On June 14, the Ombudsman for Children’s Office (OCO) launched its annual report. The report, entitled 2020 Childhood Paused, details how the work of the office has been influenced by the pandemic, the complaints received, and the initiatives undertaken to ensure that children’s views are represented at every level. It also outlines other projects that started before the outbreak of COVID-19.
The OCO investigates complaints about services provided to children by public organisations. The report shows that the number of complaints received by the office dropped significantly last year. This is directly linked to the pandemic and the closure of a lot of services. When it became clear that a return to normality was a long way off, and as the impact of the pandemic on children took effect, complaints began to come in again. In terms of region, 30% of all new complaints in 2020 came from the Dublin region. The majority of complaints, as in previous years, were made by parents or other family members (80%).
Education, Family Support Care and Protection, and Health are still the issues that feature in most of the complaints received. These are consistently the most common issues raised in complaints made on behalf of children every year and that trend continued in 2020. Education complaints relate to schools, the Department of Education and Skills and other education agencies. Many complaints in the area of Education related to new concerns specifically related to the pandemic. They include:
- The impact of the digital divide.
- The lack of clarity around State examinations.
- Concerns about last year’s calculated grades process.
- The lack of access to remote learning for children living with individuals at high risk from COVID-19.
- The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on children with special educational needs.
Family Support Care and Protection complaints relate to Tusla and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth (formerly DCYA). They can also feature other organisations such as the Health Service Executive (HSE), hospitals or Courts. Complaints relating to crèches and childcare are considered to be a significant and emerging category contained within both Education and Family Support. In 2020 approximately 3% of complaints received related to accessing crèche placements and complaint handling.
In the area of Health, waiting lists dominated complaints in 2020 as the health services focused on battling the pandemic and this is likely be a central theme for 2021. 2020 also saw concerns raised about HSE guidance with respect to COVID-19 regulations and the impact upon the health of children attending school.
According to the Ombudsman, Dr. Niall Muldoon, the operations and running of the OCO have been completely changed by COVID-19. He highlighted that “while we were all told to stay at home, it is not always a safe place, and we fear that children who were at risk of abuse or neglect and other issues that went under the radar due to school closures will come to the fore this year”. He has urged the general public to report any concerns about possible abuse of children.