I welcome the Minister of State to the House to take this important Bill.
When it comes to child care and protection, Ireland is a nation which promises to cherish all its children equally, but it has an abysmal record. The current Government is guilty of shameless delaying tactics when it comes to children's issues. It continues to drag its heels on the constitutional amendment on children's rights and, despite extensive lobbying from the Opposition, this matter remains unresolved. Perhaps the Minister of State will give some clarification today.
Interestingly in the light of the revelations two days ago about the three children who were abused by their father, section 4 of the Child Care Act 1991 places an obligation on health boards, now superseded by the HSE, to promote the welfare of children in its area who are not receiving protection and care from parents or guardians. How can children be put into the position where one child with similar problems to her siblings was not taken into care and the others experienced ongoing abuse, even when they were under the so called protection of the HSE? While reference was made in proceedings to the defiance of the HSE, why was such defiance not picked up on?
The HSE has been found wanting in this regard. It is unbelievable that despite a litany of such cases, protection measures are not foolproof and children continue to suffer unnecessarily from the trauma of abuse and violence. It is too late for the long-term welfare of an abused child to bring the perpetrator to justice. The acts have been committed, the trust broken, and the mental and emotional scars are life-long.
A striking omission in the current legislation is its failure to put guidelines for GALs or guardians on a statutory footing. The 1991 Act contains guidelines for the appointment of such guardians, who comprise the only independent evaluation mechanism in the health service, but made no provision for training, criteria for appointment or quality assurance. It is a significant lack in the current Bill that it fails to amend the omissions of the 1991 Act.
The Bill makes the situation worse, in that it proposes to limit the autonomy of the GALs and curtails their unfettered access to legal representation. The Bill gives the courts statutory discretion over whether a solicitor will be appointed for a GAL. This could impact adversely on a child or young person who relies on his or her GAL to put a case forward to counsel. That the fear of liability for costs also hangs over them is an outrage to basic justice. This issue needs to be addressed.
What Bill that purports to be in the interest of the child would seek to penalise an independent person seeking to help him or her? The message being sent out is that any opposition to the HSE will not be tolerated, even if it is in the interest of the child. Once again, children are being made aware that there is no one to turn to for help. This is a serious issue.
Will the Minister of State explain why he has seen fit to omit the issue of after care and support for all children leaving care? It seems that the only concern he has in this respect is one of cost. Mandatory after care is essential and he should know that the cost to the State in the long term could be considerably reduced were proper provision for after care planned and implemented. This is the classic case of being penny wise and pound foolish. In this instance, it is at the expense of the young and vulnerable in our society.
Section 22 of the 2009 Bill refers to after care and goes as far as to say that the HSE is to prepare and publish guidelines in respect of such care for those aged 18 years and over. However, this in no means goes far enough. As we know, if guidelines are to carry any weight, they must be guaranteed and followed through to positive action, yet here we have a problem. The Minister of State, while rushing to count the cost, is not considering the long-term well-being of the individual who is currently at the mercy of an inconsistent system of after care. Surely it is not rocket science to know that the only way to ensure a uniformity of services for after care is to include a legal entitlement to such in this Bill.
The Minister of State referred to the current system as a postcode lottery when speaking in the Seanad. Why should that situation be allowed to continue? Given the vulnerability of young people who have been in care and the burdens and mental anguish that many will carry around for the rest of their lives, surely the likelihood of such young adults, left to their own devices without guidance, turning to drugs and crime is high. This vulnerability should be recognised and measures put in place to allow those out of care to take their place in society in a structured and empowering manner. Anything less is an abandonment of the vulnerable to the streets to join the statistics of the homeless and those in poverty.
The Government must pledge to provide after care initiatives that develop life skills, build confidence and stress the importance of education and work programmes to allow a smooth transition to independent living. This is highlighted by the children themselves through the complaints service provided by the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. Focus Ireland has outlined the need for suitable accommodation and an out-of-hours system to protect young people who fall out of the care system before 18 years of age. This threshold needs to be extended to 21 years.
What exactly does the Minister of State understand the rights of children and young people to be? Does he believe they have such rights? If so, he should introduce legislation that ensures a rights-based protection service for every child in the country within the necessary statutory framework and in conjunction with a well resourced and multidisciplinary network with built in checks and balances. Such a service would be important.
What regard has been paid to the Lisbon treaty in the drawing up of this Bill? It would appear to have been small, if not non-existent. Where is the provision for children's rights to secure placements or to have their voices represented and heard? If the threat to parties to proceedings, in this case the GALs, is anything to go by, the current legislation will fail our children.
The Bill also fails to take regard of children's sensitivity to language. It is clear that discussing detention in terms of child care is creating an instantaneous stigma. In a recent debate, the Minister of State made no distinction between detention and placement and referred to "civil detention". One of the most glaring omissions in this Bill is its failure to recognise the rights of a child to representation in cases relating to special care orders. In this area the child in need of protection is worse off than a child in a criminal case who would have an automatic right to representation. This is serious. It surely infringes a child's rights to have no means of stating his or her feelings in regard to what is being decided.
We live in a time that we like to think has come a long way from the Victorian era, when a child was expected to be seen and not heard. It is time this was recognised by the courts and by legislation. However, current practice falls short of the requirements of Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This is an indictment of the current Government.
I broadly support this legislation but I look forward to assurances from the Minister that its discrepancies will be ironed out before the Bill passes into law. This is essentially a legal and technical Bill but I implore the Minister not to forget the human element. The children to whom this legislation relates have often been let down by parents or guardians, by society, and, as things stand, by the State.