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Opening Statement by the Ombudsman for Children’s Office to the Oireachtas Committee on Public Petitions

Oireachtas Committee on Public Petitions and the Ombudsmen Opening Statement by the Ombudsman for Children Thursday March 7, 2024

I would like to thank the Chairperson and the Committee for inviting me here today to discuss the work of the Ombudsman for Children Office, or OCO, and in particular our 2022 Annual Report. I am joined here today by Ms Nuala Ward, Director of Investigations.
The OCO was established in 2004 by the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002. I am the second Ombudsman for Children. I was appointed in 2015 and was reappointed for a second and final time in 2021. The OCO is an independent statutory body with two main roles:
To deal with complaints made by, or for, children about the actions of public organisations
To promote the rights and welfare of children under 18 living in Ireland.
I will now outline some of the work my Office completed in 2022.

2022 – Falling Behind
Our 2022 Annual Report was published on the 16th May 2023. We called this report “Falling Behind” as it is clear from our work that on many issues, Ireland is starting to fall behind on children’s rights.
There were 1,812 complaints made to my Office in 2022 and education was the most complained about issue (30%), with bullying, expulsion or suspension, and special education resources featuring in many of the complaints.
Falling Behind also features the stories of some of the children the OCO worked with that year. This includes the story of Aisling, who told us that after making an allegation of bullying with a sexual dimension, the school made her feel responsible, and that she was bullied by other students for reporting the abuse. The OCO took action and the school eventually apologised to Aisling with the Board of Management updating their policies.
In 2022, much of the OCO’s work focused on the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child’s review of Ireland. This included:
– producing a comprehensive alternative report for the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which highlighted areas of concern and made recommendations about actions the State needs to take to advance the implementation of children’s rights,
– working with the OCO Youth Advisory Panel (YAP) to produce Pieces of Us, a children’s report to the Committee that consulted with over 5,000 children, and
– travelling to Geneva with the members of the YAP in September 2022 to take part in a pre-sessional meeting with the Committee and supporting them to take part in the Children’s Meeting with the Committee, in advance of the Committee’s constructive dialogue with the State in January 2023.

The Committee published its Concluding Observations in February 2023 and, now one year on from their publication, we wrote to a number of Ministers to ask what their Departments are doing to implement the Committee’s recommendations and ensure that the rights of children are respected and protected.

We engaged with a number of legislative and policy developments throughout 2022. These included the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2020, the review of the Action Plan on Bullying, further developments around the General Scheme of the Mental Health (Amendment) Bill, the surrogacy-related provisions of the Health (Assisted Human Reproduction) Bill, and the Housing Commission consultation on a right to housing in the Constitution. We also appeared before other Oireachtas Committees to discuss issues relating to mental health supports in schools and supports for children arriving from Ukraine. We also hosted a roundtable discussion in December 2022 to consider possible interdepartmental and cross-service responses for teenagers at risk who have complex needs and are often placed by Tusla in unregulated accommodation.

In June 2022, we also published Plan for Places, a report that focuses on forward planning of the provision of school places for children with special educational needs. This year we will be undertaking work to examine what, if any, progress has been made to implement our recommendations arising from this report.

We decided to ensure that children’s thoughts and experiences of the pandemic were recorded so we launched our ‘No Filter survey’ in February 2022 to hear directly from children and young people about life during this time. No Filter was an online survey featuring a wide range of questions based on common issues raised with the OCO and in the media. There were 1,389 children who responded to the survey, and it found that nearly half of the children surveyed felt their lives had changed significantly throughout the two year pandemic – 74% experienced feelings of loneliness, and 83% of the children surveyed felt the pandemic had some negative impact on their learning. Falling Behind also details the OCO’s direct engagement with children through our children’s rights workshops. As public health restrictions had been lifted, we were delighted to welcome 1,100 children to the Office in 2022, as well as meeting children on outreach visits to schools, CAMHS inpatient units and Oberstown Detention Campus.

In October 2022, we held events in Sligo and Limerick for children with disabilities. Beyond Limits is our unique festival-style event for children and young people with disabilities and their families to enjoy an inclusive and accessible day of speakers, performances and activities. Over 1,000 people attended these events. In December 2022, we published a report on a Review of the Ombudsman for Children Act we commissioned. This report looks at how the role and remit of my Office could be strengthened in a number of areas. We are working with DCEDIY to progress the recommendations made in this report.

In 2022, we hosted Child Talks, which is an event we hold every year to mark World Children’s day. This gives a platform to children to speak about issues that are important to them. Our 2022 event as some of you might recall, was held in the Library here in Leinster House with the theme, “If I were
Taoiseach for the day”. A wide range of topics were covered including homelessness, education reform, autism supports, accessibility, rural transport, female empowerment, the Irish Language and listening to children.

The OCO celebrates its 20th Anniversary this year. We will be marking our Anniversary throughout the year with various events, and using our new commemorative strapline, Tomorrow Starts with Us, which was developed following a consultation workshop with our Youth Advisory Panel.
This year, which is the final year of the OCO’s current three-year strategic plan, we will continue to pursue our strategic priorities to promote children’s rights to the highest attainable standard of mental health, to ensure that children with disabilities in Ireland seen, heard and counted, and to influence the education system of the future.
At the beginning of 2024 for the first time, we submitted a report to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as part of the Committee’s periodic examination of Ireland’s record in relation to these rights. Some of the areas of concern raised by the OCO included Government expenditure allocated to children, discrimination against children, domestic violence, access to education, mental health and disability services, and child poverty.
Thank you again for your invitation to meet you today. My colleague Nuala Ward and I are happy to take questions.