Priority Questions

Child Protection

Charlie McConalogue

Question:

19 Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she will provide further information regarding her plans to bring legislative proposals to Government putting the revised Children First guidelines on a statutory footing; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [19978/11]

In line with the programme for Government, I am committed to the introduction of legislation to underpin Children First, the national guidance document on the reporting and management of child welfare and protection concerns. The need for such legislation was already highlighted in the implementation plan prepared following the publication in July 2009 of the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. My Department has made much progress in recent weeks in developing the scope and application of the legislation.

I will be publishing later this week a new Children First national guidance document. I also hope to be in a position shortly to outline further details on the policy approach that will inform the proposed legislation. It is my view that the new legislation needs to extend beyond the reporting of suspected abuse.

We also need to emphasise the importance of multidisciplinary and inter-agency co-operation in the management of such concerns if we are truly to protect children. Key to this is the sharing of information between agencies and disciplines in the best interests of children and the need for full co-operation to ensure the safeguarding of children.

I am attaching particular importance to the need for this legislation and I hope the proposals enjoy widespread support in the interests of protecting vulnerable children. I hope the implementation of both the revised Children First guidelines and the legislation that will underpin compliance will provide an opportunity to raise societal awareness of physical, sexual and emotional abuse and neglect of children, and the need for everyone to play their part in protecting children.

I thank the Minister for her response. It is not clear from the Minister's reply whether she is planning on introducing mandatory reporting with specific penalties alongside her proposals to put the Children First guidelines on a statutory footing. What plans is she drawing up to ensure the changes she is proposing will be resourced in a way that will allow the system to operate properly?

I note that a couple of weekends ago at the annual conference of the Irish Association of Social Workers there was some unease among social workers about the proposed standardised system being designed by the HSE to transform social workers' handling of child protection issues. The experience in other countries has been that the introduction of mandatory reporting has led to a large increase in the number of reports coming in, putting massive pressure on social workers. It is critical, in taking this approach, that the Minister has sufficient resources to ensure the system can operate as it is intended.

The Ryan implementation report set a deadline of December 2010 for the previous Government to draft legislation putting Children First on a statutory footing. This was accepted by the Deputy's party when in government and it is regrettable it did not meet that deadline. I have, however, made much progress in drafting this legislation.

Putting Children First on a statutory basis will effectively put the reporting requirements contained in the Children First guidance which will be published on Friday. The approach underlined in this guidance will be reflected in the legislation. As I stated in my reply, the important element in the Children First guidelines is not just that people must report cases of child abuse, but also co-operate with other agencies. The guidance outlines a whole way of working to protect children. It is important this is also reflected in the legislation. This is just not about reporting but about an approach to the work that ensures consistency.

The Deputy is concerned that this may lead to a bureaucratic approach. As I stated last week when I reported to the Joint Committee on Health and Children, consistency is missing in the implementation of child protection guidelines. I am pleased the director of family services in the Health Service Executive, Mr. Gordon Jeyes, will have an implementation plan for these guidelines.

I accept the Minister's point about the need to put in place processes that work well and ensure children's protection. Will the Minister introduce a mandatory reporting system, as well as putting the children's rights guidelines on a statutory footing?

I will do what the former Government agreed to do, which is to put the Children First guidelines on a statutory basis, as recommended by the Ryan report. Part of this will be a reporting requirement. It will be a different concept, however, to that where the focus is on mandatory reporting alone which other countries such as Australia have introduced. It will not replicate such a system. Legislation will be introduced to underpin the guidelines which are comprehensive in their approach. They are not just about reporting, but about an approach to the management of child protection cases to which every organisation working with children will need to adhere.

Proposed Legislation

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin

Question:

20 Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she will advise on the progress made towards the publication of the Government’s proposed wording of the children’s rights referendum; and if she will commit to publication before this years end and a referendum in the first quarter of 2012. [20072/11]

The programme for Government 2011 states the referendum on children's rights is a priority and that the wording will be along the lines of that proposed by the Joint Committee on the Constitution, of which Deputy Ó Caoláin was a member. On taking office I instructed the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to work with the Office of the Attorney General with a view to preparing a draft wording which will more closely reflect the work of the committee than that which the previous Government approved in draft form.

