I was enjoying the toddler as she was playing in the park on one of those recent cold wintry days of the old year. The threatening rain and the high winds meant that she, her mother, who was wheeling her sleeping baby brother in his buggy and myself had the park to ourselves.
The little girl, about three-years old, ran in circles through the grass, swaying her arms from side to side, giving a good interpretation of flying with the wind. She discovered the steps and jumped from one to the other, shrieking with laughter at each achievement. She did this again and again, up and down. The grassy slope was the next challenge. She climbed to the top and raced down the side, each time increasing her speed.
The inevitable happened, and though I saw it coming there was nothing I could do to prevent it. She was running so quickly that she could not control her landing, and she plunged into a small pool of surface water. The park echoed to her frightened screams of shock and outrage.
Mother and I ran quickly to the rescue. Toddler, in her terrified state, made a bad situation worse. She flopped about, trying to find a foothold in the mud and when we pulled her to dry land she was saturated through and through, very cold and very bewildered. Mother swooped her into her arms, and ran towards her parked car. I followed behind wheeling (still sleeping) baby brother. Toddler was strapped in her car-seat. Ditto brother. Buggy was folded, and the little family made a hasty exit from my life.
But because I had been there (albeit a long time ago) and done that, I knew the scenario of what was to come.
Mothere would drive home, unlock the door, and without any concern for her own immediate needs, would run a hot bath, strip toddler of her sopping clothes, bathe her and dry her and reassure her and put on a complete set of fresh clothing. And all would be well with the world.
Well, not quite. Baby brother, with the innate sense of time peculiar to little boys, would now have awoken refreshed from his ride around the park, and he would frenetically declare in loud screams that he was hungry; that it was three hours since his last feed and that he was demanding food. Now! Pronto!
Young mother would be faced with two conflicting imperatives. And she would meet those two imperatives, and sometimes three or four or maybe more, because that’s what mothers do. It is all part of a very ordinary day’s work in child-rearing.
The most important function in life
Parenting is the most important function in life undertaken by any one of us, and we do it without any training. We take into it what we have learned from our own parents, and what we intuitively feel is the right thing to do. Sometimes we muddle and struggle, but the facts are that the vast majority of our children grow up to become fulfilled and responsible citizens.
But what happens when parenting breaks down; when it becomes destructive and harmful and inimical to the proper physical, mental and pyschological development of children? And when the State has to step into that traditionally sacrosanct institution of Irish life - the family?
For many decades now, the Family Courts in our District and Circuit Court systems, have been the barometers of the extent of malfunctioning parenthood. But because hearings are rightly held in camera and are unreported in the media, little or no information has emerged into the public domain. In fact, even within the system itself, there has been no co-ordinated study, no composite picture, of what is happening to some children in Ireland.
With the objective of trying to find out, the Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald, initiated a special study under the title: “Child Care Law Reporting Project,” and Dr. Carol Coulter, a former ‘Irish Times’ journalist was appointed as director.
This facilitated her, and the members of her staff’s attendance at Family Court hearings which specifically dealt with child-care. Interestingly, the period involved in the director’s recently issued interim report, coincided with the Constitutional changes which we, the general public, voted for in 2012, enabling the voices of children to be officially heard, for the first time, in court hearings which concerned them.
The report, like all objective official studies, does not elaborate on the undoubted sufferings of the children involved - and indeed the problems of their parents - but the statistics tell their own story. And some of the more important of these now come into this column.
When data was collected from 333 cases, 83 were subjected to more detailed analysis in the interim report. Mental illness or intellectual disability, sometimes combined with drug and alcohol abuse by the parents, contributed to 12% of cases. The largest single reason for taking children into State care was neglect, followed by abuse, physical abuse, such as non-accidental injuries, and sexual abuse. In addition to addictions, parental isolation and lack of family support were identified as contributory factors. Having an auntie or a granny living down the street could make the world of difference in the life of a child.
I read this most interesting report when I returned from the park, with pictures of that happy little girl still in my mind’s eye. She was doing the normal things, exploring her environment and testing her strengths and when she over-taxed her limitations, there was a loving parent to restore her confidence and security.
For the majority of us as parents, inherited experience, intuition and instinct, still work. But for a small, but not insignificant minority, it does not. And when it does not, the State is left with statistics and reports to use as tools in picking up, and in trying to put together again the very broken lives of some Irish children.