Supplementary Estimates, 1988. - Child Care Bill, 1988: Second Stage (Resumed).

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time".

I welcome the Bill as important and necessary legislation which faces up realistically to the fact that there are children in our society who are threatened, abused and deprived and who need special attention and support from the State at the medical, judicial and social level if they are not to be irreparably damaged.

We know the problems facing us as legislators and a previous Bill on the subject foundered under the plethora of amendments piled on to it. This Bill does not have all the answers as no law can provide for all eventualities but we must try, and this Bill is a good attempt. After the passage of 80 years — since the 1908 Act — this Bill has much ground to make up. As the Minister said, there have been many changes in society affecting the lives of our children and many developments in our knowledge and thinking about what is good and appropriate in the care of our young.

As the only professional social worker in the House, I am glad of this opportunity to express my views on the proposals before us. While I welcome the Bill, there are a number of gaps in it. I will be seeking clarification from the Minister on several points and seeking assurances in relation to certain matters, some of which are dealt with in the Bill and others, surprisingly, which are not included.

The very important word in the title of the Bill is the word "care". The provisions outlined are an attempt to provide for children who are not receiving suitable care in their present circumstances. In this context, I welcome the provisions in the Bill with regard to the statutory duty on health boards to promote the welfare of children who are not receiving adequate care and protection. I also welcome the provision for investigation and supervision of the pre-school playgroups, nurseries and other services for pre-school children.

I agree with the Minister that a good home is the best place for children to be reared but, sadly, this is not always the case and cannot always be provided. In framing the laws to cater for emergencies which inevitably arise, we must never lose sight of the fact that a home atmosphere is to be preferred and that a home with a child's natural parents is the ideal at which we must aim. In this regard the Bill has some serious flaws. In particular, I seek clarification from the Minister regarding the various types of orders proposed in the Bill with special reference to who will be involved in the making of recommendations on which such orders may be based. What training will they have? What funds will be provided for such training and for the necessary extension of facilities and resources implied in the provisions of the Bill?

I should also like to hear the Minister's views on the establishment of a family court, separate from the existing District Court system, to deal with the whole area of children and their relationship with the laws of the land. The adversarial quality of the present court system is not the best environment in which the needs of the children are promoted. In such an atmosphere, the child may be seen to be the object of the law rather than the subject of the rights which should be adequately protected and sensitively administered.

There is a strong fund of professional opinon and empirical investigation, as well as my own personal experience in the field, which will substantiate and buttress this point of view. I can appreciate that the provision of such a family court would require extensive preparation and consultation. Perhaps the Minister has decided that such a complex addition to existing court structures would unduly delay the introduction of the Bill. There is also, of course, the consideration of the cost of such a move, especially in the present climate of re-evaluation of State expenditure. However, it is always economic to do what is right. Whatever the considerations, the Minister should reveal his thinking in relation to the family court. It might be possible for him to reassure the House that such a development is receiving consideration or that he would not be adverse to the introduction of a family court in future.

The expansion of services for sexually abused children at Temple Street and Crumlin Children's hospitals is to be welcomed along with the provision of £450,000 by the Minister from the national lottery funds for the assessment and investigation by health boards outside Dublin of child sexual abuse. Such moves, as the Minister is aware, are only tokens in the direction of the wholesale revision of services needed in the child care area. In his introductory statement, the Minister touched on several areas in which services are to be provided or new services introduced to increase the level of child care and family support. He did not say exactly how these improvements will be provided or funded or where the greatly increased resources and facilities that are necessary will be found. I refer in particular to the announcement that health boards will have a statutory duty to promote the welfare of children who are not receiving adequate care and protection and that health boards will have expanded powers to provide child care and family support services.

The Minister said that there are important provisions in the Bill imposing a clear obligation on health boards to promote children's welfare. He said he was confident that imaginative use of the power by health boards and professional staff will result in the development and expansion of community based facilities for children and families. This may include, he said, more intensive social work support for families at risk, new counselling and advice services, pre-school services, home help and homemaker services, child guidance, day fostering, family resource centres and special projects for groups at risk, such as the young, the homeless and others. All these matters will require trained staff and plenty of them. They will also require additional facilities and resources from health boards which are already under extreme pressure to curtail services, close down facilities, restrict the use of resources and even lay off staff.

The aims enunciated by the Minister are praiseworthy and would undoubtedly result in improvements in child care and family support but without commitment to the provision of funds for personnel and resources the plans are no more than daydreams. I look forward to hearing from the Minister, in his reply to the debate, the details of what additional support will be provided to the health boards to enable them to fulfil their laudable new role.

The Bill imposes a new statutory duty on health boards to initiate care proceedings wherever these are necessary. It imposes a requirement on health boards to make regular visits to the homes of children who are the subject of supervision orders and to provide advice and assistance for their parents. It enables health boards to provide aftercare support and assistance to those who were previously in care. The Bill empowers health boards to provide pre-school services and to make available information about such services. It also imposes additional responsibility on health boards in relation to the administration of existing residential centres for children. These are excellent developments but they are costly and in most cases will require highly trained staff and additional back-up facilities in the health board system. I look forward to the Minister's reply to such matters.

Assuming that the necessary funding can and will be provided, I welcome very much the thrust of the Bill. The introduction of the emergency care orders is a move which faces up to the realities of child abuse and neglect of children. The anticipatory element to be built into the care orders is a progressive step in the proposals before us. To anticipate a problem can often minimise it or avoid it altogether. I have no doubt that the use of these provisions by well-trained and caring personnel will prevent many children from becoming the victims of assault or neglect. The introduction of the supervision orders will also act to prevent more serious harm coming to children while, at the same time, avoiding the trauma of separation from the family. This is in line with most of the enlightened thinking and research in the area of child care and reveals the Minister's concern to maintain family integrity if at all possible while, at the same time, promoting the welfare of the child.

