Abuse takes many forms and poverty is one of the forms that rarely gets the kind of attention it deserves. Poverty takes power away from people. It was the children of poor families who often ended up in industrial schools or orphanages. Many of them suffered horrific abuse and were scarred for life. That was at a time when little children were supposed to be seen but not heard. Ironically, it was at a time when we had a greater number of families based on marriage. Often, they could not fight back because it was a time when religious institutions were at their most powerful. Some of that power led to horrific abuse, with successive reports detailing how a powerful institution such as the Roman Catholic Church abused its power by protecting itself at the expense of countless children. It is important to qualify that by saying that I refer to the institution of the church, because some members did not take any hand, act or part in the abuse. Sometimes, that is not said. We must learn from history or else we risk repeating it. That is the intention underlying what we do, namely, the commencement of a process by first putting a referendum to the people.
The commitment to be given in the Constitution, that "the best interests of the child shall be the paramount consideration" is one that must relate to all facets of a child's life. The Ryan report, for example, sought for a culture of respecting and implementing rules and regulations and observing codes of conduct to be developed. That can only be achieved if the institutions are in place and are properly resourced. If all services for children are to be subject to regular inspections, as the Ryan report demands, there must be a sufficient number of inspectors who must be independent and capable of talking and listening to children. I frequently say that in this country we do not have experience of building good institutional architecture. Reform must include such an element of change. Too often we find that one arm of the State is not talking to the other and measures fail the very people they seek to protect. A great deal of attention must be paid to those failures at institutional level. In the context of reform, we currently talk about only one issue, namely, cutbacks. We must go beyond that to bring about serious institutional reform. We have a habit of throwing money at issues without going to the core of an issue to resolve it or building an integrated and workable solution.
While the referendum extends the prospect that many more children might be adopted, that happy outcome will not be available for all children in care. The Ryan report highlights the need for aftercare services. Serious work must be done in this area. Most families would not contemplate dumping out a child once he or she reached the age of 18, yet current guidelines indicate that the State "may" provide aftercare. It does not say it shall provide it. That approach is currently causing great distress for some young people and is in need of urgent change. It seems to me there are two sets of standards, one for services delivered by the HSE and another for 16 to 18 year olds in particular who are in the care of a service that is contracted out. I am concerned that the latter service is about looking after those aged 16 for whom one is paid and getting them out as quickly as one can when they reach 18. We must pay attention to the issue now to avoid talking about it in the future as a form of failure.
One of the major concerns that followed the failure of the economy in recent years was the damage to our reputation.
Our international reputation was further damaged after the publication of the Ryan report, which made international headlines in the UK, Australia, the Middle East, the United States and in other European countries. What the report had found was described as "appalling reading", a shocking scale of sexual and physical abuse in the Irish education systems. "Ireland's shameful tragedy" was the headline in the New York Times. We will rebuild our reputation if we do not repeat these mistakes and are seen to learn from and respond to them but it is not only about our national reputation, which can be repaired. What cannot be repaired are the children who were damaged. We must anticipate problems and ensure they are not repeated. To do that we cannot merely pass a referendum. If it is to mean something further we will need a world-class child protection system. We cannot use the excuse that the state of the economy will not allow this. We need to make the best use of resources available to us but we also need a vision and a blueprint for the kind of service to which we aspire. We must begin to build and resource that system.
Too often, one institution of the State does not know what another arm of the State is doing. That must stop. Children are often not seen in the delivery of vital services. The Oireachtas Library & Information Service Bills digest draws attention to the family support model, describing the strong legislative framework and leadership that is especially needed to underpin services at levels 3 and 4. These levels are where one really comes across children at risk, where there may be violence and all kinds of abuse. I will offer one example from County Kildare, from the south of the county which is not my constituency. County Kildare has a population of 210,000 which makes it the fourth most populated county in the country. I say this to underline that it is a fairly large centre of population. The HSE built a refuge for victims of domestic violence but there is no money to open it although it is there and available. What is there at present is an information and support service which is really vital. I have referred people to it on several occasions and have been really impressed by the service provided, albeit very limited. When the centre opens the service will need a child protection worker to work in the refuge but it appears this is an afterthought for the HSE although there will be more children accommodated in that refuge, if it ever opens, than there will be women. It must be seen as an essential part of the service. There is also a suggestion that the centre will be run by volunteers. That would not meet the HIQA standards this State demands of such a service. The refuge might be opened, therefore, without meeting the very basic minimum standards expected of it. At present there are people staying in violent situations because there is no place for them to go. That is the kind of service in which one will see children at what are described as levels 3 and 4. We must put this situation right.
We also need to have detox beds for adults with a drug addiction. We often see such adults and can see their children being used and pushed around in situations where drug dealing may be going on, very openly. Those children very often end up in care. If we are serious about keeping children with their families we must deal with the origin of the problem. Having sufficient remedial action for people with a drug addiction is vital.
Increasingly, our focus is exclusively on the cost of everything, and what can be cut further. A greater reliance is being placed on any person or organisation that will assume responsibility for those with problems. In the absence of a blueprint we basically hope for the best. It is interesting to note that some of the most radical notions such as, for example, a welfare state, was conceived by the social reformer, William Beveridge, in 1942, in the middle years of one of the most tragic world events, the Second World War. He was capable of thinking beyond the present and constructing something worth aspiring to although his idea obviously played out differently depending on the country.
Let us aspire to something really world class for children. We need to look beyond what now seems certain and must aim for something bigger in the future. The kind of society we aspire to, how we share limited resources in a more equal way, how we can get more with less, how we protect our children, are all central issues for a good society. This referendum is a beginning but it must be followed by the means to deliver the aspiration it contains. I support the referendum but it must be seen as a beginning and I believe this is something the Minister also accepts.