Before Question Time I was questioning why the Minister had taken unto himself the power of exemption from the regulations in relation to the control of foster homes and private foster care. Section 12 (3) provides that:
The Minister may, if he so thinks fit, grant exemption from the provisions of this section to any class of person undertaking the care and maintenance of children or to any premises in which children receive care and maintenance and may withdraw any such exemption.
I would like to know why the Minister wants that power. He has been very specific in section 12 (2) about the nature of the regulations that will be made. What had he in mind when he decided that he would have this power to exempt any premises or any person involved in foster care? It is important that when a child is placed in foster care the foster parents be selected by somebody professionally qualified in child care and there is nothing in the Bill to indicate that this will be the case. Indeed, what the Minister said this morning about resources would cause concern that the health boards would not be in a position to appoint the type of staff necessary to ensure that the best care is made available to children. I agree with the Minister that no child should be in a children's home if a family setting is available for that child, therefore this section on foster care is important. When the Bill comes to be implemented that section must be appropriate to the needs of children so placed. It was disheartening to hear from the Minister that there are 70 children in children's homes who could have been placed in foster care had the parents given their consent.
I make a point that cannot be made too often, that prevention and good rehabilitation with good family support will ensure that more children will be able to remain in their homes. This is the ideal we should aim at, and it has been the experience in other countries. We welcome the provision for the regulations on children's homes. Again, the Minister has taken the power of exemption from the guidelines he has laid down for the regulations.
Regarding the regulations, the provisions of this Bill will not extend to various institutions listed by the Minister such as any school recognised or premises provided by the Minister for Education — that is fair enough — and a hospital or any institution within the meaning of the Health Acts 1947 to 1985 and the Mental Treatment Acts, 1945 to 1966. I question in this day and age whether children, particularly young children, should under any circumstances be admitted to psychiatric hospitals. I do not believe that the psychiatric hospitals have the appropriate accommodation or facilities for younger children particularly. Perhaps young persons aged between 15 and 17, while it would be better to have some more appropriate place for them, in the absence of another place perhaps could be treated, particularly if they are at risk to themselves, in the psychiatric hospital, but we should not have young children admitted to psychiatric hospitals even though they have to have the written consent of their parents and a letter from their family doctor.
Section 15 provides for regulations for the proper control and conduct of children's homes. Again this might be spelt out a little more in legislation as regards staffing numbers, qualifications and who will be in charge or working in those homes. What qualifications will they need? Will they be home parents, child care workers, persons with a diploma in child care? Admission will be through the health boards except in an emergency, and this is desirable. It is desirable that the homes would be small, that there would be fewer than 24 children in any of these homes in any given time. It would be desirable also that there be a sufficient number of homes to ensure that the children will not be placed too far away from their own homes and their parents who may wish to visit them. In this context at present we have not sufficient homes. Outside the Eastern Health Board area there are only 22 homesin toto in the country. Ideally one would hope that homes would not be necessary, but one would like to see a small home in each community care area so that it would be in close proximity to the parents if they wanted to visit their children. Some form of special home should be provided for children who need special care and attention.
Section 23 puts an obligation on the home to identify children and provide certain services such as advice, guidance service and facilities so as to diminish the need to receive such children into care or to keep them in care. This is one of only two sections in the Bill that goes any way towards prevention. This section is too vague. CARE in their document in 1975 identified the groups who are most at risk where problems might occur with unmarried mothers trying to look after their children on their own, fatherless families, families where the father is long term unemployed, where there are alcoholic problems in the family or where the mother is unable to cope and in the travelling community. They also made a point about the need for an adequate income in all homes, for education and recreational facilities for the proper assessment of handicap if there are children at risk, and for a social work service.
Section 23 is in Part III of the Bill which deals with children in need of care and protection. It refers specifically to children. It does not refer to young persons. I wonder were young persons excluded intentionally by the Minister. I see a case for including in the section and throughout the Bill young persons of 17 years of age as well as those under 15 years of age. Very often persons between 15 years and 17 years could be subject to some form of neglect or abuse, and it might be necessary for the health board to intervene. Persons up to 17 years of age should be included in the Bill.
