A children’s rights referendum is on the cards. Before we vote on it we should carefully consider the example of Britain. Those who favour a change to the Constitution claim that the current law in this country makes it too hard to remove children from their families. The danger is that the change might make it too easy to do so.
In Britain there is no written constitution and no constitutional definition of the family. Social workers have more power of intervention there than they have here. Does this mean British children are better protected than Irish children? The answer is almost certainly, no.
In Britain, social workers frequently over-intervene or under-intervene in families, that is, they remove children who shouldn’t be removed and don’t remove children who should be removed.
We are familiar with the latter type of case, for example, Baby P. Two days ago the new President of the Family Division, Sir Nicholas Wall drew attention to the former kind of case. He accused social workers of being too ready to remove children from their mothers and of acting as though they were in “Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China”.
He gave the example of a “warm and loving mother” whose children were removed from her because of the violent behaviour of a previous boyfriend who she no longer lived with but apparently was still in contact with.
In Britain last year there was a massive 40 percent increase in the number of children taken into care. No doubt in many of these cases the decision was justified, but in other cases it was undoubtedly unjustified.
Social workers are in a tough position because they are often damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Failure to remove a children from a dangerous situation is potentially disastrous, but to wrongly remove a child from a loving mother is also terrible and a form of child abuse in itself.
In this country, we are aware of the dangers of under-intervention, but not of over-intervention. The British experience shows we need to be aware of both dangers.
Currently, the law in Ireland allows children to be removed from dangerous, violent and neglectful parents. The proposed change to the Constitution will give social workers additional powers and may walk us into the sort of situation that Lord Wall deplores.
Here is an excellent article by Cassandra Jardine in today’s Daily Telegraph on his remarks.