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?
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.)