Denying Parental Rights is a Big Mistake


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Reproduced by permission of the Irish Examiner.

Ashley Balbirnie of the ISPCC is the latest in a line of people, including Jillian Van Turnhout of the Children’s Rights Alliance (CRA) and Fergus Finlay of Barnardos, who are effectively inverting the facts of the history of abuse in Ireland to secure increased power over our children for state bodies, other institutions and their associated professionals.

That they would do this at the expense of the existing, inalienable and natural rights of parents to care for and protect their children is to add insult to injury. The proposed constitutional amendment on children is as infantilising of parents a it is insulting to them and the condescension with which it is being sold to us is insufferable. They have no monopoly on the moral high ground and are no more concerned about the care and protection of all Irish children than we are ourselves.

The bottom line about real rights is that money has to be spent to uphold them. High principles and the best of motives are fatally undermined in the children’s rights amendment by elastic caveats such as ‘as far as is practicable’, for example. ‘As far as is practicable’ is not a guarantee of a right but its exact opposite. The rights that are actually at issue are the rights to act on behalf of children and the proposal is take this constitutional authority from parents and replace it with, in effect, nothing.

This is as dangerous as it is bizarre because the only protection most children have is the authority of their parents to seek redress for them – sometimes on the very grounds that these well-intentioned people are now trying to eliminate. Right now, there are children in agonising pain because of an arthritic condition. Mary Harney’s health service will not provide them with the medication quickly enough to alleviate the pain and help prevent the condition degenerating. This is a form of child abuse by any measure of humanitarian values. Parents need more legal authority, not less, to bring the state to account for this sort of failure.

The law already permits professionals extraordinary powers of intervention where there is reason to believe children are at risk. It is, therefore, not the absence of protective law or powers that has been the problem but the failure of the very professionals who are calling for more powers to exercise what power they already have.

Despite what Mr Balbirnie would have us believe, in many cases where children have been abused by their parents, there has been a frustrating failure by social workers and others to intervene effectively. Though some of this failure is a consequence of chronic under-funding, the proposed amendment would no nothing to address that problem. And where were the ISPCC, founded in 1889, throughout the period when so much state sponsored and facilitated abuse was taking place? Instead of establishing a default position whose legal effect is to suspect the worst of all parents – despite all the fine rhetoric about the importance of parents – the ISPCC, the CRA and others would be better employed tackling the ongoing failures of the sate in fulfilling its duty of care to children.

Lastly there has been a tendency to hold out as justification for the amendment the horrific details of the abuse by a tiny minority of parents of their children. This an unworthy tactic, a powerful form of emotional blackmail which seeks to imply those who believe this constitutional amendment will do the opposite of what is being claimed are not taking this abuse seriously. If this tactic is deployed much further, the referendum may well degenerate into a bitter and socially divisive affair – the last thing any of our children need to witness right now – especially those coping with abusive situations.

Miriam Cotton is a former National Coordinator of the Disability Rights Election Pledge Alliance.

Photo, called From the eyes of a child, was taken from Red Mum’s Flickr Stream with permission.

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6 Responses

  1. Gabby

    March 15, 2010 5:05 am

    Are social workers and the bureaucracy of the social welfare services any more trustworthy than parents or clergy when it comes to protecting vulnerable children? That seems to be a question hinted at by Miriam Cotton. It is a question Irish society needs to probe before we amend the constitution and transfer powers from parents to the employees of state agencies, and to the courts. I think we could discuss the issues by looking at the performance of state employees and agencies and welfare services in nearby Britain. We have problems about the protection of children in Ireland, but we are not alone.

