Seanad debates

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Child Care Inquiry Report: Statements


2:00 pm

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Fine Gael)

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Andrews. When we first read details of the litany of abuse these children were subjected to we had a terrible sense of déjÀ vu. This is another in a long line of reports that outline the plight of utterly defenceless children who felt helpless, that there was nobody they could turn to, that they were unable to seek the support of the State or rely on it for their protection. As the Minister of State did, I wish to commend the courage of these children, not only in standing up for one another as siblings but in having the courage to allow for the publication of this report. Mr. Justice McMenamin stated that he very carefully weighed in the balance the further hurt for the children that would accompany publication against the public good and the hope that publication might prevent tragedies of this nature occurring in the future. I genuinely hope the hurt that has been caused to these children by their parents and the hurt the publication inevitably will visit upon them does not go in vain. All of us need to sit back for a moment and consider the value system we have as a State and what underpins everything the Government does to protect our children and our vulnerable people.

Every healthily functioning and meaningful democracy requires an underlying ethos. Mr. Geoffrey Shannon pointed out that even had there been a children's referendum with a resulting amendment in place in our Constitution the children involved would not have been afforded any extra protection. I agree with him. We need a philosophy. The philosophy of a democracy is always contained within its constitution. Such a philosophy would guide us in making decisions that affect the lives of citizens.

It is now almost a year since publication of the proposed new article in the Constitution by the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children and I am glad to hear the Minister of State is actively moving on the issue of holding a referendum. If we are to have a value system that will underpin everything society does, this article needs to be included in the Constitution.

Ireland has proved that it is well capable of moving swiftly and decisively when emergency legislation is required. In September 2008 we sat into the early hours of the morning to enact legislation to guarantee bank deposits, yet to date we seemingly have proved incapable of affording the same priority to the protection of children. The Children First guidelines referred to by the Minister of State were published 11 years ago and have yet to be placed on a statutory footing. The number of social workers in Ireland is currently one for every 1,800 persons, while in Northern Ireland it is one for every 660. Again, I welcome the Minister of State's commitment to address this shortcoming. I hope that when there is momentum and the first of the new recruits are in place, we will continue to try to recitfy the imbalance in social worker provision between this jurisdiction and Northern Ireland.

The Minister of State has said the Roscommon report raises many questions, not least of which is why concerns about ongoing neglect did not lead to decisive action at an earlier stage. He has also said he is particularly concerned that the views of the children were not listened to, a recurring theme in the report. The children themselves asked why no one had listened to them.

I always find it disheartening to read the reports from the ISPCC each year on the level of activity in its Childline service. Last year 800,000 telephone calls were made to the service, probably by children in similar circumstances. Of the 800,000 calls, 300,000 went unanswered. That is an appalling indictment of us as a society. The ISPCC states it is working towards ensuring all calls will be answered within the next two years. It will cost in the region of €1.5 million to €2 million to put such a service in place. That is not the cost of recruiting people but rather of training the volunteers who will man the system and provide the infrastructure for the ISPCC to enable it to answer that number of calls. As a gesture by the State to the children of Ireland, I ask the Minister of State to ensure we play our part in fast-tracking that process in order that we will not have to wait two years before every call to Childline is answered. With minimal investment by the State, combined with the efforts made by the ISPCC, the system could be in place early next year. As a symbolic act, to convince children in desperate circumstances that when they ring Childline, they should be assured there will be somebody on the other end of the line to whom they will be able to talk. I ask the Minister of State to address this shortcoming.


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