Other Questions

Child Protection

Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

Question:

6 Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she will commit to undertake a comprehensive study into the commercialisation and sexualisation of children here, similar to the report Letting Children Be Children published in Great Britain in June 2011; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40090/11]

I noted with interest the report Letting Children be Children, which was published in the UK earlier this year. I am also aware of, and indeed share, Irish parents' concerns regarding the increasing sexualisation and commercialisation of childhood.

Since becoming Minister I have repeatedly stressed the need for a cross-community approach to protecting children and preserving the space of childhood. All of society has a responsibility in this regard, including retailers, broadcasters, advertisers and the Internet industry. Indeed, some disturbing information is becoming available about the abuses children can be exposed to via new media. As I have already indicated, I have directed that my Department's new policy framework for children and young people, which is to be published in 2012, should address emerging issues such as the impact of new technologies, media and consumerism on young people.

The UK report acknowledges that while the body of knowledge on topics to do with the sexualisation and commercialisation of children is growing, it is still inconclusive, and that further research, particularly longitudinal research, is required to investigate whether there is evidence of harm to children from these phenomena and how this harm occurs. Many people have an opinion that such harm does occur, but there is a suggestion that further work needs to be done.

My Department recently published the National Strategy for Research and Data on Children's Lives 2011-2016. In the preparation of this strategy, extensive consultation was carried out with a variety of organisations working directly with children, regional and local bodies, representative groups and central Government as well as children and young people themselves. This consultative process identified a small number of references to the issues addressed by the Letting Children be Children report, such as the influence of marketing and media messages on children and sexualisation through clothing.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

My Department is funding a national longitudinal study of children entitled Growing Up in Ireland. The broad base of this study enables the examination of a range of influences and outcomes in children's lives and, while it is not explicitly concerned with issues of commercialisation and sexualisation, it has the capacity to provide data on issues of relevance, such as the extent to which nine year old children have unsupervised access to different forms of media. Findings from the Growing Up in Ireland study and other recent research and consultations are informing the development of my Department's new policy framework for children and young people. In particular, my Department has been engaged in one of the most extensive consultations ever undertaken with children in Ireland. All of these results will inform the priorities set out in the policy framework for children and young people next year.

This is an issue that I know the Minister feels strongly about, and she has previously answered parliamentary questions from me about it. What we are talking about is a commercial attack on childhood. Childhood is becoming much shorter, and this is for the purpose of commercial profit. I am aware of the phenomenon of little girls coming to school with pencil cases with Playboy logos on them in a deliberate attempt by certain commercial interests to normalise pornography. The Minister mentioned some of the issues in the Bailey report in the UK, Letting Children be Children, including the inappropriate manner in which various retail outlets were selling children's clothing. What I am hoping is that we will be able to get tough on this and to have strict guidelines for retailers and advertisers. There is money to be made from the shortening of childhood and from encouraging children to have adult attitudes from an earlier stage of their lives. There is money to be made from the music industry — the whole "X-Factor" music industry is particularly directed at children — and from clothing and make-up, so advertising in these industries is being directed at children of younger and younger age groups. Although commercial interests are powerful — money would not be spent on advertising if it were not powerful — we have a responsibility in this House to protect childhood. I appreciate the Minister's response and ask her to indicate the potential legislation in this area.

I accept the points the Deputy makes. It is interesting to note, for example, the contrast between the UK and Ireland in the retail sector. The British retail consortium has already established basic guidelines on responsible retailing of children's wear, which has been signed up to by major retailers including Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Debenhams and TK Maxx, all of which operate in the Irish market.

However, in Ireland there is neither a code of conduct for the retail of children's wear nor even basic guidelines similar to those prepared by the British Retail Consortium. This should be addressed. My Department has had some preliminary discussions with the National Consumer Agency but I expect it will be addressed in the new children's strategy. There will be a public consultation phase for that. We should be examining high level objectives and the type of actions we should take in this country, similar to what has already been undertaken in the UK and what is proposed in the Bailey report.

Charlie McConalogue

Question:

7 Deputy Charlie McConalogue asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she will provide an update in relation to the Health Service Executive audit of child protection practices in church dioceses; the date on which the report will be completed; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40299/11]

Brian Stanley

Question:

12 Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the date on which she will publish the results of a State-wide Health Service Executive audit on current child protection practices; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40380/11]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 and 12 together.

The HSE, which has statutory responsibility for child welfare and protection, has been conducting a national audit of all Catholic dioceses and religious orders. It expects to be in a position in the spring of 2012 to furnish a report to me on the diocesan element of this audit. The need for follow-up action will be informed by the findings of the national audit. As I said previously, it is my intention to publish the HSE's report. The HSE's national director for children and family services, Mr. Gordon Jeyes, at my request earlier this year, is also engaging directly with the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church on a programme of action designed to ensure that the Catholic Church is responding properly and comprehensively to all child protection concerns.

The roll out of the Children First national guidance will require all sectors and organisations working with children, including the faith sector, to put in place robust safeguarding arrangements to ensure compliance with the guidance. I very much welcome the work undertaken to date by the national board to strengthen child protection practices in the Catholic Church in line with this objective.

