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Reappointment of the Ombudsman for Children: Motion (Continued)

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1003 No. 7

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Jennifer Whitmore: Information on Jennifer  Whitmore Zoom on Jennifer  Whitmore] He warned that long-term school closures would end up exacerbating inequalities these children already face. He was absolutely right about that.

For this reason, since March, I have repeatedly called for a transition task force for children to be established in a cross-departmental capacity and for more representation of children's rights on the board of NPHET to ensure that the needs of children and young people will be met at this most difficult time. Unfortunately, my calls have been left unanswered and we are now witnessing the consequences of that. There have been two periods of school closures, a cancelled leaving certificate examination and one failed reopening of special education. Fortunately, provision for special education will be put in place shortly but there have been many failures in this area and many reports of children regressing and of mental health problems in young people. There is also the problem of the breakdown of trust we have seen between stakeholders and the voice of children remaining silent once again.

We must put children at the centre of what we do, both now and in the future. I want to reiterate something Dr. Muldoon said and which I have raised in the Social Democrats motion on child poverty that was brought forward in the Dáil. We cannot allow children to bear the burden of this pandemic and any economic downturn that we will face as a result of it. That is what happened in the last economic crash. Children bore the burden that we as adults placed on them and they were not protected from the fallout. There is a chance that if we do not protect children as we emerge from the Covid crisis, there could be children in this country who will experience two recessions in their young lives and who will never have had the benefit of an economic recovery at all. We must ensure that children's rights are protected first and foremost.

I congratulate Dr. Muldoon on his reappointment.

Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett: Information on Richard Boyd Barrett Zoom on Richard Boyd Barrett I am happy to support the reappointment of Dr. Niall Muldoon and I commend him on his work. Precisely because of the nature of his work and the very good job he and his team have done in reporting our failure to vindicate fully the rights of children and young people under 18, I am sure that he would want us to take this opportunity to highlight some of the issues that his reports have covered. It is important to highlight the failure of this State to vindicate the rights of children and young people, despite the regular lip service that is paid on that front.

One key area where we are failing young people and children is in the area of housing. It is to the great shame of this State that, taking the figure for 27 December 2020, there were 2,327 children who were homeless and in emergency accommodation. This is an absolutely shameful failure to vindicate the rights of children and it will mark many of them for life in terms of the damage it does. That crisis continues despite much hand-wringing about it and commitments to address it.

Beyond those who are in emergency accommodation, there are also the hidden homeless living in overcrowded conditions. To give a sample of our failure to vindicate their rights, I will refer to just two cases out of the many that I am dealing with at this time. A single mother who contacted me has three boys, one of them 15 years old, one a baby and the other a toddler. That family is only entitled to a two-bedroom housing provision because all of the children are boys. It is just unbelievable. We are rationing housing to the detriment of those children and their rights are, in my opinion, being breached. Another example is Zoe - she said it was okay to use her first name - who has three children: a 13-year-old daughter and two sons aged seven and nine. She has been on the housing list for 13 years and is living with her parents, both of whom have immunity issues and are susceptible to Covid. The six of them are living in a three-bedroom house. Zoe and her daughter share a bed and that daughter has, at the age of 13, never had a bed of her own. It is absolutely shameful. The father and mother are working at home in the current Covid situation and Zoe is trying to homeschool the children. It is shameful. Those two examples are only a snapshot of the cases that have been brought to my attention. Zoe applied for a transfer but was refused because she does not have a consultant's letter. Apparently, she needs a letter confirming what any person just looking at her case can see. One does not need to be a medical consultant to know that those children are being failed badly. For a child not to have her own bed for 13 years is, frankly, beyond belief.

Then there are children with disabilities and special needs. Under law, parents of such children are required to get an assessment of needs. The HSE must acknowledge the written application for an assessment of needs within 14 days and an assessment must commence within three months and be completed within six months. A total of 91% of the children assessed are not assessed within the statutory time limit. This is a breach of the most basic rights of the vast majority of these most vulnerable children. Even when the assessment is done and recommendations are made, for example, they might be referred to child and adolescent mental health services, they can be waiting five to ten years to get the services that are recommended. What does all the talk of early intervention mean when some of our most vulnerable children are waiting five or ten years for critical interventions?

My final point concerns the more general situation faced by young people, teenagers and schoolgoers at this time. My heart goes out to them in the situation they are in. It highlights precisely how, at the time when they are most in need of mental health and other supports, we are failing them badly and at many levels. Children are in overcrowded classrooms where they cannot get the sort of individual attention they need in a situation where schooling is difficult or impossible. There is the stress being put on leaving certificate students because of the uncertainty about the examinations and because we ration access to higher level education instead of giving everybody the opportunity to avail of the education they want. These are just some of the issues. I think Dr. Muldoon will be glad they were raised.

Deputy Peadar Tóibín: Information on Peadar Tóibín Zoom on Peadar Tóibín This State has carried out very important and good work in the past number of years in investigating and researching how previous generations have treated young children and mothers. Some of the findings that have been published so far are shocking and heartbreaking. It is important that this generation does not overlook the many young children who are in very difficult straits at this time. This focus on our own generation is extremely important because it allows us to have a positive effect and to fix the situations many young people are currently in throughout the country.

I would like to highlight three separate groups of young people and children, explain the difficulty they are in and call on the Minister to do his best to help them. In the past few days, my office has been speaking to family members and parents who send their children to Stepping Stones school in my county of Meath. The children are packed like sardines into tiny prefabricated classrooms with rotting floors, holes in the wall and rat infestations. One parent who helped to found the school told me that it was originally dubbed the school of dreams but has since become known as the house of horrors as the building becomes increasingly unsafe for staff and students alike. Another family I spoke to told me that they have had to stop their children with special needs from watching the news in recent times because it was causing panic attacks and serious stress for them. A party colleague of mine in Cork, Joanne Murphy, has been forced to lie to her son who has autism about the fact that the schools for children with additional needs are being closed in her area, due to the difficulties telling the truth would cause in her family. Other parents have told us about how the lockdown has seen their children significantly regress over the past few months, with children increasingly depressed and anxious for prolonged periods. A survey of childcare professionals revealed that 74% of providers have confessed to seeing regression of children with special needs and disabilities.

That is why it is critically important that education for children with additional and special needs must be opened fully and immediately.

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