  2. Miriam Cotton

    March 15, 2010 8:56 am

    That very much is the question. In all the deserved furore about the church, there has been complete silence about the complicity of social workers, doctors, gardai, politicians and the media about what happened in the industrial schools. All the evidence is that these groups resort to cover ups and denial just as the clergy do. They are pretty much unaccountable for negligence or incompetence and yet we are planning to give them great powers. Here’s the experience of one survivor of the industrial school system as he described it to me:

    ‘In 1996 I discovered that the ISPCC were the Plaintiffs in the District Court that consigned myself (aged 5), my older sister (aged six) and my young crippled brother (aged 3) to the Industrial Schools system. This was 1958 and our father was a lone parent – which was frowned up in those days. I contacted the ISPCC in 1996 for my files but they said they weren’t responsible for our incarceration – that it was the local health board ‘wot did it’ … badabadabada …. it was then I showed them the Court document [A Detention Order] with their name on it and the name of an officer of their organisation as the plaintiff … they then told me that all the files for that year were accidentally lost in a fire. Subsequently I discovered that survivors from Sligo, Kilkenny, Waterford, Galway …. parts of Dublin were also unable to access ISPCC files on their incarceration due to …. you guessed it …. fires!’

    NB this is in 1996!

    The ISPCC has not been subject to anything like the scrutiny that the church has and yet here they are at the forefront of calls for increased powers for organisations like their own.

    A major scandal in the UK about ten years ago was the discovery that the brother of Jack Straw, then head of the NSPCC there was himself implicated in child abuse. He had to resign and the whole thing was thoroughly hushed up. There were media reports about it at the time but they all stopped. I don’t think there has ever been a word written about it since in the mainstream. This raises a very uncomfortable issue which is seldom if ever addressed head on: any work that involves supervision of children will attract paedophiles. Vetting procedures in Ireland are very weak in comparison to other places. We’ve just heard how lax the foster carer vetting is. Look at the reaction of the HSE and Barry Andrews to the publication by Alan Shatter of the experiences of Tracy Fay. They want all this kept under wraps ‘in the interets of children.’ Members of our present government were directly involved in the criminal indemnity deal done with the church which they stubbornly refuse to undo. Details recently emerged of large donations to the Vatican by many of the big name developers now languishing on NAMAs books. The Irish State is fundamentally inappropriate and negligent about the management of abuse. Yet the amendment defines it as being ‘the guardian of the common good’.

    Unsurprisingly parents are the least likely to abuse their children (they account for approx 2% of it). It is people from among the wider family and care institutions themselves that account for the vast majority of it.

  3. Gabby

    March 15, 2010 12:14 pm

    Good response. I am mindful of George Bernard Shaw’s assertion that “Every profession is a conspiracy against the laity.” After so many scandals and several reports we the general public can’t give the professions carte blanche, neither with the care of children nor with other concerns. I am also skeptical about the operation of the family court.

  4. Niall

    March 17, 2010 12:22 pm

    I have never clearly understood the role of many of the organisations dealing with children in Ireland. Groups such as Barnardo’s, ISPCC etc have developed as service providers to the State and have acted as a suitable vehicle for State agencies to opt out of service provision.

    Certain types of work of course attract far greater attention, which of course leads to greater levels of funding, both private & public. Basic functions such as running local family centres, which are of course very good, but not the best at attracting publicity are dropped from the Agenda and replaced with high level “Advocacy”.

    No one has appointed these “advocates” other of course than themselves. They then of course demand financial resources to fund their “advocacy” role and whine when they don’t get it.

    As described above these organisations all have dark histories of their own. Barnardos were for example involved in the export of children from the UK. Also Mr. Finlay’s associates in the Swedish Social Democratic Party carried out of mass sterilisations of women in hospitals for decades. Their efficiency would have made any Nazi proud!

    The inability of many poorer children to participate in sporting and other social activities has been highlighted in two recent reports on participation in sporting activities. Ensuring participation in many stream organisations by all would of course have much greater benefits, but then where would all the self appointed “advocates” go? The current Government has cut back considerably on the funding given to assist with the employment of coaches going into schools and communities. Lack of exercise and participation has a long-term influence on a person’s health and life expectancy.

