I will be voting Yes on November 10th for the Children’s Referendum for one very simple reason – I believe all children deserve a second chance. This referendum is not about politics, it is about ensuring that the legacy of neglect towards our children is stamped out once and for all. In order for this to occur the protection of our children must be further enshrined in our constitution and they must be given a voice.
In the past 20 years, 17 child abuse reports have come to light and with each one we as a nation were horrified that children had been subjected to neglect, abuse and cruelty. As a nation we are appalled that this has been allowed to happen. As a nation we beg that our children will never be subjected to such horrors again. As a nation now is our chance to come together and protect our future generations.
For two decades, since the findings of the Kilkenny Incest Investigation Report (1993), the need for this referendum has been up for discussion. One of the primary reasons for a delay in bringing about this referendum was the need to perfect the wording which would change our constitution. It is vital that the family unit remains paramount to Irish society and cherished within our constitution and therefore Article 41 remains untouched. But it is also vital that our children can be heard and protected when required. Since the establishment of a dedicated Department for Children last year, Minister Frances Fitzgerald has worked tirelessly to bring about this referendum and I am thrilled that the wording has been received with cross party support within the Dáil.
Opponents and sceptics of this referendum fear that unnecessary state intervention will occur and children will be taken away from loving families; there is a belief that the rights of children will be put before the wishes of parents; and there is a fear that children in care may languish in state institutions. I firmly believe that there are two words within the suggested new Article on Children (Article 42A) which should dispel such fears. These words are proportional and exceptional.
When the state becomes aware of a family situation whereby the physical and/or mental safety of a child may be in question every step must be taken to protect the child. First and foremost it is recognised that the best place for a child is with their parents in a loving family environment. Therefore, the steps undertaken must be proportional by first offering state support to the parents and monitoring the progress of the family. If this action is not sufficient, alternatives will be assessed such as relatives bringing the child into their own home, a place which is both familiar and part of the extended family. In fact one third of foster children are living with a relative. It will only be in very exceptional circumstances if all other less radical options have been exhausted that a child will be taken into state care.
For the small minority of children who require state care, there is a perception that this care can equate to further instability and neglect of the child. However, in the vast majority of cases (91%), state care in reality equates to a loving, caring foster family who welcome a child into their home with open arms. At a recent public meeting on the referendum in Newbridge I was struck by a comment made by one of the speakers, Wayne Dignam, who had himself been in and out of care from a young age. He stated that he developed ‘not in the womb of his birth mother but in the heart of his foster mother’. It is vitally important for people to appreciate that for many children the place they fear most is their own family home. As it stands, children can be repeatedly sent back to this place of fear despite their own wishes, as happened with Wayne. On the other hand a foster family can provide the care, love, security and stability which every child deserves and most importantly wants, an environment which Wayne thankfully eventually found himself in. Currently 2,000 children in care have been living with the same foster family for more than five years.
This leads me onto a particularly important aspect of this referendum whereby all children will be treated equally under adoption law. Presently, the High Court cannot authorise the Adoption Board to make an adoption order unless the court is satisfied that the parents have failed in their duty towards the child and will continue to do so until they are 18. Furthermore only unmarried parents of a child can voluntarily place their child for adoption despite the fact that married couples, for whatever reason, might feel their child should be adopted into a new family. As a result only a very limited number of children in extreme cases have been adopted. Indeed in 2010 and 2011 only 16 children in foster care were adopted. Just take a moment to consider many of the 2,000 children who have been in a loving foster family for over five years and would do anything to legally become part of this family. In line with the constitution as it stands they are being prevented from being adopted because of the decision of a High Court Judge or simply because their parents are married. By voting Yes, you can help these children to fulfil their wish of becoming part of this loving family.
A high voter turnout on November 10th is essential to give a clear indication that Ireland as a society wants to give our children a second chance of love and happiness. This referendum will ensure that the family remains the best place for children and that further state supports can be provided to parents who may need assistance. But it will also ensure that for the first time the Courts can listen and hear to what our children have to say about where they want to be brought up. By voting Yes only those children desperately in need of protection will be taken into care and indeed may result in fewer children having to leave their homes. Now is the time to put children first, listen to them and let them have the loving carefree childhood that we want for all our young people.