Accordingly, the preparation of a draft wording is being undertaken by the Parliamentary Counsel in association with the advisory counsel in the Office of the Attorney General and officials in my Department. I hope to be in a position to submit the outcome of this work to the Government for approval in the autumn. It is envisaged the Government will be asked to approve the drafting of a Bill based on the wording submitted and to request the approval of the Oireachtas for the holding of a constitutional referendum. I look forward, in particular, to the debate among political and civic leaders and the wider public about the place of children in our society, further raising awareness of the interests of children.

I welcome this first Question Time on children and children's rights. I commend the Minister on taking this first major step.

At last week's Joint Committee on Health and Children, the Minister committed to introducing wording along the lines of that contained in the final report of the Joint Committee on the Constitution from February 2010. The period between February 2010 and February 2011 provided the former Government and the permanent government of various Departments an opportunity to evaluate properly the wording presented by the committee.

In the short time the Minister has had to engage with her new Department and other Departments, has she had the opportunity to establish how much of the all-party committee's wording was acceptable? What were the concerns about it? Does she believe she can introduce a wording that will mirror that of the all-party committee? Are there concerns in the Office of the Attorney General and other Departments about the all-party committee's wording? There may have been changes at the helm of Departments but those entrusted with the evaluation of the wording are still in their jobs and working on it. I would expect that 17 months after the publication of the wording there must be some greater clarity coming back from Departments.

I must call the Minister, Deputy Ó Caoláin.

The previous Government did not come up with legislation based on the all-party committee's wording but with a different formula. Apparently, this was based on the concerns of the former Attorney General. That wording was not circulated formally but discussed informally with several non-governmental organisations, NGOs.

The Government's priority and intention is to ensure the wording will be along the lines of that proposed by the Joint Committee on the Constitution. The former Attorney General was concerned this wording could have unintended consequences for the State's financial obligations in this area and that they could be considered excessive. I have asked the Attorney General to re-examine the wording and these concerns, as well as those of various Departments.

The Government is determined to bring forward legislation for a referendum which will reflect the all-party consensus at the committee on the Constitution. The wording to be presented will be along the lines of that proposed by the committee.

The Minister indicated an autumn deadline. Will this be the deadline for agreement on the Government's wording? Will we see publication of the facilitating legislation in the autumn? Will the Minister dare speculate if we will see the referendum in the first quarter of 2012?

As already stated, I hope and expect to be in a position to submit the outcome of that work to the Government for its approval in the autumn. The Deputy will be aware that there will be some further work to be done at that point. Draft legislation will be required in respect of adoption proposals — this will have to be brought through the Dáil — and a referendum commission will have to be established.

It is not possible for me to outline precisely how long the work relating to these various matters will take. However, I hope to have the wording in the autumn and it will then be the responsibility of the Oireachtas to pass the relevant legislation. I will deal with this matter as speedily as possible. If the wording is available in the autumn, we will then move forward with the legislation on the adoption proposals.

Missing Persons

Maureen O'Sullivan

Question:

21 Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs when funding will be released to enable Ireland to implement the Europe-wide missing children’s hotline; and the reason for the delays in the number being fully implemented here. [19976/11]

I thank Deputy O'Sullivan for tabling this question. The European Commission decision of February 2007 harmonised numbers for services of social value on the 116 number range. ComReg is the competent national regulatory authority in Ireland responsible for assigning 116 numbers to prospective service providers. ComReg has informed me that the numbers 116111 and 116123 were assigned to Childline and the Samaritans after consultation with the Department of Health and Children and that the 116000 number has been set aside as a missing children hotline. The 116000 hotline service operates on two levels, namely, the reporting of a missing child to the relevant authorities, that is, the Garda, and the provision of emotional support to parents of missing children. The 116000 service is currently active in 11 of the 27 EU member states. Funding for the provision of the 116000 service relates not only to call costs but also to the resourcing of a 24 hours a day, seven days a week operation. How to finance and provide this service has been a significant issue in all member states.

The introduction of a missing children's hotline has been the subject of discussions between my Department, other Departments and prospective service providers, including NGOs. In particular, the notification of a missing child is a matter for the Garda Síochána and accordingly I am in contact with my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, in seeking to jointly achieve the establishment of this service. Different costings for such a service have been calculated by NGOs interested in providing the service. Obviously, in the current financial situation, it is essential that the most economic approach possible be taken to providing any service. I hope that with a partnership approach we can achieve a cost-effective solution in respect of the implementation of this EU initiative.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Like Deputy Ó Caoláin, I welcome the establishment of this new Ministry dedicated to children. The issue of missing children is probably central to its work.

