herald

Tuesday 16 September 2014

The lowdown on what you'll need to know to pick which way to vote

Q What is the Referendum about?

AVoters are being asked to agree to a new Article 42A. The Government says the Amendment is needed to recognise children in their own right within the Constitution. It contains five key parts which you are being asked to pass or reject in a single question.

Those in favour say it will protect children, support families and treat all children equally.

Children already have constitutional rights, but if the wording is passed, the Constitution will, for the first time, contain explicit fundamental rights provisions for them.

Q Why is change to the Constitution necessary?

AThe Constitution is the fundamental law of our State. A change to it will ensure more child-centred laws and influence judicial decisions into the future.

For decades we have had a legacy of failing Irish children. Expert groups over the past 20 years, ranging from the Kilkenny Incest Investigation of 1993 to the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children (2010), have urged dedicated provisions for children in the Constitution. If adopted, the change will introduce an explicit statement to protect and vindicate the rights of children.

Q Why should I vote on Saturday?

AThe Referendum Commission, which does not argue for a yes or no vote, urges everyone eligible to vote in the Referendum.

The Constitution is important, it says. It was put in place by a referendum of the people and can only be changed by a referendum.

It is your Constitution and you have the power to decide whether or not to change it.

Q What will be the effect of the changed wording?

ACritics claim it will make it easier for the State to intervene in families in crisis.

The likely reality is that the threshold for State intervention will not change. The new section places, on a constitutional footing, the existing threshold for State intervention already outlined in the 1991 Childcare Act.

It removes the phrase "where the parents for physical or moral reasons fail in their duty towards their children", from the Constitution.

Instead, it makes the negative effects of any neglect or abuse on the child the central issue, rather than blaming parents and focusing on parental failure.

Q Will it mean more money for children in crisis?

AThis is a difficult one. The State is already saving an estimated €600,000 by holding the Referendum on a Saturday and is committed to reforming Ireland's child protection services by transferring them from the HSE and setting up a new Child and Family Support Agency.

It remains to be seen how well the new Agency is supported, given the country's dire financial straits, but last year there were about 30,000 child protection and welfare concerns reported to the welfare services.

Q What will it mean for families?

AIf passed the amendment will allow Ireland to move from a system that seeks to judge if a parent has failed, to one that bases services on the needs of each individual child.

Supporters say it will underpin the continuing development of early-intervention and family support services to prevent more serious problems arising. The aim is to protect children in the home and prevent children being taken into care at a later stage.

Some fear that judges will be able to override the best wishes or interests of parents by arbitrary and creative interpretations of a child's best interests. The "best interests" of the child principle is not new, as it already exists in two key Acts, but the Referendum will put it on a Constitutional footing.

Q How will it protect children more?

ASomething needed to be done, after 17 reports detailing child protection failings in Ireland over recent years. The Referendum is part of the Government's ambitious programme of reform in child protection and will support a programme of major reforms in that area. It aims to protect children from abuse and neglect by putting their safety and welfare at the centre of decision making, Minister Frances Fitzgerald said at the launch of the Referendum campaign on September 19.

Q What will the change mean for adoption of children?

AIf passed, it will allow for the adoption of any child, irrespective of birth status. Currently, children of married parents can only be adopted if they have been "totally" abandoned, in effect until they reach the age of 18. The Referendum will give children denied the chance for adoption, because of the marital status of their parents, a "second chance" of having a stable and secure family life through adoption.

Married parents cannot voluntarily place their child into adoption -- unless they are deemed to have failed in their duties. The new wording will not only allow for voluntary adoption of a marital child, but will also lower the threshold for abandonment of "any" child, whether martial or nor marital.

QWill children be able to sue their parents or demand new rights against them?

AThe new wording will mean that in all guardianship, custody, access and care proceedings brought by the State, the views of the child will be given due weight, having regard to the child's age and maturity.

Their opinions will be taken into account, subject to rival interests, such as that of their parents. Most disputes involving children will take place under the guardianship and custody regime.

See Pages 16 and 17

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