Time for Government to get serious about child protection

The Government needs to get serious about child protection, writes Michael Kelly

Enda Kenny described the defeat of his referendum of abolish the Seanad as a wallop. Costing an estimated €14m, it was an expensive lesson for a Taoiseach who has positioned himself as a populist to learn that his focus group-proofed gimmick was not as popular as his well-paid pollsters had told him.

“Pride,” the Bible says, “goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall”. (Proverbs 16:18.) No one seriously believes that the humiliating defeat of Mr Kenny’s plan to close the Seanad is an immediate risk to his leadership, but it should serve as a lesson in humility and as a wake-up call to concentrate Government time – and resources – on things that really matter.


With next week’s budget looming, organisations in the front-line like the Society of St Vincent de Paul are pleading with the Government not to target cuts at the voiceless and marginalised. Unfortunately, these easy targets are likely to have more austerity heaped upon them. The €14m spent on a referendum to fulfil a promise the Taoiseach made to his party insiders at a Fine Gael fundraiser dinner would’ve gone some way to alleviate the hardship being suffered by so many.

Similarly, the Government has been at pains to promote the idea that it is committed to ensuring that this country’s dreadful legacy of child abuse and neglect – both Church and State – is a thing of the past. But, time and again, reports are publicised showing dreadful State failings to protect and vindicate the rights of vulnerable children. Mr Kenny’s infamous Dáil speech in response to the appalling failings exposed in the Cloyne Report struck a nerve with many people.


In the speech Mr Kenny thundered “this is not Rome; nor is it industrial school or Magdalene Ireland, where the swish of a soutane smothered conscience and humanity, and the swing of a thurible ruled the Irish Catholic world. This is the Republic of Ireland, 2011 — a republic of laws, of rights and responsibilities, of proper civic order, where the delinquency and the arrogance of a particular version, of a particular kind of morality, will no longer be tolerated or ignored”.

But, the State failings revealed this week do not refer to 1950s Ireland, they refer to recent failings. They indicate individual failings by State officials, a lack of resources and, undoubtedly, wider systemic failings. Child protection in Ireland remains chronically under-resourced and under-regulated. Again and again reports by HIQA – the Heath Information and Quality Authority – detail instances where the State has failed and continues to fail vulnerable children. Supporters of last year’s children’s rights referendum said the proposal was designed to draw a line under a shameful past. But how can one draw a line?

Timely support

A report from the Ombudsman for Children this week revealed that the HSE failed to provide timely support and therapeutic services over several years to a child who made multiple allegations of rape. The 11-year-old girl alleged multiple instances of severe child abuse including repeated instances of violent rape combined with death threats and assault with a knife. Yet, despite this, the HSE failed to allocate a social worker and did not arrange an early face-to-face meeting with the child, which contributed to the fact that no HSE interview ultimately took place.

Sadly, the case is not isolated. Yet, time and again when these reports are issued, there is pained handwringing from politicians and the HSE establishment, but little by way of change. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to disagree with John Byrne, a lecturer in social care practice at Waterford Institute of Technology, when he says bluntly that “there is no political will on the issue of child protection”.

The Church’s own child protection watchdog, the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church (NBSCCC), will shortly issue a new tranche of audits into how dioceses and religious congregations are ensuring best practise.

As sure as night follows day, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald will welcome the progress revealed in the reports without any apparent sense of irony about the chaotic practises that she is presiding over as regularly revealed in various reports.