Other Questions

Children’s Rights

Peadar Tóibín

Question:

24 Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the date on which she will publish the State’s next report to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [19896/11]

The preparation of this report is being progressed within my Department in line with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNCRC, and in consultation with the statutory and non-statutoty sectors. The report will cover the period from 2005-10, inclusive.

My Department is working to have a draft ready before the end of this year and submitted to the UN as soon as possible thereafter. Preparatory work to identify key areas of statutory responsibility has now been completed and requests for updated information will issue shortly to relevant Departments. The responses I receive from the various Departments will be incorporated in the report, which I intend to submit as soon as possible. If we have the draft before the end of this year, the report will be published shortly after that.

The Government signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, UNCRC, in September 1990 and ratified it two years later in September 1992. The first report was presented in 1997, the second in 2006 and the third was due in April 2009. While I note what the Minister has said, I hope the establishment of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs will not see these long and unexplained delays in the future. Why is it that the report which was due in 2009 has not yet been presented? There must be an explanation and I hope the Minister is in a position to share that with us.

Where does the Minister believe the report will stand on the recommendations of the implementation committee on the UNCRC arising from the 2006 report? This must include the allocation of resources to enact the outstanding provisions in the relevant Children Acts for the protection of children and also incorporate the convention into domestic law. What is the current position in that regard? Also, the general principle of the best interest of the child being a primary consideration must be fully integrated into all legislation relevant to children.

The final recommendation is that social work services provided to families and children at risk be extended to cover seven days per week and 24 hours per day. These are the four critical points from the 2006 report. Where will we stand in regard to them when the Minister's report is completed?

I share the Deputy's concern regarding the delay in responding to the UN. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which comprises 54 articles, is the most widely ratified international human rights instrument and the first legal instrument to focus solely on children's rights regardless of place of birth, sex, religion or social origin. The preparation of the report is a priority for my Department. There are key issues to be considered, including the provision of a 24-hour service. Progress has been made in that regard, with two pilot projects in place. A report on the outcome of those projects will be submitted to me before the end of the year, which will enable me to assess the feasibility and cost of extending that type of service to other locations. I will incorporate those findings into the report to be sent to the Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Is legislation planned to incorporate the convention into domestic law? None of us want to see another report showing a continuation of the flaws and deficiencies highlighted by the Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2006. We must show progress on the matters I have highlighted.

I will get back to the Deputy on the question of legislation.

Does the Minister accept this is not merely a flowery UN convention rather a key policy strategy in developing policies to assist children with disabilities and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, among others? Does she agree that early intervention is key in terms of preventing problems for children when they reach second level education and beyond, if they get that far?

I agree that early intervention is key. That is not in doubt. Last week I attended a meeting of EU health Ministers where it was emphasised that we ought to be thinking in terms of equal opportunities for children with communication disorders given that one in three, one in four and one in five children, respectively, will be born with a visual, speech or hearing difficulty. By the time children enter primary school, 20% have difficulties to do with hearing. Early screening and assessment of these problems is the best way to ensure children's rights, as articulated in the UN convention, are met in this State. We have much work to do not only in terms of early intervention but also in respect of child protection. The Health Service Executive's director of child and family services, a recently recruited international expert, has said that our child protection system is not fit for purpose and that a great deal of work remains to be done.

Early Childhood Education

David Stanton

Question:

25 Deputy David Stanton asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the reasons for the strict age range for eligibility under the early childhood care and education school free preschool year; if she has given any consideration to changing the age range to coincide with the legal starting age for children enrolling in primary schools; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [19825/11]

The early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme was introduced in January 2010 and provides a free preschool year to all eligible children in the year before commencing primary school. In September 2010, the first full year of the programme, 63,000 children participated, amounting to 94% of all eligible children. Some 4,300 preschool services, or 95% of all services, are participating in the programme, thus ensuring it is available to children in all areas.

Children qualify for the free preschool year where they are aged more than three years and two months and less than four years and seven months at 1 September in the relevant year. This means that children born between 2 February 2007 and 30 June 2008 will qualify for the free preschool year in September 2011. Exceptions to the upper age limit are allowed in cases where a child is developmentally delayed or it is necessary due to the enrolment policies of local primary schools.

Exceptions to the lower age limit are not allowed under the ECCE programme. This is because the objective of the preschool year is to make early learning in a formal setting available to children in the year before they commence primary school. To achieve this, participating services are expected to provide age-appropriate activities to children. This requires targeting the preschool year at a particular age cohort limited by minimum and maximum age limits. It is considered that the eligibility range, which spans almost 17 months, is reasonable.

Subject to the local enrolment policies of primary schools, parents are entitled to enrol their children in primary school in the September in which they reach four years of age. In practice, the majority of parents choose to commence their children in primary school when they are aged between four years and six months and five years and six months. While targeting a specific age cohort, the ECCE programme has also tried to facilitate the preference of as many parents as possible. The fact that some children continue to be enrolled in primary school when they are not more than four years and two months and that this means they cannot avail of the preschool year was the subject of a complaint to the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. The complaint was not upheld.