An important aspect of the Bill has been the extension of the legal definition of a child to cover all persons under the age of 18 years. This is a very simple but a very long overdue solution to a major flaw in existing legislation. The Minister has recognised the fact that many young people between the ages of 16 and 18 years have in the past found themselves in a very difficult, almost limbo-like, position, without accommodation, without a job and without any source of income and, therefore, totally vulnerable to many of the adverse influences in our society.

I would recommend to the Minister that he should consider the establishment of centres for people in the 16 to 18-year old age group, similar to those which I was professionally associated with in Scotland. In those centres young people would receive advice and guidance from trained house parents, which would prepare them socially and practically to take their place in society. Having worked with that teenage group, I think it is very important that they be given a good preparatory start to life. They would learn from their house parents and, with some independence away from the care of such people, would always be able to come back to the house parent to discuss any problems that might arise in relation to finding a job or the day-to-day problems of growing up. I recommend that the Minister consider this matter in relation to the Bill.

I support the Bill and its aims and also the range of developments and extensions that are being proposed for the child care services. The Minister has shown deep concern for the deprived and the endangered children in our society. We have waited a long time — since 1908 — for this Bill. When I started college we studied the 1908 Act and when I finished college we were still studying it. Many people are looking forward to the passage of this Bill. I look forward to hearing from the Minister the details of his excellent plans which have been brought before us. I hope they can be brought to fruition.

This Bill is not a new Bill in so far as the previous Government presented the Children (Care and Protection) Bill in 1985. There was an extensive Second Stage debate on that Bill and the House is again debating this subject. Since then I have been appointed Fine Gael spokesman on health and I will be dealing with this Bill on all Stages, along with my colleague, Deputy Alan Shatter, who as a family lawyer is renowned for his expertise in this area. Before I deal with the meat of the Bill I would like to compliment Deputy Mary Coughlan for her first-hand knowledge of this matter. She is right in criticising the lack of resources at health board level and the lack of planning by this Government in dealing with the child care problems that exist.

Fine Gael welcome this Child Care Bill in principle. However, we will be seeking on Committee Stage to remedy a number of serious deficiencies and inadequacies in the Bill by way of amendments. Specifically throughout this debate we will be seeking to ensure that the following four objectives are adhered to: first, that this Bill sets out a clear set of rights for children, with their welfare as the paramount concern; secondly, an updating of the law to allow the child care authorities to intervene effectively by way of proper back-up support to families in need, adequate supervision for children at risk or the provision of sufficient alternative care, be it foster care or residential care; thirdly, we will be seeking from the Government a commitment of resources to ensure a uniform, standard, minimum level of child care services across the country and, fourthly, as it is 80 years since the last child care legislation was introduced we will be proposing the establishment of an independent national children's council to monitor the legal framework and State services for children on a national basis. In order that this House will be asked to intervene more than once every 80 years, we will be putting forward an amendment, which I will deal with later in some detail, to establish a national children's council which will have an independent monitoring and review role in relation to child care services.

Within these overall objectives we seek a number of specific changes which will set out a more comprehensive legal framework to meet the growing needs of our children. Fine Gael fundamentally believe we have an obligation to speak up for those children whose voices cannot be heard. We believe fundamentally that investment in children is a sound investment in the future.

In terms of protecting the rights of children I am concerned first about the constitutional and legal position where there is a conflict between the rights of welfare of children and parental rights to custody. Articles 41 and 42 of the Constitution confer on parents "inalienable and imprescriptible rights" and similar rights with regard to the education of their children. Article 42 also confers similar rights on children. However, these latter rights seem less important and less qualified for constitutional protection than the rights of parents in the context of a married couple. I am referring specifically to the Supreme Court decision in March 1985 in the case of MC and MC and KC and ACv An Bord Uchtála. The unanimous five judge verdict stated: “The State cannot supplant the role of parents in providing for the infant the rights to be educated conferred on it by Article 42.....”. Effectively this Supreme Court judgment showed that the court could not constitutionally decide the issue of a custody contest solely on the basis of what course of action is in the best interests of the child's welfare. If one interprets this judgment it seems that it is not constitutionally permissible, especially for legitimate children — that is children within wedlock — to regard the childrens' welfare as the paramount consideration, which in our view is the reasonable objective.

In a further case of the Supreme Court on 22 June 1977, J.v D., it seems the rights of children are subservient to the inalienable and imprescriptible and paramount rights of the parents. I understand there have been at least two cases of potential constitutional proceedings against the existing 1908 Children Act and that those cases were not heard for fear among the child care authorities of the Act being found to be unconstitutional or constitutionally infirm, with the cases subsequently being settled by agreement. Therefore, we have this cloud of a constitutional question arising over this Bill, the 1908 Act and the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1964. This must be resolved.

As a first step in clarifying and establishing unambiguous rights for children as to their welfare being the most important issue in any conflict, we should insert — as Fine Gael will seek in the course of this debate to insert — into the Bill a premable declaring the rights of children. I would propose that we insert a section which would set out these rights using the international criteria set out in the UN Charter for Children in 1979. Unfortunately, in no law nor in any part of the Constitution is there any such declaration of children's rights to date.