There is a widening of the health board's authority to take persons into care. At present parents must be dead or destitute, or a child must be abandoned. Under the new proposals the health board can take a child into care while the mother is deciding on adoption, or where the parents are ill, or where there is marital breakdown, or a family crisis. They can take the child in for a short period.
We support the place of safety provisions. The health board have power to designate places of safety and they have power under section 26 (2) to cancel any such designation. Whom do they notify if they cancel a designation? Would they notify the Garda authorities who have fairly wide powers in relation to taking children into care in an emergency and having them placed in a designated home? Section 27 outlines the power the Garda have. If the health board were to cancel a designation, would they notify the Garda so that they would know the place was no longer designated?
Section 28 puts an obligation on the Garda to apply for a care order or supervision order within 72 hours of the child being brought into care in an emergency. I wonder is 72 hours too short a period. If a child were taken ill on a Friday evening, 72 hours might be too short a period to enable them to bring the child before the District Court. The district justice can grant a place of safety order for neglect, or assault, or where parents are unable to provide guardianship or are not providing proper guardianship, and for children who are sexually abused. That is an improvement on the 1908 Act.
There is no accurate information on how much sexual abuse of children and young persons there is in this country. We must address ourselves to that. The information from other countries is that it is quite prevalent. In the States each year 100,000 children are sexually abused, the majority of them by family members. Of those who got into trouble afterwards, in one survey by the Incest Crisis Link in the United Kingdom it was found that 90 per cent of rapists had been abused as children, 30 per cent of rape victims were abused as children and 40 per cent of alcoholics and drug addicts were abused as children. We must ensure that if this is happening in our community we can deal with it effectively and correctly.
Section 33 deals with care proceedings. I wonder whether young persons should be included together with children so that all those under 17 years of age would be protected by this Bill. There is an obligation on the health board to apply for a care order or a supervision order. Who will make that application and who will carry out the supervision? Will it be the authorised officer, or will it be somebody else in the health board? We welcome the new provisions for care proceedings and for supervision orders. In all legislation of this nature it is important to keep a balance. It is important that the health board personnel involved should keep a balance and ensure that, as far as possible, there will be the minimum interference and intervention with the family and that only where it is absolutely necessary will there be intervention to apply for a care or supervision order.
Section 42 is the other section which makes some gesture towards the prevention of abuse. It provides that a health board "shall, as far as practicable and subject to the provisions of this Act, promote the welfare of children in its area". That is vague. This Bill falls far short of providing proper legislation for prevention which is most important in order to ensure that the smallest possible number of children will need care through the health board.
Section 49 provides for the removal of a child from voluntary care. This is another area which must be carefully looked at because there could be a conflict between the rights of the parents, the rights of the foster parents and the welfare of the child. I was glad to hear the Minister stating on a number of occasions that the welfare of the child will be paramount. We must examine this section carefully on Committee Stage. Is the section in conflict with Part III of the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1964, which provides for enforcement of the right of custody?
Reference is made in section 53 (5) to the Family Law (Maintenance of Spouses and Children) Act, 1976, but it is not clear if that Act will be used or some alternative with similar powers to that Act. Section 56 gives health boards power to work in conjuction with voluntary organisations and to have voluntary organisations carry out services on their behalf. One of the major criticisms I have of the Bill is that it does not lay down fairly and squarely the role of the voluntary organisations in the provision of services. We are very proud of having a large number of voluntary organisations engaged in all areas of social activity. We have many great organisations in the area of child care, such as the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the CARE organisation, Barnardos and many others, who are doing excellent work. The section states:
A health board may, in accordance with such conditions (which may include provision for superannuation) as may be specified by the Minister, make and carry out an arrangement with a person or body to provide services under this Act.
It does not put any obligation on the health board to work in conjunction with these bodies and organisations even where they are providing a very excellent service at the moment.
