Any objective assessment of children's policy since the foundation of the State will reveal a litany of failures – failure to invest resources, to provide a comprehensive legislative framework for children's policy and to give children the political priority they need and deserve. The fact that this Bill is intended to replace the existing Children Act, 1908, and associated legislation is testimony to this state of affairs. The fact that the Bill makes reference to 41 other items of legislation lays bare the disjointed, chaotic legislative mess which child policy in Ireland has struggled to cope with since the early years of this century.
A new start, underpinned by comprehensive legislation has been needed for some time. The previous Government recognised this fact and a considerable amount of time and resources were invested in preparing groundbreaking legislation to cover children's issues. The Children Bill was introduced into this House in 1996 and Second Stage was debated on 12 February 1997, three years ago. However, the progress of that Bill through Committee Stage was halted when the current Government came to office.
It has taken the Government three years to come up with a comprehensive piece of child legislation. This Bill does not differ radically from the 1996 Bill. In those three wasted years, hundreds of children have fallen into the vicious cycle of crime and poverty. They have been the victims of the prevarication, confusion and denial that has characterised Government policy on this issue. Until recently, the Government let the Children Bill, 1996, gather dust in committee, while it tried to figure out whether it would amend that Bill or produce a new one. These are the actions of a Government which had no policy, direction or determination to tackle this issue when it took office.
Once again it was revealed that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy O'Donoghue, the man who had all the answers when he pontificated from these benches in Opposition, did not have the first notion what action to take when he took over responsibility at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The Government has given itself the luxury of a three year think-in to formulate a position. No such luxury exists for families with troubled children or for children at risk and for the many communities under siege from juvenile crime problems.
Irish society is not meeting the needs of many children. Government failure to do so is clearly manifesting itself in the kinds of problems which come to politicians' attention in their constituencies. In recent years, public meetings, which we all attend on a regular basis, have been dominated by problems associated with young people such as drug and alcohol abuse, the proliferation of gangs who engage in threatening and intimidating behaviour, a huge increase in joyriding and the increasing numbers of children who seem to be parentless, who run amok and cause havoc in their community.
At Government level, it seems children barely rate. Responsibility for their welfare is spread over so many Departments that the buck is frequently passed and their rights are disregarded. It appears that the Irish child care system has an underlying culture which believes that if a problem is really serious, it belongs on someone else's desk. The tragedy is all the greater because problems relating to children are not insoluble. The funding is available, but recognition of their needs and most importantly the political will to meet those needs is required.
Three principles should underlie the approach to juvenile justice. Given his record to date, it is difficult to have confidence in the Minister's ability to uphold those principles. The first of these is the principle of prevention. Juvenile offenders should be regarded as the crucial group in any strategy of prevention of crime. The Minister's lack of urgency in producing this Bill indicates that he has yet to accept this point. The second principle is that rehabilitation must be central to the criminal justice system. Again the Minister has not grasped this point. How else can he explain the massive underprovision of drug treatment services in the prisons, where the majority of prisoners have drug problems, or the scandalously low number of treatment places for sex offenders in prison? The Minister's record on both of these issues concerning rehabilitation has been abysmal. More than anything else the juvenile justice services must aim to rehabilitate young offenders and break the seemingly inevitable link between today's young offender and tomorrow's adult criminal. The third principle is a political commitment to secure adequate resources to cater for the most troubled children in our society. On all three of these principles the Government has failed miserably.
It is deeply regrettable that we are only now beginning a debate on a comprehensive Children Bill, nearly three years after the Government took office. However, I broadly welcome the Bill which the Minister has brought before the House today. At last it gives this House an opportunity to have a substantial debate on child welfare and juvenile justice, a debate that is long overdue.
