MINISTER FOR Children Frances Fitzgerald is “not for turning” when it comes to putting the State’s Children First child protection guidelines on a statutory footing, she said yesterday.
Asked whether she or the current Fine Gael-led government could be swayed on the introduction of mandatory reporting where child protection was concerned, as the previous Fine Gael-led government had been in 1996 and which was highlighted by the Vatican on September 3rd last, she said, “I am not for turning” nor was the Government on the issue.
The Vatican, in its lengthy response to comments by the Taoiseach and Tánaiste following publication of the Cloyne report last July, had “not been comparing like with like”, she said, adding: “I don’t think it was a valid comparison.” She continued, “We are in a different place now” to 1996 “with over 10 years’ experience of the guidelines”. She also pointed out that the proposed legislation, which will be introduced in this Dáil term, “is not just about reporting. It is about sharing information.”
The Minister was speaking at the launch of the 2010 annual report for the Children At Risk in Ireland (Cari) agency in Dublin’s Mansion House. There, the continuing sexual abuse of over 2,000 children in Ireland annually was highlighted, as well as the sexualisation of children at ever younger ages due to new technology.
Mary Flaherty, chief executive officer of Cari, said contemporary sexual abuse of children in Ireland was being overshadowed, however understandably, by attention being focused on clerical child sexual abuse and historical cases of such abuse.
She also spoke of demands by defence counsel and the Director of Public Prosecution for access to files of children attending therapy in court actions and called for legislation to ensure separate legal representation “or some other legal remedy” for children in such cases.
Both Ms Fitzgerald and Dr Niall Muldoon, clinical director of Cari, noted increased reports of sexualised behaviour among children under 12; up 38 per cent in 2010.
Dr Muldoon said that, whereas in the past such behaviour was seen as a possible indication of child sex abuse, today it was more and more due to “media, social networking, the internet, cell phones, and not an increase in sexual abuse. It is an unfortunate byproduct of technology.”
Ms Fitzgerald said she had been “very struck” by indications of increased sexualised behaviour among children. “A whole culture is impinging on that childhood space,” she said, “which requires a very serious response at a national level.” She commended Cari for providing “a key service and for playing a key role”.
In 2010, there had been a 6 per cent drop in the number of therapeutic hours offered by Cari. In Dublin, however, figures were up by 24 per cent. Cari’s helpline received more than 1,400 calls in 2010, mainly from mothers, with a 13 per cent increase in completed calls (1,102) that year and a 35 per cent decrease in silent calls (114).