In a reply to a previous question, the Minister referred to having the interests of children at heart. Everyone is aware that in the case of a missing child, the first 24 hours are vital. The family of Madeleine McCann obtained a high profile in respect of that matter. Thousands of children go missing each day. Significant numbers of unaccompanied minors, particularly those from other jurisdictions, go missing in this country. Do I take it that the Minister is actively seeking the necessary resources to allow this missing children hotline to be put into operation in the near future?

I cannot provide the Deputy with a timeframe but I certainly want the hotline to be established. It has not been established up to now. Since taking office I have initiated discussions in respect of it. In that context, I have discussed the matter with one of the NGOs that might be interested in providing the service. It is estimated that it will take approximately €120,000 to set up and that a minimum of €80,000 will be required each year for its operation.

I understand the Deputy's concern with regard to unaccompanied children who went missing from various hostels in the past. Such children no longer stay in hostels. The Garda Síochána previously ran a similar telephone line but because few, if any, calls were received, this was discontinued. A number of issues arise with regard to the best use of resources. There is an obligation on us at EU level to put a telephone hotline of this nature in place. I want to ensure that we will provide it but there are issues regarding its use, publicising its existence and supporting it financially. I am pursuing the matter and I hope to be in a position to report progress on it at some point in the near future.

A couple of years ago the dial to stop drug dealing campaign was established and a freefone number was provided. The latter has been very successful and has led to significant developments in the area of dealing with illegal drugs. This is an example of a freefone line which does work.

Children in Care

Charlie McConalogue

Question:

22 Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the steps she will take to meet her target for 100% of children in care to be allocated a social worker and to have a care plan; the current percentage and number of children without an allocated social worker or care plan; if those children are in foster or institutional care; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [19979/11]

One of the principal commitments in the implementation plan prepared following the publication of the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse is the need to ensure that all children in care have an allocated social worker and a care plan. This initiative is designed to target resources at front line services in order to ensure that the HSE can fulfil its statutory obligations. An additional 200 social workers were recruited in 2010 and the HSE has been given approval to recruit a further 60 social workers in 2011. The remaining ten posts will be filled thereafter. The necessary finance has been provided and the filling of these posts has been exempted from the public service moratorium on recruitment and replacement of staff.

The latest available information from the HSE indicates that the number of children in care nationally at the end of April 2011 was 6,122. Of those children, 5,441 — 90% — had a written care plan in place. This represents a significant improvement on the position in mid-2010 when 82% of children in care had a written care plan. The breakdown by care type nationally of children in care who had a written care plan in place was as follows: those in residential care, 93.3%; foster care, 89.4%; foster care with relatives, 87.3%; and other care types — for example, at home under care order — 88.9%. Therefore, approximately 90% of children in all sorts of settings had written care plans in place.

The HSE further reported that nationally, 94.6% of all children in care had an allocated social worker. Again, this represents a significant improvement on the position in mid-2010 when 86.5% of children in care had an allocated social worker. The breakdown by care type nationally in respect of children with allocated social workers is as follows: those in residential care, 96.7%; foster care, 95.3%; foster care with relatives, 92.5%; and other care types — for example, at home under care order — 95.8%. It is obvious that 100% of children in care do not have allocated social workers. However, that is the target. It would be difficult to achieve it, particularly with, for example, children moving in and out of emergency care. Allocated social workers may not be immediately available so to actually reach 100% could prove quite difficult. We do, however, want every child in care to have an allocated social worker.

I thank the Minister for her reply. As she outlined, the previous Government provided funding for the employment — despite the existence of the recruitment ban — of 270 social workers and in respect of additional posts to deliver assessments and therapeutic services for children in special care units and in detention. As the Minister indicated, 60 of those 270 social workers are currently in the process of being appointed. Is she satisfied that these individuals — who are being appointed in line with the recommendations contained in the Ryan report — will prove sufficient in the context of dealing with the problems which currently exist in the system as a result of a lack of social workers? Since she came to office has the Minister carried out an assessment in respect of whether the number of social workers being appointed will prove to be adequate?

A recent HIQA report on services in the Dublin north-west area indicates that one third of children there do not have allocated social workers. In addition, a significant number of foster families in the area to which I refer have not been assessed. It is critical that we provide the resources to ensure those gaps are filled. The Ryan report made a recommendation for 270 social workers for which the funding has been provided and is available. Therefore, the Minister could put the last 70 of these in place. Has she assessed whether that will be enough? If she has made that assessment, how many more will be required and will she put the funding in place to deliver them?

