Simon mentioned recently that I spoke as a delegate of the Labour Lawyers Group at the recent Labour Party Conference in Wexford. The subject was a personal hobbyhorse of mine, child homelessness. In the coming weeks I’ll have written a more substantial treatment of the topic, but below is the motion I proposed in Wexford and the text of my speech:
“Conference condemns the government’s failure to adequately combat the problem of child homelessness and the failure to reduce the numbers of children becoming homeless as a consequence of their involvement with the care and probation systems.
Conference, recognising that this problem constitutes a failure by the State to satisfy its duties to the children of the State, calls for a higher priority to be afforded to child homelessness and exploitation, and for significant reform of the care and probation systems.???
In 2001, the then Minister for children, Mary Hanafin, launched a child homelessness strategy. The Strategy’s goal was to “reduce and if possible eliminate youth homelessness.???
Seven years later the problem has not been significantly or adequately addressed, much less eliminated. A walk down the streets of any Irish city is enough to bring home the reality of child homelessness.
In 2005, the Homeless Agency estimated that 18% of all homeless persons were under the age of 25.
The Childcare Act of 1991 requires that Health Boards take such steps as are reasonable to provide suitable accommodation for homeless children in their area.
However, the absence of appropriate accommodation for such children, who are often deeply troubled, and have needs far beyond a mere bed for the night, is now a chronic problem.
This failure would be damning enough, were it not for the role played by the state in making many children homeless.
In a study undertaken in 2006 by the Children’s Research Centre of Trinity College, Dublin, 40% of homeless children reported a history of state care.
Many had been shuttled from one inappropriate placement to another.
Many did not know why they had been placed in care at all.
The state then, has intervened in families – often, no doubt, for the very best of reasons – and taken children into care.
But failure to take seriously its duties to such children has resulted in many of them having unsatisfactory and traumatic experiences in care, and eventually falling through the cracks, and into homelessness.
This process, where the state scoops at-risk children up into an unsatisfactory care system, which ultimately dumps them out onto the streets, is an egregious failure on the part of the state. It makes a bitter mockery of the phrase “taken into care???. These children are not “in care??? in any meaningful sense.
The Irish Refugee Council this year drew attention to the almost 350 migrant children who have gone missing from the care of the HSE in the period 2001 – 2005, and indicated that that figure had likely gone up significantly in the intervening period.
These children are known as “unaccompanied minors???, children who arrive in Ireland without adults.
They are legally in the care of the HSE, and, at a rate of one per week, the HSE is simply losing them. It is frightening to contemplate the fate of these very vulnerable children.
Unlike many homeless Irish children, these children are doubly invisible. In a foreign and often hostile culture, and utterly alone, they are at significant risk of abuse. For example, in the past year, a Somali girl of 15 was found working in a brothel. She was later found to have entered the country as an unaccompanied minor.
Whether born in Ireland or elsewhere, homeless children are extremely vulnerable. The risk of sexual and physical abuse and exploitation and development of substance problems is astronomically high for children who live on the streets.
The state has failed in its duty to these children, and through its failure to take children’s welfare seriously has actively contributed to the child homelessness problem.
Simply put, in a civilised country, we do not permit children to sleep on the streets. I commend this motion to conference.