The Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan (pictured), has said that she believes a children's referendum can be of benefit to children.
Writing in today's Irish Times, Ms Logan says that while the focus of the debate has been mainly on the impact of a new wording on court proceedings, an overlooked aspect of the debate was decision-making by civil and public administration.
She said: “I believe that an amendment to the Constitution has the potential to have a significant effect on decision-making by public bodies and, consequently, have a positive impact on children’s lives.”
She also said that any amendment should make it possible for the children of married parents to be adopted.
She state: “An issue that has been part of the debate about amending the Constitution from the start is the need to address the situation of children in long-term foster care who cannot be adopted by their foster families because their birth parents are married.
“The aim of amending the Constitution to address this issue is to ensure that if a child cannot, for whatever reason, be returned to his/her birth family, the fact that the child’s parents are married will not be an obstacle to him/her getting a second chance with a new family.”
However, very few children whether of married or unmarried parents are available for adoption in Ireland.
Ms Logan added that any amendment should seek to ensure that “the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration” in any case involving a child.
Ms Logan said: “Time and again I have seen situations in which public bodies failed to consider the impact of their decisions on children, where they have neglected to take into account all the relevant considerations affecting the child in question, where they have not asked the right questions, with predictably negative consequences for children and families.”
She added that a referendum should include an obligation to respect the views of the child, in accordance with their age and maturity. This was not, however, “about a radical form of autonomy for children, nor is it about putting them into a difficult position by having to express their view if they would rather not do so”.
She said: “A child’s views are not always systematically in line with their best interests. In a case examined by my office some years ago, concerns were brought to my office’s attention by a young person in care who expressed the view that he was unhappy with the placement provided for him.
“After examining the complaint, my office found that the public body demonstrated that its actions were sound and that the professionals had acted in the child’s best interests by finding a placement that could provide for a vital therapeutic intervention to address his complex behavioural needs.”
She said that she had “never been a proponent of an over-interventionist State and would rather see the State offer a family support proportionate to need”.
She said: “My office has never examined a case involving a conflict between parents’ rights and children’s rights. And if there is one thing that has become confirmed by the eight years of this office’s operation, it is that parents are by far the strongest and most tenacious advocates for children.”
Meanwhile, a Government spokesperson has said that a wording for the amendment would be finalised soon, and that there would be sufficient time for it to be properly debated.
There was a general discussion at yesterday’s Cabinet meeting on the referendum, for which no date has been announced. Separately, Barnardos chief executive Fergus Finlay yesterday said the referendum will “end an era when children were supposed to be seen and not heard,” the Irish Times reported.
Labour TDs and Senators were briefed on the autumn referendum at the party’s annual “think-in” at Maynooth by Fine Gael Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald and Mr Finlay, according to The Irish Times.
Mr Finlay, a former senior adviser to Labour, confirmed a number of children’s advocacy groups would band together during the campaign.
“We’ve been campaigning for years to have this referendum and we’re very excited at the prospect that it is about to happen,” he said.
“A number of us in our sector, organisations like the ISPCC, the Children’s Rights Alliance, ourselves in Barnardos, we’ll be coming together to run a joint campaign.”
The purpose of the campaign would be “to try to foster the idea right around the island of Ireland that the time has come to put children’s rights in the Constitution and to change the culture and practices of the past: to end an era when children were supposed to be seen and not heard”.
Ms Fitzgerald told reporters: “We’re on track to have that referendum as a stand-alone referendum in the autumn. It has been spoken about for years – probably well over 20 years since it was first recommended.
“We intend to publish it alongside the adoption legislation and clearly the Government will make a decision as to the exact timing; it’s clearly going to be in this Dáil term and it is a priority for us.”