September 2014        

Suffer little children


The United States is one of three countries that have failed to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In this it finds itself in the august company of Somalia and South Sudan. Somalia, however, has committed itself to ratifying, and South Sudan’s parliament has passed a bill to do so.
     To be fair, it has to be said that the United States played an active role in the drafting of the bill, and has actually signed, though not ratified, it. Among the reasons given is the fear of a backlash from the religious right, who see the bill as an assault on their rights.
     One of the effects of the non-ratification of this treaty is that children can be treated as adults in the American legal system. Where this could have ramifications for us in Ireland is when children visit the United States, even on holidays.
     Irish junior boxing teams regularly organise visits to the United States. One such team visited New York in March 2013. Even though youngsters on these visits are probably very well chaperoned, there’s always a possibility of one of them escaping the vigilance of their minders. A chance meeting with somebody involved in criminal activity could lead to an Irish youngster finding himself accused of being an accessory after the fact and landing in the not too gentle hands of the American justice system. Up to 2005, under-eighteens could be sentenced to death in the United States. This is no longer the case, but they can still be sentenced to life imprisonment without parole.
     There have been cases where young people have been sent by the HSE to “Boys’ Town” institutions in the United States. These are a type of army camp for young people. The fact that those who were sent there were children whose complex needs were not met within our own child-care services would render them more at risk while abroad.
     This goes against best international practice, where it is generally accepted that it is best for children to be within their own families and if this is not possible then within their own communities. Britain has a policy of trying to place children within a radius of twenty miles of their families, and Wales won’t allow such children to be transferred to England. Best practice is that children should remain within their own culture, with access to their families; yet Irish children have been sent to England, Scotland, and the United States.
     Is the reasoning behind this that English is spoken in those countries? Does this mean that cultural differences have not been taken into consideration? Also, have possible circumstances particular to America been considered? There’s also a claim that the use of medication to control children is practised there.
     The whole policy of children with needs being sent abroad raises the question, Why? It cannot just be a case of lack of finance, as large sums are being spent on children placed in private centres here.
     Another question is, Why are children who are perceived to be at risk but have no criminal convictions being sent to secure units and being deprived of their liberty?
     Last year Ireland celebrated the centenary of the 1913 Lock-Out. Should we now look at the Lock-Up of children? Should we also look at the practice of exporting our problems? Should we be more careful about letting children visit countries where they are not afforded the equivalent legal protection that they have at home?
[RCN]

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