02 April 2012

Speech by Minister Frances Fitzgerald at the Fine Gael Ard Fheis 2012

In the past two decades alone, we’ve had 16 major statutory reports on child protection. We have seen horrors beyond imagining and we have reached a point where there is national consensus that we have to change. 
Almost everybody now, except for the really recalcitrant few, believe that we have to turn over a new leaf, we have to do things differently.

This was reflected in the Taoiseach’s decision to create a new Department of Children and Youth Affairs at senior cabinet level. It has been reflected by taking child protection away from the HSE, wherein it was lost, and by setting up a new agency; the Child and Family Support Agency.

 The problem that I see is that such action may make people believe that those steps have ‘solved’ the issue of child protection. They have not.

Not only is the issue not solved, in some cases we as a society are repeating the same mistake that Cloyne, Murphy and Ferns revealed us to have made before.

It’s time that, as a country, we open our eyes to what is happening every day in cities, towns, communities and families around the country.

Every year there are 30,000 child protection and welfare concerns reported to the services. Over 16,000 of these are child welfare concerns; nearly 13,000 are child protection concerns; 1,500 of these are confirmed cases of sexual, physical or emotional abuse. One thousand five hundred.

That means that in recent years, thousands of children have been neglected, assaulted, raped and humiliated. In modern Ireland.

In too many instances, people knew but did nothing. Family members. Local community members. Friends. Acquaintances. Some chose to turn a blind eye, either through fear, or embarrassment or ignorance or lack of care. Whatever the reason, people decided they could not speak up. They did not act. Many stood idly by.

That is the cycle of silence we are now breaking in this country. It requires a totally new approach to child protection. An approach that only this Government has had the courage to adopt.

Already we are seeing a cultural shift in community and personal responsibility.

We in Fine Gael, working closely with our partners in the Labour party, are fostering a culture where every individual in this state feels themselves personally responsible for creating and maintaining a society where children are protected.

But I believe that breaking our national cycle of silence needs more than words and encouragement.

First and foremost it needs an utterly reformed system of state care and intervention.

Everyone knows the economic shambles this government inherited from our predecessors. Everyone knows about the awful planning decisions, ill-judged taxes and pro-cyclical, election-focused economic policies that Fiann Fáil used to drive this country onto the rocks.

People are not as aware of the shambles they left us in child protection.

No national framework for service delivery. No proper data collection. No standard methodology for assessing and referring cases. No needs-assessment for NGO funding. No linking up of HSE, community and voluntary agencies.

What we have found, in one word, is a disgrace.

Fixing this is going to take a long time. Luckily, we have the great advantage of working with dedicated, hard-working and committed people across every aspect of the sector. Rarely do you find a sector with such a mismatch between the dedication of its people and the incoherence of the system in which they operate.

Fixing this will require us to draw all of those people together in a system which puts children first.

Which I am doing.

Fixing this will require a national framework for child services.

Which we are developing

Fixing this needs law.

Which we are bringing in.

I now have the Children’s First legislation to the point where I have today written to our own Deputy, Jerry Buttimer, Chairman of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children, asking that his committee now examine the Heads of Bill. This is legislation that has been promised for years on end. In fact it was first promised fourteen years ago, by Fianna Fáil, by a former Fianna Fáil Taoiseach, now a former member of that Party.

Yet another example of the previous Government’s shoddy, incoherent and frankly careless approach to children.

Promised more than a decade ago. Never delivered.

Fine Gael will deliver it.

By the end of the year it will be law.

But the most momentous change we can make for our children will be to change our constitution.

When you mention constitutional change, many people glaze over.

But in this instance, constitutional change is about changing children’s lives.

My department is in possession of a report, undertaken by Norah Gibbons and Geoffrey Shannon, into deaths of children in State care.
It is harrowing. It is upsetting.

I am awaiting the advice of the Attorney General before publishing it.

But I want people to see this report.

And I want them to read it.

Because it shows what happens when society fails our children.

It shows how abuse and neglect in the early years of a child’s life can be the beginning of a journey which is bleak, troubled, and short. It shows how crucial interventions missed can lead to childhoods destroyed and in some instances lives lost.

We must change the Constitution to underpin and to ensure the very best decisions are made for our most vulnerable children.
But the Children’s Referendum will also help resolve other problems.
As we now stand, when a decision has to be made in the court about a child, the Constitution does not require the Judge to consider the voice of that child or consider their best interests.

Indeed in other instances the constitution results in scenarios that are patently absurd.

Do you know that children are treated differently by the Constitution depending on whether or not their parents are married or when they were born?

Take the situation which – unfortunately, shamefully - happens every year. A husband and wife have a baby girl. And they abuse her. Beat her. Neglect her. To the point that the baby has to be saved from her own parents.

That little child is then, if she’s lucky, put with foster parents.

And as the years pass, that little girl grows to know her foster parents as mum and dad. She comes to know their genetic children as her brothers and sisters. She comes to love them and they her.

And one day the foster parents decide they would like to adopt the little girl and make her formally and officially part of their family.
Our law prevents them. They cannot do it.
We have sixteen hundred children in exactly this situation in long-term foster care. One thousand six hundred children.

