Thursday, 28 October 2010
Child Care Inquiry Report: Statements
David Norris (Independent)
I welcome the Minister of State. Members on all sides have called for a debate such as this, but it was unusual to receive such a rapid and practical response. I am very grateful to the Government for providing us with this opportunity.
Each of us shares a natural revulsion at the abuse of children, whether it is physical, emotional or sexual. In this case, all three were combined. It is extraordinary that so many of the children were abused, and that the oldest son in particular was routinely sexually molested by his mother. That is a deeply tragic and worrying circumstance. I understand that because so many Members want to contribute there may not be an opportunity for questions. Therefore, I will front-load some of my questions. One of the most disastrous elements of this case is that an attempt was made by the social services to intervene, but it was frustrated by a legal action taken by the parents with the encouragement of a group that has been described as right wing, reactionary, Catholic and pro family. I would challenge that. I do not believe the decent Catholic citizens of Ireland wanted this and do not regard this group as pro family. Can the Minister confirm this happened and the exact circumstances? Who are the people or organisation in question and what exactly did they do? Can this be prevented in future? I believe that there is a vicious, small group of people who intervene in these cases to protect what they see as the notional identity of the family and the rights of parents and who assert these disastrously against the interests of children. I and every other Member of this House believe that in these matters the rights of the child should be made paramount.
This morning, the Minister of State relied heavily on Mr. Geoffrey Shannon. I concur with Mr. Shannon, who was perfectly clear and who is one of those who has campaigned for a referendum on the rights of children. That referendum should be held. There has been all-party agreement in committee that it should be held. It should not be further delayed. However, this case is not germane to the referendum and should not be clouded with these extraneous issues. When the Minister of State said there is no legislative gap, he went a step too far. The preface of the report states that because there is no reference whatever in the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964 to the emotional welfare of children in the definition in section 2, that Act should be amended and such a definition should be included. Ms Norah Gibbons says an amendment such as this would help to strengthen the recognition of the importance of a positive emotional environment for the healthy development of children and strengthen the ability of the statutory services to seek the protection of children suffering emotional abuse. Is the Government contemplating an urgent examination of the possibility of introducing such an amendment?
The Minister of State said in his speech that some people have expressed concern that the Cabinet has referred the question of the referendum to all departmental heads and responsible Ministers. He says this is being done because we cannot introduce far-reaching changes into the Constitution without asking senior civil servants what are the likely consequences. That is fair enough, but will he put a timeframe on this process? When can we expect the process to be completed, because there is an awful aura of procrastination about? I recognise that we are in the midst of a major financial crisis and that much of the expertise in all Departments is focused on that, which could cause a delay. Therefore, will the Minister of State give us a time line, something to aim for which can be reviewed if not met?
The report raises a number of serious matters. There is provision for the seeking of supervision orders from the courts, but this was not done. What was the reason given for this? The recommendations are clear. The authorities should not anticipate failure when making a decision on such matters. The report found that another devastating factor was the virtual absence of any detailed description of the accounts of the children. Nothing happened until that heroic young man reported the situation. I do not know how he found the courage or how he was able to look after his siblings and take on the role of a parent when just a child. I remind the House that we are bound by the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Minister of State has been able to announce additional funding of €15 million in this area and that is very welcome in these difficult times. He has also announced the appointment of a national director for child and family services. However, I point him also towards the recommendations in the report to the effect that this should be supported by a clinical team of professionally qualified and experienced social workers and other suitably qualified staff to drive and support practice in child welfare. There should also be a test carried out within the HSE for compliance with the conventions and the HSE should be proofed as a matter of course against them.
The Minister of State referred in his opening paragraphs to the right to privacy of a child. The children in question must rebuild their shattered lives and must not be intruded upon. There is a grey area in this regard between the necessary giving of a victim impact statement and possible intrusion. We also need a national policy of audit and review of the neglect cases in this area. Finally, this matter was muddied by ignorant and malign busybodies with a political agenda. They supported the very devious parents and used the law to do so. The recommendation must be taken seriously that third parties who express concern should be interviewed. The rights and views of the parents should be taken into account, but they should be tested against all further external evidence available. I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his indulgence.