Not being a lawyer myself, I cannot state with certainty the constitutionality of this Bill. However, to clear up any doubts, I would favour this Bill being referred by the President under Article 26 of the Constitution to test its constitutionality. It is vital that this legal issue be clarified in view of the ineffectiveness and questions as to the effectiveness as regards section 3 of the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1964 in the light of the Supreme Court cases I have referred to. Personally I would not be opposed to a constitutional referendum and amendment which stated expressly that all children have equal rights under the Constitution and that in the context of the rights of children where a conflict arises with parental rights the paramount and first interest should be the welfare of the child.

In referring to the Guardianship of Infants Act, 1964 I would also favour, in cases where there are disputes of custody between parents, the judge should be given power not only to award the child to one parent or another but should be allowed to put the child into care under the care proceedings of this Bill. I also believe additional powers are required to be given to the court in such a case under the Act in monitoring the child's care and powers to make some parents co-operate where necessary.

A serious aspect of concern I have in relation to the operations of this legislation relates to the role of the District Courts. The last speaker, Deputy Coughlan, referred very articulately to this. It is obvious that the District Courts is not suitable and is inadequate in a number of respects to deal with this legislation. These cases are by their nature very sensitive and complex. District Court justices to be eligible have a background of a minimum requirement of ten year's practice as a solicitor. With due respect to them, I feel they lack the relevant qualifications and specialist training for child hearings. It is vital, perhaps on a pilot basis initially that a family or children's court hear the cases intended under this legislation. Such a court should also include the right where necessary for the child's own legal representation to be attached to the court. Other countries have clearly established what is called a children's advocate whereby in difficult cases the child, as well as the parents and the health board, can be separately and individually represented. Hearings in such a family or children's court should be as informal as possible with the court having certain powers in determining certain cases. By this I mean access to the maximum amount of information such as medical examinations, psychologists' reports and so on, and that the power would be given to the justice to commission such information. Child welfare services could and should be linked to these courts. For example, I note that in Australia in 1975 there was passed a family law Act establishing such different courts there.

The nature of the District Courts is that you have a wide variety of different types of criminal cases and long waiting lists and the whole environment is very intimidating and unsuited to the hearing of these types of delicate cases.

I should like the Minister for Health or his Minister of State to clarify or resolve or state a commitment to rectify a number of points between now and Committee Stage in order to deal with this Bill expeditiously and satisfactorily. Perhaps some of them are already dealt with in the 64 sections of this Bill and, if so, Fine Gael will only be too happy to support them. These points include: first, a level of immunity should be given to general practitioners, public health nurses and other relevant health service personnel and bona fide members of the community who report to the child care authorities cases of feared abuse of children. I am talking about a third party here referring to the health board or the child care authority their possible concern about abuse or neglect in a family situation. As I understand it, in the present law there is a scope for civil suits of defamation against well meaning third parties in bringing concerns to the relevant authorities. Obviously, this immunity would have to be balanced to ensure that the reports were of bona fide concern and not of a malicious intent. This, I think, is one of the weaknesses of the Bill. Such limited immunity should be conferred on such people so that we have a community response to child care problems.

Secondly, it should be mandatory that all cases of suspected neglect or abuse of children be reported and recorded by the child care authorities. I understand there is no such provision in the present legislation. This legislation gives the health boards the powers of operating our child care services. I am not opposed to this in terms of the present health structures under the 1970 Act as they are the obvious channel of authority. However, in certain instances where there may be gaps in the boards' personnel or resources to meet child care needs, this legislation should allow, subject to ministerial approval, a voluntary agency to provide child care services on a contract basis. This would not only fill gaps where they arise but would give perhaps better value for money. In this regard I am concerned with the narrow focus of sections 3, 4 and 14 of the Bill. Such a contract of service to a voluntary organisation concept could be a valuable blueprint for child care services nationally. It could also be part of an overall uniform national code of practice for each health board to follow in providing services.

The powers in the Bill conferred on gardaí in taking children to places of safety should be extended so that those powers would also be available in a substitutional way to health board personnel. I do not think it appropriate in relation to orders for places of safety and so on that gardaí exclusively should be dealing with this matter. I envisage in terms of substitution that social workers and other staff where appropriate would substitute for gardaí. I also believe the present role and structure of school attendance officers should be altered to include them in local community care teams dealing with children. They should be renamed school welfare officers and brought under the direct responsibility of the health services.

This legislation seems to respond to children at risk by way of powers to remove children, where necessary, from the family environment. In a number of cases it may be more appropriate to legislate in such a way as to remove the offending adult from the family environment rather than the child. This could be done by extending barring orders as one method. I would favour a clear provision in this Bill and powers in this legislation to facilitate such a response by the authorities where they consider it appropriate. It is not clear from this legislation what the precise protocol of the intervention process will be. This needs to be clarified either in the relevant section of the Bill or by subsequent ministerial regulation. In this regard the rights of parents also need to be clarified so that they have access to any reports prepared against them. They have a right to know what they are accused of and this is not stated in the Bill. Similarly, the question of parental consent or lack of it is not clarified satisfactorily.

In relation to supervision orders it is not defined how often a social worker should visit a family — once a week, once a day or once a month. A 12 month period for a supervision order seems to me to be somewhat too short. Moreover, in relation to the extension of supervision orders, we need to lay down clear criteria to avoid some of the problems that have arisen in relation to the extension of barring orders. There is no doubt that different district justices take different interpretations in relation to the renewal of such orders. One can have a situation whereby if an adult is absent from the family environment one judge could decide that because the problem was not happening over the last year, sexual abuse to a child or whatever it might be, there was no need to renew the order by virtue of the fact that the reason for creating it no longer existed. In those terms the justice would be quite right in interpreting it thus and not renewing the order. However, another justice might take the view that there was the potential for the abuse to recur if the order was not renewed. The circumstances whereby an extension of either a care order or a supervisory order would be carried out are not clear. Moreover, it has to be stated that it is not clear what would happen in the interim after a care order or a supervision order had expired and while further proceedings were pending. It is not clear whether one would have a temporary limbo and that needs to be clarified. I strongly believe that until the justice decides otherwise that order should continue.

