Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Child Abuse.

Máire Geoghegan-Quinn


4 Mrs. Geoghegan-Quinn asked the Minister for Health the plans, if any, he has to ensure that the health care system can cope with the spiralling reports of child abuse cases; his views on the difficulties being encountered in the recruitment of qualified social workers; and the plans, if any, he has for co-ordinated and independent counselling services for abuse victims, particularly those abused in orphanages and childrens' homes. [11906/96]

My primary concern as Minister of State with special responsibility for child care is to ensure that the legislative and service infrastructure is adequate to protect the welfare of children. On my taking office only 17 sections of the Child Care Act had been implemented. An additional 44 sections have now been implemented. The remaining 18 sections of the Child Care Act, providing for the registration of residential centres and the regulation and inspection of preschool services, will be implemented this year. Since 1993 additional funding of the order of £35 million on an annualised basis has been provided to develop child care and family support services. These developments included the creation of over 900 new posts for child care services.

While there have been substantial improvements in child care services in recent years, further improvements need to be made. It is my firm intention to ensure that the legislative infrastructure is adequate to provide protection and promote the welfare of children; services continue to develop and fulfil the legal obligations on health boards to protect children and promote their welfare under the Child Care Act, 1991; and professional standards in child care continue to improve and there is ongoing monitoring and review of these standards.

I am currently preparing proposals for Government for the financing of a new child care programme for the period 1997 to 1999. These proposals will be brought to Government shortly.

I am aware of the difficulties that have been encountered by health boards in the recruitment of qualified social workers. Students in Ireland who commenced training for social work after 1990 are eligible for the award of national qualification in social work. There are a number of recognised university courses leading to this qualification. My Department arranged the funding of 20 extra training places in Trinity College and UCD last year. It is expected that 86 social workers will qualify from the three colleges providing social work training in 1996 and that approximately 300 additional social workers will qualify from Irish colleges between 1997 and 1999.

In addition, the National Validation Body on Social Work Qualifications and Training recently issued a report outlining the criteria governing the validation of non-national qualifications in social work. This report was accepted by the Minister for Health on 27 March 1996. The National Validation Body is now proceeding to deal with applications for the validation of non-national qualifications. I understand that 55 applications from many parts of the world have been processed and recently ratified by the validation body. The combination of increased training places in Irish colleges together with a system for recognising equivalent non-national qualifications will provide health boards with a large pool for the recruitment of highly qualified, professional social workers.

The chief executive officers of the health boards are preparing a joint response to help victims of past abuse. The health boards intend to take a positive, helpful and co-ordinating role in this area, in consultation and co-operation with relevant voluntary organisations. It is intended that a full counselling and therapeutic service will be provided by the health boards in response to the needs of those who have been abused in the past. These services will be provided by the adult health care services and will respond to the problems which may emerge such as depression, guilt, addiction, personality disorders and relationship problems. The health boards are currently finalising the range of measures to be taken in this regard and an announcement in relation to the details of a support and therapeutic service for victims of past abuse will be made in the near future.

Of the 900 new posts created as a result of the £35 million spent on child care services, how many were filled by social workers, how many of them are in each health board and how many vacant posts for social workers are there in each health board?

I do not have the detailed information sought by the Deputy.

That is extraordinary. My question to the Minister is specific. It refers to the difficulties being experienced by health boards in the recruitment of social workers. The number of vacant positions, the number of the 900 posts that were social worker posts and the number of them in each health board is basic information the Minister should have at his fingertips. It is extraordinary that the Minister does not have that information in his brief.

The Deputy's question is an omnibus one. She referred to the spiralling reports of child abuse cases, the difficulties being encountered in the recruitment of qualified social workers and the plans, if any, I have for co-ordinated and independent counselling services. I gave the Deputy what I thought were good answers to those three specific queries. In reply to her further supplementary, I repeat that 900 new jobs have been created in the child care area and they relate to all aspects of the child care area. They include social workers, but also psychologists and other professionals in the health care area. I have given her a response as to our intentions in the social worker area. I accept that we have had some difficulties in that respect and I have told her what we intend to do about it. We have considered the position regarding social workers up to the turn of the century. We hope that Trinity College will produce 25 social workers in 1997, 25 in 1998 and 30 in 1999, that UCD will produce 30 in 1997, 30 in 1998 and 30 in 1999 and UCC will produce 41, 50 and 40 for those years, giving a total of 96 in 1997, 105 in 1998 and 100 in 1999. I am confident that the increase in the number of trained social workers in our jurisdiction, combined with the measures we are taking to attract social workers from other areas, including Northern Ireland and Britain, will be sufficient to provide the required number of social workers to deal with our child care problem.

I ask the Minister to communicate with me in regard to the three specific supplementaries I asked, on which he does not have the information now. He and I participated in a radio programme some weeks ago in which the Minister very warmly embraced a helpline which had been set up in Dublin in response to a substantial number of child abuse cases in which adults are now trying to come to terms with the abuse they suffered. Will the Minister state how many counsellors are available to the helpline and whether there is a limit on the number of counselling services provided? Does he feel that there should be a limit on the number of counselling sessions available to an adult victim of child abuse, whether physical or sexual? Does he know whether contracts have been given to counsellors involved in the helpline? Does he feel that an adult victim of child abuse who rang a helpline on 26 February last and was told she would be contacted by return and who has yet to be contacted by the helpline has received adequate support?

I find it surprising, considering the number of specific questions which the Deputy asked in her original question to which she received replies, that she should now be attempting to interrogate me on matters to which she did not refer in her original question. She is going too far when she asks me a question about a specific telephone call which she alleges was not replied to. All I can say in relation to that question is that I will make the necessary inquiries if she supplies me with the information necessary for me to do so. I will not judge a service by its handling of one specific matter.

I would have thought the Deputy would take the opportunity to welcome the announcement which I made in relation to the intentions of the chief executive officers of the health board and the response which they are preparing to help victims of past abuse. I repeat, it is intended that a full counselling and therapeutic service will be provided by the health boards in response to the needs of those who have been abused in the past. The adult healthcare service will respond to any of the problems which emerge. I would have thought she might have acknowledged that this was a positive development.

The Minister did not answer the supplementaries I already asked and he anticipated my next supplementary. Could he get the information regarding the second lot of supplementaries I asked? The Ministers are very sensitive today; I wonder whether this is because the nurses, the hepatitis C victims, or the child abuse victims are getting to them.

I welcome that the health boards are to set up a support and therapeutic service. That is positive and helpful. In view of the huge demands on health boards throughout the country, and the recognised lack of funding for everything they want to do, could the Minister say whether he or the health boards considered requesting monetary and financial support from, for example, religious orders and others where such abuse might have taken place in the past? Some of these orders have set up various counselling services but do not seem to have got the response that one would like to see.

I have already informed the Deputy that I am in the process of drawing up a childcare plan for the years 1996 to 1999 and the demands of counselling are part of that plan. In reply to her second question, whether we have given consideration to asking for financial assistance from religious orders, I have not paid particular attention to that matter. I have been aware of the very considerable demands imposed on some of these organisations, religious and others, in recent times because of the number of reports that have come in and the changing attitude in society to things that happened in the past. I felt it was necessary to give some consideration to assistance to organisations which wanted to help in a greater way.

In relation to the future and the plan being prepared for the next three or four years, these matters will be given consideration and constructive suggestions will be welcomed.