I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the Children Bill. As many speakers have already stated, this Bill has been long awaited but it will prove worth the wait. It has had the benefit of many additions in terms of research, experience and knowledge over the years from within the country and internationally.
When one focuses on the Bill's title – the Children Bill – one thinks of it in positive terms. When one hears words such as "offences", "compensation", "courts" and "care orders", one may change one's initial response and assume a negative approach is being taken to children. However, on further investigation, the Bill's positive message is that a child's place should be with its family and that children who come under its remit will be dealt with in terms of their rehabilitation.
The majority of children are good. This is borne out by my experience not only in life but also as a teacher. Sometimes the fact that such a majority of young people are good, fun-loving and decent is missed by the emphasis we place on those children who get into bother and attract headlines.
Today we are dealing with children who got into difficulty, who are in danger of getting into trouble or who have behavioural problems. The Bill balances the needs of children who have offended with the protection of individuals or society in general. Therefore, the Bill addresses two aspects on one issue – some people may refer to these as the "two victims"– the child and, the most obvious victim, the person whose rights they have impinged upon.
It is unfortunate that, for a number of reasons, a percentage of children are increasingly getting into trouble. In the past that may have meant a group stole apples from an orchard. Now, however, the traditional badness has escalated in severity. Not to be parochial but in an effort to provide a concrete and recent example of such behaviour, live entertainment was laid on in my home town three weeks ago which everyone enjoyed. However, more than 600 children – many of whom had not attained their teenage years – took over the town green and drank their carry-outs from 11 a.m. until such time as they were not able to drink any more. They became abusive and violent early in the day and, subsequently, some of them varied or alternated being sick with being very vocal.
The state of these children is a reflection of the extremes which obtain in modern society. While we hope this was very much a once-off incident, it is not a once-off in terms of what smaller groups of children are doing at night or at weekends. The people of our town wondered how these children were allowed to travel 20 miles on their own without adult supervision and how, when they returned home, their parents did not notice their state. For many of these children, it may have been their first time to drink alcohol. However, others among their number were more hardened to the activity in which they were engaged.
Unfortunately, the issue of under-age drinking is not merely a problem for the individual on a particular day. More importantly, long range consequences can arise for the people involved, particularly young girls, and for those with whom they come into contact. Both parties may be victims, but until now neither has had a chance of justice or support commensurate with what I trust is contained in the Bill. In conjunction with the Intoxicating Liquor Bill, which was recently published and will soon be introduced, this legislation will offer solutions to this problem. I commend the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on the action he has taken on both fronts.
To return to the 600 children to whom I referred earlier, I am sure they come from different backgrounds. Many of their parents will not yet know their children are involved in anti-social behaviour. Others, while responsible parents, will realise their children are difficult or, for one reason or another, out of control but they will feel at a loss as to which way to turn. Others, however, will not worry that their children are out of control as they have no sense of responsibility for these young people. In all cases, the effect of the young people on victims is the same but the type of solution for the children varies.
The Bill raises the child's age of responsibility from seven to 12 years and provides that parents become more accountable for the actions of their children. They can be bound to exercise proper and adequate control over their child where the child has been found guilty of an offence. They can also be ordered to pay compensation if it is seen that there was wilful neglect on the part of the parents to look after and control the child. I am glad the compensation order takes into account the parents' ability to pay. All children want to be loved. Parents' wilful neglect will lead to a child seeking attention, usually through destructive means. Wilful neglect, therefore, often directly contributes to the child's behaviour and it is only right that the parents are reminded in this manner of their responsibilities as parents.
In the long run, this must be a significant step in developing the concept of the family. It is unfortunate that one almost has to coerce parents into a situation where they are made conscious of their children, the children's needs and, often, their mere existence. In some cases the carrot and stick approach employed in the Bill will work. In other cases the parents may not be in a position to help themselves. These are the people who truly need assistance. It is not good enough for society to point the finger, blame the parents and walk away. Help and support must be forthcoming.