In relation to the legal ages as defined in this Bill I favour the definition of a child to mean a person up to the age of 18 years. In the last Government's care and protection Bill in regard to children the age limit was 15 years. That was, in my view defective especially in families where there are five or six children and, because of the age definition, some would be in care and some out of it. This lack of restriction is a positive step.

However, I will be seeking, on Committee Stage, to change the age of criminal responsibility from the present age of seven years to 14 years. It is disgraceful in the eighties that we would consider that children under 14 were over the age of criminal responsibility. It is not fair; it is not conducive to their future development. I do not feel that tying them into the criminal process and the whole processs of punishment and retribution is right, and I will be seeking to have that doubled to 14 years of age. I believe the views that set that up in the first place are now outdated.

The question of financial resources for child care services will determine the enforcement and success of this legislation. To date, child welfare services have been tacked on to the end of an overburdened health board structure in anad hoc way. The nature of child care needs does not conform to a 40 hour week but rather a seven day, 168 hour week. Resources mean staff numbers, including social workers and specialists such as psychologists, and an inspectorate to deal with standards. It means care facilities, including short and long-term residential homes, and sufficient numbers of foster parents. Resources also mean community care centres from which child care teams can be based and that can act as a central focal point for the referral of children. These three requirements of adequate staff, adequate care facilities of a residential nature and referral centres must be put in place by the Government if this legislation is to work.

I have been asked to table amendments to specify levels of resources to deal with this problem. I do not believe that this is the correct approach, but I can say that I, and Fine Gael are committed to child welfare and its proper funding and we will be asking the Minister, before this legislation is enacted, to specify exactly what allocation will be made within the community care budget and the primary care budget to provide for the special needs of children.

Legislation is one thing, enforcing it is another and we have an age old tradition here of aspirational legislation but a total lack of follow-up and enforcement. In this House I will be ensuring accountability of this Minister, his Department and the health boards to ensure that this reform becomes a reality.

This Bill sets out the provision of child care advisory committees attached to regional health boards. We support this. However, for them to be successful they have to be representative of the relevant experts and voluntary organisations dealing with children and the consumers of the service. Section 5, dealing with these committees, is clearly inadequate. On Committee Stage we will be seeking to ensure that these committees effectively monitor the work of the health boards by being given powers in the following areas: access to information; recourse to a panel of experts; power to make recommendations for the improvement of services; be a consultative body to voluntary organisations; produce accountable annual reports, be empowered to hear submissions from children and carry out visitations of centres; be allowed to promote the development of child care services in the region; draw attention to cases as they see fit, and also to specify any review of the needs of children in their area. So we see a very clear role for these advisory committees. We believe that that is not set out in section 5. If the Minister seeks to set it out by way of ministerial regulation we would want to know, before we approve that section, exactly what those regulations will be.

The further role of these regional advisory committees should be to co-ordinate with a national children's council which would be independent by way of its research and planning role from the Department of Health. I am confident that Fine Gael will be able to obtain the support of all Deputies in relation to the establishment of a national children's council. There was a clear consensus amongst every group working in child care that there is a need for such an independent review of services and structures. I would ask the Minister to take this on board in a constructive fashion. Such a council would ensure full accountability for the child care services across the country. This was recommended as far back as the Kennedy report on child care services in 1970. It was again recommended in section 533 of the task force report on child care services in 1981. Such a council is vital to obtaining and continuing high standards of child care.

Paramount in the operation of this legislation must be proper consideration for the wishes of the children in question. There are a number of sections in this Bill where we feel this is understated or not alluded to at all. We will be seeking to insert the words: "giving due regard to the wishes of the child" into a number of sections. I am aware that this issue is not clearcut. For example, would a daughter aged six or eight years of age, express her correct wish as regards remaining in a family home if she was being sexually abused by a male adult. I appreciate there are sensitive concerns in this regard. However, the spirit of this legislation and its abiding principle must not be to foist on children the views of adults to the exclusion of their own wishes.

In terms of alternative care for children, I am extremely supportive of the maximum level of foster care. I want to place on record my admiration for the work and role of foster parents. Their rights are not clearly defined in the Bill. Should their rights to adoption increase after a given period of fostering? If so, how long should that period be? Should they be given a clear right, including the right to free legal aid where appropriate, to be fully represented at any court hearings affecting the children? A clear appeal process for both natural and foster parents should be set out in the Bill. In order to promote more foster resource groups within health boards we need to look again at the rate of remuneration, currently of the order of £35 per week. We need a further inclusion at health board level of respite fostering services for short stay cases.

I understand that one of the major differences between the Bill and the legislation introduced by the previous Government in 1985 is the absence of Part V which dealt with the rights of foster parents. I agree that there were major problems with that provision in terms of its interaction with other legislation and the difficulty of defining the rights of foster parents but the Bill makes no attempt to deal with those issues. Effectively, the issue has been fudged. We will be seeking some definition of the rights of foster parents.

I support the call for minimum standards for residential care facilities, pre-school facilities, and other child facilities. For some time the basic standard of buildings has left a lot to be desired and it is right that there should be minimum standards with proper supervision by an adequate inspectorate. In relation to pre-school facilities, I should like to state that we shall be tabling an amendment to reduce the age from six years to four years in relation to the definition of child care facilities.

