Dáil debates

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Reappointment of the Ombudsman for Children: Motion


3:35 pm

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú) | Oireachtas source

This State has carried out very important and good work in the past number of years in investigating and researching how previous generations have treated young children and mothers. Some of the findings that have been published so far are shocking and heartbreaking. It is important that this generation does not overlook the many young children who are in very difficult straits at this time. This focus on our own generation is extremely important because it allows us to have a positive effect and to fix the situations many young people are currently in throughout the country.

I would like to highlight three separate groups of young people and children, explain the difficulty they are in and call on the Minister to do his best to help them. In the past few days, my office has been speaking to family members and parents who send their children to Stepping Stones school in my county of Meath. The children are packed like sardines into tiny prefabricated classrooms with rotting floors, holes in the wall and rat infestations. One parent who helped to found the school told me that it was originally dubbed the school of dreams but has since become known as the house of horrors as the building becomes increasingly unsafe for staff and students alike. Another family I spoke to told me that they have had to stop their children with special needs from watching the news in recent times because it was causing panic attacks and serious stress for them. A party colleague of mine in Cork, Joanne Murphy, has been forced to lie to her son who has autism about the fact that the schools for children with additional needs are being closed in her area, due to the difficulties telling the truth would cause in her family. Other parents have told us about how the lockdown has seen their children significantly regress over the past few months, with children increasingly depressed and anxious for prolonged periods. A survey of childcare professionals revealed that 74% of providers have confessed to seeing regression of children with special needs and disabilities.

That is why it is critically important that education for children with additional and special needs must be opened fully and immediately.

The cost of the lockdown to these families is heart-breaking and it cannot simply be written off as collateral damage of a lockdown. There are approximately 24,000 children throughout the country in mainstream and special schools who are suffering significantly from lockdown and the deprivation of their education. This is in violation of their constitutional right to education. Remote learning is not sufficient for children who are unable to read, who cannot write, who have difficulty speaking and who cannot type. I note that the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, who is up for reconfirmation today, is of the same opinion. Dr. Muldoon has stated that the blanket closure of schools is not a viable option because of the extraordinary impact it will have on our children and families. Without a doubt, children with disabilities and children from disadvantaged backgrounds will once again be disproportionately affected by Covid-19 school closures.

Many schools for children with special needs have done their best, despite inadequate Government support, to ensure their schools are low risk in terms of transmission. I have spoken to parents and they have told me of cases of Covid-19 that have been in their schools but that have not spread due to the necessary procedures being adhered to.

There are simple measures that the Dáil can take to protect the teachers who are working on the front line. We need to guarantee them proper testing and vaccination and ensure that they have a full supply of personal protective equipment so that we can remove additional threats to their lives and aid their return to schools. The Government has the resources at its disposal to get these children back to school. If we act swiftly, we can give teachers the confidence and allow children with additional needs to resume their education as soon as possible.

By European standards Ireland is one of the lowest investors in childcare. Only approximately 0.01% of our GDP is invested in childcare. Our childcare sector is in perpetual crisis since the access and inclusion model funding to help with additional teachers for children with special needs was cut during the lockdown. The early childhood care and education contract is opted out by the Government. I have been in contact with providers. They have told me they are in debt for tens of thousands of euro, that several of their colleagues have shut down during the crisis and that the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has done little.

I wish to raise the matter of children in direct provision. There are 1,789 children in State-sponsored poverty according to the Irish Centre for Human Rights at NUI Galway. One of the difficulties I have is that the State does not collect any statistics on deaths that happen in direct provision. If we are not collecting information with regard to deaths that are happening of children in direct provision, then how can this generation say that we are doing right with regard to the children who were mistreated in instructions in previous generations?


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