25 August 2011

Opening Adress by Minister Fitzgerald to the Merriman Summer School 17th August 2011

Childhood is defined by trust and dependency.

Children come into the world as a bundle of trust. Trust and love are their only currency, the only things they can offer. And the trust is absolute. They cannot pass on a confidence and wait to see if it is protected before sharing another. They cannot put a tiny part of their life in the hands of another to check if it is cherished before committing more.

Trust is an easy thing for adults to talk about. Because we have choices. We can decide who to trust and who to fear. We can pay trust out like rope, only giving out more when we are sure it’s the right decision. We can barter trust; demanding security in exchange. And when we want to we can lock our trust away and survive on an island of our own making.

That’s easy for adults. It’s impossible for children.

Their trust is absolute, unquestioning and complete. And that’s why it is so devastating when it turns out to be misplaced.

Barely weeks after it came into existence, my new department published the Cloyne report. That report is nearly 30 chapters long and reveals major systemic failures in how the church dealt with child protection and in how the state allowed such failures to occur.

The aspect of the report that I believe may be the most important is also the most likely to be overlooked; Chapter 27. The chapter where the victims of the abuse tell their stories.

They don’t suggest legislative change. They don’t demand new policies. They don’t recommend new guidance.

They just outline the effect on them – as children and now as adults – of being harmed by those who they trusted to protect them.

They didn’t choose to trust the men who molested them. That choice was made for them.
They didn’t choose to trust the church to defend them. That choice was never offered to them.

They didn’t choose to trust the state to protect them. That choice was never available to them.

We have a lot of work to do to make sure such a breach of trust can never occur again.

That of course means addressing the child protection issues we have inherited, but it also means making sure that neglect, whether through will or ignorance is addressed.
We must have the laws in place to protect our children but we must also make sure we have the social workers on the ground to get to the families who need them. But equally importantly we must make sure the system can respond to the needs those social workers will uncover.

Having worked in the area, I know there is nothing more frustrating for a social worker than to call upon the system to help a child or a family only to discover the system incapable or unwilling to answer the call.

We will not immediately deliver that. The deficit we have inherited is too great to instantly repair. But we will deliver.

And – if the people agree - we’ll give a new support to the work of our social workers with a change in our constitution so that rights of the child and their needs get recognition from the state.

All of which will make a difference to those most in need, but thankfully those most in need are in the minority. We have a critical responsibility to them, but we also have a responsibility to their peers who are not marginalized.

While we must make sure that growing up in Ireland means that you’re safe, protected and cared for, I believe we have a responsibility that is so much greater than that… so much more ambitious than that.
We have a responsibility to ensure that growing up in Ireland means that you have the best start in life available anywhere in the world.

A solemn responsibility: to 1.4 million children and young people in Ireland.

How we exercise our responsibilities affects their lives. Soon the responsibilities they will exercise will affect all of our lives!

They place their trust in out hands. We trust our future in theirs.

Our lives will draw to a close dependent on the people who are now dependent on us. We will live by their values. We will prosper through their success. We will reap what they sow.
Ultimately no other resource will matter as much to us as our youngest citizens will.

And that means we have to start looking at our children in a totally new light. It is not enough to fix the child protection failings and then – as a society – return to the outlook that treats children as little vessels to be filled to the brim with imperial gallons of facts.

We must dedicate ourselves not to shaping our children to fit the needs of our society but rather shaping society to fit the needs of our kids.

In Victorian England, reformers cheered when legislation prevented children climbing chimneys and cleaning factories. Yet those children continued to contract rickets from malnutrition, they continued to live without prospects and without happiness. Problems which got ignored, because solving social exclusion, poverty, squalour and malnutrition is so much trickier than banning children from working.

Preventing child labour was important. But it was not the sole solution to the problems of that age.

Likewise, preventing child abuse is paramount. But this is not the sole solution challenges faced by Irish children.
A substantial minority of school-going adolescents in Ireland are regular weekly drinkers

There has been a sharp increase in smoking prevalence in Irish children between the ages of 15-18.

Almost one-quarter of 7 year old Irish children are either overweight or obese. And the latest research tells us that an even higher percentage of Irish children are now overweight or obese at three years of age.

One in ten Irish children and adolescents suffer a mental heath disorder.

One in four girls and one in six boys in Ireland have been involved in cyber-bullying either as a victim, bully or both.

And even those children who appear ‘Quotes “Normal”’ can have issues bubbling under the surface, as we saw last week in England when straight-A students and top-of-their-game young athletes and dancers, aspiring to the Olympic or the West End stage engaged in rioting and looting.

So we must still ask if broader society is doing enough, even nearly enough to fulfil it’s obligations to respond to the greater cultural influences, the deeper societal problems not just to protect Irish children but, to protect the Irish childhood, to secure their future.

Because our children unconsciously place a trust in us that goes far beyond protecting them from harm in their youth. They place a trust in us to ensure their future happiness and security.

They look to us for everything; for safety and security, education and opportunity, development and discovery.

And for generations the state has not taken that responsibility seriously enough.

Take for instance my NEW Department for Children and Youth Affairs. When the Taoiseach announced that he was creating this department, some commentators asked why we needed it.

I find that astonishing.