Another legal area that I would like to have clarified relates to the definition of a parent. Section 2 states:

... "parents" includes a surviving parent and, in the case of a child in respect of whom there is in force an adoption order made under the Adoption Acts, 1952 to 1976, means the adopter or adopters or the surviving adopter under that adoption order.

What is the legal position of the natural father of a child born outside marriage? By that I mean a child of an unmarried mother or the child of a second marriage based on a church annulment or a foreign divorce. In the latter case the father of a second household is as real a parent as any other definition of parent we might like to attribute. The Minister should consider redefining "parent" from its present definition to include a biological link, where applicable. I would appreciate the Attorney General's view on this matter. Moreover, where children are in care, should we not consider adding in the power of a maintenance order that such fathers should, where possible, contribute to the cost of the welfare of those children.

It is a great pity that legislation dealing with children has been so shabbily treated to date. It seems incredible that we should be operating on a 1908 Act that was passed, not here, but in Westminster. That Act was changed in the twenties. We should have one comprehensive piece of legislation incorporating not only the contents of the Bill but past and future topics such as the status of children, adoption laws and juvenile justice legislation. This piecemeal approach by different Departments has led to a great deal of legal confusion. To avoid a repetition of this we need to co-ordinate the efforts and work of different Departments, of Education, Health and Justice. That can either be done through the proposed national council or through some interdepartmental structure. The Minister should give a commitment that the wrongs of the past will not be repeated due to a lack of co-ordination.

I look forward to the early scrutiny of the provisions on Committee Stage. Fine Gael will not be opposing the passage of Second Stage of the Bill and I hope the Minister will adopt an open and constructive position in response to our constructive proposals. Ultimately, it is imperative that we take this opportunity, the first one in 80 years and the last time for many years, to update this vital area of our legislation. I should like to assure the Minister of State that we will be approaching the Bill in a constructive way. We intend tabling more than 20 amendments for Committee Stage but we will be flexible in our approach to them. There are gaps in the Bill and it is important that we deal with Committee Stage at an early date. Adequate time should be allowed to Members to scrutinise the provisions effectively. This is one of the most important welfare areas of State services which has been added to the health services.

It pleases me greatly to be afforded an opportunity to get involved in this debate. Before I entered the House I heard politicians, and others, expressingad nauseam the need to introduce social legislation and, in particular legislation that would deal with the care of children but there was no positive action. I should like to offer my sincere congratulations to the Minister for introducing the Bill at this early stage of his term of office, particularly bearing in mind his massive workload. The Minister's initiative typifies the modus operandi of the Government. There has been a great deal of lip-service paid to the need for social legislation up to now but it is apparent from the Minister's action that there is a political will to focus on it and act positively. Apart from the introduction of the Bill the Minister must be lauded for steps he has taken to effect improvements in the area of child care. The new child abuse guidelines, which contain comprehensive information with regard to the recognition and reporting of incidents of child abuse, issued by his Department were welcomed by all. Directors of community care are now obliged to have all reported cases of child abuse investigated even where the report is made anonymously.

This year the Minister provided £500,000 in an effort to achieve improvements in the child care area. It seems incredible, bearing in mind the many changes in Irish society and the new attitudes and values obtaining in 1988, that we are still dependent on archaic legislation, laws which date back to the Victorian era. Lest there be any doubt as to the dire need for this legislation, I should like to quote startling and significant statistics. The number of Irish children in care at 1 November 1987 was 2,706. Of that figure 1,824 children were in foster care and 882 in residential care. The majority of children in care had been placed there by their parents on a voluntary basis because of the inability of the parents, for a variety of reasons, to properly look after the children. However, another type of case that warrants a child being taken into care is one of greater concern. I am referring to cases where a child has to be removed from the home because of abuse, physical, psychological or sexual. The number of cases of child abuse, that is abuses of all kinds, reported in 1984 was 495. Of that figure, 182 cases were confirmed and included in it were 64 cases of child sexual abuse of which 33 were confirmed. In 1985 the number of cases reported rose to 767, an increase of 55 per cent. Of that number 304 cases were confirmed, an increase of 67 per cent on the 1984 figures. The reported figure for child sexual abuse in 1985 rose to 234, an increase of 260 per cent. Of this number reported, 133 cases were confirmed, giving a massive increase of 303 per cent over the 1984 figures. In 1986 the overall number of reported cases of abuse rose again, this time to 1,015, an increase of 32 per cent over 1985. Of these, 494 cases were confirmed, an increase of 63 per cent over the previous year. The reported figure for child sexual abuse in 1986 rose to 475, an increase of 103 per cent. Of this number reported, 274 cases were confirmed, giving an increase of 100 per cent over the 1985 figures. In summary, in the three year period to which I refer, 1984-86, inclusive, there was an increase of 105 per cent in reported cases of overall child abuse, and an increase in the confirmation of these cases of 171 per cent. In the same three year period the number of specifically child sexual abuse cases reported increased by 642 per cent and there was in increase of 730 per cent in the confirmation of these cases.

While I am not yetau fait with the figures for 1987, I am reliably informed that the trend continues to show an increase. The huge and dramatic rise in the number of cases of child sexual abuse is one of the main features of these figures. This entire area is only beginning to open up and it is imperative that it be extensively and carefully analysed by all relevant agencies and professionals. This malaise would appear to manifest itself throughout the social classes and across the rural-urban divide.

I note with satisfaction that in introducing this legislation, the Minister has taken cognisance of the views and suggestions of interested groups and voluntary organisations with special interest, experience and expertise in this field. These people have been doing trojan work, but unfortunately much of it has gone unnoticed and unheralded. An example of the commendable and worthwhile efforts of these people is the new "childline" which was introduced in February last by the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. According to the ISPCC, since this line was set up 9,696 calls were received from children who were experiencing some form of distress. The most serious aspect of this information is that of this approximate 10,000 phone-ins, 1,677 calls came from children who were suffering abuse either of a physical, emotional or sexual nature.

