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  • The "Public Child" and the Reluctant State?
  • Robbie Gilligan (bio)

This essay explores the Irish state's response to the "public child." It assesses the available evidence and argues ultimately that the Irish state has been reluctant at best, negligent at worst, in its response to the needs of the "public child." The term "public child," as used here, refers to a child whose private world has in some sense become public business, attracting attention because concern has been aroused about his or her care or safety.1 The nature of this concern eventually leads the apparatus of state control, governmental or nongovernmental, to intervene, often placing the child in the care of the state, away from its home and the care of its parents.2 In earlier decades, this apparatus of control might have operated in civil society at least partly through the work of nongovernmental organizations, [End Page 265] such as the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) or through the efforts of concerned citizens.3 In recent decades, this apparatus has become more the remit of state systems, such as statutory child protection, social work services, or the Garda Síochána.4 Thus, the state has become increasingly involved not just in regulating the basis of intervention at the more serious end of the spectrum of child protection but also very often in delivering that intervention. The "public child" in the context of this discussion lives away from home, on foot of state intervention with or without parental consent.5

This essay also considers evidence on the experience of the "private child" and the "adopted child" to throw further light on the fate of the "public child." The "private child" lives within its family structure of whatever form, largely untouched by troubles that might bring him or her onto the radar screen of state surveillance systems. The "adopted child" is raised in its adoptive family home following an adoption order in accordance with state legislation. Legal adoption came late to the Republic of Ireland, only having been introduced as recently as 1952.6 In at least some instances, it [End Page 266] might be argued that domestic adoption serves the function, among others, of transforming a "public child" or a potential "public child" into a "private child."7 Unlike the private or adopted child, the public child's marginal status meant that it lacked sufficient advocacy on its behalf in the political or policy world.

In terms of time frame, this essay focuses on the period since the publication of the Reformatory and Industrial Schools Systems Report, 1970—hereafter referred to by its more popular name, the Kennedy Report—although reference will be made to earlier developments where these help to explain later trends.8

The second part of the essay's title refers to the "reluctant state." Even a minimalist understanding of the state's role in comparative social welfare suggests three key areas of responsibility for child protective services: the enacting of legislation, the funding of activity to at least some basic level, and the monitoring of compliance with legal standards or funding conditions. Using evidence from these three areas of activity, this essay argues that the Irish state can indeed be classified as "reluctant" in its dealings with the "public child." The role of the state in relation to the "public child" will, moreover, be explored through four relevant lenses: residential care, foster care, adoption, and community supports, namely measures that might preempt the need to make care of the child a public responsibility.9 [End Page 267]

Residential Care

Given the plethora of media attention since the mid-1990s to child abuse scandals involving the state's industrial and reformatory schools, in the public mind residential care is probably the form of provision most associated with the "public child." Residential care refers to care provided in institutional or nonfamilial settings, such as in industrial schools, reformatory institutions, or orphanages.10 Prior to 1970, these settings were generally large and forbidding institutions, but with subsequent reform, now tend to be smaller in scale.11 Reflecting the spirit and the recommendations of the Kennedy Report, these newer settings are more...


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