This chapter seeks to explore the diverse meanings of child abuse in Ireland, while unpacking the construction, nature and consequences of errors and mistakes in child protection in the state. The contemporary Irish imagination perceives child abuse as a problem of historical memory. The primary reference is the institutionalised child subjected to cruelty and sexual exploitation at the hands of the clergy, with a disengaged state colluding in their misery. Yet there is an accumulating body of evidence that demonstrates beyond doubt that the problem of child abuse is part of present-day social reality in Ireland. There is a shared dynamic between the past and the present. Child abuse is the product of multiple childhoods, differentiating privilege from poverty. Linkages between historic child abuse and contemporary practice in memory and denial, in a society that is rapidly modernising and rejecting its traditionalist past, are the lens used to explore Ireland's understanding of errors and mistakes in child protection.
Ireland: context and orientation
Ireland has a population of almost 4.8 million, with children making up just over a quarter of that total (CSO, 2017) and 40 per cent of Irish households include children (Eurostat, 2018). It now has the highest birth, and lowest mortality, rates of all European Union countries, giving Ireland the largest proportion of children as a percentage of total population in Europe (DCYA, 2016).
In global terms, Ireland is a highly developed, safe and prosperous place to live. It has been ranked as eighth in the world on measurements including health, access to education, human rights and standard of living (United Nations Development Programme, 2016), and as the seventh best country in the world in which to raise children (UNICEF, 2016). Despite such glowing accolades, in the same year just over 11 per cent of children in the state were living in consistent poverty and 25 per cent were experiencing deprivation (CSO, 2017).
The 1937 Constitution of Ireland with its clear mandate on the rights of the family unit overrides all legislation in the country. This constitutional obligation has meant that Ireland has traditionally invested greater authority in parents than is explicit in the systems of other countries (Lavan, 1998).