I was disappointed to hear some of the negative comments which were made during the earlier stages of this debate with regard to the comprehensive nature of the Bill. I not only have studied carefully the legislation but have taken the trouble to talk to interested and qualified people, such as social workers and other professionals for the purpose of seeking their comments and general reaction. I have been gratified by their response. This legislation is generally well received and is seen as achieving its objective of rationalising the law in relation to the care of children for the first time in 80 years.

I would like to elaborate on some aspects of the Bill which I consider to be particularly welcome improvements. This Bill gives specific roles to the health boards and the Garda. It places a statutory duty on health boards with regard to the proper care and well-being of children. It increases the powers of health boards in the area of child care and family support services. In cases where children are deemed to be in serious danger, there is provision whereby immediate positive action can be taken by the Garda and health authorities.

The introduction of supervision orders and care orders is innovative and welcome, as is the introduction of procedures for the supervision and inspection of pre-school services and the revised provisions in the Bill to facilitate the control of residental centres for children who have to be taken into care. The new definition of "child" in the Bill as a person under 18 years is a progressive move. Social workers will consider it most helpful to have this new facility which will enable children to be received into care up to the age of 18 years. The supervision orders, which are totally new and are introduced in this Bill, represent a major improvement. I believe the supervision order will be viewed by social workers as an extremely welcome innovation. Properly used it can prove to be an important and vital mechanism in the achievement of improvements in the child care area. However, there may be a temptation to over-use this instrument. The supervision order must not be used to avoid making difficult decisions, for example, rather than taking a decision to receive a particularly affected child into care, there could be a temptation to deal with the situation to deal with the situationvia a succession of supervision orders. The section indicates that the supervision order would be of 12 months duration and would be renewable. The fact that it is renewable is most useful and meritorious. But as I have said it ought not to be inappropriately used or used in cases where the care order rather than the supervision order would be more in keeping with the requirements of the case.

Section 17 which covers access to children in care is also welcome. It enables the court to make orders as to the access of parents and others to the children in care. While it is most desirable that parents in certain circumstances be allowed to maintain regular contact with a child when kept in care, it would be most important that the court would have due regard to the views and opinions of the professionals in the health boards when making these orders. There would be little point in allowing access facilities which are unsuitable or unmanageable so far as the child, the foster parents or the residential care staff are concerned.

I am particularly enamoured by the concept of fostering. This method of caring for the child who has for certain reasons to be taken from his natural parents, can offer much more to the child in certain circumstances than the institutionalised situation. The fostering system allows for the inclusion of the child in a new and improved family environment which is more natural than that which the institution can offer. Fostering is also a much more cost effective method of child care, costing only one-third of residential care. This does not take into account the cost incurred in the recruitment of foster parents.

In order that this long awaited legislation be comprehensive, it must address all areas and situations with which children are involved and to which they can be vulnerable. With the introduction in the legislation of measures to facilitate the inspection and supervision of pre-school services, the Minister has provided for control of a potentially hazardous area. I am sure that this measure will be welcomed by the many genuine and caring people who currently run such services as crèches, play schools, play groups, etc.

There is provision for the control of solvents in section 58. This area has long been the subject of major public concern. Solvent inhalation, or glue smiffing as it is more commonly called, has long been a plague on our society. Serious illness and sometimes fatal consequences has been the outcome for many a child who partakes in this dangerous craze. It is good to see that the Minister to some extent has addressed this highly complex problem, he has provided for fines of up to £1,000 or 12 months imprisonment for the offence of selling such products to children where there is knowledge or suspicion that they will be abused. Quite apart from the matter of legislation for the control of this phenomenon, I believe it behoves every responsible adult in this country, be he or she parent or otherwise, to be vigilant in this area and to endeavour to exhort, advise and inform children of the hazards involved in even the most trivial experimentation with these dangerous solvents.

I have come across cases of child abuse in my own area. I have become aware of the results of a specific localised study in this field which was startling in the extreme. That is why I wanted to take part in this debate and I am grateful to the Minister for introducing this long overdue legislation. The Minister's action is all the more commendable when one considers that he is legislating for the well-being of children in a country which pecentage-wise has the largest child population of any country in Europe. It is my hope now that, having waited the best part of a century for this legislation, its provisions can proceed to be implemented expeditiously.

I welcome this Bill as an attempt, but a rather poor one, to establish a system of child care in Ireland. I say that it is a poor attempt because the public, in recent years, has come to openly acknowledge the prevalence of child abuse and Deputy Jacob has given us some interesting figures on this. The public would go a long way towards giving legislators extra powers to defend the area of children's rights.

I have read the earlier contributions made to this debate and because of the continued references to how this Bill may be construed in the light of the Constitution I would like to say that as legislators we should not be timid or afraid to introduce legislation that may have to be resolved eventually in the courts. What is often forgotten in this House is that the construction of the Constitutionvia the courts allows for a presumption of constitutionality in regard to all Acts of the Oireachtas. In recognising this, we should go further and state that it has been the courts and not this House that has provided the principal impetus for social change and development in Ireland for the last two and a half decades. I am confident that the courts will continue to lead the Oireachtas in protecting and vindicating the rights of all citizens including children in the years to come. I am also confident that they would not be slow to endorse any attempt by the Oireachtas to introduce worthwhile child care protection. In fact, they would probably go further and provide for all those matters which we have overlooked here over the years by way of judge-made law. Before dealing with the principle of this Bill, I should like, en passant, to put on record that the Progressive Democrats acknowledge fully the rights of children so much so that we have given them a special status in our proposed new draft Constitution.

