Skip to main content

Tá tú anseo:

Ombudsman for Children Statement to Joint Oireachtas Committee on Public Petitions

I would like to thank the Joint Committee on Public Petitions for the invitation to appear today to discuss our Office’s Annual Reports from 2018 to 2020.
As members are aware, the Ombudsman for Children’s Office (OCO) is an independent statutory body, which was established in 2004 under the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 (as amended). The OCO has two core statutory functions, namely:
– to promote the rights and welfare of children under 18 years of age
– to examine and investigate complaints made by, or on behalf of, children about the administrative actions of public bodies, schools or voluntary hospitals that have, or may have, adversely affected a child.

I am going to briefly summarise some of the key points from our Annual Reports for you today, beginning with 2018.

As the Committee will recall, with over 10,000 people including nearly 4,000 children homeless at that time, the Housing Crisis and child and family homelessness in particular, remained a significant concern for our Office in 2018. As in previous years, our team worked directly with families who had difficulty trying to access adequate housing, but we also carried out a consultation with children living in Family Hubs so we could hear directly from them. This took place alongside a review of housing policy which informed our report on Family Hubs. In our 2018 Annual Report, we called on the Government to recognise housing as a social good and to consider reopening the conversation on the Constitutional Right to Housing. Child and family homelessness remains a huge concern to our Office today, with the most recent figures showing 1,119 families including 2,563 children accessing emergency accommodation at the end of January 20221. We believe that the Right to Housing should be enshrined in Bunreacht na hÉireann and have called for a commitment to eliminate family homelessness within five years, as a first step to eradicate homelessness completely by 2030 in line with Ireland’s commitment under the Lisbon Declaration.
2018 also saw an increase in the number of children making complaints directly to us, which we largely attributed to the fact our Participation and Rights Education team gained an additional two staff members. This was added to by much great work on the ground by our Complaints and Investigation team which may have inspired children and young people to feel able to contact us themselves. Education was the most complained about issue to our Office in 2018.

2019 – Progress for Children
Our 2019 Progress for Children Annual Report highlighted how through our independent examination and investigation of complaints, we continued to engage constructively with a wide range of public bodies to secure positive outcomes for children. Developments of note that year included how child protection in schools is monitored through the Department of Education and Skills’ Inspectorate, and improvements in how Tusla and the HSE fulfil their responsibilities towards children with disabilities in care. As the Committee may be aware, just yesterday our Office published Jack’s Case; One Year On, an update on a previous investigation into how the care of a child with profound disabilities was managed by the two State agencies, and while we are satisfied that that child in question is now thriving, we are still concerned that significant gaps remain at policy, funding and operational level to support the rights of children with disabilities to grow up at home with their families. This case clearly highlights the ongoing issues experienced by children with disabilities and their families, and the outstanding improvements that are needed for State bodies to work better together in their interest.
In 2019 we continued to monitor and advise on a wide range of developments in legislation and public policy affecting children, including engaging on the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018. While we were disappointed at the 25% allocation rule with regard to places for children whose parents or grandparents attended a specific school, we believe the enactment of this legislation will remove significant barriers some children have faced in accessing a school place, including on the grounds of religion.

Our 2019 Annual Report also featured 11 case studies of the children we serve to highlight the reality of the issues our Office faces. That year also saw us undertake a significant consultation with children living in Direct Provision to hear specifically from them about their views and experiences.
Education was again the most complained about issue for our Office in 2019.

2020- Childhood Paused
The Covid-19 pandemic obviously turned life upside for everyone in 2020, particularly children and young people, with schools closed and their routines and normal lives completely disrupted. I am going to come back to Covid in a moment as a separate piece, but will briefly focus on some of the other issues that came up for our Office in our 2020 Annual Report. Complaints remained high that year despite the pandemic, but there were fewer complaints than in 2019 as many services were closed. 2020 also saw a small increase in the number complaints made directly from children, and once again, the main area of the public service most complained about was education. New issues that came up in 2020 included: . Remote learning and the digital divide . Lack of clarity about State exams . Mental impact of restrictions on young people . Calculated grades . Children in high risk households who feared bringing Covid-19 home . And the impact on children with special educational need
The slight increase in complaints directly from children in 2020 can largely be attributed to education issues and was an indication of the level of upset among students. It is worth noting today that all of the children who contacted the OCO mentioned the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of children. Speculation around the future of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in the summer of 2020 in the wake of the inconclusive General Election earlier that year, and suggestions that it would be subsumed into other departments were of enormous concern to our Office at the time. As we argued then and holds true today, we firmly believe this would have led to an abdication of responsibility and accountability in upholding children’s rights, particularly at such an important time. If the pandemic proved anything, it is that Government needs to mainstream the rights of children and have them at the fore when a crisis hits; and there should never again be any doubt about the need for a standalone Department of Children. Like most organisations, the operations and running of our Office were completely changed by Covid-19, with our kitchens becoming offices and schoolrooms. While it was really disappointing for us not to be able to welcome children into our Office during the pandemic, I am extremely proud of our team for adapting to keep our services up and running for children during this really difficult time. Covid 19 Crisis While I’ve already spoken about Covid in relation to the work of our Office, it would be remiss of me not to use this opportunity to reflect in more detail on the impact of the pandemic on our children and young people. If we cast our minds back for a moment to the early days of 2020 when the crisis first hit, children were treated almost as pariahs; they were seen as vectors of the disease, and their very presence in public places like supermarkets or shops, often caused disdain. Schools were closed, playgrounds were shut, sports and other group activities were cancelled and children’s routines and lives were turned upside down. For those children who were already vulnerable or who relied on support services and/ or respite, life became really hard indeed for them and their families. While we were all told to stay at home, the pandemic highlighted clearly how home is not a safe space for every child, something that was illustrated by the increase in domestic violence incidents in 2020. Incidents of possible abuse that may have been missed, delayed or undetected are of great concern to me. The number of child protection referrals we received in 2020, which are often received as part the complaints process, dropped significantly.

