Adjournment Debate. - Child Abuse.

I thank you, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, for giving me the opportunity to raise this issue. The full horror of the abuse and neglect suffered by children was detailed in a special investigation which was published in the Irish Independent last Monday. With 3,700 children now in care and more than 100 appearing before the children's court in Dublin every week, the care system is at breaking point as it staggers from crisis to crisis trying to deal with the appalling tales of tragedy.

The following is a list of some of the shocking cases highlighted in the newspaper: a child was raised in a tea chest until he was five years old; a 15 year old girl was found living in a squat with winos and had been used for prostitution; a young person had assaulted a teacher and refused to have anything to do with water until it was discovered that a relative had brutally beaten and tried to drown him; a child had a nail driven through his hand by his drunken father and a girl was beaten and used for prostitution by her father before she had reached her teens.

The Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children said the report was horrendous and that we could not underestimate the extent of the problem. The Minister said the system is overrun by the number of children who are neglected in one way or another. The system should ensure that the institutions of the State respond to children who are neglected and abused. It was said at a recent conference that a country is judged on how it treats its children. Since its formation the Government has not shown itself to be children-friendly; it has failed our children. Children's issues have a low priority. Mr. Justice Kelly was correct when he stated in the High Court in July that "dysfunctional and inadequate families are being cared for by dysfunctional and inadequate services". The Government has not honoured its commitment to provide adequate, secure and high support places for troubled children. It must immediately provide funding for proper services.

On 25 April an eight year old child was brutally raped in Cork. The offender has not yet been apprehended. Paedophiles released from prisons are fleeing from the sex abuse register in the UK and Northern Ireland and are free to move at will throughout the State. We must urgently introduce a register for child sex offenders. This has been long fingered by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform who says he needs another report. Our children need protection and the Government should have accepted my Private Members' Bill to establish such a register earlier this year.

In early July the Taoiseach could not indicate when the office of the children's ombudsman would be established. It is obvious that this is near the bottom of the Government's priority list. That is not acceptable. I ask the Minister to state the Government's intention to establish this office. We urgently need such an office to promote and protect children's rights.

The ombudsman's office should have a role in the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. It should ensure that the voices of children are heard in policy and administrative processes. This would help to create an environment more favourable to the protection of children's rights. It should be established on a statutory basis to give it stability and independence and it should be answerable to the Oireachtas. It should be independent of Departments so that it has the freedom to deal with all public bodies related to children.

The Children's Bill passed Second Stage 17 months ago and was reintroduced and referred to the Select Committee on Justice, Equality and Women's Rights in July. However, there is no sign of that Bill coming before the committee. I inquired from the committee today why that was the case and I was informed it was waiting to hear from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform when the Minister would be ready to deal with it. It is a disgrace that we must keep pushing for such important legislation after 17 months.

I am responding to this debate this afternoon in the unavoidable absence of my colleague, Deputy Fahey, Minister of State with responsibility for children. I welcome the opportunity to address this issue and I thank the Deputy for raising the matter.

Deputies will be aware that the Child Care Act, 1991, has been fully implemented since the end of 1996. Very significant resources have been made available to support the full implementation of the Act. Since 1993 and the end of 1997 an additional £43.5 million has been made available to health boards for this purpose. In 1998, a further £8 million was made available. These are very significant additional resources and the level of investment has made possible the creation of almost 1,000 additional posts to deliver the services which the Act requires to be delivered.

While much has been done, much remains to be done. There is no doubt that many children still suffer from neglect and are abused. The services are attempting to respond to these problems and it is important that resources continue to be made available for this purpose. I would like to outline briefly some of the principal supports that are made available to children at risk.

First, health boards are involved in family support work. It is important that where possible, families who are experiencing difficulties should receive appropriate intervention from the statutory agencies. I hope the boards will be in a position to further develop these important services in the coming year.

Second, an expert group has recently been established to inquire into the increasing number of children coming before the Children's Court. The group will examine the following issues: intervention and prevention strategies; the reasons for the increase in the number of children coming before the courts; the behavioural patterns of children coming before the courts in the lead-up to their appearance; non-custodial options open to the courts and best practice models in this country and in other countries where community sanctions are in place. Research is also being commissioned into an examination of the profile and numbers of children coming before the Children's Court and their behavioural patterns.

Third, last January, the Government established the young people at risk programme and approval was given for funding of £2.4 million for each of the years 1998, 1999 and 2000. This funding is to be used for 12 family support projects, spread throughout the eight health board regions. The objective of the projects is to prevent children at risk and young people from engaging in various forms of anti-social behaviour by providing a pro-active response to the children and their families.

The pilot projects meet a need identified in Partnership 2000 which noted that:

The tackling of social exclusion requires an integrated approach, with full inter-sectoral co-ordination and appropriate mid to short-term and strategic long-term measures. The scale and concentration of disadvantage in certain areas of Dublin requires a strategic and targeted response. This must be multi-dimensional and must be targeted in such a way as to reach the individuals and communities directly affected.

Fourth, Deputies will be aware that the Garda, through the juvenile liaison officer scheme operate a highly effective diversion programme for children and young people who would otherwise be dealt with through the juvenile justice system with the consequent risk of being stigmatised for their behaviour and this scheme will continue to be prioritised.

High support and special care units are being developed for children whose needs cannot be responded to in a community setting. The article in the Irish Independent addressed many of the issues which our statutory and voluntary services respond to on a daily basis. There are no simple solutions to many of these problems which have their origins in the rapid change which our society has experienced. The Government is very conscious of its responsibilities in this area and will continue to address them.