AA 'not in breach of law' on minors

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Carl O'Brien, Social Affairs Correspondent

GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS have moved to ease fears that the Alcoholics Anonymous organisation is in breach of child protection law by allowing under-18s to attend its meetings.

The AA says it received legal advice recently which concluded that its meetings were not suitable locations for teenagers on foot of child protection legislation and the Children First guidelines.

The organisation, which has 13,000 members across the State, says minors as young as 14 and 15 regularly turn up at meetings.

In correspondence with the Department of Health, officials from AA appealed for laws or guidelines to be relaxed to allow minors to be admitted.

“Alcoholics Anonymous groups throughout Ireland do not wish to turn these minors away. Surely some exception could be made for an organisation such as the AA,” it said. “Maybe there is a need to amend legislation, or for a special order to allow minors to attend meetings to be granted.”

Following a parliamentary question by Ennis-based Fine Gael TD Joe Carey, officials from the Department of Health met with the AA to discuss the issue and concluded they were not operating in breach of any law in this area.

The precise detail of the advice given by the department was not available yesterday, while the AA typically avoids commenting on issues in the public domain.

Much of the concern raised by those in AA centred on whether Garda vetting or training of staff was mandatory, according to informed sources.

However, the Children First guidelines on child protection are not on a statutory footing, while much Garda vetting outside of the formal childcare area takes place on a voluntary basis.

The AA’s concern over how best to accommodate young people comes at a time of rising concern over alcohol abuse by teenagers.

Recent research found that Irish teenagers aged 15 to 17 are the fifth highest drinkers out of 35 countries surveyed in Europe.

A report by the HSE last year found that chronic alcohol conditions had increased among young adults. The Alcohol-Related Harm in Ireland report by Dr Ann Hope for the HSE’s alcohol implementation group, also pointed out that treatment centres were recording many new cases, particularly of younger people who were being treated for problem alcohol use for the first time.

Heavy use of alcohol during teenage years can impair brain development and cause memory loss, according to health experts, while hospital consultants say they are seeing a dramatic increase in the number of liver damage cases among young people.

There are also significant risks for those who start drinking before age 15. They are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependency than those who wait until 21, seven times more likely to be in a car crash and 11 times more likely to suffer injuries.

© Irish Times

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