The proposed Bill, as the title indicates, is intended to amend the law relating to the protection of infants, and for that purpose to improve the provisions of Part I of the Children Act, 1908.
In this matter the Bill proposes to give effect to the recommendations of the Commission on the Relief of the Sick and Destitute Poor, including the Insane Poor. In their report, dated August, 1927, the Commission pointed out that the death rate amongst illegitimate children was five times as great as in other cases. While the provisions of Part I of the Act of 1908 to some extent brought baby farming under control, the Commission were of opinion that the Act did not go far enough, and as a protection to the children for whom the Act was intended the Commission recommended certain amendments.
The first important provision of the Bill is that relating to the supervision of local authorities. As the law stands at present, the Minister has no functions in relation to the administration of Part I of the Act, and he is unable to take any effective measures to ensure that local authorities exercise their powers. Clause II of the Bill will provide that in the administration of the law and the performance of their functions, the local authorities will be subject to the general regulation and control of the Minister, and in such administration and in relation to such functions they will be required to comply with all general directions given by the Minister.
The provisions in the Act of 1908 requiring a person undertaking for reward the nursing and maintenance of an infant apart from its parents, or having no parents, to notify the local authority within 48 hours of the reception of the infant, does not give the local authority any opportunity to inspect the home beforehand, to see if it is suitable, or if the proposed foster parent is fit and proper to take charge of the infant. If the home or the foster parent is unsuitable, the only remedy is to proceed under the Act to have the infant removed to a place of safety until it can be restored to its relatives or otherwise lawfully disposed of. There is a great likelihood that the child will then become a charge on the rates, and the persons who should be responsible for it will escape their liabilities.
The Bill proposes to remedy this defect by providing that the notice to the local authority must be given at least 48 hours before the reception of the infant. This notice should enable the local authority to satisfy themselves as to the suitability or otherwise of the home before the infant is actually placed in it.
The provisions of Part I of the Act of 1908 cease to operate when a child to whom it applies reaches the age of seven years. The protection of the local authority then ceases. It is generally agreed that this is too early an age to release the child from the care of the local authority. The Bill proposes to extend the age to nine years.
As regards the institution of proceedings for offences under Section 1 of the Act, it has been held in the courts that the time for taking proceedings expires at the end of a period of six months from the commission of the offence. This decision increases the difficulty of effectively administering the Act. The local authority may not become aware of the offence until after the expiration of the six months' period. If, for any reason, proceedings are not taken within that time, the offender escapes punishment. Under the Bill, failure to give the requisite notice to the local authority is to be made an offence continuing so long as the infant remains in the care of the person by whom notice should have been given.
It will be noticed that Part I of the Children Act, 1908, applies only where the nursing and maintenance of a child is undertaken for reward. It is sometimes difficult to prove that there was a reward in such cases, and if this is not proved, proceedings under Section 1 of the Principal Act fail, and the offenders escape the penalties provided for in the Act. To remedy this in the case of illegitimate children it is proposed to provide that an illegitimate child shall be deemed to have been accepted for reward until the contrary is proved.
Under the Act of 1908 the local authority is empowered to appoint visitors to visit infants to whom the Act applies and the premises in which they are kept. The Act also gives the local authority power to fix the number of infants who may be kept in any dwelling to which the Act applies. The Bill proposes to give them power to impose such conditions as they may think proper in regard to the keeping of all or any of such infants.
One reason to which the Poor Law Commission made specific reference was the intermediary who facilitates mothers in disposing of their children. Such persons often operate through the means of advertisements. The Bill will make it an offence to publish such advertisements unless the name and residence of the person undertaking or arranging for the nursing and maintenance of the infants are correctly stated in the advertisement.
Other proposed amendments which relate principally to improvements in the wording of the Act are intended to make provisions of the law more stringent and to enable local authorities more effectively to protect the health and interests of the children to whom the Act applies.
The reforms proposed are supported by a wide circle of social welfare workers and societies operating particularly in the neighbourhood of Dublin. Amongst the societies which have made representations to the Minister are the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Irish Women's Citizen's Association, the Catholic Protection and Rescue Society, the Nursing and Rescue and Protestant Children's Aid Society, Saint Patrick's Guild and the Sacred Heart Home. Poor law authorities have also pressed the Minister in the matter, notably the Rathdown Board, whose area seems to be particularly exposed to the evils which the Bill is intended to remedy. I beg to move:—"That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Question agreed to.
Bill read a Second Time.
Committee Stage fixed for Wednesday, 28th February.