COVID-19 has had a "severe impact" on children, particularly those with special needs, the Ombudsman for Children has said.
According to Dr Niall Muldoon, many children with special needs have regressed during the pandemic because they were unable to attend school and could not access essential therapies.
He also expressed "grave concern" about children living with, or at risk of, abuse and violence during the pandemic.
Dr Muldoon made his comments in the Ombudsman for Children's Office (OCO) Annual Report 2019, which has just been published. While this focused on complaints made to his office last year, he said it would be remiss of him not to make some comment on the impact of COVID in 2020.
"Existing inequalities have been amplified by this crisis and must prompt us to redouble our commitment and efforts to ensure that children who face persistent barriers to enjoying their rights are prioritised," he commented.
Meanwhile, according to the Annual Report 2019, the OCO received 1,503 new complaints last year, a slight fall on 2018's figure of 1,622. Overall, there were fewer complaints about Tusla (the Child and Family Agency) and the health sector.
However, 49% of all complaints related to education, an increase from 42% in 2018. The second highest sector complained about was family support care and protection (20%), followed by health (14%).
The majority of complaints in 2019 were made by parents (79%), followed by extended family members (5%), professionals (5%), unrelated adults (4%) and children (3%). The remaining 4% were made by other people.
The report featured a number of case studies to highlight the types of complaints received by the OCO. Under the section of education, the case of Eoghan, who has special needs, was highlighted.
He had previously attended mainstream primary schools, but joined a special school in 5th class because of his challenging behaviour.
His mother contacted the OCO at the end of his school year because she was concerned about the school's use of seclusion to manage Eoghan's challenging behaviour. She felt this may not always have been used appropriately or as a measure of last resort and as a result, Eoghan had spent a lot of time excluded from the classroom.
Shortly before the new school year was about to begin, the OCO wrote to the school to encourage it to engage with Eoghan's mother for the purpose of discussing strategies for managing his behaviour. As a result, the school met with Eoghan's mother, and provided the OCO with information about the plans for managing Eoghan's behaviour.
Eoghan's mother subsequently contacted the OCO to say that Eoghan was working well with his new teacher, doing well with his school work, and enjoying being back in class with his friends. He was now coming home full of chat about his day, and even said that he loved school.
The OCO noted that in this case, early resolution was attempted as an alternative to a formal investigation and this had been successful.
In the health section of the report, another case study featured Conor, a teenager with autism, depression and anxiety. At the time of the complaint, Conor had been staying in a paediatric ward at a hospital for almost five months.
He could not return to his family home and the HSE Disability Services had not yet identified a place for him to stay. His parent was very concerned about the inappropriate nature of the hospital care placement, the delay by the HSE in securing an appropriate placement for him and the absence of appropriate supports to help him.
During his time in hospital, his weight had increased significantly, he had little exercise, no treatment other than medication, no therapeutic support, no access to education, and his only social outlet was as a result of staff and
In response to the complaint about his care, the OCO wrote to the HSE Disability Services and HSE CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services). It asked about their planning for Conor and why he had remained in the hospital for so long when there was no medical need.
OCO staff also met with Conor in the hospital and he told them how much he felt he was missing out on. As a result, the relevant services started to plan more proactively for his care and the HSE secured an individual placement for him that was supported by a private care services provider. However, this was nine months after his admission to hospital.
"From my perspective as Ombudsman for Children, key issues for children and their rights that I want to see Government and the State pursue during 2020 include making tangible progress on putting in place a mental health system for children that is fit for purpose and upholds children's right to the highest attainable standard of mental health," commented Dr Muldoon.
He said he would also like to see the homelessness crisis addressed "as a matter of urgency" and he welcomed "new political commitments to address and indeed end Direct Provision".
"I hope that these will be honoured in the quickest possible timeframe," Dr Muldoon added.
The OCO Annual Report 2019 can be viewed here.
The OCO investigates complaints about services provided to children by public organisations. For more information, click here.
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