Adjournment Debate. - Child Prostitution.

Thank you, Sir, for allowing me to raise this issue.

Recent disclosures have caused us all to revisit and question, with extreme regret, remorse and anger, the conditions under which children in care were placed during the 1950s. These were all vulnerable children who, for various reasons, found themselves out of home and reliant on whatever care the State could provide, with the assistance of religious orders. As well as accountability for the past, it is vital that we critically evaluate on an ongoing basis the welfare of vulnerable children today.

In the week in which the Goldenbridge disclosures were made, Focus Point, the charity dealing with homeless people generally, came in contact with children as young as 12 years of age living rough on the streets and presenting as homeless to the authorities. The most recent official figures from the Eastern Health Board for 1993 indicate that there were 427 homeless children in its area. Of those, two-thirds were between 13 and 16 years of age. It is important that we got more up to date figures so we can respond in policy terms to this need.

Of those 427 homeless children identified in 1993 by the Eastern Health Board area alone, 42 per cent had formerly been in care. There is something radically wrong with a care system which produces homeless children. Focus Point outreach workers, as recently as February of this year, met 33 different children out of home and sleeping rough in cars, derelict buildings or anywhere they could find. In 1994, Focus Point street workers met 531 individuals, three-quarters of whom were male; 38 per cent were children under 18 years of age — from 12 to 17 years of age — and 20 per cent were sleeping rough.

The possibility that some of these children are involved in prostitution is too terrible to contemplate. That adults could target, seek out and prey on such vulnerable young people, taking advantage of their desperation with a view to gratifying their own sexual needs, is truly abhorrent. What is the extent of the Department of Justice and Garda knowledge of the involvement of minors in prostitution? How many reports have been received by the Garda or the health boards of such activities? Are reports in a Sunday newspaper true, for example, that the names and car registration of persons alleged to be involved in such activities have been given to the Garda in the north inner city? Is there an investigation into this matter? What is the health board's involvement to date given that reports have been made to it by child care workers?

The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act, 1993, introduced tough penalties for controlling or organising prostitution or forcing or coercing a person into prostitution. In April 1994, I took the opportunity to raise my concerns about gross acts of indecency involving minors. I was assured an investigation was ongoing on foot of my inquiries. Under the 1993 Act, the act of buggery of a person under 15 years of age carries a life sentence and there are penalties in section 9 of that Act for the organisation of prostitution. A conviction on indictment under section 9 carries a heavy fine, a term of imprisonment or both. The law is in place to take action against these people organising prostitution, particularly as it relates to children. Is the Act being implemented and, if not, why not?

When children are involved in prostitution there is obviously a double imperative to implement the law to protect the vulnerable child. In 1993, in line with the Law Reform Commission report on vagrancy and related offences, the Dáil decided to include section 7 of the Act which makes it an offence for soliciting in public for the purposes of prostitution; this applies to clients, pimps and prostitutes. Between the time of the introduction of the Act and December 1994, only 12 men were prosecuted compared to 116 women. The women involved and not their clients are being prosecuted.

Is it true, as reported in one of the Sunday newspapers, that the Garda has been given details of a person suspected to be involved in organising prostitution involving minors in the north inner city? If so, what is the status of the investigation arising out of these reports and has a file been sent to the DPP? Will the Minister confirm that this is being investigated?

Child care workers say that in a very short period, a newly homeless child will become immersed in a street culture which will expose him or her to drugs, sexual exploitation, crime and, in some cases, prostitution. This requires an urgent response. More Outreach workers are needed; I understand the Eastern Health Board has five Outreach workers in its area. Three people from Focus Point do similar work. These is a need for safe places which are childcentred to meet the needs of these homeless children.

The Garda must investigate this matter urgently. There is much hand wringing and procrastination about mandatory reporting but this is not about a failure to report. In this instance, it is said that reports have been made to the authorities. What is needed is mandatory action as a result of those reports. Action in this matter cannot morally be postponed. The thought that advantage is being taken of young people in an alleged drugged state by sexually perverted adults is a nightmare. The possibility that it could be happening tonight as we speak is intolerable. I ask the Minister to seek a full report from the Eastern Health Board and the Garda Síochána as to the allegations which were made surrounding a person in the north inner city who is alleged to be involved in child prostitution.

The Child Care Act, 1991, contains a comprehensive statutory framework for the development of services and supports for the care and protection of children. To date, 61 of the 79 provisions of the Act are in operation and the Government has committed itself to the implementation of the Act in its entirety by the end of the year.

In particular, section 3 of the Child Care Act, 1991, places a statutory duty on health boards to identify children who are not receiving adequate care and protection and requires that they provide a range of child care and family support services. This section applies also to promoting the safety and welfare of children who are exploited in the area of child prostitution, pornography and sex tourism.

Since 1993, in the region of £35 million on an annualised basis has been invested in the development of new child care and family support services, and a range of new services and facilities have been put in place throughout the country. Over 850 new permanent posts have been created for the child care services. These measures represent the largest ever investment of resources in the child care area. The important new child care and family support services that have been developed are designed to ensure the child protection services are strengthened and equipped to respond to the needs of children who are not receiving adequate care and prevention; counselling and treatment is provided for those who have been damaged by abuse and neglect, special therapeutic care is provided for those who have been damaged by abuse and neglect and locally based services are in place to assist children and families in difficulty.

While the Garda has no evidence which would suggest vulnerable children are falling victim to prostitution or organised sexual abuse, I can assure the House that any information in this regard which comes to their attention is acted upon and investigated fully. The Deputy stated that it is said that these things are happening. The Deputy, or anybody else, has a responsibility to make any hard evidence available to gardaí who will act on definite information. What we have heard tonight is a report of other reports. If there is evidence, the Garda will act firmly on what could be an appalling crime.