We accept that a minister should have responsibility for trains. And another should have responsibility for soldiers. And another should deal only with issues pertaining to foreign relations. And yet people were surprised when we suggested that our children are as important as our trains, soldiers and foreign relations.

Children are the single most important resource this country has.

We must always remember that childhood is not the only time in our lives that we must place our trust in others. When we find ourselves ‘lean and slippered’ and waiting on the seventh age, our comfort will not be guaranteed by capital projects, no matter how glorious, our safety will not be provided by a broadband network, no matter how extensive, our happiness will not be provided by our tourism industry, no matter how successful it is.

For our future lies in our younger citizens; those who will inherit this republic; the leaders and workforce of tomorrow.

It’s one of those rare times when altruism and mercenary self-interest share an objective; providing the best start in life for our children is the right thing to do. It is also the way to use our single most important asset to generate economic success.

When you ask any foreign investor why they are in Ireland they all say pretty much the same thing. It’s not the weather. It’s not the scenery. It’s the people. Smart, well-educated, English-speaking people.

Twenty years from now, being smart, well educated and speaking English will not be anything special. We’ll have several billion peers ticking those boxes.

Twenty years from now, we will need people who are entrepreneurial, creative, gifted at design, diplomatic, worldly, insightful, open-minded and confident.

And we won’t get there by luck.

Those attributes are not poured like a those facts into little vessels, rather they are imbued into the very fabric of society.

That’s where we have such an advantage; we have a history of learning, of science, of philosophy, of creativity. We don’t have to craft a new society from whole cloth, we just have to take the very best of our heritage, history and capacity and make it available early and often.

Our children must be able to say; I am safe. I am happy. I can express myself. I am taught what I need and allowed to learn what I want. When I grow up I can be whatever I want. I matter.

I have asked my Department to develop a three phase approach to our work.

First, we will tackle the massive issues of child safety and child protection. It’s an immense task.

As Minister I am committed to bringing forward fundamental change to how we collate and manage real-time data on child protection cases; so we can use this data to inform, design and deliver world-class services. A service built to meet the pressures which will not only emerge as we bring forward legislation to formalise society’s responsibilities to report child protection issues, but to meet the pressures which are already there; the inherited deficit.

The first steps of these fundamental changes are already happening. Gordon Jeyes is leading a long-awaited change agenda within the HSE and Irish social services and this is paving the way for establishment of the dedicated new Child and Family Support Agency, separated out from the HSE which will be tasked with achieving a new strategic focus, better management and consistency of approach so as to deliver a world-class Irish service model of child welfare and protection services.

Preliminary work on the establishment of this new agency is already underway and a new transition group which I have now established will hold its first meeting at the start of September.

Our second task will be to liaise with the Departments of Health, Education and Social Protection to put in place a co-ordinated strategy to address child supports, learning opportunities and models and health and well-being.

Thirdly we will complement the work in protection and development with long-term planning to make today’s children the drivers of tomorrow’s economic development.

The success of my department will be measured in the short-term by those observing the lives of our children.
You will observe children safe in their homes and in their schools, clubs and places of worship.
You will see the state supporting families on the edge so they can stay together as a family unit while not exposing the kids to risk.
You will see that where risk does emerge, the state will have the power to act.
You will see children’s health, education and welfare developed with systems bending to the needs of the child, not the other way around.
You will see us investing time, attention and resources into our futures through the generations that will provide those futures.
And you will see us listening.
I told you earlier about chapter 27 of the Cloyne report. That’s the chapter of first hand accounts of abuses and breaches of trust.
In one of those accounts a victim told an adult of the abuse she was suffering. That adult mocked her and further victimized him for asking for help.
A girl came to a grown man in fear, hurt and pain and asked for confidential help. And the response was not help. It was not even passive empathy. The response was to compound her abuse with humiliation and subjugation.
I do not understand how any adult could do such a thing.
But I do understand the cultural context that allows such things to happen.
It’s a cultural context which demands silence and obedience from children. It’s a cultural context which demands they be seen and not heard. It’s a cultural context which squashes the very independence we should be seeking to foster.

Arguably the biggest change we must bring about is one where a child who is abused by a relative has the capability to talk to his or her mum and dad and know that mum or dad will listen.

We must bring about a change where social workers have the time and training to ask children open questions and then listen with ears and eyes as they answer.

We must create a society where we are open as educators, parents, health workers, social workers, public servants and citizens to listen to what our children and young people are telling us, verbally and non-verbally, as individuals and as groups.

Because fundamentally, when you strip away all everything and ask how have we as a society failed our children up to now the answer is pretty simple; they trusted us to listen to them. We didn’t.

So in striving for the best outcomes for Irish childhood, in seeking to plan for a brighter future, also their future, we must be willing and more open to engaging with children, to embrace their rights to speak and be heard, not as a nuisance, nor as inferiors, but rather as fellow-citizens, as the decision-makers of tomorrow.

Maybe in recent years we should have listened more to our future generations. We should not readily expect to be thanked for the legacy our generation will leave for the next…
If the excesses of the Celtic tiger and the subsequent collapse taught us anything it is that we should never lose sight of what matters. Our legacy will not be WHAT we leave behind; it will be WHO we leave behind.