This week’s guest writer on the blog is Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance. IMPACT is supporting a ‘yes’ vote on Saturday, November 10th in the children’s referendum. Tanya explains the importance of voting yes in November.
THIS REFERENDUM is a chance to bring our laws in line with our values as a society – and how we now view children. The amendment will help the courts and the child protection system work better, make better decisions on behalf of children and help Ireland move beyond its damning history of child abuse. In total, there are 17 official reports that catalogue the way Irish society robbed thousands of children of their childhoods. The constitution has been flagged as part of the problem.
The amendment wording deals with critical problems around children in the constitution. It replaces Article 42.5 which provides that the State can intervene for ‘physical or moral reasons’ in exceptional circumstances to ‘supply the place of parents’. The new provision modernises this article and will act as the foundation for our child protection system.
It sets out the basis for how the State intervenes to protect children. It empowers the State by ‘proportionate means’ to intervene when the safety or welfare of a child is likely to be ‘prejudicially affected’. This would move the State’s emphasis to the child and should provide more support to families at risk.
It refocuses this provision on the child instead of the parents’ failings. Intervening earlier can bring significant savings – both financial and human – by keeping families together, reducing the numbers of children who are abused or are taken into State care.
It will also allow us to reform our adoption laws. Presently it is practically impossible to adopt children in long-term foster care. Also, married parents cannot give their consent for adoption and there are hundreds of children being denied a second chance at family life. The amendment will allow the Oireachtas to address this long-standing concern.
The amendment will also mean that the Oireachtas must legislate to ensure that the ‘best interests’ will be the decision making basis for judges in care and family law proceedings. Written in 1937, the constitution unintentionally undermines what is in the best interests of children and what will keep them safe.
A judge in a custody battle, for example, doesn’t have to put the interests of children first or even listen to their views, when making life-changing decisions for the children involved. This can also happen in cases of child protection and access cases, leading to bad decisions that do not put the best interests of children at their centre.
The amendment also means that the Oireachtas will have to legislate to ensure that the views of children are taken into account by judges in care and family law proceedings. The Ryan report, which exposed the systemic and horrific abuse of children in industrial schools, clearly shows the devastating consequences of institutions putting their interests first and not listening to children.
For decades, vulnerable children tried to complain about neglect, abuse and starvation, but no one listened. Listening to children, bearing in mind their age and maturity is critical, if our courts are to make good decisions for children.
We can’t take away the abuse of the past. And we can’t protect every child from abuse. But we can draw a line in the sand and insist that our constitution respects, protects and listens to children. Our children are counting on you to vote ‘YES’ on 10th November.