Describing 2020 as “a turbulent year” for children and young people, the organisation says that it is not surprising that a large number of calls were linked to the impact of COVID-19 on children’s school lives.
The alliance says that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted serious concerns about the efficacy of both the family-law and education systems in responding to the rights and needs of children and young people.
The organisation says that the use of reduced school days or reduced timetables was one of the most concerning education issues emerging from calls to its helpline.
“We have heard from families with children as young as six who have been placed on a reduced school day, sometimes for most of the school year,” said Julie Ahern (legal and policy manager at the Children’s Rights Alliance).
“In all of our cases in 2020, there was no plan in place about how to reintegrate the child back into a full school day and, in the vast majority of cases, children were only in school for an hour or two a day,” she added.
She described reduced timetables as one of the most serious human-rights issues impacting children, as it amounted to a restriction of their constitutional rights to access education.
“There is currently no formal system for recording reduced hours in the education system. Without this, we are concerned that the practice could be misused and impact the educational needs and rights of children at all ages, including as we have heard, very young children,” Ahern said.
The annual report also shows an 11% increase in queries from other non-governmental organisations and statutory bodies. The alliance says that this points to a gap in adequate legal resources for organisations working to protect and support children and young people.
Parents and guardians made up the majority of callers to the helpline (65%), while 5% of callers were children or young people.
As the first lockdown started in March 2020, there was also an increase in the number of queries about access visits between separated parents and their children.
Confusion on restrictions
The alliance says that parents were confused about the potential impact of the restrictions and lockdown, and whether access should remain the same.
The blanket ban placed on children entering shops at the early stages of the pandemic had a disproportionate impact on people parenting alone, and people whose partners were frontline workers, the report says.
As a result of the pandemic, the helpline service has now been extended to operate three days a week.
Tanya Ward (chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, pictured) said that some families did not know where to go to find the right support, and that the pandemic had made this even more difficult for them.
She called on the Government to “step up and step in, to help fight for the rights of children and help them have their voices heard”.
Partnership with Eversheds Sutherland
The Children’s Rights Alliance has also announced a new partnership with law firm Eversheds Sutherland that will lead to an increased number of free legal-advice clinics.
“We recognise, particularly as a result of lockdown, that there are significant challenges for children and young people and we want to use our privilege of legal expertise to assist some of the most vulnerable people in our society,” said Eversheds Sutherland partner Eoin Mac Aodha.
It is the first time that the firm has done pro bono work solely focused on children’s rights.