Ireland poised to stand up for its children

The proposal to recognise children’s rights in the Irish constitution is a significant step in child protection

This year in Ireland we have been promised by the minister for children a referendum on the inclusion of children’s rights in our constitution, Bunreacht Na hEireann. I’m a child protection social worker. I work on the coal face of child protection in Ireland, an issue that has been a contentious and at times controversial area of Irish life.

Including children’s rights in the constitution will be a significant step and of substantial benefit to both vulnerable children and their families.

A full acknowledgement of children’s rights will hopefully mean that children and families will begin to need less intervention from social workers in the first place.

When we examine the reasons children come into care we can learn a lot. Of the four categories of abuse child protection social workers deal with, neglect is the number one cause of children being taken into care, ranking far above sexual, physical and emotional abuse.

The neglect of children in families stems from the neglect of their families as a whole, and the neglect of the communities they live in.

It’s widely acknowledged that for most children the best place for them is in a loving family environment. If we believe this to be true, it’s imperative that we support families and strengthen communities in order to protect children.

The virtual invisibility of children in the Irish constitution means that every day children and their families fail to get the support they need. The best interests principle means that all decisions that are made that directly affect the lives of children will be required to take the best interests of the child into consideration. This principle, if enshrined in our constitution, will mean strengthening families.

It’ll mean that the children and families who do need social work intervention will be better supported by the recognition of children’s rights.

As it currently stands, the HSE has long been shown to provide a patchwork service, with resources, services and even models of service delivery spread around the country at random. All children and all families deserve the best services this state can manage. We need services to be driven by the best interests of children and their families and not by resource allocation.

Even if we make family support more widely available and improve and streamline social work intervention, a minority of cases will remain in which families will not be able to provide a safe environment. These children will need to be taken into care.

But these children too will benefit from clear and strong children’s rights. At every step of the way, from court, to placement, to foster care, to aftercare — the best interests of the child and their own individual rights should be centre stage, allowing their needs to be at the centre of service delivery.

All children deserve to have their rights respected. In my role as a social worker, however, I have seen with my own eyes that it’s the most vulnerable children in this country who most urgently need a strong declaration of their rights. Only then can they and their families get the support and protection they need and deserve.

• Full Care Order is a statutory child protection social worker in Dublin, Ireland.