The task force were very specific in relation to the role of the voluntary organisations and it is disappointing that something positive does not appear in the Bill to ensure that the voluntary organisations who are doing such excellent work are not allowed to continue to do so. They should have some form of statutory authority and the health boards should be obliged to involve these voluntary organisations in such work. The task force report said that the child care authority, who in this case would be the health board, should not use professionally trained workers in aspects of the work which can be performed as well or better by people in local communities, associations or other voluntary workers if such resources exist or can be developed. They list the various areas where voluntary involvement is available at the moment, such as youth services, home help services, pre-schools, play groups, day nurseries and, to a lesser extent, work with mentally handicapped children.
The task force recommended a new form of home help service where the home help would be trained specifically in the care of children as distinct from the position at the moment where they mainly work with the aged and infirm. The task force also suggested that the child care authority should not be directly involved in those associations but, where necessary, the child care authority might assist financially or otherwise voluntary groups who organise play groups. The task force also referred to the provision of youth services, which are mainly provided by voluntary effort and centre around structural activities through clubs and centres. The task force felt that this kind of activity attracted children who are amenable to structures but that it failed to deal with children who are most in need of help who are usually not amenable to organised activities. It is important that there is a proper development of services and that it is acknowledged that there is proper support for the voluntary organisations who are making a valuable contribution to the care of children.
Section 57 makes provision for setting up child care advisory committees by each health board. There is an obligation on health boards to set up such committees. The section states that the child care advisory committee may include persons not members of the health board. It is disappointing that the section does not specify certain people who should be, as of right, on the child care advisory committees. The directory of community care, social welfare workers and representatives of the voluntary organisations providing services in the community should, as of right, be members of the child care advisory committees. This is left entirely to the discretion of the health boards in section 57. While I believe most health boards would ensure that there is proper composition in the child care advisory committees, there is always the danger that this might not happen and we could find a child care advisory committee where there would not be any representative working in the area of child care. It should be written into the Bill to ensure that there are people who are involved in the provision of child care services on the child care advisory committees who will have an important role to play in the provision of services.
Many of the voluntary organisations are concerned about their position when the Bill is enacted. A good case can be made for having a legal obligation on the health boards to accept the services provided by many of the voluntary organisations but also to enter into a contract with them for three years or perhaps five years so that the voluntary associations will be able to provide for their staff and they will know they will be retained for a certain period.
Part V of the Bill provides for custody orders. As the Minister pointed out, the welfare of the child will be paramount. That is important because in other areas there could be conflict between the rights of parents, the needs of foster parents and foster parents' rights. Foster parents, with the parents' consent, can apply for a custody order after one year and the health boards are obliged to give their consent after three years under section 64 (1) (b). If the consent of the parents of the child is not forthcoming after three years, the foster parents can apply to the district justice for a custody order and the health board's consent is not necessary.
Section 66 (4) gives the health boards the right to be heard. I believe they should be directly involved in the case where after three years foster parents can make an application for a custody order, just as their consent is necessary, with the parents' consent, when a couple are applying for a custody order after one year. It is important, in the interests of the child, that there should be health board consent. Section 64 (4) reads that:
A court shall not hear an application for a custody order unless the applicant has given notice of the application within 14 days of the making of the application or such extended period as the court may allow....
I am wondering whether that period is too short particularly in view of the fact that the parent of the child may not be available at that short notice.
Perhaps what is most extraordinary about the Minister's speech is that in dealing with Part VI of the Bill which relates to court procedures and evidence, he devoted fewer than three lines to that entire Part. He said that Part VI provides for various technical measures concerned with the conduct of court proceedings involving children, rules of evidence and so on. Anybody who has read the Bill is greatly disappointed that the court procedures are to be within the District Court system. I am sure the Minister will agree, as all authorities in this area agree, with the need for a proper family court system and with cases involving children not being heard in the present District Court system. The District Court has not the environment, the resources or the support services necessary for dealing with such cases. There should be one district justice initially with special training to hear cases involving children. The task force recommended that such a district justice would have available to him the services of two assessors and that he should be encouraged and facilitated to acquire the knowledge and training necessary for dealing with problems involving children. The recommendation of the task force was that a justice of the children's court should sit with two assessors if he considered that such assessors would be helpful to the proceedings. The task force recommended also that the proceedings be heldin camera and be informal. There were recommendations also about the physical conditions that should obtain in a children's court. The section in the Bill in that regard is very disappointing. It is fundamental that we have a proper procedure for dealing with cases involving children but there is nothing worth while in the Bill in that regard. The Minister may say there will be something on those lines in the third Bill which will be dealing with juvenile justice but that is not sufficient. A great opportunity is missed on this occasion to introduce a very necessary provision, namely, provision for a proper children's court system.
