There’s less than a week to go until we will all have an opportunity to vote in the Children’s Referendum on Saturday, November 10th. It is vitally important, in the final stages of the Referendum Campaign, that we all stick to the facts, and talk about what this
Referendum will really mean for vulnerable children in this country. For this reason, I would like to respond to by former MEP Kathy Sinnott which was carried in this newspaper on Tuesday.
Kathy Sinnott is correct on one point; that ‘words will be deleted from the Constitution and new ones added.’ Unfortunately the rest of her piece was misleading and inaccurate. This Referendum proposes to replace the existing article in the Constitution that deals taking children into care with a new Article that will not only enhance children’s rights, it will enshrine them in our Constitution for the first time. By voting Yes, you can help to support families through early intervention, protect vulnerable children from abuse and neglect, and remove inequalities in adoption. These are all facts that Kathy Sinnott fails to recognise.
The proposed amendment clearly sets out how the State can intervene, only in ‘exceptional’ circumstances when children are
being abused and neglected. It also states that any intervention must be ‘proportionate’ to the risk facing the child. This change will underpin early intervention, so by helping parents and families at an early stage, children can be kept in the home and out of care. The first step will always be to support families and to try to address problems before they reach crisis point. This clearly shows that Kathy Sinnott is completely inaccurate when she claims that a Yes vote help remove the State’s duty to help children and their parents.
The proposed amendment will also shift the focus from the reasons for parental failure to the impact the failure is having on the child. This is
about children. It’s about children who are being abused and neglected. And it’s about how we need to offer them greater protection.
The State has failed in the past. We have all been shocked and appalled by a litany of reports detailing child protection
failings. Unfortunately, in the past, the child’s best interests have not always been taken into account. By voting Yes you can change this. This
proposed amendment will ensure that the child’s best interest are paramount to every decision taken about their welfare. It will also mean that children will be listened to; taking age and maturity into account, the views of the child will be listened to when crucial decisions about being made about their welfare.
It’s important to say that when we talk about children in care, we are really talking about children living with foster
families. In fact, more than 90% of children living in State care in Ireland live with foster families. Kathy Sinnott and others on the No side have made some very misleading and disrespectable comments about children in State care in recent days. For example, speaking on RTE’s Primetime on Tuesday night, she claimed that children are six times more likely to die while in the care of the State than in the care of their parents. Six times? Where did she get that statistic? The death of any child, be they in State care or otherwise, is a tragedy. But the reality is there is very little difference in death rates for those in care and children in wider society. For example, in 2008, the death rate for children in care was 5.6 per 1,000, while for the general population it was 4.5 per 1,000. So Kathy Sinnott’s claims simply do not stand up.
Kathy Sinnot is also wrong when she claims that the proposed amendment is heavy handed when it comes to parents. This Referendum does nothing to threaten the rights of parents, or the family, which is recognised in Article 41 of the Constitution. This Referendum does
absolutely nothing to change this. By giving children rights, we are not undermining the rights of parents. Indeed, just yesterday six parents’ groups came out in support of a Yes vote. The National Parents Council Primary and Post-Primary, the Mothers’ Union, One Family, OPEN and Treoir have said that this Referendum is not about diminishing the rights of parents or the family, or increasing the rights of the State. Furthermore, the groups have stated they believe the Referendum will help empower parents to ensure that the State upholds their child’s rights, which also shatters another myth being put forward by Kathy Sinnott.
Earlier this week, the Independent Chair of the Referendum Commission, Ms Justice Mary Finlay Geoghegan, clarified categorically that the family will not take second place to the State if this Referendum is passed. A Yes vote will do nothing to change the existing
provisions in our Constitution in relation to the rights of the family or the rights of parents.
This government is now acting to ensure the safeguarding of children in the future. Laws dealing with the vetting of people
working with children and the report of abuse are being strengthened and the Children First guidelines are being placed on a statutory footing. The responsibility of child protection services is also being taken away from the HSE, and the new Child and Family Support Agency is being established. This will be a transparent and accountable organisation which will support children and their families. But none of these reforms can have as far reaching a change as constitutional change.
After 17 damning reports detailing child protection failings in Ireland, we finally have a chance to make a difference.
It is always preferable and in a child’s interest for him or her to be raised within their own family. Sadly however, in a tiny minority of cases, what
happens in their home threatens their safety. The Referendum has gained the support of many organisations like Barnardos, The Children’s Rights Alliance, the ISPCC and Down Syndrome Ireland. Their support is indicative of the importance of this Constitutional change for the children of Ireland.
We all have an opportunity to make a real difference on Saturday, November 10th by voting Yes to protect children and support families.