Give children a voice

As a young reporter, I once wrote a series on adoption for ‘The Irish Times’. I rang a nun, an admirable woman, who was in charge of an orphanage for girls in Dublin. She told me how sometimes in the middle of the night, a youngster would wake and cry out for her mother. Within minutes, she said, the whole dormitory would be awake, all crying out for their mothers, mothers they had never known, or could have had no memory of.

As a young reporter, I once wrote a series on adoption for ‘The Irish Times’. I rang a nun, an admirable woman, who was in charge of an orphanage for girls in Dublin. She told me how sometimes in the middle of the night, a youngster would wake and cry out for her mother. Within minutes, she said, the whole dormitory would be awake, all crying out for their mothers, mothers they had never known, or could have had no memory of.

It is an image which has always haunted me, children crying out in the night for their dream of a mother. It was a mother they would never have- some because they were at an age when adoption was now unlikely to happen, but many more because they were the children of legally married parents and could not be adopted.

It seemed extraordinary to me then that we should create a legal limbo in which children whose parents could not look after them because of drink or drugs, or mental illness should be forever denied the love of a mother and father and family. It seems extraordinary to me that limbo still exists. Why? Because our constitution protects the rights of legally married parents but makes no reference to the individual rights of a child. It is a perverse stunting of lives.

In all my career as a journalist, I never got such a reaction as I did to that adoption series. People wrote to me from all over the country. When I would go down to the stone where the paper was laid out in those old hot metal days- and women rarely ventured down there because it was an all male stronghold-men, tough men, would come across to tell me of their own experiences of adopting children; of how it had changed their lives; of how much joy it had brought them. It seemed such a waste not to be able to join up all that love and generosity on the part of adoptive parents, with the crying need of those children whose legal parents would perhaps never be able to look after them.

Why should the children of legally married parents have less rights to adoption than other children? Why should over 1,600 children in Ireland live in institutions or have only foster parents, no matter how good, because the adoption laws here, taking their lead from the constitution, say so.

The laws say that the child of married parents can only be placed for adoption where it is shown to the court that exceptional circumstances exist and their parents have failed in their duties towards them and will continue to fail until the child reaches 18 years. As a result it is almost impossible for them to be adopted. I don’t know of any other country in the European Union where this is the case It is wrong.

That’s why we need a referendum, why we need a specific reference to children’s rights in the constitution. It would make children visible, It would mean that when decisions are taken affecting them, their rights would have to be taken into account. It does not mean that parents will no longer have rights. It will simply mean that both sets of rights will have to be looked at.

Putting children’s rights specifically into the constitution will also mean that in those rare enough cases where children are being abused or neglected within their families, the state can step in more quickly to protect them. It will mean that where the state neglects its duty towards a child,it too can be brought to book. And surely that is what we want. We want a safety net through which no child can slip, not one which is conveniently full of holes

We have seen in recent years horrific reports of institutional abuse of children, or abuse of children within families where social workers felt helpless to intervene. We were all shocked and asked ourselves what we could do to stop it happening again.

Well, we can start by giving children their specific place in the constitution. We can start by giving them rights, by giving them a voice, by trying to ensure that somebody will be listening when they cry out in the night.

• Olivia O’Leary is a journalist, broadcaster, and author. She is also a board member of Campaign for Children, an organisation committed to an Ireland where children are recognised and respected as full individuals within society. The organisation is currently engaged in a series of public education, advocacy and campaigning activities to ensure the full realisation of this vision. Find out more at www.campaignforchildren.ie