It is difficult to achieve a cut-off point in any scheme which accommodates the preferences of everyone. Inevitably, there are those who fall just outside any age range. Nevertheless, as a new, universally available and free programme intended to precede entry to primary education, the ECCE scheme provides a beneficial basis for all parents to plan their child's early education.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Would it not make sense to synchronise the starting ages for preschool and primary school? Under the preschool scheme, children born in July and August must wait until they are five years old to start school if they are to avail of the scheme. How many children are impacted by this anomaly?

I do not have those figures to hand. However, as I have said, the scheme has enjoyed a very high take-up rate, with 94% of all eligible children participating. The 17-month eligibility range was seen to provide a broad enough range to encompass the vast majority of children within the appropriate age cohort. It is legally permissible for children to commence primary school once they have reached four years of age, but it could be said there is a preference inherent in the scheme in that children born in July and August must wait until they reach five years of age to commence primary education. Cases have been brought to my attention where parents are eager to avail of the preschool year but also want their child to start school having just reached the age of four.

The decision was taken prior to my arrival on the basis that the 17-month range was preferable in terms of providing the type of preschool experience that would best benefit children. That criterion has been appealed to the Ombudsman, who found in favour of the Department and that the age range was acceptable. There will always be children who fall outside the cohort. From a policy point of view, this age range was seen as the most appropriate for preschool services.

Is it the Minister's view that children who have just reached four years of age are too young to start primary school? Is there an intention to change the legal age and, if so, is one of the reasons for the age restriction in the preschool scheme to encourage children to commence primary school at a later age?

The legal situation is that children may commence primary education at the age of four. Beyond that it is a question of parental choice. Ideally, I would like to see a situation in Ireland similar to that in other European countries where two years of preschool education are provided for young children. It is universally recognised that a two-year period of early education from three to five years of age is extremely beneficial. I agree with Deputy Finian McGrath that early intervention offers great scope to support and assist children and families.

On the preschool year of early education for children, there was previously provision in the regulations for children with special needs to avail of a second year of preschool education. Has the Minister any plans to continue with that provision? I know it has been discontinued from September 2011 but will she overturn that decision and allow children with special needs to avail of a second year of early education?

As I said earlier, I would like to see a situation where children with special needs would have a second year. When the scheme was introduced originally, it began in January and those children who attended from January to June were then allowed to take a second year. There has been some misunderstanding but there was never actually a second year available, although clearly it would be of great benefit to many children if it were available. I said earlier that it is primarily a financial consideration at this stage. It would be about 10% of the cohort and would cost some €15 million plus administrative costs, which is a considerable financial outlay. It would be extremely beneficial but I have no plans to do so at present. As a vision for the early school years, I would like to see it in place.

Child Abuse

Derek Keating

Question:

26 Deputy Derek Keating asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her policy on mandatory reporting of child abuse, wilful neglect and physical or emotional abuse; her plans to introduce legislation for mandatory reporting of suspected abuse; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [18228/11]

As I indicated in my reply to Deputy McConalogue, I will be launching the new Children First national guidance later this week. I also hope to be in a position to outline shortly the details of the legislation to underpin Children First. The Government has committed, in the programme for Government, to this legislation and I have made considerable progress in recent weeks in developing the scope of the legislation and the policy that would underpin it.

It is my view that the legislation to underpin Children First needs to set out a more broadly based approach to compliance than that of reporting alone. I have already addressed this in an earlier question. In order for such legislation to have greater effect and to be really meaningful, it should also focus on the need for multidisciplinary, inter-agency working in the management of child welfare and protection concerns. We need different organisations working well together if we are to protect children. We need people making reports at an early stage, passing on of concerns and sharing of information between agencies and disciplines in the best interests of children. A proactive approach by all agencies who work with children which seeks to safeguard their interests and welfare is preferable to a narrow view that responsibilities are discharged when a report is made. It is not enough simply to make a report.

The experience of mandatory reporting in other jurisdictions such as parts of the United States, Australia and Canada, is that its introduction can see an upsurge in reporting but weaknesses in the quality of reporting and the necessary collaboration between professionals and agencies needed to protect children. This has undermined the potential benefits.

The new Children First national guidance for 2011 will be published later this week. We will have an implementation plan from the HSE to ensure there is consistency in reporting of cases across the country by professionals involved in all organisations, voluntary and statutory, faith based and otherwise. The implementation of the new Children First national guidance and its subsequent statutory underpinning are intended to strengthen our child protection system and make clear the obligations to protect, report and respond to circumstances where the abuse or welfare of children is at risk.

This is the first time I have had the opportunity to ask the Minister a question in the Dáil since her appointment. I would like to take the opportunity once again of congratulating her and wishing her every success.

