I thank the committee for allowing us to present this strategic plan. I congratulate Deputy Jim Daly on his appointment as Chairman. I know the deep-rooted dedication he has for children's issues, particularly around the areas of education and out-of-home care. I wish him well in this new role and look forward to working with him and the entire committee over the next several years to advance children’s rights.
Soon after I became Ombudsman for Children in 2015, I decided to delay the development of a strategic plan to allow me to rebuild the staffing levels of the office which had been hit by several vacancies. With the positive support of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, I am glad to report that I have now returned the office to a sufficient level of staffing and I am confident of being able to set out and build toward a new three-year plan. I am honoured to be able to speak for the first time about it in the committee most directly connected to the work of my office. I am grateful for the committee’s time today.
In 2014, our office handled 1,600 complaints from the public on issues where complainants believed the State had not provided adequately for children. The top three areas of complaints were education, issues around the Child and Family Agency and health. The figures for 2015, which will be published shortly in our annual report, show the number of complaints to the office continues to grow. We also offered workshops and education on children’s rights to 850 children and young people, as well as 130 postgraduates from six institutions studying and working in areas such as social work, child care, social care, teaching and child protection. Last year, the office, as per its statutory obligations, provided advice to the Government on several Bills and policies.
On 14 January 2015, I spoke at the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to outline our report on the progress of children’s rights in Ireland between 2006 and 2015 and to facilitate the committee’s examination of the State’s performance in children’s rights. I am glad to say many of the recommendations we made to the committee were included in its concluding observations to the Government, which were issued last February. I was also pleased to present to three joint Oireachtas committees last year, namely, those relating to education and social protection, public services oversight and petitions and health and children. This was significant in highlighting the transparency and accountability of the office, which we are eager to continue.
To develop the strategic plan, I enlisted a consultant to interview several people, both in Ireland and abroad, who were aware of our office and had varying connections with the children of Ireland and the issues which affect them. I also invited anyone who wished to contribute to write to us with a 500-word contribution and the consultant received those submissions directly to a separate e-mail address. We received a number of extremely useful and enlightening responses on foot of that invitation. I am especially delighted that several teenagers took the time to write to us with their thoughts on what we should focus on over the next three years.
With a remit that covers all 1.2 million children in Ireland and their interactions with all public bodies from birth to 18 years of age, our biggest problem was narrowing down our focus to a small number of areas. This took time and energy, and was achieved by carrying out a number of internal workshops facilitated by the consultant. We carefully considered all the feedback we received before deciding that three objectives would be the optimum number on which to focus. Accordingly, we could realistically aim to achieve something without losing our capacity to continue working on all the other issues which naturally come to the office.
In the submitted paper, we have set out our vision and values which act as our guidance. We spent a couple of months discussing and debating various wordings before settling on these. I am extremely proud of them because they not only offer a clear sense of the way we want to work and behave, but do so in a simple manner which can be easily understood by all. It was a key criterion for me that this strategy should be written at a level that children and young people can understand. That is what we have presented to the committee today.
There is no so-called adult version. It is our goal that everything we write or produce can be clearly understood by children and young people, and thereafter, by adults too.
The Ombudsman for Children’s Office’s vision is that we want an Ireland where all children and young people are actively heard and respected to ensure they experience safe, fulfilling and happy everyday lives. We will use our independence and powers to the fullest extent to bring this about. If this vision should be the only message I convey today, then I will consider this presentation a success. The Ombudsman for Children’s Office now has a clear message and target for the next three years, one which both challenges and encourages me. If I can live in a country where every child experiences a safe, fulfilled and happy life every day, then I cannot tell the committee how proud I will be. However, we all know such a target will require the efforts of all committee members, and indeed, the whole Dáil. It will also require the support of the greater public service and all the citizens of Ireland to bring it about. It is not impossible, however, and that is what is encouraging.
We have set out three objectives for the lifetime of this plan. The first will increase awareness of children and young people’s rights, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the role of the Ombudsman for Children’s Office. This sets us on a course whereby children and adults grow in their understanding of what children’s rights are and how they can be achieved in everyday life. I hope to explore every avenue of possibility for enhancing the awareness of children’s rights and of this office, so that people know what their children are entitled to and who to come to if those rights are not fully achieved.
The second objective revolves around working to build capacity among public organisations whose work impacts on children and young people to develop and implement a child rights-based approach to their practice. This objective is to help public organisations to become more child conscious, as well as to integrate child-friendly policies across all areas of their organisations. This would mean the specific needs of children would be considered when it comes to education, health, housing and more. We have already initiated work to generate some tools to enhance child-friendly administration and will be engaging with several Departments to move that project on in the near future.
The third objective relates to influencing positive change for and with children and young people in Ireland. It will require us to work across the three elements of our Act, namely, our power to advise the Government around legislation and policy, the onus on us to highlight issues which are important to children themselves and our power to take complaints on behalf of children whose voices are not always heard. Across the time span of this plan, my office will continue to use those powers for all children but most especially for those with mental health issues and those who are homeless or disabled. I will also place a focus on ensuring child protection is at its best and that children who experience the trauma of abuse, in whatever form that might take, can feel safe to report it. They can also be assured that it will be dealt with immediately and they will get the required level of support when they require it.
What I have found in my position as Ombudsman for Children is that the biggest struggles for children and parents are often not the biggest issues. For example, getting into a local school should not be difficult in a well-run, stable democracy that values children’s rights. Gaining support to avoid declaring one's family homeless should not be difficult in a fair and recovering economy. A safe and secure refuge should not be a fantasy for children and parents who flee domestic violence. Being asked to provide financial and social support, as well as a well-designed transition plan to help an 18 year old live an independent life after years in the care of the State, should not come as a shock to Tusla or the State. It should be easy to deliver. Getting access to a high-quality counsellor in a school setting when one feels down or needs someone to confide in should not be a total fantasy for teenagers in a country that sells itself as having one of the best-educated populations in the English-speaking world.
For parents of a child born into this world with a severe disability, physical or intellectual, having to fight for assistance with every aspect of that child’s care and at every new developmental stage, should not become the norm in a country which cherishes all children equally. When one has fostered two severely disabled children, getting financial support to purchase a specially adapted car should be easy, not a never-ending battle, especially when this country is crying out for families to foster children and give them the love, care and support they crave.
It is the small everyday things that matter to our children and that bring about happiness. I will use all my powers to bring equality to all children who seek it. I will conclude by quoting Archbishop Tutu of South Africa who said, "Do your little bit of good where you are; it is those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world."