Given the complexity and length of this Bill, there are a large number of changes and amendments which the Labour Party will be seeking and which we can all address on Committee Stage. However, before I turn to the detail of the Bill I will comment on the context in which it is being debated. There is no doubt that currently there is a crisis in child welfare services. The long history of antiquated legislation and chronic underfunding has resulted in child services that are struggling to cope, a system run on crisis management. The resources and staffing have never been provided for the development of high quality preventative services. Social services, operated under the auspices of the health boards, have been the Cinderella of Irish social policy in terms of investment and funding. This litany of neglect is felt by hundreds of families and communities countrywide. While the passing of legislation to establish a coherent legislative framework within which to address these issues is welcome, it is only part of the solution.
If this legislation is not backed by significant increases in staff and funding, it will have no real benefit for children, families and communities depending on it. Without the financial resources to make a real difference, this Bill will remain little more than an aspirational wish list, to be implemented when resources become available, as the authors of many parliamentary replies are so fond of telling Members in this House.
The current lack of staff and facilities dedicated to children is appalling. According to recent parliamentary questions, the Minister's best current estimate is that a further 63 staff will be required in the probation and welfare service alone to ensure the full implementation of the Children Bill. An indication of the lengthy timeframe the Minister envisages for the implementation of this legislation was revealed when the Minister stated that recruitment will be intensified over the next two years.
Why should we have confidence in the Minister's ability to secure this level of staff? In May last year the probation and welfare service had to strike to get the Government to agree to provide the staff which the Government review had said were required. Before this Bill is considered, 90 additional probation and welfare staff are required. The Government approved 46 posts last year and only one has been filled to date. This is a disgrace. An additional 91 staff are needed plus a further 63 to implement fully the provisions of this Bill. There is no indication that the Minister has taken steps to ensure that those staff are available when it comes to recruitment.
A huge number of social workers are needed to ensure that the current waiting lists are adequately met, let alone to accomplish the additional tasks delegated to health boards under this Bill. On the Order of Business last year the Taoiseach referred to the hundreds of children in the Eastern Health Board area alone who are on a waiting list to be seen by social workers. In the interim period that waiting list has increased, yet the staff needed to undertake this crucial work and assist children who may be at physical, social and emotional risk have not been provided. The Government is still adopting a crisis management stance on child welfare issues. That attitude must change urgently.
Significant additional responsibilities are placed on health boards under this legislation. As it stands, the health boards cannot cope with the level of demand for child welfare services. Currently there are almost 500 children awaiting referral to a social worker in the Eastern Regional Health Authority area alone. That is a scandal in itself. Now we are discussing placing substantial new responsibilities on health boards and bringing under their responsibility all those children between the ages of seven and 12 who previously would have been the responsibility of the criminal justice system. There is a huge demand for additional staff. The lead-in to making those staff available is at least four years because that is the length of the training course available currently for social workers, both within the health boards and in the Probation and Welfare Service. Massive recruitment and training needs to be done before any additional staff will be in place.
In addition to the staff shortages, the chronic lack of proper residential units to deal with existing demand is nothing short of a disgrace. Time and again in the High Court, Mr. Justice Peter Kelly has been forced to call the Government to account for failing to vindicate the constitutional rights of troubled children in the face of official inertia.
Earlier this year lawyers representing a number of children who are in need of urgent and specialised care had to seek an injunction forcing the Department of Education and Science to live up to the commitments it had given to provide additional secure units. The Department went to court seeking to ditch the timetable it had agreed to at an earlier hearing. Fortunately, the Department lost that case and has been required to build the agreed units. However, that it has taken a legal injunction to force the Government to provide even the most basic number of secure units, beggars belief.
It is indicative of a Government which refuses to place the welfare of children at the top of its political agenda. Child welfare and protection is one of the most serious social problems facing the country today, yet it has been delegated to a junior Minister with responsibilities spanning three Departments. There is no dedicated voice for children at the Cabinet table. There is no Department of Children which could cut through the ridiculous red tape created by the current administrative structures. There is no one in Government who can shout ‘stop' when a teenage girl, who has committed no crime but needs care and support, is sent to an institution for the criminally insane because no other facilities are available. Neither was there anyone to shout ‘stop' when any of the other cases, referred to by Deputy Neville, arose. They have reflected badly on the country's political structures and they are shameful.