I welcome, in broad terms, the purpose of this Bill. I regret to say, however, that it is a far cry from the comprehensive children's code which has been promised in this country for so long to up-date the Children Act of 1908. After 80 years, there are a number of questions that can legitimately be raised about this Bill: the fact that it gives jurisdiction to the District Court in relation to child care and, secondly, the increased powers and workload placed on the health boards. The increased powers given to the District Court and the health boards governing the way in which these new child care services are to be delivered are a cause for some concern and reservation in the Progressive Democrats. We will be tabling a number of amendments on Committee Stage of this Bill. There is a general agreement across this House that there is a crying need for a comprehensive system of child care and, in principle, the provisions of the Bill are welcome. However, it is worth noting a few reservations at this stage.

The biggest problem for us is presented by the fact that jurisdiction is given to the District Court in relation to child care under this Bill. We do not feel the District Court is the appropriate court to deal with the matters covered by the Bill — in particular, ill-treatment, neglect and sexual abuse. From our experience of the courts in dealing with family law matters which are similar to these types of problems, allegations of sexual abuse are extremely complex and difficult to deal with and require tremendous care and attention because they may also involve a criminal element or a criminal complaint in relation to an allegation of abuse.

The everyday business of the District Court would not allow for the time and the care that would be necessary to consider these matters. District justices are obliged to deal with things quickly and, in general, do not hold extensive inquiries into the problems that come before them. This is not their fault, but rather the fault of the system that they have had to operate and the limited resources that are allowed to them. Even if district justices have the time and the resources to deal with these serious questions, we still do not believe that it is the appropriate court to deal with the problems covered in this Bill.

What is required instead, we believe, is a family court to deal with the matters that arise under the Bill and all other family matters that are presently being dealt with in the District Court — such as barring orders — and those matters dealt with in the Circuit Court and the High Court. We would like to see the establishment of a family court, by legislation, in conjunction with this Bill.

The second difficulty with the Bill and a much more serious one if we are unable to persuade the Government to the wisdom of having a family court dealing exclusively with these matters, is that under section 11, once the district justice has made a care order, that is the end of the role played by the court itself. From that moment on, the care of children falls to civil servants and is not capable of sufficient and adequate review by the court that made the original order. We believe that there is far too much unsupervised State control and interference in the management of children from that point onwards.

Under section 15, subsection (8), there is an attempt to provide a comeback provision so that the court may vary its original order. We do not feel that this is a sufficient safeguard in the circumstances because it limits the right to come back to the court to parents of the child or to officials of the health board. We believe that there would be circumstances where an aunt, an uncle, a grandparent or, even an elder brother or sister or some friend of the family that had an established relationship with the children, as is often the case in relation to unmarried mothers and their children, should be enabled to do so as well. Therefore, as a minimum, we feel that the control of the court should be expanded and involve greater supervision of the civil servants and officials of the health boards and that the list of persons who can apply to the court should be expanded to take account of the realities of family life in Ireland.

We are not completely satisfied with this last proposal though it would improve the Bill. We have noted, for example, that the Bill and the powers it seeks to give health boards effectively encroach on the jurisdiction conferred on the High Court in relation to wards of court. If this Bill passed as it stands, it would exist in parallel to the High Court wards system which we feel is a far better system for the control and management of the care of children because it tends to take greater care in making its decisions. I question whether the two systems now envisaged by the Minister would be incompatible.

The preferred solution is for the establishment of a family court which would take over the jurisdiction that the High Court presently has in relation to wards of court and the responsibilities that this Bill seeks to confer on the District Court and the health boards. We recommend that this proposal be pursued actively because, aside from its legal practicality, it has the benefit of being a measure which would secure the confidence of the public at large especially in the face of a threat to the family from over-involvement by the State.

A further item relating to the care given to the making of decisions regarding a child is that some provision should be made for the appointment of qualified persons, legal or otherwise, who are independent of the family and who are also independent of the Civil Service and health boards, who would be assigned by the court to argue specifically for the child's welfare and who would be capable of contradicting a health board proposal with regard to a care order. At present, there exists in the High Court a provision for such an appointment, known as a "guardianad litem”, who is appointed to legally represent a child or a mental defective.

The one provision we would welcome wholeheartedly, especially following the publication of our new draft Constitution, is the provision contained in section 57 which abolishes the death penalty in respect of children who have been found guilty of a capital offence which carries the death penalty. That is the single most positive proposal in this Bill.

I now turn to the main axis on which this Child Care Bill is based, that is the placing of a statutory duty on health boards to promote the welfare of children who are not receiving adequate care and protection; the strengthening of the powers of health boards to provide child care and family support services; improved procedures to facilitate immediate intervention by health boards and the Garda where children are in serious danger; revised provisions to enable the court to place children who have been assaulted, ill-treated, seriously neglected or sexually abused or who are at risk, in the care or under the supervision of health boards; the introduction of arrangements for the inspection and supervision of pre-school services; and revised provisions in relation to the inspection and approval of residential care centres for children.

While the last two provisions are very welcome, the introduction of arrangements, for the first time, for the inspection and supervision of pre-school services — of which the Minister estimated there are some 1,400 to 1,500 different services catering for approximately 20,000 pre-school children, and the inspection and approval of residential centres for children, I have grave reservations about the extra powers being given to the health boards in this Bill.

