Children First Bill criticised by some charities

Ashley Balbirnie, ISPCC

Several children’s groups have today criticised aspects of new legislation making the reporting of child abuse mandatory for named professions.

The 'Children First' Bill legally obliges clergy members, teachers, gardaí and medical practitioners to report any suspicions of abuse or neglect they may have.

However, it has been criticised for not going far enough, particularly the lack of both resources to implement the Bill and sanctions against those who fail to comply with it.

Catherine Joyce, head of advocacy, Barnardos said: "Today marks an important milestone in Ireland’s journey towards better protecting children.

"We hope the Children First Bill 2014, along with the ongoing reform of child protection services, will ensure a consistent approach to child protection in future.

"However, the Bill must not be let fall at the first hurdle due to lack of resourcing. It is essential that the Child and Family Agency be sufficiently resourced to assist parents and professionals understand and support the implementation of the law.”

While welcoming the principles of the Bill and acknowledging the high-quality work undertaken by the Minister and her Department, the group said that it has some concerns around certain aspects of the legislation.

It said that mandated professionals should also include those working in organisations focused on child protection/welfare/rights services.

It also pointed out that there are no sanctions in place for those who fail to comply with the requirements set out in the Bill and there is no reference in the Bill to retrospective allegations.

Ashley Balbirnie, CEO, ISPCC said: "We are concerned that the list of mandated professionals does not cover national organisations working with children and families as their main purpose.

"While so many organisations and services are doing great work and already adhering to best practice, many large service providers including my own organisation, the ISPCC are not explicitly mandated to comply with the protocols set out in the Children First Bill.

"It is imperative that all organisations providing services to children, whether statutory or non-statutory be obliged to take a consistent approach to ensure the best possible responses for children.”

Other victims’ groups were more positive, however.

Maeve Lewis, CEO, One In Four, stated: "This long-awaited Bill was intended to provide for the reporting of child protection concerns, to ensure that both statutory and non-state funded bodies would be legally obliged to follow protocols in reporting any concerns regarding the safety and welfare of a child.

"Without any clear sanctions for failure to comply included in the legislation, it is hard to see how a completely consistent approach from all will result.”

Tanya Ward, CEO, Children’s Rights Alliance said: "The Saving Childhood group very much welcomes the publication of this Bill and must commend the Minister and her Department on the excellent work they have put in to get the Bill this far.

"However, we believe that the legislation could be more robust if greater resources were made available. We will be engaging with the Minister to articulate to her our concerns and areas we feel require further attention."

Ellen O’Malley Dunlop, CEO, Dublin Rape Crisis Centre said: "We in Dublin Rape Crisis Centre are very pleased to see the Bill published today and we are confident that it will be possible to find solutions to the concerns the group have raised.”

Norah Gibbons, Chair of the Child and Family Agency, said: "The Child and Family Agency welcomes the long-awaited publication of the Children First Bill.

"Together with the suite of other measure taken in recent years, including the establishment of a dedicated Child and Family Agency, the legislation will help to bring about a new approach to child protection in Ireland.

"The whole of society has a role in keeping children safe.

"The Children First legislation ensures that each one of us knows that we have a role in child protection and a duty to speak out if we think a child is at risk.

"Placing Children First on a statutory footing is vital for the work of the Child and family agency and key partners and in particular will support an inter agency focus on early intervention and prevention of harm."

Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald says the Bill will clarify certain issues for professionals.

"Well there has been ambivalence about reporting child abuse in the past - this makes it absolutely clear that professionals have to share information, have to be part of a risk assessment with the Child and Family Agency - and also that the agency must be a good partner to those professionals who report (to it)," she said.

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