Barnardos’ confusing approach to the HSE and children’s rights

On Thursday, Norah Gibbons, Director of Advocacy for children’s group Barnardos described the HSE as not fit for the purpose of looking after children’s welfare.

It is a depressing, if unsurprising analysis given what we now know about the fate of too many of the children in the care of the HSE. Furthemore, Ms Gibbons’ assessment carries significant weight; she is one of two people reviewing deaths of children who had been in HSE care over the past number of years.

But Ms Gibbons and her organisation are among the leading voices calling for the Government to introduce a referendum on children’s rights, which would make it easier for the State to take children into its care.

‘As soon as possible’ means before any meaningful reform of the HSE could take place. Groups like Barnardos want this referendum more or less immediately. They have been calling for it for three years, which means that they wanted this provision inserted already.

This is despite the fact that, currently, it is the HSE that would be doing the intervening into families, the very organisation that Ms Gibbons, has described as not fit for purpose.

Would it not make more sense to reform the HSE, or radically change the structures under which children are taken into State care before changing the Constitution to make it easier for more children to be taken into such a system?

According to solicitor Catherine Ghent, a leading spokesperson for the Children’s Alliance, which is calling for the referendum to be held urgently, children whose parents are married are actually “discriminated against” compared with other children because it is harder to take them into care.

Such children, she claims, are “placed at greater risk” under the Constitution as the state can only move in where there is “an immediate and fundamental threat” to the child. (In fact, the Constitution makes provision for intervention into the married family “where the parents for physical or moral reasons fail in their duty towards their children”.)

So this referendum is in large part about taking more children into State care.

But, according to those most committed to inserting this wording into the Constitution, the very structure under whose care these extra children would be placed in that instance isn’t fit to look after the children it is currently tasked with caring for.

In February, leading Constitutional expert Dr Gerard Hogan, in expressing certain misgivings about the referendum, made the point that, while everyone was in favour of vindicating children’s rights, the question was who would do the vindicating.

On RTE’s This Week programme, he said: “But in practical terms you have to ask yourself, when you’re talking about the best interests of the child, who is going to decide what is in the best of the child, and how is this going to be done? And if you’re talking about the State vindicating the rights of the child, you have to remember that this is likely to be officialdom, or some judge making this decision.”

He made this point before the extent of the HSE’s mishandling of the care of many vulnerable children became clear. It is suggested that this point is far more disturbing now, and ought to be front and centre in this whole debate.

It is also worth asking, as an aside, why journalists are not asking this question?