I acknowledge the presence of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in the Chamber and compliment her on being present for almost all, if not all, of the debate, which shows her and her Department's seriousness on this issue. I also acknowledge as a very welcome move the Government's decision to hold the referendum on a Saturday, which is particularly important for first-time voters and those who are away from home. If the Minister takes anything from my contribution, I would urge the Government to put Saturday polling on a legislative footing. Going forward, this is something the State should do, at a minimum, to allow people to exercise their franchise.
Before I came into the Dáil, I worked as a teacher. Having listened to more experienced and more seasoned campaigners than myself in the teaching profession, I was struck by the fact experienced teachers could identify with a sense of accuracy when a child presented himself or herself in junior infants how that child was going to progress. More often than not, they got it right down through the years.
This referendum, if it protects one child, will be worth it, given the litany of scandals that have surrounded this whole area since the State was founded. It definitely has been the pall of shame over Ireland since independence. Successive Administrations down through the years, for one reason or another, whether for fear of outside institutions and pressure groups or just out of sheer ignorance, decided that the mantra that the child should be seen and not heard was the most important thing. I want to acknowledge the fact children are being given a constitutional voice in this, the 75th anniversary year of the Constitution, which, by and large, has been a very robust and good document. For the first time since the foundation of the State, children will be recognised legally as equal citizens with the rest of us. The Minister and the Government should be complimented for this.
Reference was made to the dozens of reports and the 20 year lapse since Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness first enunciated the need for a referendum. We are forgetting the fact there were children behind all of those reports. One of the images I constantly have in my mind from the Roscommon report is how the children presented themselves with lice climbing down their faces. There was a litany of failure from the State, its institutions and people working in this area. It is one thing to amend the Constitution but another to ensure the structures are put in place to allow the primary teacher, the social worker, the swimming coach or the librarian who might have a concern for a child to, in a very safe and responsible fashion, enunciate that concern.
As I and previous speakers have said, it is one thing to amend the Constitution but a totally different thing to roll out all the ensuing provisions on a day-to-day basis. This is why the Department of Children and Youth Affairs will make a difference. For the first time, children are not just shoved under the Department of Health or seen as an add-on to the Department of Education and Skills but are seen as equal citizens in this democracy, with a Minister whose sole responsibility is to them and them alone. One of the issues that has become relevant is that the collapse of the family and the cycle of abuse and neglect is not a modern phenomenon but is something that reports in the media have forced on us as legislators, both in this and previous generations. In fairness, legislators in some cases have been dragged kicking and screaming, as has society, into modernising the institutions that are there to protect children and to ensure children are given the protection of the State they deserve.
Deputy Seamus Healy referred to the issue of adoption. As a new Deputy, I was totally unaware of the hurdles that face families. I have since spoken to the Minister several times in regard to inter-country adoption.
I was totally ignorant of the fact that over 2,000 children are in long-term foster care, for whatever reason, but their foster parents are unlikely to be able to adopt them under the current regime. This referendum may give them the chance of a normal family life.
All of us in this Chamber were probably lucky enough, like myself, to have good parents who brought us up in the best way that they knew, putting their children first always. This referendum and the legislation we are debating may only affect a small number of children, but if it protects one and if it prevents another Roscommon or prevents another child from having lice running down his face, then it is a good day's work. I compliment the Minister on bringing this Bill forward.