During 2021 ENOC and UNICEF invited Ombudspersons and Commissioners for Children across Europe and Central Asia to conduct a pilot child rights impact assessment (CRIA) about the impact of Covid-19 measures on children’s rights. A CRIA examines the potential impacts that laws, policies, budget decisions, programmes and services may have on children, as they are being developed and prior to a decision being made or an action being taken. Our CRIA, which we published on 28th January, focused on the impact of school closures on children’s rights and it showed that the negative impacts of school closures were particularly felt by children with disabilities, children who are homeless, children with mental health issues, children living in Direct Provision, and Traveller and Roma children. The State needs to consider children’s rights more fully when making decisions that affect children and to give more attention to special measures needed to mitigate the disproportionate impact that decisions can have on particular groups of children, including in emergency situations.

The pandemic has shown, like never before, the central role school life plays in a child or young person’s life and how school is about so much more than academia. Vulnerable children not only missed out on hot meals and important health checks, they also lost the visibility of professionals trained to spot red flags with regard to welfare and safety at home. I fear we may never fully grasp the impact of this period of time on our children and young people and urge in the strongest terms that children’s rights are to the forefront of any decisions made about them in any future crisis. While the Covid-19 pandemic starkly highlighted the ongoing disadvantage experienced by many children in Ireland, it also highlighted the ability of Government and State organisations to adapt, to be innovative and to make decisive change.

For the past year the OCO has been working on A Better Normal, an initiative that seeks a time limited cross departmental Joint Oireachtas Committee focused on the elimination of child poverty and the eradication of child homelessness. There is an opportunity to bring together all of the work that is happening in these areas, to bring a new energy and to put a sharp focus on children. No child in Ireland should live in poverty, and no child should be homeless. These problems can’t be divided up – that’s a housing issue, that’s social protection, that’s one for education. These problems have roots in every part of our society and a whole of Government approach is crucial in solving them. AON In October 2020, the OCO published Unmet Needs, a report that highlights our concerns about the serious negative impact that delays in completing assessments of needs (AON) and providing corresponding services to children, are having on children’s current health and wellbeing as well as their future development. The OCO met with the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth in December 2020 to discuss this report. We welcomed the decision of this Committee to hold further meetings in relation to this matter with a number of key stakeholders, including the Minister for Disability and the HSE.

In November 2021, the Minister for Disability indicated that almost 4,000 children were still waiting for an assessment of their needs. This high number was very concerning, in particular given the introduction of a number of measures that were expected to deal with the waiting lists – the allocation of additional financial resources, the establishment of new therapy posts, the implementation of a revised, and controversial, Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), and the reconfiguration of Children’s Disability Network Teams. Accordingly, in December 2021 we wrote to the Minister for Disability and the CEO of the HSE to highlight our concerns. We also called for the HSE to appear before the Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to account fully and publicly for ongoing problems with AON and to outline clearly how these problems will be addressed. We expect that this will happen in the coming weeks.

Children’s Rights online Online safety and Digital rights online are important issues for the office, and for children in Ireland. During 2021, we engaged with developments relating to the General Scheme of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2020 (General Scheme). Establishing a regulatory framework for online safety to address the spread and amplification of harmful online content is a significant opportunity to strengthen the protection of children from harmful content online. However, proposals to enumerate categories of harmful content and to establish a systemic complaints scheme rather than to provide for the Online Safety Commissioner to deal with individual complaints is an issue of concern to us. The OCO will continue to monitor and engage with developments relating to this proposed legislation during 2022.

The future As you can see, the OCO is dealing with a wide range of issues ranging from education that affects almost all children, to mental health, poverty and direct provision that impacts smaller, more vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. Our office has grown significantly in recent years jumping from 12 permanent staff in 2016 to 36 today. The skills and expertise now available means that we can deal with complaints that come in the door in an urgent, efficient manner, while also working strategically to raise awareness of children’s rights and to create an Ireland where children can live safe, fulfilling and happy everyday lives. We are currently in the process of finalising our report to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child in advance of Ireland’s review in October. We will also be submitting a Children’s Report which includes a survey and consultation with children. I am in the process of finalising our Strategic Plan 2022-2024. The priorities for the office over the next three years will be in the areas of mental health, disability and the future of education.