Drift, not determination, is the hallmark of the Government's current policy. That is the situation that exists today. With debate and amendment this Bill can provide part of the statutory reform needed to radically improve child welfare services. However, without the political commitment to provide the considerable funds required to implement the Bill and reform of our social services, little will change. The Government has not grasped the size of the challenge facing it. The Government believes in a low tax, no spend society and is happy to preside over rapidly escalating gaps between rich and poor. It is a Government which does not believe in investing in the services necessary to build a decent and fair Republic. It would far rather slash taxes for land speculators, and that is precisely what it has done.
There is a fundamental contradiction in bringing before the House a Bill such as this, which demands significant additional current spending – a concept which is anathema to those in Government who hold the purse strings. I fear that this fundamental political contradiction will result in even more inertia and prevarication in our child welfare services. The record of this Government to date offers no alternative conclusion.
I will speak about a number of proposals in the Bill which runs to 272 sections. Part III amends the Child Care Act, 1991, as it relates to children in need of special care or protection who have not committed an offence but where:
the behaviour of the child is such that it poses a real and substantial risk to his or her health, safety, development or welfare, and the child requires special care or protection which he or she is unlikely to receive unless the court makes such an order.
Why was this section, and that dealing with family conferences, not brought in as separate legislation to amend the Child Care Acts, instead of being included in this Bill, the rest of which deals with the issue of juvenile justice? The Minister must also be aware that due to the chronic lack of appropriate services at present, families and social workers may be left with no other course of action but to avail of this section of the Bill to ensure that a child is provided with the required supports and services. If current child welfare services are not improved then obtaining special care orders may be the only way that those who care about the welfare of troubled children can access appropriate services.
I am also wary of the tone and language in this section of the Bill. The section deals extensively with issues such as the detention of a child in a special care unit, the obligation on the health board to prevent the child injuring itself or others, and the obligation to prevent children absconding from custody. However, not enough emphasis is given to the care, education and welfare of the child, surely the most important function of any special care or protection orders. I also regret that the Bill does not specify how often special care units should be inspected and fails to establish an independent body to inspect these units. That is a serious failing which I hope we can deal with on Committee Stage.
I welcome the proposals in sections 7 to 16 which deal with family welfare conferences. They provide a sensible framework within which a child, its family and the appropriate agencies can discuss a range of problems and formulate an action plan which, ideally, can be worked upon within the family context and without the need to resort to special care orders. Sadly, however, as we know, this will not always be the case.
While the Bill provides for an administrative service for the conferences, it seems to ignore the issue of financial assistance for families participating in them. There is no provision for private family time at these conferences. Surely if we are serious about encouraging young people and their families to take responsibility for their behaviour, the families should be encouraged and facilitated to be active agents in drawing up these plans, and not merely the guests of the State at a conference.
What is disturbing about this section is that family welfare conferences will only be convened at the direction of a court or a health board, in reality when crisis intervention is necessary. A major failing of this Bill is that it does not facilitate early intervention in families with problems. The model of the family welfare conference proposed in the Bill could be extremely beneficial to many families when problems first arise and they need assistance and support from social services. However, the Bill fails to recognise this fact and there is no vision of a child welfare service that goes beyond the notion of crisis management. Unfortunately, intervention at an early stage rarely happens and when it does, it is often too little, too late for many families.
Sections 17 to 51 in Part IV establishes the Garda diversion programme on a statutory footing. These important sections propose a new framework for dealing with juvenile crime. The scale of juvenile crime and its often appalling effects on a community is a growing problem. Last year approximately 15,000 juveniles were reported to the juvenile office by means of a juvenile referral form. In the first four months of last year alone, 2,687 juveniles were arrested in the Dublin area. Juvenile crime is a serious and growing problem, but one the Minister seems to be overlooking entirely through his procrastination.
