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Children’s rights could be referendum issue

WHILE the country is preparing for a second vote on the Lisbon Treaty, there may be another referendum looming.

Carys Thomas of the Children’s Rights Alliance certainly hopes there will be and she feels that a constitutional amendment on the rights of the child would be a fitting gesture towards the thousands who suffered institutional abuse.

Carys Thomas, communications director of the Children's Rights Alliance. Photograph by Declan Monaghan.

An Oireachtas Joint Committee, chaired by Mary O’Rourke, is set to report in mid-October when a decision on a referendum will be made.

“The Committee is coming out with its recommendations on October 16 and that’ll decide if there will be a referendum to allow for court cases to listen to the voice of the child. What we’ll be saying as an alliance is that it will serve as a living memorial to the 30,000 victims of child abuse. A living legacy would be to change the Constitution and it would show a shift so that children are valued, and that they have their own rights,” said Ms Thomas, who visited Clare last week.

While an amendment to the constitution would have obvious symbolic significance, it would also be important in practice when children are before the courts. “It’s the highest law of the land and, basically, it would be saying that Ireland as a State values children. The practical side is that courts could put the rights of the child first and would hear children’s voices. Now the court looks at the family unit first and it assumes that the family is the best place for the child. In the majority of cases parents are children’s best supporters but in some circumstances parents mightn’t uphold their children’s rights and it might actually be dangerous for the children to be with their parents.”

The Children’s Rights Alliance is an umbrella body for some 90 groups and Ms Thomas said that besides lobbying for a referendum, it is focussing on a number of other issues.

One of the issues that is very current relates to finance and possible changes to how child benefit is paid. “Obviously the budget is massive. We’ve done a comprehensive analysis and it’s really affecting children and families. An Bord Snip have recommended that child benefit would be changed and we’d be totally opposed to that. We don’t want it to be means test. It’s a payment for children so we’d say the Government are raiding piggy banks.”

The Ryan Report shocked the country and dominated the public discourse for a number of weeks earlier this year.

So far, Ms Thomas feels the Government has responded well to its findings, but it still remains to be seen if real effective action will be taken. “Barry Andrews has been charged with putting together an implementation plan and they’ve got 99 actions to complete. We welcome what they’ve done and they’ve done it quite quickly but it still has to be carried out. Words are easy but it’s about seeing them through. If they stick to the plan, they’ll do really well.”

An Bord Snip’s recommendations are certain to lessen public services, but the alliance will be fighting cuts to education, which Ms Thomas feels would cause societal harm in the long run. “Teachers of English as a second language are going and that’s really terrible. A disservice to children is being done and at the end of the day, they’re the future and if you’re not looking after their welfare from the start, you’re storing up social problems for the future. If you look at early childcare and education, for every euro spent on that you make seven euros back.”

Overall, she feels the country’s attitude to young people is poor and it leads to things like youngsters with mental health problems sharing wards with adults and young offenders going to adult prisons.

While there are a number of problems with treatment of children, she says the alliance will be constantly monitoring the Government and putting pressure on it.

“We’ve got this report card that we started in January of this year and we’re going to be grading it annually. We look at the commitments that the Government has made for children and see if they’ve done what they said they’d do. In January we gave them a D grade. They got an E in childhood care and education, although they got a C in benefits. Next year they won’t get a C in child benefit if it is changed and that looks like its going to happen.”

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