We must prioritise children’s futures

An online safety commissioner must be established to protect children’s rights, so says TANYA WARD, CEO of the Children’s Rights Alliance, who awarded the Government an overall C- grade in their Report Card 2021
We must prioritise children’s futures

Tanya Ward of the Children’s Rights Alliance. Picture: MAXWELLPHOTOGRAPHY.IE

THE Children’s Rights Alliance, which has 10 Cork-based members recently launched its Report Card 2021. This year’s Report Card grades the Government according to the commitments made last year in the Programme for Government in relation to children. According to the report, an Online Safety Commissioner must be established by the Government to protect children, especially in the context of Covid-19.

The Cork-based members are Ag Eisteacht, Cork Life Centre, Cork Sexual Violence Centre, Department of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy, University College Cork, Good Shepherd Cork, Irish Association for Infant Mental Health, Irish Primary Principals Network, Rainbow Club Cork, Young Knocknaheeny.

While the Government made progress by publishing the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill in December 2020, it failed to provide for the establishment of a proper independent complaints mechanism for children and young people if a tech platform failed to uphold their rights online. Children have a right to an effective remedy. For these reasons, the Government is receiving a D- grade for Child Safety Online.

This year’s Report Card is through a Covid-19 lens.

Currently, almost every child in the country is spending a large portion of their day online – whether they are receiving education, communicating with peers and family members, or accessing supports. More than ever, children are open to online exploitation, grooming, cyber-bullying, and exposure to harmful content. We have seen time and time again situations where tech companies have not invested enough in making the online world safer for children. It’s critical that the legislation provides for an effective complaints mechanism with powers to take down material comparable to what’s available in Australia so online tech providers can’t be let off the hook.

Overall Grade for Government

This year’s Report Card is the first analysis of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party’s joint Programme for Government: Our Shared Future and how it performed for children in 2020. The Children’s Rights Alliance selected 16 promises to children and have rated the Government on its efforts since their formation in June to December 2020. The Alliance awarded a C- grade to the Government,.

Since March 2020, Covid-19 has turned the world upside down. This is particularly true for children, especially vulnerable ones who have been the most affected. Children need to be put first and centre. Alongside older/vulnerable adults, they are the next biggest victims of our endless series of lockdowns. There is no doubt that Government has faced immense challenges which has slowed down progress in some cases. This plays out in the grades with the new Government securing a report card with 8 Ds, 7 Cs and just 1 B – hardly stellar results.

As well as online safety, other areas for improvement include:

Reduced Timetables for Children with Additional Needs (D- Grade): According to Report Card 2021, certain groups of children have been hit with having part of their education suspended during the school day, especially children with additional needs and Traveller children. This is one of the most serious human rights issues impacting on children in education.

The low grade was awarded due to the lack of progress on issuing finalised guidelines regarding the use of reduced timetable to schools, the absence of information on recording who is impacted and the lack of monitoring to ensure new guidelines are adhered to. 

This is of particular concern given that evidence suggests that vulnerable and marginalised children are disproportionately more likely to be placed on a reduced timetable.

Early Years Education (D Grade): Progress has been slow on establishing the new agency, Childcare Ireland. Report Card 2021 also recommends that inspections and oversight fall into the remit of Childcare Ireland to ensure quality and standards across the early childhood education and care sector.

Family Homelessness (C Grade): The Report highlights the almost 40 per cent reduction in family homelessness over the course of 2020. However, it recognises that this was mostly due to the Covid-19 emergency measures including the evictions moratorium and the ban on rent increases.

The Report emphasises that the Government must continue to build on the progress that was made in 2020 by adopting a preventive approach which prioritises development of long-term affordable and social housing stock.

Direct Provision (C+ Grade): While the Children’s Rights Alliance welcomes the imminent publication of the White Paper on ending Direct Provision, they are calling on the Government to move quickly to ensure that all asylum-seeking children and their families have access to own-door, child-friendly accommodation which upholds their rights; and to provide a date for the commencement of inspection of accommodation centres to ensure that centres meet the proper standards.

It is clear that where problems already existed for families, Covid-19 has made these worse, but without the same supports available. 

For other families, the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic will have created new hardships and vulnerabilities. We are seeing new levels of need surfacing in families who were previously managing, and there is a risk that problems go undetected and unsupported due to the lack of contact with outside services during lockdown.

The silver lining is that despite these challenging circumstances some important new commitments were made, including pathways for undocumented children and on the long-awaited reform of the family law system.

Looking to 2021, there are deep challenges ahead, but the Programme for Government provides a roadmap for improvement. The positive progress during 2020 must now be built upon and momentum for change maintained despite the deeply challenging circumstances we face. The Government must seize new opportunities and harness our collective creativity. We must prioritise children’s futures. This is not a choice but an imperative.

More on the Report Card 2021 is available on the Children’s Rights Alliance website, www.childrensrights.ie.

About the Children’s Rights Alliance

Founded in 1995, the Children’s Rights Alliance unites over 100 members working together to make Ireland one of the best places in the world to be a child. Further information is available at: www.childrensrights.ie or on Twitter, @ChildRightsIRL. #ReportCard2021

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