The proposals in this Bill to put on a statutory basis the response of the Garda Síochána to this problem are welcome, but it is only a partial response. That respect for the law, for neighbours and for one's local community is absent from a large proportion of our young people is deeply disturbing. Does the Minister not accept that by the time many of these people come to the attention of the Garda, through the juvenile liaison scheme, they are so alienated from society that intervention is very often too late.
The Minister's delay in granting any kind of urgency to the preparation of modern juvenile justice legislation has left the Garda in limbo. They simply do not know what to do. Gardaí have neither the expertise nor the resources for the kind of intervention that is required to deal with juvenile crime.
No direction has been forthcoming from the Government for the past three years. The scale of juvenile crime, with over 15,000 arrests a year, is the strongest argument for a comprehensive early intervention child care service. Early intervention, which will deal directly with the circumstances which often lead young children into criminal activities, is urgently required. Yet again this Bill fails to provide for such a service and children at risk may only receive the help and support they need when they are already engaged in anti-social and indeed criminal activity.
I welcome the proposals for restorative cautioning specifically mentioned in the Bill. Forcing young offenders to face up to the trauma and damage that their actions have caused is a progressive and worthwhile policy. There is merit in the suggestion that conferences convened under the terms of this section should be chaired by a neutral chairperson as distinct from a juvenile liaison officer. I hope the Minister will respond to this in summing up. That is no reflection on the juvenile liaison service, which has been very progressive in this regard. However, it is inappropriate that a proper conference of this nature should be chaired by a person seen to be a party to it. If these conferences are to operate effectively and have the full confidence of the families concerned they must be seen to be independent. The terms of employment of the chairperson will be critical to building that confidence. The action plans provided for will generally have cost implications and it is not clear from the Bill where the resources will come from. I seek the Minister's clarification on that as it is so important it should be covered by legislation.
The proposal to provide courts with a wider range of non-custodial options for young offenders is long overdue. I received information from the Department of Education and Science last year that 19 children were serving custodial sentences of up to three years in some cases for not attending school or truancy. This is a regressive, damaging and ultimately futile policy to pursue. How locking a child up in a detention centre will change his or her attitude to formal schooling escapes logic. It is time the courts had the power to take an inclusive and comprehensive approach to the problems facing a child which comes before the court and applies a sentence which, while punishing an offender for a crime, appreciates that these people are still children and need support and assistance rather than penal custodial sentences if they are to have any positive future in society.
The term "detention schools" is particularly distasteful and I ask the Minister to consider changing it. I see no difficulty with the existing term "special schools." I am concerned by the proposals in Part X of the Bill which require directors of detention schools to admit every child referred to them. Will this proposal not lead to the development of a revolving door syndrome? Will children who are serving sentences have training and rehabilitation courses disrupted and terminated early as they are released to make way for new referrals that the detention school will be legally required to accept? This is a difficult area. I am not suggesting we revert to a situation where people can be refused, as there seems to be no follow-up with those children who are refused at present. I recently came across the case of a child sentenced to two years' detention and when gardaí took him to the detention centre they were told there was no room, so he was simply sent back to the community to continue causing the havoc he had been causing for the previous two years. All Members will agree that such cases cannot be allowed to continue, but we cannot have a situation where children are moved out of detention centres as we will have a revolving door syndrome such as that which operates in adult prisons.
I am also concerned by sections 56 and 57 of the Bill which relate to the detention of children in Garda custody. It is extremely worrying that even if this Bill passes into law there still exists the prospect of children who are detained in Garda custody being held with adults. Surely the Minister could have identified a network of Garda stations which have dedicated facilities for children and that the gardaí would be required to avail of these facilities if accommodation separating children from adults was not available in their base station.
I welcome Part XII of the Bill which deals with the protection of children and in particular section 247 which re-enacts the offence of causing or procuring a child to beg. The work which the Leanbh project has undertaken in close co-operation with the gardaí in recent times highlights the scandal of child begging and the stark fact that some parents force their children to beg. I hope this section will bring a halt to this practice.
This Bill does not radically differ from the Children's Bill, 1996.