The whole question of the assessment of children and young persons who find themselves in trouble with the law is worthy of serious study especially at a time when serious crimes are being committed by young people and when there are not available the facilities necessary to assess those involved to identify those who need care and those who should be brought before the courts. In the past there may have been a tendency to have more sympathy with the perpetrator than with the victim of crime but it is important to have a balance in this area and to help children who can be helped without the necessity for court proceedings and thereby without prison sentences being imposed. There is a proper system of assessment but it is inadequate to deal with the numbers involved.
On the question of the role of parents whose children engage in criminal activity, some suggest that the responsibility should rest with these parents. While agreeing that parents have a responsibility to ensure that their children are kept out of criminal activity, there are many very good parents who are perplexed on finding that their children are involved in serious crime. It would be wrong that such parents should be charged with any offence committed by their children.
Section 79 provides for a prohibition on the publication or broadcasting of certain matters. One may ask whether that section goes far enough. While it will prohibit the publication of the names of the people involved, it may lead to sensational reporting in some instances and that might not be in the public interest.
The Minister dealt at length with section 83 which deals with the control and sale of solvent substances. We agree with that section because we must ensure that these substances are not available in cases in which they might be misused by a young person.
Another opportunity that was missed in this Bill regards the failure to do something about under-age drinking. There are sections in the 1908 Act that deal with the sale of intoxicating liquor to under-age persons and which deal also with the presence of young people on licensed premises. On this occasion we should have availed of the opportunity of amending the Act so that we might deal with what is a very serious problem. The Minister referred this week to the drinking of cider, so he is very much aware of the problem.
The 1908 legislation should be extended also to the sale of tobacco and tobacco products to young persons. While sections 39 to 45 of the 1908 Act provide for some control regarding the sale of cigarettes, there was no such provision in relation to the sale of tobacco.
We welcome, too, section 86 which provides for the placing of an obligation on the Garda to notify a health board in certain specified cases of crime involving children. This is in the interest of the children concerned and one can only hope that it will have the result of preventing children who have become engaged in crime from committing further crime.
The Minister referred also to the cost of implementing those measures. It is obvious from what he said and also from what we know of this Government, that they have no intention of allocating extra resources to the health boards for the provision of the services that will be necessary in respect of the implementation of this legislation. The Minister might have been expected to make a special allocation to each health board but I recognise that the policy of the Government is to provide services, expanded services and new services out of a reduced allocation. Obviously this also applies to the child care services and will cause major problems in growth areas such as Tallaght which has a population of 70,000 people. If money is not allocated to the Eastern Health Board to provide services for these people they will be seriously deprived. In new towns where people have moved away from their families it is essential to provide proper child care services. In his speech the Minister said:
I would remind the House that the national planBuilding on Reality makes it clear that within the health services the aim will be to bring about a redistribution of resources away from institutionalised services towards community services, particularly those for disadvantaged groups. If we are successful in this aim — and I am making every effort to ensure that we shall be — then I would expect to see gradual but worthwhile developments in our family support services over the next few years. Furthermore the area of the child and the family will be one of my first priorities in relation to any additional funds that may become available.
In other words, if the Minister can save money elsewhere then there will be a gradual introduction of the services necessary for child care. The Government know that there cannot be a saving because every health board has a serious deficit at present. This year the Government transferred responsibility for the general medical service to the health boards. Formerly they were financed from the Exchequer through the payments board. The health boards are in a serious dilemma at present because of an overrun on the cost of the general medical service.
