Wednesday, 3 February 2021
Reappointment of the Ombudsman for Children: Motion
I commend Dr. Niall Muldoon on the work he has carried out in his capacity as Ombudsman for Children and in advocating for the rights of the child in this country, particularly those who are the most vulnerable in our society whose voice remains largely silent. I am delighted to note he will continue in his role and I look forward to seeing the work that he and his team will focus on for the next few years.
As the Social Democrats spokesperson for children, I congratulate him on speaking out for all the children facing inequality at the hands of our State institutions, including the 6,000 children currently waiting for an assessment of their needs, the 20,000 with special needs currently without schooling during Covid, and the 365 children with disabilities in hospital because they cannot get the appropriate supports to go home safely. I also congratulate him on representing children living in direct provision, those in receipt of State services under Tusla, and those from minority backgrounds, including the Traveller and Roma communities.
Dr. Muldoon has continually highlighted deficiencies in Ireland's legal framework concerning children, including in key areas such as housing, mental health and disability. In all of the work he has carried out he has ensured that children have been consulted and asked for the views. This is incredibly important because often we forget to talk to children about what they want to see happen. Ombudsman reports have often directly quoted from children so that we can hear directly from them about how they feel ashamed, embarrassed and humiliated by the inequalities they have faced. There has been no sugar-coating it. The Ombudsman for Children gives power to children's words so that we, as policymakers, can no longer ignore them. It is apt that Dr. Muldoon quotes Brian Friel, "words are the weapons of the dispossessed". This is exactly what Dr. Muldoon has been able to do in his work to date.
One aspect that stands out from the ombudsman's work is that education continues to be the most complained about issue for children. According to the 2019 annual report, his office received 1,503 complaints, 49% of which related to education, which was an increase on the 42% in respect of 2018. Of the 49%, 75% related to schools, 17% to the Department of Education and 4% were associated with other educational agencies such as the National Council for Special Education and the State Examinations Commission.
Now that we are in a global pandemic, education has again reared its head as one of the most contentious issues facing children during Covid-19. Last March, when schools were facing lockdown, many children's rights activists called for contingency measures to be put in place to avoid the disproportionately negative impact school closures would have on children, especially those with disabilities or from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Ombudsman was part of that call. Dr. Muldoon repeatedly called out concerns about children with additional needs regressing when schools were closed and the impact that closure would have for those children living in poverty or at a socioeconomic disadvantage such as Traveller and Roma children, those living in direct provision or those who are homeless.
He warned that long-term school closures would end up exacerbating inequalities these children already face. He was absolutely right about that.
For this reason, since March, I have repeatedly called for a transition task force for children to be established in a cross-departmental capacity and for more representation of children's rights on the board of NPHET to ensure that the needs of children and young people will be met at this most difficult time. Unfortunately, my calls have been left unanswered and we are now witnessing the consequences of that. There have been two periods of school closures, a cancelled leaving certificate examination and one failed reopening of special education. Fortunately, provision for special education will be put in place shortly but there have been many failures in this area and many reports of children regressing and of mental health problems in young people. There is also the problem of the breakdown of trust we have seen between stakeholders and the voice of children remaining silent once again.
We must put children at the centre of what we do, both now and in the future. I want to reiterate something Dr. Muldoon said and which I have raised in the Social Democrats motion on child poverty that was brought forward in the Dáil. We cannot allow children to bear the burden of this pandemic and any economic downturn that we will face as a result of it. That is what happened in the last economic crash. Children bore the burden that we as adults placed on them and they were not protected from the fallout. There is a chance that if we do not protect children as we emerge from the Covid crisis, there could be children in this country who will experience two recessions in their young lives and who will never have had the benefit of an economic recovery at all. We must ensure that children's rights are protected first and foremost.
I congratulate Dr. Muldoon on his reappointment.