The Special Rapporteur on Child Protection has identified child homelessness and the under-resourcing of child-protection services as areas to be addressed by the Government.
In his first report since succeeding Dr Geoffrey Shannon as the government-appointed Rapporteur, Dr Conor O’Mahony also backs a constitutional right to housing and proposes changes to voluntary care placements, including that limits be placed on the length of time a child can be placed in care with the consent of their parents.
On the continuing homeless crisis, the report refers to the number of children in emergency accommodation.
“These figures under-represent the extent of the problem to an unknown degree, since they do not include children experiencing homelessness who are not accessing emergency accommodation,” he said.
Referencing anreport on the rising number of children in homeless accommodation being referred to Tusla, Dr O’Mahony said: “Of particular concern to the role of the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection is the link between homelessness and child neglect, abuse and exploitation.
“It was reported in November 2019 that the number of reports of suspected child abuse or neglect being made to Tusla by managers of homeless accommodation was increasing, with 97 reports in seven months between January and July 2019 (compared with 133 reports for 12 months in 2018). The rate of increase in reports to Tusla (approximately 27%) significantly outstrips the rate of increase in child homelessness.
“Research in Ireland has shown that relying on emergency accommodation can lead to children sharing space with adults who are abusing drugs or alcohol or being exposed to inappropriate adult behaviour or to distressing incidents such as stabbings or attempted suicides.
“Parents may walk the streets with their children late into the evening to avoid being in these situations.”
One Oireachtas committee said the government should “re-examine the issue of enumerating a right to housing in the Constitution” and an end to one-night-only emergency accommodation.
The Special Rapporteur said: “This report fully endorses all of the above-mentioned recommendations, including the proposed examination of a constitutional right to housing.”
He also refers to the need to improve inter-agency collaboration and how the “under-resourcing of services essential to child protection was repeatedly documented in the various reports, with delays and lengthy waiting lists evident at all points in the system.”
As for voluntary care agreements, which allow children to be placed into the care of Tusla by consent of their parents without a court order, Dr O’Mahony presented preliminary data from the Voluntary Care in Ireland Study.
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Its work included an online survey of 243 social work practitioners and managers and found while voluntary placements had some advantages, such as lower costs and reduced stigma, there were “a number of significant weaknesses in the current legal regulation of voluntary care agreements”.
That includes there being no maximum duration to a placement, with Hiqa having documented cases where voluntary care persisted for up to 10 years.
It also referred to the absence of independent oversight, inferior resource allocation and risks to parental rights, such as “an inherent danger that parents may come to believe that they do not have a genuine choice of refusing to sign, since they perceive that refusal to sign will inevitably result in a court order being granted instead.”
Recommendations include that voluntary care agreements should have a maximum duration of three months or 12 months and that they be the subject of formal, independent reviews.