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Dáil Speech on Children’s Rights Referendum: 26th September

Approximately six weeks ago, my staff made an appointment for a woman to come to visit me. I thought it was a routine case of someone looking for assistance with an application for disability allowance. When the woman sat down in front of me, I heard the horrific tale of how her daughter was abused approximately 25 years ago. As a result of this abuse, her daughter started to look inward and become depressed. She turned to alcohol and currently resides in the psychiatric ward in Naas hospital. As I listened to the details of what happened to this young girl, it struck me that the abuse, which was a physical and traumatic experience at the time, has affected her ever since. Her entire life has been destroyed as a result of half an hour’s bad experience with someone she trusted. That is why I feel that the constitutional amendment we are putting before the people is so important. We have to protect people like this young woman, who trusted someone but was abused by that person. We can do something to alleviate the sorts of problems that might be encountered by children in the future. The woman in this case will suffer for the rest of her life, sadly, but many others can be saved if we agree to amend the Constitution as proposed in this legislation. The pain of abuse will be taken from them.

I emphasise that we are talking about a small number of people. Virtually all children live in loving and caring families. When I researched this issue, I learned that one third of young children in foster care are being looked after by relatives. During the summer, I heard that the sister of a woman who had ended up in psychiatric care took on the responsibility of looking after her four children. The problem I dealt with was in ensuring the State could give this family as much assistance as possible. The broader family unit stepped in to help the mother when she required such assistance. I hope the four children will be back with their mother shortly when she has herself sorted out. We have a duty to ensure that sort of care and feeling is reflected in our Constitution.

The Minister was right when she said that this amendment, although helpful now, will be of particular benefit to future generations. It will help us to prevent the small number of abusive people in society from abusing children. It will allow us to help children as much as possible. That is why I warmly welcome the Bill before the House, which has been in fermentation for a long period of time. One of the first committees to examine this issue and produce a report on it was established 20 years ago. I must say that great work was done by former colleagues of the Deputies on the other side of the House, including Mary O’Rourke and Barry Andrews. In 2007, a joint committee proposed many of the ideas that have been taken on board by the Minister in proposing this amendment to the Constitution. It is sad that it took so long, but by reading those reports and reflecting on their positive aspects, I think we have got it right.

When this proposal was being drawn up, great consideration was given to the central role the family plays in a child’s life. We should try to keep every child in his or her family, where possible. I welcome the adoption Bill that is associated with this proposal. According to an information document on that Bill which I have read, the policies and practices of those who are working with children now, including HSE professionals like care workers and social workers, place a focus on keeping the child in the family to the greatest extent possible. Those professionals provide support to parents as well. It is important that the State gives as much assistance as possible to those who have difficulty with the skill of parenting. The last thing anyone wants to do is to remove a child from its family. I mentioned earlier that the broader family often comes to the help of young children.

I am glad that foster families are being recognised. Many children go into foster care for short periods of time – perhaps two or three months. It does not help children to be moved from one foster family to another. Stability, in its various forms, is the most important thing for a young person as he or she is growing up. Many couples who have children of their own are willing to foster another child. Some of them would love to be able to adopt that child if his or her biological family is not capable of looking after him or her. Therefore, I welcome the fact that the legislation will give a foster parent who has cared for a child for five, six or seven years an opportunity to adopt that child. I am also pleased that the voice of the child is being heard. The Minister mentioned that many of the adoptions taking place within foster families involve children of 15, 16 or 17 years of age. They are mature at that stage. They are able to make their own decisions and life choices. They are allowed to vote at 18. They are allowed to consent to have sex at 16. It is disappointing that these young people have not been heard before now when they have said they want their futures to be with their foster families.

I congratulate the Minister on the work she has done so far to prepare for the referendum. I am delighted that there is cross-party support for the proposal. I look forward to canvassing for a “Yes” vote in the referendum on 10 November next.

ENDS