Government Report to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child
Fr Peter McVerry, SJ
Ireland\'s first national report on the state of children\'s rights and protections to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the child was presented by Liz O\'Donnell T.D., Minister of State for Development Assistance and Human Rights on the 12th and 13th January. Following her statement to the Committee, the Minister was grilled by the members of the Committee who had been well briefed by several NGOs who were also present, including the Children\'s Rights Alliance. The Children\'s Rights Alliance has been very critical of Government inaction on children\'s rights and needs and expressed to the Committee their criticisms. It is only a coincidence, of course, that the night before they met the Committee, they received a cheque from the government for £100,000 towards their valuable work!
During the course of the discussion between Liz O\'Donnell with her advisors and the Committee, references to Mr. Frank Fahey were regularly made. On being asked who Frank Fahey was, Liz O\'Donnell stated that he was Minister of State for Children. The Committee then wanted to know why Liz O\'Donnell was appearing before the Committee and not Frank Fahey. They were also astonished to learn that the Minister with responsibility for children had no voice at the Cabinet table!
In the concluding observations of the Committee, they list three positive factors in the Irish care for children and eighteen "subjects of concern". My understanding is that for all other European countries, the Committee listed significantly more positive factors and significantly less subjects of concern.
Positively, the Committee
· commends the welfare services established for children and their families, the high level of education and advanced health system in Ireland.
· notes the recent efforts made in the field of law reform.
· and commends "the numerous efforts and concrete measures to protect children from sexual exploitation".
· it criticises the fragmented approach to children (whereupon the Government made Frank Fahey Minister of State at the Departments of Justice and Education as well as Health, thereby restoring the arrangement which existed in the last Government.)
· it was astonished that there was no comprehensive national policy for children. Liz O\'Donnell had stated that "to date, our concentration has been on dealing with individual issues. Eventually (my emphasis), it would be our intention to draw a wide range of individual developments together in the context of a national strategy." In other words, she promised that the Government would "eventually" get around to it.
· it was concerned that, despite the decision to establish a Social Services Inspectorate (which would be under the Department of Health), there was no independent monitoring mechanism such as an Ombudsman or a Child Rights Commissioner. (The Government have recently reneged on a prior commitment to establish an Ombudsman for children).
· it criticises the lack of statistical and other information collected on children. (There is no information made available on the numbers of homeless children or even on the numbers of children in care and leaked reports to the media on data relating to homeless children have been met with outraged protest from the Eastern Health Board at the leaking of the data!)
· It is concerned that the potential of Voluntary Groups in contributing to the development of children rights\' policy is not fully realized.
· it is concerned at the various low age limits set in legislation. Liz O\'Donnell had admitted that the failure of the Government to consider increasing the age of criminal responsibility beyond ten was due to \'serious doubts about the ability of the child care agencies to cope with the additional burdens placed on them by having to cater for greater numbers of 7, 8 and 9 year old children. There were real concerns that to raise the age of criminal responsibilitv from 7 to 11 or 12 in one go would place an intolerable burden on the child care agencies." This was greeted with astonishment by the members of the Committee who failed to see why it should be more difficult for the child care services to cope with the needs of children than the Department of Justice.
· it was concerned with the disparities with regard to access to education and health services faced by children from vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, including children belonging to the Traveller community, children from poor families and refugee children.
· it was concerned that there was no legislation prohibiting corporal punishment in the home. In the view of the Committee, this contravenes the principles and provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It was also concerned with the lack of mandatory reporting mechanisms for cases of child abuse. (The Government subsequently did a U-turn and agreed to introduce mandatory reporting).
· it was concerned that there was no appropriate procedure to include the identity of the father on the birth registration of children born to unmarried mothers.
· it was concerned at the incidence of teenage suicide and the lack of adequate programmes for adolescents with drug or alcohol problems or with early pregnancies.
· it was concerned at the lack of a national policy to ensure the rights of children with disabilities and the lack of adequate programmes and services addressing the mental health of children.
· it is "particularly concerned" about the incidence of child poverty and homeless children.
· it is concerned about the situation of children who are excluded from school because of sanctions imposed by teachers.
· it is concerned about the low age of criminal responsibility (presently 7 - to be raised to 10) and treatment of children deprived of their liberty.
It is clear that the Committee members were well informed about the situation in Ireland, largely due to the non-Governmental organisations who briefed them prior to the meeting. It seemed to some observers of the sessions that Liz O\'Donnell and her advisors were taken aback by the depth of knowledge of the Committee and the searching questions they asked. Certainly the report of the Committee, while couched in polite and diplomatic language, is a pretty damning indictment of the lack of policies and inadequacies of services for vulnerable and at risk children and children in especially difficult circumstances.