A “crisis” in child homelessness in Ireland is causing an increase in suspected child abuse and neglect, the State’s independent child protection expert has said.
It found that even in family hub accommodation, “there is evidence of alcohol and drug use, and of children being exposed to distressing fights between adults”.
Professor Conor O’Mahony (the special rapporteur on child protection) said it was “unsurprising that a sustained crisis in child homelessness would generate an associated increase in child protection referrals to Tusla”.
In his annual report for 2019, Prof O’Mahony warned it is likely that the problem of suspected child abuse in homelessness services has been underreported.
In October 2019 there were 3,826 children in homeless accommodation in Ireland – up 3pc from 2018 and up 24pc from 2017. The report said official figures “underrepresent the extent of the problem to an unknown degree” because many homeless children are not using emergency accommodation.
“In short: far too many children in Ireland experience homelessness, and the problem worsened during 2019,” the report said.
There were 97 reports of suspected child abuse or neglect in homelessness services made to Tusla in the first seven months of 2019, compared with 133 reports for the entirety of 2018.
The special rapporteur report said the increase in reports of suspected child abuse or neglect “significantly outstrips” the rate of increase of child homelessness.
It said that Irish research had shown living in homelessness was leading to children sharing accommodation 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.
Even in family hubs, which have been introduced since 2017, there is evidence of alcohol and drug use, and of children being exposed to distressing fights between adults in an environment where there is a lack of space and privacy,” the report said.
The report said it was “unsurprising that a sustained crisis in child homelessness would generate an associated increase in child protection referrals to Tusla”.
“The continuous deterioration in the homelessness crisis poses an ongoing child protection concern, and risks exposing children to deep and lasting harm due to neglect or abuse in addition to multiple other detrimental impacts,” it said.
The report is the 13th publication from the state’s independent child protection expert, and the first since Professor O’Mahony was appointed to the position in July 2019.
The report also sharply criticised the government’s “failure” to reopen an ex gratia scheme for victims of child sex abuse in schools following the Louise O’Keefe case.
The report said Ireland was violating Article 13 of the European Convention on Human Rights and causing “significant trauma to those affected”.
“Moreover, many of the survivors are of advanced age and do not have the luxury of time. There is no justification for further delays in vindicating the right of survivors of abuse in schools to an effective remedy,” it said.
Meanwhile, the number of people supported by homeless charity Sophia Housing increased 100pc since 2016, according to the charity’s annual report which was launched by Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien yesterday.
Susie O’Keeffe, acting head of services, said Sophia supported 1,034 people, including 226 families and 510 children last year.
“This was the first time that Sophia has supported over 1,000 people in any one year,” she said.
It was a 14pc increase on the number of people supported by Sophia in 2018 and a 100pc increase from four years ago.
The charity provides homes with supports to people who have experienced homelessness.
According to Ms O’Keeffe, its approach of providing a home for life, not just a bed for the night, has always been its core vision, long before ‘Housing First’ became national policy.
In 2019 the Department of Housing approved over €28m to allow Sophia to provide permanent homes for individuals and families moving out of homelessness.
Sophia’s development plan will see the charity build over 200 new homes across the country over the next three years.
In his address, Mr O’Brien noted that the latest figures on homelessness in October had shown that the number of families accessing emergency accommodation was at its lowest level since June 2016.
However, he acknowledged that the undersupply of new homes “has been affecting lives right across our society and has made new home purchase and rents increasingly unaffordable”. There is a danger that this could drive additional households into homelessness, he warned.
“Homelessness remains a top priority for me; resources and funding are not, and will not be, an obstacle to the urgent efforts required,” he pledged.