In this respect, I found Deputies Flaherty's and Yates' contributions quite interesting. While Deputy Flaherty raised many legitimate questions about the extra powers being given to the health boards she failed to recognise the current thinking in the leadership of her party, Fine Gael, that all eight health boards should be abolished. There would seem to be an inconsistency, to say the very least, in her party's approach. It is because I share the views of the leadership of her party about the health boards that I have grave reservations about the new powers being given them in this Bill.

Given the manner in which the health boards have operated the health service over the last 18 months, the Progressive Democrats would have grave reservations about amplifying and enlarging their powers to deal with the question of child neglect and abuse. There is little mention in the Bill of how these extra powers will be executed. Furthermore, there is practically no provision for extra resources and manpower to be made available to the health boards to carry out the new duties being given them in the whole child care area.

For example I note that the Minister for Health, in his contribution last June, mentioned that he had allocated special funds of £450,000 from his Department's share of the national lottery to the health boards outside of Dublin to enable them improve their capacity for the assessment and investigation of alleged cases of child abuse, including sexual abuse. Is this to be a once-off contribution from one year's allocation of the national lottery?

Can the seven health boards, outside of Dublin, also expect to receive almost half a million pounds as a constant contribution to their budget to carry out the important powers given them in this Bill? A secondary point is that 41 per cent of our population is covered by one health board, that is Dublin. Where is there provision in the Bill for the other seven health boards, outside of Dublin, for any extra funding required — from the lottery or otherwise — to enable them exercise their functions? All in all, thisad hoc dependence on the lottery is no substitute for long-term fiscal planning. I should like the Minister to address that point in his concluding remarks.

Besides the important questions of the powers and resources of the health boards, I note that the Irish branch of the World Organisation for Early Childhood Education and the senior social workers' group here have entered a number of reservations about the proposed powers being given to those health boards. These groups, which have a professional and independent interest in the welfare of children, welcome the proposed establishment of child care advisory committees, the reference to the development of family support services and the implicit preventive thrust of the Bill. However, they are justly concerned about the lack of detail in regard to the development of preventive services, the lack of reference to the difficult issue of quality in care, to resources other than expenses and to the growing area of after-school care.

We will be tabling a number of amendments to deal with the lack of detail in a number of these areas on Committee Stage,

Section 4 (2) refers, for example, to a "person acting inloco parentis”. To whom does this refer? I would suggest that this phrase needs definition by the Minister on Committee Stage.

Section 3 (2) (d) proposes to recognise the wishes of a child. Can a child's wishes and best interests be truly represented unless the court can order independent representation of that child when it sees fit to do so, irrespective of representation of parents and other parties concerned?

On a more general comment, notwithstanding the fact that voluntary care means that a child cannot be maintained under this section against parental wishes, sudden and unplanned removals from care could be detrimental to a child. Could a clause be included which would recommend planned termination of care?

The proposal, in section 5, to set up child care advisory committees is deserving of further attention. Since by definition they will be advisory, what real power and influence can these committees have? Who will form their membership? I believe it is a great pity that there is no provision in the Bill for some kind of national child care authority which could develop policy in this area generally and act as a co-ordinating body for local committees.

There is a number of other questions raised by the provisions of the Bill which are deserving of detailed attention on Committee Stage. For example, would a place of safety, covered in section 13, include a foster home?

Section 10 (2), provides for an application for an emergency care order and its time limit. Who is to apply for such emergency order? If the Garda can, as appears in the Bill, are they equipped to make such decisions about children? If a health board is to apply, subsequent to Garda removal of a child, a stated time limit cannot be adhered to over weekends. Therefore, should these exceptions be included? If a health board decide not to proceed with applications does a garda have to advise the court of his action in removing a child in any event?

Given our present economic problems, I should like the Minister to spell out the investment, moral and otherwise, in this Bill in preventive services which will prove cost-effective in the long term. The Minister should consider obligating himself to bring in regulations to cover adequate supervision of all those pre-school services offering full day care. These regulations should include child minding and day-care centres grant-aided by health boards. These latter services are managed by voluntary bodies who, in the main, wish for and would welcome such inclusion. The Minister should consider registration rather than notification of day-care services.

While recognising the value of integrated pre-school services for all, there is need to ensure the quality of day-care services for families and children at risk. In this regard, I suggest that the regulations pertaining to State supported pre-school services should include specific reference to adult-child ratios, as would apply in a normal school.

These, and many other points of detail, are very loosely defined in the Bill. As I said earlier, we will be tabling a number of amendments to improve its general thrust on Committee Stage.

Since this will have been the only time this century this House, an Irish Parliament, will have examined the question of child care, I hope the Minister will be open-minded in his attitude to such amendments as are tabled on Committee Stage.

It has been maintained that there is very little original thought on any topic. Therefore I appreciate that it is unavoidable that many comments made on a Bill such as this will be repetitive.

I should like to make a few general points about the question of child care and its inherent dangers. I believe that this is a practical, sensible Bill constituting a reasonable approach to the problems obtaining in this area. Nonetheless it must be acknowledged that it is a very complicated and highly emotive subject with which we are dealing. I do not believe that this Minister is in the business of political point-scoring and that, if there are rational, reasoned amendments put forward, he will not be willing to take them on board. We should bear in mind that the previous attempt at introducing a Bill such as this led to circumstances in which at least 150 amendments were required.

Every Member of this House subscribes to the view that new child care legislation is long overdue. Again, I cannot say why it takes so long to get legislation implemented but at least in this case, after eight years, we are moving. It is important to realise that the Minister has issued guidelines on the way in which to deal with child abuse cases and this Bill will make further changes, which are plainly needed, and which will strengthen the directives the Minister has given.

Debate adjourned.