What is critical is that we ensure the 270 are in place and that they begin their work. I am in ongoing discussions with the director for children and family services in the HSE. The Deputy mentioned a particular area in Dublin north west, where there are some difficulties. As can be seen from the figures I have provided, a care plan is in place and a social worker is allocated for a high proportion of children in care.

It is important to recognise that progress has been made but there are areas that require a greater focus. It is not always about the allocation of extra social workers but can also be about practice and management or how work is broken down in a given area. Where there are gaps in the service, for example where foster parents have not been assessed or where a particular area does not have social workers allocated as one would expect, these are being examined. This week, I met the regional directors from the HSE and discussed these issues with them and outlined the need for consistency in this area throughout the country.

We will continue to assess whether there are enough social workers. My priority now is to ensure that the 270 are in place and that the work is done throughout the country on a consistent basis and that the guidelines for all frontline personnel are being followed in a consistent manner. That is how children will be protected.

When can we expect the Minister to return, following her discussions with the health service professions, to let us know whether that number of social workers will be adequate? We need a timeline on that and on when a decision will be made by the Minister as to whether additional resources will be provided if necessary. I note from the Minister's response that 93% of those in residential care have a social worker, which means some 7% do not. Some 4% do not have care plans, which is surprising.

We want to ensure an assessment is done for every foster parent and want to see that children who are in care have an allocated social worker. There has been significant progress and extra resources in the past year. We will assess on an ongoing basis whether the numbers being recruited are adequate. A considerable number has yet to be recruited and all of the funding required is in place. No doubt the Deputy will ask about this again. When the new social workers are recruited, I will be happy to report back to him and the Dáil the percentages of children with a social worker and a care plan in place. I expect to see further progress following on what we have seen in the past few months.

Early Childhood Education

Mattie McGrath

Question:

23 Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans for the future of the early childhood care and education scheme. [19977/11]

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. Almost every preschool service in the State is participating in the ECCE scheme, ensuring that it is available to children in all areas, and 63,000 children, or 94% of the eligible age cohort, are currently availing of the preschool year. In 2011, the ECCE programme is expected to cost €166 million.

Services participating in the ECCE programme are required to provide age-appropriate activities and programmes to children within the Síolta framework for early learning. They are also encouraged to implement the Aistear curriculum which has been developed for children aged from birth to six years. The ECCE programme is universally available, free of charge, to all preschool children and this is critical to ensuring equality of access and school readiness.

Clearly resources are scarce, however, my objective is to incrementally develop the ECCE programme over the term of the Government. A key element of this will be to support implementation of the workforce development plan, by the early education policy unit of the Department of Education and Skills, which is co-located within my Department. The workforce development plan provides a framework for ensuring that personnel working in the ECCE sector have access to accredited training, enabling quality and standards in ECCE services to be continuously improved.

From May of this year, my Department has been working with two major voluntary child care organisations to provide subsidised online accredited training courses to staff working within ECCE services. I hope to continue this initiative next year by supporting training modules which have a specific focus on educating children with special needs and children with literacy and numeracy difficulties. In addition, I will collaborate closely with my colleague, the Minister for Education and Skills, in implementing the recently launched literacy and numeracy strategy. Early intervention is crucial and the strategy provides for a range of actions to support preschool children and their families to be undertaken by my Department.

Additional material not given on the floor of the House.

The current arrangements within the Health Service Executive for the provision of support services to preschool children with special needs are being examined by the office of disability and mental health in the Department of Health, and my Department will continue to liaise with that office. In addition, I have asked officials in my Department to examine various options for additional provision or improvements to the ECCE programme, in particular for marginalised groups, including children with special needs.

I congratulate the Minister on her appointment and wish her well with her important portfolio. I thank her for her response and am pleased to note she is committed to what is and has been a very good scheme. The uptake of the scheme tells its own story. I am pleased that helpful training courses are being provided for staff.

Has the Deputy a question for the Minister?

The Minister is committed to continuing with the scheme and, hopefully, it will be expanded over the years.

I thank Deputy McGrath. It has been recognised throughout the country that this is a critical scheme. Many communities are availing of it and the take-up is very high. The take-up is not 100%, probably because some parents choose not to send children to early school education and because some children are included in community child care provisions. Terrific work is being done in preparing children for primary school. I note in particular the work that is being done in the ECCE scheme with children with special needs. My vision is that children will be able to avail of a second year. If resources permitted, that would be extremely helpful for those children in preparation for primary school. However, it is a question of resources at this time.