In my question I refer to the mandatory reporting of child abuse. The most recent findings of the Roscommon, Kelly Fitzgerald, the Murphy and the Kilkenny reports demonstrate clearly that very little has changed. What is common to these reports is the very poor communication between the service providers, the HSE and the Garda Síochána. What is also common to those reports are the strong recommendations for mandatory reporting governed by statute. In the case of the professionals providing the services to children, such as teachers, doctors, nurses, youth workers, staff in professional crèches and so on, would the Minister agree that they should be legally obliged by statute to report abuse or suspected abuse?

I heard what the Minister had to say to Deputy McConalogue on the reporting requirements, but I think we would not have full child protection without the introduction of mandatory reporting.

It is interesting that recent reviews of the Children First guidelines, and we will have an updated version of those later in the week, have found them to be robust and appropriate. What is really important — and this is what makes the difference — is implementation. We must focus on implementation. It is not simply about reporting. We must insist that people report their concerns. I agree with the Deputy that if somebody has in good faith reasonable concerns about the abuse or neglect of a child, those concerns should be reported to the relevant authority. The legislation, which I intend to bring forward, and which has been recommended by the Ryan report will underpin the good practice outlined in Children First. The reporting requirement, and I wish to restate this, is only one element. What is really important is that we have a broadly based approach to compliance. It has to be greater than reporting alone. As Deputy McConalogue rightly stated, if one simply focuses on reporting, one gets an increase in reporting without actually protecting children. What we want to see is a change in practice, consistency and implementation and agencies working well together. The best way of doing that is to have legislation that is broadly based, which focuses not only on reporting, but on best practice, inter-agency working and consistent implementation. That is the goal of the legislation.

I thank the Minister for that very concise reply. My concern is that members of the profession to which I referred might shy away from reporting and I hear what the Minister is saying on full implementation. Without a legislative requirement, how can we be guaranteed full implementation?

I welcome the Minister's commitment to legislate in line with the Children First guidelines. The Children First guidelines refer also to neglect by omission, for example the lack of intellectual stimulation, children missing school and the deprivation of intellectual stimulation as a result of that and how that might affect their later development. What role does the Minister see herself having in implementing Children First guidelines? The sentiment of legislation in this area may be admirable but how will the Minister apply this to cuts and caps on special needs assistants, the lack of which I know for certain in many cases means that some children will have support for only one hour's schooling a day? How will she ensure these children's rights are vindicated in terms of the proper provision of the supports necessary for them to attend school?

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for bringing me in. Has progress been made on the first report of the Oireachtas joint committee on soft information? One must recognise that in responding to abuse in this particular instance, the soft information element should also be considered, which is not absolutely addressed in the provisions of the Children First legislation. I would commend taking both together if at all possible and putting them on a statutory footing.

I welcome the Minister's reply. She is correct that there must be consistency in the implementation. She referred in her reply to the need to have the agencies working well together, but we do not appear to have joined-up thinking and a multidisciplinary approach to the issues. Is the Minister confident that the different agencies will operate joined-up thinking and deliver a service that can be held to account?

On reading the Children First guidelines and compliance, it is clear there is a reporting requirement in the guidelines. The legislation will reflect that. Professionals mentioned will be under an obligation to report, as they are at present, and that will be reflected in legislation.

Regarding Deputy Boyd Barrett's question on neglect, it is important to highlight that area. This is a serious issue and child abuse by neglect or omission is a serious aspect of it. It is the largest and fastest-growing area where children suffer. This is particularly true with drugs and alcohol issues in young families. Children under five years of age are placed in untenable circumstances and are increasingly being brought to the attention of the authorities. The range of services outlined is important in ensuring children reach their full potential. It is clearly a question of resources and ensuring that those resources are available so children with a range of issues reach their potential. In terms of reporting, neglect is one of these areas. We saw that in the Roscommon report and it needs to get more attention. It has not received the kind of attention and reporting it needs. The HSE has the authority to intervene in familial and extra-familial cases.

Regarding Deputy Ó Caoláin's question on soft information, progress has been made and the heads of the Bill will be published. Deputy Shatter and I have been working on it and progress has been made. We expect the legislation this year. I support the point made by Deputy Buttimer regarding agencies working well together. That is why the legislation I will introduce is not simply about reporting but about reflecting the contents of the Children First document. Agencies must work well together and there must be inter-agency co-operation.

The Minister has answered the question on a couple of occasions but I am still not clear. Will the proposals she will bring forward at the end of the week include mandatory reporting? The Sunday before last, an article inThe Sunday Times contained details of what the measure will involve. There is the option of dismissal procedures being taken against nurses and teachers if they fail to report, meaning that it is mandatory. This is a simple “Yes” or “No” question. Will mandatory reporting be introduced as part of the proposals?

I am not using the phrase "mandatory reporting" and I have already explained that to Deputy McConalogue. There will be a reporting requirement, which is different to the concept of mandatory reporting. The legislation I am introducing will be based on Children First guidelines.

There is a reporting element to it but, as important as that element is, there will be an outline of how agencies work together. Of course there will be sanctions if people do not report. The report was correct in that there will be sanctions. In every organisation there will be someone designated to ensure the Children First guidelines are complied with.

Written Answers follow Adjournment Debate.