Children’s Day. A brief balance of the Ombudsman’s recent activity
The commemoration of Children’s Day, this 1st June, provides an opportunity for the Ombudsman to present the community with a balance, albeit very brief, of the activity that has been developed in relation to the protection and defense of the rights of the youngest.
Since 1993, the Provedoria’s services have made available a telephone line especially dedicated to issues related to the youngest members of society – the Children’s Line – where it is possible to highlight the following issues as the main reasons for seeking support
Exercise of parental responsibilities. This is the most frequently asked topic, justifying more than a fifth (21.5%) of the total calls received. Most often, the issues at stake are problems related to non-compliance with the parental responsibility regulation agreement. The regime of visits and vacations, the payment of the agreed amounts of alimony, the impediments to contact between the children and one of the parents, and also conflicts between the parents are the specific issues most frequently raised.
Mistreatment and negligence. The situations reported occur mostly within the family, with one of the parents or in their presence. These cases are also almost always related to family conflicts, usually in the context of separation and/or divorce. Outside the family, it is members of the community/neighbors who contact the Children’s Line to report situations of lack of hygiene, frequent crying or suspicion of exposure to risky behavior.
Education and school problems. The questions asked under this topic are very varied, namely related to situations of absenteeism, failing grades, equipment, aggression, among others.
Health care and social benefits. Most of the calls are related to difficulties in accessing consultations or the late or even lack of response from the competent entities, and are therefore often forwarded to the presentation of a complaint to the Ombudsman.
These main themes explain about 65% of the total number of calls. The performance of the Children’s Hotline is done, as a rule, providing information and directing the complainants to the reference entities with competence to act in the concrete case. Over these 29 years, the Children’s Line has received on average about 800 calls per year, although this number has been decreasing significantly in the most recent period, possibly due to the appearance of numerous other lines. This is the case of the lines of the 310 Commissions for the Protection of Children and Youth, the Children in Danger Line (from the National Commission for the Promotion of the Rights and Protection of Children and Youth, created in 2020), the SOS Children Line (from the Child Support Institute) and the lines of the Portuguese Association for Victim Support (APAV), among others. On the other hand, the operation of the first-line entities in matters of childhood and youth will also be relevant, namely schools, health and social security services, non-governmental organizations and IPSS, which are increasingly prepared and attentive to the detection and signaling of cases of children and youth whose safety, health, training, education or development are in danger. Finally, the increasing preference given to the use of social networks, even for contacts with State services, will not be irrelevant.
In terms of the Ombudsman’s activity as an interlocutor between the people and the legislator and public administration bodies that apply the laws, special attention has recently been given to education in times of pandemic and the mental health of children and young people. We now know in greater depth the consequences that confinement measures, the cessation of classes, and social distancing – even though necessary – have had on educational trajectories and on the physical and emotional well-being of children. It is therefore important to act to prevent risks and overcome – or at least mitigate – the effects of this reality. For this reason, the Ombudsman has included education among the three themes addressed by the Pandemic Notebooks and has been, in parallel, drawing attention to the need for greater attention and investment in monitoring the mental health of young people, particularly when they are subject to detention measures.
The Ombudsman has also addressed the problem of delays in attribution of family allowance which, cumulatively, may compromise access to other social support measures aimed at needy families, in particular School Social Action or attribution of scholarships.
Finally, it should be noted that it is important to safeguard the health of foreign children and young people who are staying illegally in the country. Although they benefit from their own legal status which allows them to access the National Health Service in the same conditions as nationals, there are sometimes situations that reveal ignorance of the rules and consequent constraints in the access of these children and young people to primary health care, which has led to the Ombudsman’s interventions in health centers in order to ensure the full protection of children’s health in this area.