And for each of them, if their biological parents had not been married they would have been eligible for adoption. 

We apply different rules to the children of married men and women than unmarried men and women. The children may be in the exact same situation. They may have suffered the exact same abuse. They may have the same chance at a better life with adoptive parents. But they will be treated differently because one set of parents wear wedding rings and the others don’t.
We must give those children whose parents aren’t able to care for them a second chance to be adopted, to be with a permanent family.

We have to move to a place where children have rights, where their voices are heard, where their needs are met.

Where fundamentally we as a society no longer stand idly by.

Where we make sure that children’s needs are met and their voices are listened to.

If children's voices had been heard, if they had really been respected, if they had been listened to, we would not have had a Ryan report.

If the State had thought about the consequences of putting children into those homes…
If there had been some sense that the child is a real person…

If, for one moment, the system had thought of the child and not of itself, then much of what was inflicted on generations of children would not have happened.

This referendum is necessary so we can get to a place we should already be:

A place where decisions about every child will be taken in the child’s best interest;
A place where the views of the child will be taken into account;
A place where each child will be regarded as a citizen.

That, combined with the legislation I am passing and combined with Minister Alan Shatter’s legislation on vetting and with-holding information, will finally create a situation where there is:

No ambiguity.

No ambiguity that children should be protected.

No ambiguity, no ambivalence.

No “the abuse isn’t happening”

No “I won’t bother reporting it”

No doubt about neglect.

No more ‘Ah maybe they’ll be ok.

No more standing idly by.
We must remember that it is not long ago that a Fianna Fail Minister would not allow the Stay Safe Programme to go into schools.

A programme designed with only one objective; keep children safe.

And he blocked it.

Imagine, not putting a curriculum into school that will tell children how to stay safe. That’s where we’ve come from.

Stay safe was kept out of schools because of an idea that you were undermining the family by telling the child how to protect himself.

I say,  ‘when children are safe, families are strong’.

But we’ve a long road yet to travel.

We’ve a long way to go before we can say we care for our children properly.

And getting there will require action from everyone.

It’s easy to listen to extreme situations and decide that they are someone else’s problem. It’s easy to believe that social workers, or child support agencies or the Department of Children must deal with those kind of ‘major problems.’

Let me talk to you about another problem, something that happens every day in every corner of this country.

Every day, in this country children are born into poverty.

The parents of that child may be the most caring, dedicated, loving and committed parents in the world. But no matter how great their love and commitment, their baby will be at a disadvantage from the moment he or she leaves the hospital.

Because the family is poor.
And all the economic evidence is unequivocal – allowing children to be poor is bad for the children and bad for the country.

Any OECD economist will tell you that if you give children the right level of high quality childhood care and if you keep them above the poverty line, the economic benefits for the country are incredible.

And yet, child poverty remains a gut-wrenching reality in 21st century Ireland. The economic turmoil of recent years has made things much worse; and it is the children who suffer the most.

So, when this Government sets it sights on lifting people out of chronic poverty, it is clear that the heaviest lifting will be required when it comes to children.

But this government has started.

Our number one priority is getting Ireland back to work. We should not underestimate the vital importance of this task.

Children in jobless households are three times more likely to experience consistent poverty than children generally.

This affirms everything this Government has been doing over the past year; and will continue to do to restore our economy and create jobs.
But it’s not just about jobs. For my part as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs it’s about much more. It’s about intervening early to support families.
This is a challenge, given the economic disaster we inherited. But there is one characteristic no-one can deny about this party and this Government; we do not shirk challenges.

There is no better example than what my colleague Minister Michael Noonan achieved this week. He carefully, doggedly and relentlessly pursued a re-structuring of the promissory notes. And after months of work he achieved what some said was unachievable. That is what we in Fine Gael do.

And we are not doing it alone. Our Labour party colleagues are also clearly unafraid of the task ahead of us. Recently I have been working closely with Minister Howlin to find ways to solve some of the vast funding problems my Department has inherited. That experience has been one of clear partnership; he has been robust, clear, unequivocal in the financial issues facing the state. But he has also been absolutely dedicated to finding solutions, where possible, in a way that gives me great optimism about what Fine Gael and Labour can achieve together.

It has to be said though, that some of the biggest issues that face us are not the ones in the constant glare of publicity. Some of the biggest issues are not sensational enough to be in the headlines every day.

My great fear is that – in the absence of those daily headlines - we will allow ourselves to believe that the only problem Irish children have had was abuse and that, in the post-Ryan post-Cloyne world,  the problems facing our children are solved.

They are not solved.

Our children have a spectrum of problems, from abuse and neglect, to poverty, to relegation to second-class citizenship.

They do have one significant advantage though. For the first time they have a Government which is dedicated to making a difference across that spectrum of issues.

We in Fine Gael have made a significant difference to child protection in this country.

We will do more.

We in Fine Gael have made a unique commitment to Irish children.
We will deliver on that.

We in Fine Gael have become the first party to dedicate ourselves to making Irish children real Irish citizens.
With your support, with your hard work,
We will - in the referendum - create the foundation for that momentous change.