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Irish Examiner Opinion Piece – In the Best Interests of Children

I have serious concerns about the growing political pressure for an early but limited referendum dealing only with one element of the child protection debate. It is my view that a comprehensive referendum dealing with all of the pertinent issues should be held. The Government has made a commitment to the holding of such a referendum and an Oireachtas Committee has been established to take this work forward. I believe we should stick with this process.

There is a perception that there is a gap in our law in the wake of the CC case which urgently requires to be filled. This is not the case. The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act was passed in 2006. It provides that it is a crime to engage in sexual relations with a child. There is no gap in the criminal law. The difference now is that a defendant can plead a defence of honest mistake.

The introduction of this new defence has raised real concerns that children may be reluctant to report such incidences and may be exposed to damaging court proceedings. I fully share these concerns and raised them with the Oireachtas Committee on Child Protection when I met with them late in 2006. However, I don’t think a limited referendum can provide a quick fix.

It is important that all children who come before the courts are offered protection. The Committee on Child Protection published its report in November 2006 recommending the introduction of a child witness support programme and the implementation of video evidencing programmes for all children nationwide. I support the implementation of these recommendations and the strengthening of the new 2006 law to ensure that children are not prosecuted under it.

Moreover, we need to step back and re-focus our minds on the reality of children’s lives. My Office has received over 1700 complaints since 2004 involving a range of issues: children who are not receiving the supports they need, children in long term foster care who need more permanent solutions, children whose voices are not heard in the court room and many others in a range of situations.

We do not have any laws in place to deal with the exchange of so-called ‘soft information’ on people who may pose a threat to children. The absence of such measures was highlighted in the Soham murders case where information about Ian Huntley who had a ten year history of inappropriate behaviour toward children, but did not have a criminal record, was not shared. We do not have law in place to provide for children in long term foster care needing more permanent solutions. We do not have an express statement of the rights of children in our Constitution nor do we have a clear provision that in all decisions concerning them, a child’s best interests must be a consideration.

These gaps in our Constitution, law and practice mean that we are failing some of the most vulnerable Children on this island. These include children in care, children involved in court proceedings who have no right to a voice and children at risk of abuse, in all its forms.

If more time is needed to achieve consensus on the issues, then let’s give these important issues the time they need. Children and young people deserve no less.