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Rights of parents being put ahead of children at risk, says law expert

LORNA SIGGINS in Galway

Irish Times, Fri, Sep 23, 2011

THE HEALTH Service Executive is pursuing an “overdeferential” approach to the rights of parents at the expense of children at risk, the Government’s special rapporteur for child protection Geoffrey Shannon has said.

Mr Shannon, who is also chairman of the Adoption Authority of Ireland, says that Ireland “squandered the opportunity during the Celtic Tiger years” to put in place a robust system which might have avoided the deaths of children in State care.

The child and family law expert has also called for regulation on surrogacy to protect children’s rights, if Ireland is to avoid becoming a “safe haven” for assisted reproductive technology.

Mr Shannon was addressing a national conference in Galway yesterday on the family in Ireland, hosted by the Business and Professional Women’s Club and chaired by Fionnuala Kenny.

In her brief introductory remarks, Ms Kenny, wife of Taoiseach Enda Kenny, said that “childcare and protection should never be seen as a drain on resources” and “early intervention was absolutely critical”.

Last year, Mr Shannon and Norah Gibbons were appointed to the State’s independent review group into the deaths of children in State care, which is due to report shortly.

Some 27 children and young people in State care or known to the child protection services have died in the past 12 months, according to HSE figures issued earlier this year under a new system of recording.

A cohort of 20,000 children are in the child protection system or at some risk, Mr Shannon told the conference.

This figure comprises 6,175 children who are officially in the care of the State, and 12,000 who are the subject of “expressions of concern”.

He said he “strongly welcomed” the establishment of a Department of Children, and the new Minister, Frances Fitzgerald, with her officials had made “more progress in the last six months than we have in the last 10 years”.

However, Mr Shannon said that his impression of the child protection system was that the HSE was “over-deferential” to parents, putting their rights before those of children at risk.

Also, Irish society still did not acknowledge alcohol consumption by parents as a risk issue for children, when in fact it was a “red flag” indicator, he said.

There was no mental health assessment of children when they were taken into care, he noted.

A lack of inter-agency co-operation meant that there were instances where addiction services were not talking to child protection services, and HSE offices at regional level were not communicating with counterparts when families at risk moved address.

He said there was a need for mandatory parental education programmes and for provision of support services at community level.

“No parent chooses neglect, but some families need better supports than they are getting,” he said. Family support ranked a “poor third” in resource allocation, when in fact better investment would save on expenditure on child protection, and within the criminal justice system.

The current adversarial family law system was also failing children in divorce situations, and children were often the last to be consulted, he said.

Mr Shannon said that in his role as the adoption authority chairman he was concerned about the absence of regulation on surrogacy, with no legislative protection for children who might have up to five parents – as in the sperm and egg donors, the surrogate mother and two family parents.

The “rigorous” procedures involved in adoption contrasted with the lack of regulation in assisted reproductive technologies. Ireland was one of the only jurisdictions in the world which didn’t have such legislation to protect children’s rights in these situations, he said.

Also speaking at the conference, Prof Pat Dolan of NUI Galway, noted that where some 2 per cent of families in Ireland in 1960 were the result of non-marital births, this had risen to 32 per cent by 2005. Some 200,000, or 18 per cent, of all parents were parenting alone in 2006, and 85 per cent of them were female.

The financial crisis was placing enormous strain on families, and yet there had been no consideration of the impact on families and on the taxpayer when the decision was taken to bail out the banks, he said.

2011 The Irish Times

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