If there is any redistribution it will be absorbed by existing services. As we know, the dental service, the optical service and other services have been practically abolished. The Minister has committed himself to improved services for the care of the aged in the community. Yet he says that if he is successful he would expect to see gradual but worthwhile developments in the family support services over the next few years and that the area of the child and the family will be one of his top priorities. How many different groups has he told that their group will be his top priority since coming to office? It must be asked if the Government are serious about providing the resources necessary to implement what is in the Bill.
A leading article in theIrish Press of 8 May 1985 gave a widely held view of this legislation and stated:
The Children (Care and Protection) Bill is a sorry thing. For nearly 80 years now we have been making the best of the Children Act 1908 in looking after our deprived children. It is over 15 years since the Kennedy Report on Reformatory and Industrial Schools was published, and the whole debate began on child deprivation and the responsibility of the State.
In that 15 years, voluntary bodies, such as CARE and the ISPCC have jolted public opinion and harried the politicians. Governments have made promises, and none more than the present Government. At the end of it all, what we get is a Bill about rescuing children when they are already damaged, a Bill about closing the stable doors too late.
Two things have been taken for granted by those concerned about deprived children. The first is that the main responsibility for looking after children must remain with their own families. In modern conditions, many families will, of course, need support and encouragement from the social services if they are to do the job we expect them to do.
The second thing is that Public Authorities providing social services will only do what comes easy to them or what they are obliged to do by law.
The emphasis in the Bill should, then, have been on family support and on providing an administrative framework to ensure that families who need support will be supported. The Constitution, with its emphasis on the family, demands nothing less; the Government, with its much vaunted commitment to social reform should have offered that at least.
As the seven major child-care organisations have pointed out, this is a policing Bill. If children are neglected or abused, it offers public care after a hearing in a District Court. The District Courts, as we know them, inexpert and over-stretched, are indeed a crude instrument of child care.
The Bill proposes a whole range of court orders to be preceded by social workers' reports, and followed at regular intervals by reviews. The energy of the social workers and the resources of the Health Boards will be spent entirely on the extreme cases and there will be nothing left for supporting families not yet at the brink.
In the coming months, the politicians and the public will be caught up in a debate about what should be done when families break down. When the Government is asked what it proposes to do for families before they break down, for deprived children who are not yet abused or neglected, the Children (Care and Protection) Bill will be no answer.
The majority of the task force believe that many of the services at present under other Departments should be transferred to the Department of Health and that the Department should be the main one dealing with the care and protection of children and young persons. It is disappointing that there is no reference to a transfer of services; for example, special schools are still under the aegis of the Department of Education. Some of these cater for children who are seriously deprived both socially and emotionally. They should be the responsibility of the Department of Health. While there is an educational element in them and that is very important, the same is true of residential institutions for the care of the mentally handicapped. These are under the aegis of the Department of Health and provide education for those resident in them. Some youth services could be transferred to the Department to ensure that they are available to those who are deprived in society. The majority of the task force recommended that the duties of school attendance officers should be carried out through the health boards or the child care authority. Outside of the boroughs, the Act is enforced by the Garda. Young children who miss school on a regular basis are in need of some kind of health care assessment and could be children at risk. Assessment and remand units might be placed under the Department of Health.
It is disappointing that there was no reference in the Bill to the setting up of a national children's council such as was recommended by a number of bodies. Perhaps it is not necessary to have it included in law but it is something that has been strongly recommended and the task force went so far as to suggest that it should have been set up immediately in advance of any legislation. It would have had an advisory, monitoring and promotional function in relation to child care. It is disappointing that there is no indication from the Minister that he intends to set up such a council. The Constitution provides for the protection of children in Article 42 which states:
In exceptional cases, where the parents for physical or moral reasons fail in their duty towards their children, the State as guardian of the common good, by appropriate means shall endeavour to supply the place of the parents, but always with due regard for the natural and imprescriptible rights of the child.
The Bill, in so far as it goes, is in keeping with that Article.
While we support the much needed improvements in the Bill, we are disappointed that the Government, who set themselves up as a Government of social reform, have wasted an opportunity to bring in legislation which would have ensured the highest level of prevention services and comprehensive provisions for the care and protection of children, especially those at risk.