I am pleased this reality is being dealt with in the Bill through the potential use of a parental supervision order should wilful neglect of a child be seen to lead the child to criminal behaviour. In this instance, parents can be ordered by the court to undergo a parenting course if they are deemed not to have adequate personal skills and resources to look after the child or, if the problem is one of substance abuse, they can be ordered to go for treatment of the abuse. In the current climate where the abuse of alcohol is almost a norm in society, this is an important development in the Bill. The Minister said this response would probably be suitable for only a minority of cases. I disagree and I trust adequate resources will be allocated to parenting courses and places on rehabilitation courses. Even moderate cases should be given the option of availing of support.
Too often parents are at a loss as to how to deal with their children. This can be due to the parents being young themselves. It can be due to medical, financial or social hardships and if the parents do not feel they have somebody to turn to when times got rough. They are unable to ask for help and the situation in the family gradually deteriorates until some member gets into trouble. While the Bill cannot be the answer to all ills, it must be resourced to address as many people as possible who, with a little intervention, could experience a dramatic improvement in their ability to cope.
If the Bill is to be effective, there must be a co-ordinated input from various Departments. The 600 plus children to whom I referred earlier felt the only excitement in which they could engage was drinking themselves to oblivion. It is a sad reflection on society that this is what such a large number of young people believe to be their only option. One must look at the facilities being provided for young people. Many responsible adults spend many hours helping young people to engage in music, sport and other forms of recreation. These allow children to express themselves and engage with others in a positive manner.
While I commend my constituency colleague, Deputy McDaid, on his work in the Department of Tourism, Sport and Recreation, rural Ireland still has far to go with regard to the provision of proper facilities and resources. The concept of having one overall development that encompasses all groups in a town is a good approach. However, in many instances if there is no significant increase in the level of funding, many young people will be without adequate facilities for many years to come. Without decent resources, the adults who are trying to do their bit in the community are left with an uphill struggle. I call on the Minister, Deputy McDaid, to assist the objectives of this Bill and to ensure as many children as possible are given an alternative to the trouble into which idleness leads them. This approach is underlined in sections 30 to 50.
When a number of children gather in a threatening manner little can be done about it. However, there are measures in the Bill which could offer a victim support if the child is challenged by the law and brought to court. To let children have regular "free-for-alls" is only asking for trouble in the future. We need an appropriate number of law enforcers in towns to deal with the children who are usually known to the Garda and local community as troublemakers, for want of a better term. The number of gardaí must be worked out on the basis of not only the size of the town or village but also its proximity to larger towns and cities and its use as a social and recreational centre. There must also be garda visibility.
I note that responsibility for establishing a family conference relies on the groundwork of the JLO, the juvenile liaison officers responsible for the delivery of reports and the supervision of the child. This sounds great on a one to one basis but in Donegal there are three juvenile liaison officers to cover a huge county. Unless the Bill is accompanied by serious delivery of Garda personnel specifically trained and geared for this single issue, the Bill cannot be effective. Each Garda station needs a JLO or a garda with special responsibility for young people. The Minister will be anxious to create something that not only looks good on paper but is capable of being implemented. Too often we give lip service to the concept of nurturing the young to create a confident, competent and dynamic new generation. Now is the time to match these words with the resources they deserve to make them reality.
A number of parents do not worry about the whereabouts of their children. If these children have no constructive option as to how to spend their time and the law enforcers believe they are not sufficiently numerous to deal with those children when they become unruly, we are heading into anarchy. This scenario, while logical, might give the impression that all children are "Lord of the Flies" style evil but I do not believe that. However, the point must be made that everybody has a role to play in the positive development of young people.
There must be community support for families and the strength and discipline to back up the community when such support fails. Perhaps there is a role within the local authorities' new special policy committee structures to convene the community support in a practical manner, bringing together elected representatives, health boards, vocational education committees, the Garda Síochána, sporting and voluntary groups and young people to look at the role modelling or mentoring needs of future adults. Too often we omit that important group, the young people, when dealing with issues pertaining to them. This is a serious mistake.
