks to strengthen our response to child victims of trafficking and ensure they get the support they need, thus fulfilling Ireland’s international obligations. The Children’s Rights Alliance has been chosen as the Irish NGO partner for this campaign. The Alliance is concerned that, in Ireland, 27 children have gone missing between January and May of 2009, of whom only two have been accounted for.  It is feared that many of these vulnerable, missing children have been trafficked.

Child trafficking for sexual exploitation is a despicable crime that must be stamped out here in Ireland and across the globe.  Please show your solidarity by tracing your hand as part of the campaign’s global petition in your local The Body Shop store.  The petition will go to the Taoiseach in 2011, and ultimately to the UN Headquarters in New York, to inspire long-term change.

For more information, visit: www.childrensrights.ie

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Does Ireland Value its Children?

Jillian at 2009 Symposium

Jillian van Turnhout addressing the 2009 Symposium on Children's Rights

Our first post is an article written by Jillian van Turnhout, our Chief Executive, on the need to strengthen children’s rights in the Constitution.

Does Ireland Value its Children?

Children’s rights and child protection have come to the fore in public debate.  Accounts of abuse and untimely child deaths have exposed an Ireland that allows children to be neglected, their voices silenced and their rights ignored.  Countless reports, court cases and intense media scrutiny have thrown light on the unimaginable pain and sadness of individual childhoods, all of which beg the question: does Irish law adequately protect and promote the rights of children?

Many of our laws are out of step with the reality of life.  Some continue to breach the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Ireland ratified in 1992.  A key challenge is to move from a ‘welfare’ to a ‘rights-based’ approach.  In some policy areas, Ireland has aligned itself with international best practice, but in far too many others, it has been slow to respect children as individuals in their own right.

Many of our statutes and policies look good on paper, but there is a failure to realise children’s rights in practice.  Each year the Children’s Rights Alliance examines whether the Government has honoured its promises to children in the areas of education, health, material wellbeing and safeguarding childhood in its Report Card series.  Report Card 2010 awarded Government a disappointing overall D-minus grade.

Unfortunately, a patchwork system has been developed to respond to the needs of children.  This has resulted in fundamental gaps between the rights, as envisaged in our laws and policies, and their fulfilment.  Children inevitably lose out when rhetoric does not get translated into reality.

Our shelves are heaving under the weight of reports crammed with recommendations on how to reform our systems.  But the challenge now is to overcome barriers blocking their implementation, including constitutional blocks, a dearth of social services and supports, and lengthy court delays.  This is exacerbated by ever tightening purse strings and increasing poverty.  So how do we make Ireland one of the best places in the world to be a child?

Constitutional Reform
We need to start with the Constitution.  The need for constitutional change was first recognised in 1976 by, the then, Senator Mary Robinson during a debate on the Adoption Act 1976.  Over thirty years later, despite a litany of reports and court cases highlighting the need for reform, the Constitution remains unaltered.

The Constitution is virtually silent on children’s individual rights.  It permits discrimination between children, and provides different levels of protection to children, based on the marital status of parents.  Furthermore, rigidity in the interpretation of Articles 41 and 42 has created roadblocks in the effective operation of our child protection, care and adoption systems.  For example, current constitutional provisions prevent up to 2,000 children, abandoned in the care system, from being eligible for adoption.

The Alliance believes the Constitution should recognise children as individual rights holders; it should truly respect the child’s right to have his or her voice heard, and the right to such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being.  In addition, the courts should be enabled, when resolving disputes, to make child-focused decisions, based on what is in the best interests of the child.

Importantly, Article 42.5 needs to be recalibrated.  In situations where parents fail their child, the State must safeguard his or her rights and future.  But, without an amendment, the State’s hands are too often tied.  This is not acceptable.  We need reform to sufficiently empower the State to intervene in a proportionate, and timely, manner to support parents to vindicate the rights of their child.

The Constitution is also a statement of our values as a society.  We want a Constitution that values children and recognises the centrality of the child’s parents.  Strengthening children’s rights will help foster a new attitude to children and families in Irish society; it will shape our future.  And public appetite is evident from the response to the findings of the Ryan Report, among others.

So, how close are we to constitutional reform for children?  On 16 February 2010, the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children published its Third and Final Report, which, historically, included all-party agreement on proposed wording for an amendment to strengthen children’s rights –a significant step.  We must ensure this report does not gather dust.  Disappointingly, progress on the Committee’s recommendations in its previous two reports – concerning vetting and soft information and ‘statutory rape’ – has stalled.

The thrust of the Third Report reflects the position advocated by the Alliance.  We call on Government to act on the Committee’s recommendations and set a date for a referendum to strengthen children’s rights.

Court, Practice and Reform

The successful passage of a children’s rights amendment will not solve all ills: other initiatives must be undertaken in parallel.  For example, we need to reform our systems to ensure that they respond in a child appropriate, caring and effective manner to child victims of abuse.  Victims and their families must be able to put their trust in the HSE, the Gardaí and the criminal justice system.  Recommendations published by the Joint Committee on Child Protection in 2006, the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children in 2009 and in the Ryan Report Implementation Plan of July 2010 provide solutions, but progress is painfully slow.  We must deliver on these reforms with a renewed sense of urgency.

The Alliance’s vision is for Ireland to be one of the best places in the world to be a child.  We hope that 2010 will be the year that we learnt lessons from the past by making children’s rights visible in our laws.

(The full article appeared in the Irish Journal of Family Law in April 2010.)

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New blog from the Children’s Rights Alliance in Ireland

The Children’s Rights Alliance is a coalition of over 90 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working to secure the rights and needs of children in Ireland, by campaigning for the full implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. We aim to improve the lives of all children under 18, through securing the necessary changes in Ireland’s laws (strengthening children’s rights in the Constitution), policies and services.

We want to engage with as many people as possible – in Ireland and elsewhere – and to provide our member organisations with the opportunity to post their thoughts and views on childhood and children’s rights in Ireland.

Our vision is that Ireland will be one of the best places in the world to be a child – and this blog will record the journey.  We hope you enjoy it. If you would like to contribute a 600-word article to our blog, please contact Carys Thomas

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