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Reappointment of the Ombudsman for Children: Motion (Continued)

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 1003 No. 7
Unrevised

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(Speaker Continuing)

[Deputy Peadar Tóibín: Information on Peadar Tóibín Zoom on Peadar Tóibín] The cost of the lockdown to these families is heart-breaking and it cannot simply be written off as collateral damage of a lockdown. There are approximately 24,000 children throughout the country in mainstream and special schools who are suffering significantly from lockdown and the deprivation of their education. This is in violation of their constitutional right to education. Remote learning is not sufficient for children who are unable to read, who cannot write, who have difficulty speaking and who cannot type. I note that the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, who is up for reconfirmation today, is of the same opinion. Dr. Muldoon has stated that the blanket closure of schools is not a viable option because of the extraordinary impact it will have on our children and families. Without a doubt, children with disabilities and children from disadvantaged backgrounds will once again be disproportionately affected by Covid-19 school closures.

Many schools for children with special needs have done their best, despite inadequate Government support, to ensure their schools are low risk in terms of transmission. I have spoken to parents and they have told me of cases of Covid-19 that have been in their schools but that have not spread due to the necessary procedures being adhered to.

There are simple measures that the Dáil can take to protect the teachers who are working on the front line. We need to guarantee them proper testing and vaccination and ensure that they have a full supply of personal protective equipment so that we can remove additional threats to their lives and aid their return to schools. The Government has the resources at its disposal to get these children back to school. If we act swiftly, we can give teachers the confidence and allow children with additional needs to resume their education as soon as possible.

By European standards Ireland is one of the lowest investors in childcare. Only approximately 0.01% of our GDP is invested in childcare. Our childcare sector is in perpetual crisis since the access and inclusion model funding to help with additional teachers for children with special needs was cut during the lockdown. The early childhood care and education contract is opted out by the Government. I have been in contact with providers. They have told me they are in debt for tens of thousands of euro, that several of their colleagues have shut down during the crisis and that the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has done little.

I wish to raise the matter of children in direct provision. There are 1,789 children in State-sponsored poverty according to the Irish Centre for Human Rights at NUI Galway. One of the difficulties I have is that the State does not collect any statistics on deaths that happen in direct provision. If we are not collecting information with regard to deaths that are happening of children in direct provision, then how can this generation say that we are doing right with regard to the children who were mistreated in instructions in previous generations?

Deputy Michael Collins: Information on Michael Collins Zoom on Michael Collins This February will mark 12 months since the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in Ireland. On 12 March 2020 schools throughout the country closed. Dr. Muldoon has said time away from school has left children and young people devoid of school, hobbies, sports and access to close friends. It has been a long and tortuous road for many; for our most disadvantaged and vulnerable children it is doubly so. For those with special needs, the safety, routine and discipline of school is far more than education. It offers a pathway for them to grow and learn socially, which is vital if they are to reach their full potential. It is imperative that the Department of Education works with the education partners, public health officials and other relevant stakeholders as a matter of urgency to build on previous planning and put in place a clear comprehensive contingency plan that provides children and their families with the clarity they need now and for the future.

It is about time leaving certificate students were told what is being put in place for them. The battle on the future of the leaving certificate has gone on far too long. It took too long last year for a decision to be made and it is inevitable that a decision will have to be made this year. It could have been made sooner than now. How is it we are still making the same mistakes this year?

I hope Dr. Muldoon will be able to work closer to issues affecting young people in general, like access to beaches and safety for our children. A lady in west Cork has been fighting with me for several years. She sees the need for proper structures to be in place to keep people safe, especially children with disabilities. She wants people kept safe in west Cork near the beaches and so on. That is something we never looked at or never really cared to invest time in. Perhaps the Ombudsman for Children can do that.

I look at organisations like Jack and Friends in Bandon, an autism centre ran by volunteers with no staff. The founders receive no payments for the work they do to support families with children with autism on a daily basis. We need to have a stronger concentration on organisations and this focus needs to be given to these people who give of their time. I know that Claire, Samantha and others in Bandon do phenomenal work on a voluntary basis. I urge the Minister and the Ombudsman for Children to look at and fund these organisations, including Jack and Friends in Bandon. They are taking much of the burden off the State.

Deputy Danny Healy-Rae: Information on Danny Healy-Rae Zoom on Danny Healy-Rae I am glad to get the opportunity to talk on this important matter. Children are vulnerable and, as elected representatives, we must do everything to ensure they are properly looked after. This time of virus has been a concerning and upsetting time for many children. They are away from their schools, hobbies and friends.

Many teachers in many schools are entrusted with the job of seeing that children are fed properly, given meals and looked after in certain ways. I worry that they have been missing all this for most of last year and again this year. I sincerely hope these children are not hungry. It is the one reason I hope the schools will be open, especially special needs schools. These special children need special attention and they have been denied that. We know that they go into reverse quickly if their routine is not continued. I hope there will be no other blockage to prevent special needs school children from going back to their schools, crèches and places of care that they were used to attending.

It has been a trying time for all children of school-going age because they are away from their friends, hobbies and sports. We must recognise and hope they will be back doing the things they want to do. Children get tired of being in the one place or being at home in a room if the day is wet or whatever. We need to hope this vaccine is rolled out and that children and teachers can get back to school. The current uncertainty cannot continue or be allowed to arise again in respect of any cohort of children.

Deputy Thomas Pringle: Information on Thomas Pringle Zoom on Thomas Pringle A fellow Donegal man, Dr. Niall Muldoon, was appointed as our second ever Ombudsman for Children in February 2015. I absolutely support the motion that Dr. Muldoon be reappointed for another term.

Dr. Muldoon has been Ombudsman for Children while we have been experiencing a catastrophic failure in housing policy that has made thousands of children homeless. We have had countless reports and reviews on the issue. The only problem I have with the Office of the Ombudsman for Children is that it does not have the teeth to take action against the Government. It must be tough to receive complaints and heart-breaking stories to report to the Government but to have one's recommendations ignored.

Ireland signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992. These rights need to be put on a legislative footing. This major systematic change is required to make a difference. It is what the children around Ireland need.

An urgent need now relates to children with disabilities. We know that there have been major delays in assessment of needs and appropriate supports for families over the years. Now, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed greater failings of the State. The closure of schools, including schools for children with additional needs, during the pandemic meant that many children with additional needs regressed without their structures, routines or required attention. This has even led to children with additional needs being expelled from schools designed specifically to meet their needs.


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