The Department of Health and Children is not being allowed to deal properly with its brief. When we discuss issues such as underage drinking and its health and social effects, we are directed to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, not the Department of Health and Children. This is either an abdication of responsibility or a flaw in the system. I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children, which has carried out significant work on the issue of tobacco addiction and the targeting of young people by the tobacco industry. The committee should also be able to examine alcohol addiction and its effect on young people. I am pressing to have this matter prioritised in the committee's work programme but responsibility for it still rests with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
I praise the role of the Minister, Deputy O'Donoghue, particularly with regard to the recently published intoxicating liquor Bill. However, there should be a more direct link between the Department of Health and Children and the welfare of all children. That Department should strive to take real responsibility for the child's welfare and health. This responsibility currently falls between stools.
I welcome the establishment of the family welfare conferences on a statutory basis. This will enable health boards and other agencies to intervene at an early stage with regard to a child who requires special care and protection following a direction by the court and in other circumstances. The presence of the children at these conferences is a most important development. As the Minister of State, Deputy Hanafin, said, we talk too often about children and on their behalf. Often the person with most to offer is the person most involved, the child. Similarly, the amendment of the Child Care Act, 1991, which imposes a duty on the health board to apply for a special or interim special care order to protect children is important. This will ensure children with behavioural difficulties who are not necessarily committing offences can get protection, care and education through the board's additional range of powers. I echo Deputy Ring's comment on the latter aspect. Children with behavioural difficulties need support within the educational sphere. County Donegal currently shares an educational psychologist with another county. The provision of one educational psychologist between two counties is inadequate and until there is increased provision in this area there will be difficulty in implementing this legislation.
I am pleased the first port of call is not detention. The majority of children are not so extreme as to need secure units. The Minister indicated that while the Bill will give the health boards the power to detain children on receipt of a court order, it is a measure of last resort and will be used only in the interest of the child.
Ultimately, prevention is better than cure and I trust the early intervention programme will be the most used of the measures. However, when children have committed offences, the environment in which they are detained should be such as to ensure that it is constructive and that children will develop in a positive manner. Too often we have images of young children who get into minor trouble finding themselves in an institution where they are taught more inventive ways of getting into trouble by more serious offenders. Surely this defeats the purpose of rehabilitation and will now be relegated to history.
I welcome the fact that the Department of Education and Science will have a role in the rehabilitation of 12 to 16 year olds. It may have been better to extend the provision to 18 year olds, given that 16 to 18 year olds are so often treated as adults for punishment but not for adult privileges. Section 67 changes from 17 to 18 years the age at which a person is regarded as a child. Will the Minister outline his views on this aspect?
I welcome the Bill. All children will react to something positive. The planned adult conference has great potential. I recently visited a school on adult literacy or world book day. Some of the children told me they were not interested in books, but when I produced a small book on Manchester United they were surprised and said they would read it. They asked me to leave it with them so they could take it home for the weekend. All children, good, bad and indifferent, are good at something. Approached with a proper plan even the worst child can be brought along and can be included more in society.
The Bill has at its core the importance not only of individual children, but also the parents. It pulls together support structures on an inter-agency basis. These include the child in their remit. These structures will work on behalf of all children and in the interests of individual children.
We all know that while all children are different they have many similar tendencies. They all want to be loved and they all need care and protection, whether they are special needs children, children with behavioural difficulties, children on the edge of the law or those who have broken the law. The Bill provides that the family conferences will make an early start at intervention, not in an attempt to condemn the family but to offer services and assistance to not only the child but to the family.
Even when the intervention of the courts is required, the Bill provides for continued efforts to be made to maintain family links and positive efforts to reintegrate and rehabilitate, and not to rely solely on detention. The Bill provides that a victim may attend the family conference. Section 26 provides for restorative measures, where the child confronts the effects of his or her behaviour in the presence of the victim and is given the opportunity to apologise and make reparation. The intentions here are very good and with proper resourcing and continued cross-departmental implementation, it will be a historic advance for children. I look forward to the day it encompasses my 600 children who were from outside the jurisdiction. I trust that at some stage these provisions will have an affect on my Border county and on all children who enter this jurisdiction.