'Referendum is a very important building block'
on 29/10/2012 00:00:00
The polls show that while an overwhelming majority of people are minded to vote yes, many of them are not that well informed about the proposed constitutional amendment.
In such circumstances, the fear on the yes side is that there will be a low turnout, because people think the amendment will be passed comfortably without them.
Ms Fitzgerald says her agenda between now and polling day "is to make sure that there is a high turnout". She makes the point that there have been two decades of discussion on these issues - two decades of shocking child abuse reports - and people now have a chance to do something about it.
If passed, the amendment would mean dedicated children's rights are inserted into the Constitution for the first time. But would the amendment have any effect in practical terms?
For example, what difference would words make to the young offenders detained in St Patrick's whose human rights, according to the Inspector of Prisons, are being ignored or violated?
"If you mean right now in St Pat's, clearly the place has to be closed, the human rights issues have to be dealt with, and we have to take young people out of there. Completely unacceptable, and I've known that for years. So that's why we acted on it," said Ms Fitzgerald.
"In fairness to Brendan Howlin and my colleagues in Cabinet, I got the support to get the funding to take 16-year-olds out of St Pat's before I ever saw any report, because I knew it was the right thing to do."
St Pat's used to house offenders between the ages of 16 and 21. The practice of sending 16-year-olds there ended in May. They now go to the Oberstown children's detention centre in North Dublin. A new building is planned for the Oberstown campus and it's envisaged any 17-year-olds in detention will be moved there as soon as possible. St Pat's will be closed by 2014, according to the minister.
As for children who come before the courts in future, "childcare proceedings are covered [by the amendment], so that decisions are taken in the best interests of that young person".
One academic recently argued that the amendment would mean little without proper funding for child and family welfare services.
Ms Fitzgerald agrees that the issue of resources is something that needs debate. "The constitutional change is one part of it that has been recommended by all of those who cared about these issues for 20 years and longer.
"But of course resources are a critical issue, and I do think we have to get more questioning about how we allocate resources in this country.
"So if you ask me, for example, for my opinion of how this country has done in putting children at the centre, if you take child care, I would say we haven't done well. It isn't good enough that we have one year free pre-school care."
Her department's agenda, she says, is about both reform and resources, and there's a long to-do list.
She says this in response to a question as to whether children and youth affairs will survive as a standalone department should the referendum be passed and a reshuffle be announced mid-way through the Government's term.
"There is a very big agenda, the referendum is a very important building block, and I have absolutely no reason to believe there's any question mark at all around this newly established department...
"We're going to have to look at our values system, about the kind of investment [we make] in early years... We have not examined it enough and haven't given it the kind of attention it needs."
She cites an OECD study on the economic benefits of investing in supports and services for young children.
"Post the referendum, my department, you have to look at it as much through an economic lens as a social lens, and that's something that's not understood yet I think in the country generally, but it's a point I'll be increasingly emphasising.
"Our biggest resource - and we're not using it as well as we should, and of course the economic situation with emigration and everything is very challenging - but [it's] our young people, and the fact that we have the kind of birth rate that we have. The investment in those young people, the proper investment, will be part of what will lead to the recovery."
But first things first, the referendum. Those opposed to the amendment argue it would give the State far too much power to remove children from their families.
But Ms Fitzgerald says voters have only to read the wording of the amendment to see this is not the case - it refers clearly to "exceptional cases" and "proportionate means".
So if dealing with parents with addiction problems, for example, "you don't immediately respond by saying, 'Ah sure, your child has to be in care'. You respond by saying, 'Well, how can we help you? Are there addiction counselling services, are there family supports, can we put a worker in with you?' That's what proportionate means there and it's a very important point... if a family are in trouble, the first intervention is about support."
In cases where intervention would lead to the removal of the child from the family, "we're talking about extremely vulnerable children who [require help] for a whole variety of very serious reasons, including physical and sexual abuse and neglect".
She comes back again to the phrases "exceptional cases" and "proportionate means". And she stresses that those on the frontline, such as the ISPCC and Barnardos, fully support the amendment.
"Why wouldn't we do this, when people who have been working on the frontline for 20 years who've examined this in detail [support it], when we've taken the sort of care we've taken with it? Why would you not want to do this, when almost every modern constitution that's been written includes specific references to children?"
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