  5. Roisin

    March 25, 2010 3:28 pm

    This is a very interesting discussion and a knee jerk reaction to this scandal is not needed. A review and evaluation of all services working with children is required to ensure children are better protected from abuse and harm.

    However when considering protecting children emotional and physical abuse needs to be considered too. In the UK neglect is the main category for children being registered and unfortunately this occurs in the main in the family home.

    Miriam Cotton wrote- ‘Unsurprisingly parents are the least likely to abuse their children (they account for approx 2% of it). It is people from among the wider family and care institutions themselves that account for the vast majority of it.’

    I’m not sure of the validity of this statistic when considering all forms of abuse and harm.

  6. Miriam Cotton

    March 25, 2010 4:44 pm

    Hi Roisin

    Thanks for your comment.

    As a long term campaigner for rights for children and others with disability my article is anything other than a ‘knee jerk’ reaction. It is based on knowledge of the prevailing jurisprudence that informs the drafting of legislation in Ireland. Fianna Fail is a party that simply does not do rights and sure enough the wording of the proposed amendment reflects this fact, despite what its exponents are claiming for it. The word rights is mentioned a lot in the amendment but the phrasing ensures that those references are legally meaningless. This is exactly what the same government did with the disability legislation in 2004 and 2005, much to the disgust of the disability lobby.

    You are right, there are many forms of abuse: emotional, psychological etc and it happens in many different settings: schools, hospitals, residential centres, clubs and of course in the family home too. Intellectually disabled children in care settings are especially vulnerable. That fact does not in anyway address the effectiveness, or lack of it, in what is now being proposed. The ISPCC, who are prominent in promoting this constitutional amendment have been every bit as reticent as the Catholic church about their role in facilitating what happened in the industrial schools – a whole other ugly can of worms. If there is to be a transfer of authority to protect children from parents to state and other agencies then we had better be sure of several things before it is even contemplated.

    Firstly, that their own houses are transparently in order, that any mistakes and crimes they may be guilty of are fully investigated and that those responsible are held accountable for them. The HSE as it stands is refusing to give any public account of the deaths of 20 children in recent years who were in its care. Neither is there an accountability for hundreds of missing immigrant children. And yet it is the majority of entirely innocent and caring parents whose authority under Art 42 is being stripped from them in favour of these same agencies on the grounds that it will offer children greater protection!

    Professionals, state and other agencies in this country are outrageously unaccountable for their work. That would have to be completely changed for there to be any faith in the idea that is being mooted. And even if everything was put in order (which should happen anyway)a dangerous lacuna would be created in the existing law. Article 42 as it stands (and I agree some of the wording is archaic) does provide some small but important grounds for parents to hold the state to account for its failures in situations where public services and vol agencies simply would never have the time or inclination to get involved for a host of reasons. They could of course support parents in their efforts to do so in a variety of ways if they are serious about respecting them as the people with natural authority for protecting their own children.

    If there is a ‘knee jerk’ raction in this situation, it is arguably that of the people who are bulldozing this ill-thought out amendment through. Though they protest their respect for parents much of their public discussion about this matter is creating a negative, mistrustful attitude towards the trustworthiness of parents – effectively criminalising an entire class of people because of the actions of tiny number of them. We all get lumped in with those who commit appalling abuses. This is profoundly unhealthy and ill-advised – to create an even more powerful, badly-funded and unaccountable state monopoly over something so fundamental is heading down the road of totalitarianism. And against all of that it should be borne at the front of everyone’s mind that the abuse is already illegal and that agencies and professionals already have exceptional powers of intervention.

    If we are serious about wanting to protect children then the bottom line is that money will have to be spent on things like subsidising good childcare; a comprehensive programme of building play and recreation facilities that so many lack, on making child support services available in every town in the country; on recruting many more child protection social workers than we have at present and on extending the out of hours service, the parlous state of which has been directly implicated in a number of sad outcomes; on educating children from an early age about how to get help when they need it and above all on eliminating child poverty. And that’s just a few of the things that ought to be done.