2 April 2015 No Comments by The Northern Standard

We have reached a point in Irish society where the protection of children has been placed at the forefront of public concern.

Children’s rights have been constitutionally reinforced; stringent safeguards are now in place to protect children from sexual depredation; there is a more developed consciousness than ever before that children and adolescents both are vulnerable to the mental and emotional problems that formerly were perceived as being confined to the realm of adulthood.

Perhaps most importantly, the voice of the child is now heard and heeded to a greater extent by those in positions of parental and educational authority than it was in the not too distant past.

Our children and young people have had their rights vindicated and their protection enhanced as the result of the painful lessons of the past, some of which our society was collectively guilty of refusing to learn for far too long a time.

In 2015 Ireland, our children are safer than ever before. But are they safe enough?

Protection rests on the assumption that the dangers it guards against present in plan sight to the now enhanced vision of those in positions of responsibility for the welfare of the young, primarily those in the parent or guardian role, and importantly those in charge of the places where they are educated.

But it is not always the case that children enjoy the family stability that guarantees protection. And dysfunctional family environments can sometimes impair a child’s interaction with education, leading to emotional and even medical difficulties that could have been arrested at an early stage developing into significant and perhaps even chronic problems by the time a tertiary agency of social care is compelled to intervention.

An Economic and Social Research Institute report published this week touched on an element of this troubling scenario. It highlighted the fact that Irish children experiencing mental health conditions and psychological or emotional difficulties are markedly more vulnerable to absenteeism from school than young people with identified physical or learning disabilities.

Our education system has become very good at catering for those with special learning needs. Children with emotional or mental health problems are not so easily accommodated within schools – their particular problems may make them disruptive, and are not of a nature that falls within the remit of the teacher or school administrator to directly address.

Consultation with parents or referral to psychological services are remedies that schools have recourse to in such circumstances. But the extent to which parents and the troubled child are amenable to engagement with the appropriate agencies when a problem is identified is sometimes questionable – and even when the willingness to address the issue is there, overburdened and under-resourced support services can be slow to reciprocate. Meantime the child can find him or herself acquiring habits of peer and social isolation, often fuelled by a retreat into the virtual netherworld of computer gaming or Internet abstraction, that can grow deeply ingrained.

One way of addressing this problem is to broaden the parameters of the funding and resources made available for special educational needs – widening the definition of this category to include emotional or behavioural conditions, and enabling those children so burdened to have access to their own specialised educational supports within the school environment without the need for a lengthy process of psychological assessment.

Minister for Education Jan O’Sullivan is coming under some pressure from responsible educationalists to address this issue – and one feels that if she is not encouraged by conscience to do so, she might find that the current deficits in this area so far undermine the principle of educational inclusion that she could face a future constitutional compulsion, were concerned parents minded to pursue a remedy to the destination of the Supreme Court.

Other stories prominent in this week’s news called into question the adequacy of our child protection credentials.
The experimentation by children and young people with e-cigarettes, as a sort of ‘virtual’ smoking experience which could be the gateway to acquiring the real habit for both legal and illicit forms of cigarette, was highlighted in the national media. While the harm that smoking can visit upon health and quality of life has never been more persistently reinforced, the durability of the habit among adults imposes a particular responsibility on our health agencies to heighten awareness measures targeting the young. And they would be greatly assisted in this if our legislators tightened the obviously lax governance regarding the availability of the e-cigarette to ensure that it was not casually available to children with a natural yen for experimentation.

The very open and often alluring way in which this particular product is being promoted in public retail areas is an obvious magnet for youthful, impressionable minds as well as the more credulous mature ones. Tighter controls on the marketing of this commodity, and a more vigorous challenge by those in positions of medical authority to its supposedly “safe” features, would seem urgently necessary.

Perhaps most troubling of all this week’s stories with a child safety context was the attention given in the British media to a study which showed that exposure to pornographic and sexually explicit material has now almost become a norm of childhood, because of the proliferation of such content and its ready access via electronic communications devices. It is a study that would surely yield comparable findings if applied to this country.

Sexual curiosity and experimentation are stepping stones to maturity, but the world saturated by electronic information which we occupy creates the possibility of this process being initiated at far too young an age, with more grievous consequences than the mere truncation of the lifespan of childhood innocence.

The addictive nature of pornography use by adults and the harm it can visit upon relationships, as well as inflicting emotional damage on the user and being a goad for sexual crime, are well established by psychological study and the patterns of offending in our criminal courts.

The effects on children are perhaps less clearly delineated by established research but they are undoubtedly potentially traumatic, and a pollutant to the formation of healthy values and attitudes. The creation by young people themselves of pornographic images via the use of camera phones is a developing phenomenon and carries enormous dangers.

Although we are perhaps not a society as outwardly permissive as we were in the 1960s and 1970s, there is beneath our mixture of sexual tolerance and politically correct restraint a troubling ambivalence about the moral parameters that separate healthy sexual activity from the harmful.

A society that makes profitable and popular in both its literary and cinematic forms a work of fiction concerning the infliction of pain for sexual gratification, and at the same times derives prurient interest from the details of an horrific murder trial just concluded in the superior criminal courts, is one that should perhaps be asking serious questions of itself.

Such a society certainly sends out messages to children and young people that invite their own exploration of sexual matters in a realm of unpoliced license where supposed safeguards are easily sidestepped and there is little protection from harm.

In minding our children, we should perhaps first take steps to mind our own morality in the examples we set them.

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