The Minister's response is both surprising and unsurprising. The reason it is unsurprising is that the Dáil has heard the same response before, and it is also surprising for that reason. It is now December 2011 and the Minister tells us that she expects to receive this report from the HSE in spring 2012. Last December, the then Minister said that he expected to receive this report from the HSE in spring 2011, yet we are getting the same answer again in December 2011.

Last July, when the Minister responded to the Cloyne report, she told us that she expected to receive and publish the HSE audit in September, three months ago. What happened between July and now? What has changed? How can we have faith that this audit will be delivered in the spring? As regards the Minister's previous response about the six reports published on the six dioceses, her position now is to wait for the HSE audit. We could be waiting indefinitely. I disagree with that approach. What happened between July and now to explain this report still not being available?

As I already explained, if the previous Ministers had published this report earlier, as they said they would, we would not be in this situation. The reason I am in this position regarding the publication of the report is that a range of changes have been implemented, which were outlined in the dioceses report. To have an up-to-date report from the HSE that is relevant and speaks to the present as opposed to the past, I am informed by the director of children and family services in the HSE that more time is required to get the type of information that will ensure the report is up to date. In addition, from a legal point of view, one does not wish to publish a report that does not reflect the changes made in recent times. In the discussions he is having in the course of carrying out this audit it has become clear to the national director that he needs further time to have a report that reflects current practice, is up to date, reflects the changes that have been made and to ensure that he is reporting accurately on the dioceses with regard to child protection. For those reasons he said he needs extra time. Legally it makes sense to do that because it will be a more accurate report.

I cannot take responsibility for the fact that the previous Government did not publish the report over a five to six year period. What is surprising is that it did not publish it. I must ensure that the report is accurate, up to date and reflects the current situation, in so far as possible. That is why the extra time has been requested and it is reasonable that the time should be given. This has emerged since I first answered the question to which the Deputy referred. This information is new and having received it, it is appropriate to give enough time to ensure we have a comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date report.

It is a little rich for the Minister to criticise the previous Government for not publishing the report when the Minister is now in the same position.

It is five years versus four months.

In July the Minister was able to say that she expected to publish the report in September, which is two months later.

I did at that time.

It is now December and the best guideline date the Minister can give is March. This is being put on the long finger and is not being dealt with as quickly as it should be. I would not be surprised to get the same response again in the spring. I urge the Minister to take hold of this issue with the HSE and ensure the report is completed and published as soon as possible.

There is a difference between five years of looking at an audit and not publishing it and four months. That is the contrast and the Deputy's party must take responsibility for that. I have certainly taken hold of this issue. I have had a great deal of discussion about it. I am anxious to ensure that when the report is published it will be up to date and defensible in terms of the data it contains. Due to the delays in publishing it, extra time is needed to ensure that it will be up to date. I want to ensure it is published as soon as possible, and I am informed by the director of national services for children and families that it will be available in the spring.

Never was the line, "Prove him wrong", more strongly invited. That is my appeal. I want the report to be published but, as Deputy McConalogue said, let us not have a repetition of this. The Minister must do everything she can to ensure the publication of the audit in the spring.

When does the Minister expect the Children First guidelines to be put on a statutory basis? What plans does she have for implementing the range of outstanding recommendations in the Ryan report that have still not been implemented? Does she have a plan in place, and is it being worked on proactively? What is the current position with that report?

A great deal of work has been done on the Children First legislation. I said previously that the heads of the Bill would be referred to the Oireachtas committee in the next Dáil term. I will do that because it is important to get a response. As the Deputy would expect, it is proving to be complex legislation, but much progress has been made. I will be submitting a further memorandum to the Government on it this week. It will be before the committee in the next session, and I hope the heads of the Bill will be prepared in the near future.

What was the Deputy's other question?

I asked about the Ryan report.

I am very pleased that by the end of this year the 60 additional social workers, to which I referred during the last priority questions when some doubt was being cast on the recruitment, will be in place. There is another question about the matter which we may not get to. They will have been recruited and some will have started work. They will start working in December and January. That is one of the key recommendations of the Ryan report and I am very pleased to have been able to deliver 60 extra social workers. They were not affected by the pause in the HSE or the embargo in place.

Children in Care

Sandra McLellan

Question:

8 Deputy Sandra McLellan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans to address the particular needs of children who are faced with the prospect of leaving care while attempting to study for leaving certificate exams; the specific supports she will put in place for them; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40365/11]

Section 45 of the Child Care Act 1991 places a statutory duty on the HSE to form a view on to each person leaving care as to whether there is a need for assistance and, if it forms such a view, to provide services in accordance with the legislation and subject to resources. All young people who have had a care history with the HSE, be it foster care, residential care, high support care or special care are entitled to an after care service based on their assessed needs.

Where a young person turns 18 years of age, it is policy within the HSE for him or her to remain in his or her placement and receive full support to complete his or her leaving certificate examination. In the case of separated children seeking asylum, on reaching 18 years of age these young people transfer to adult services operated on behalf of the Department of Justice and Equality.

Recently a small number of cases have been brought to my attention where consideration was being given to the transfer of a young person from residential placements with a private provider to alternative accommodation. The young person involved is in a leaving certificate year and I am concerned that this important consideration needs to be addressed.

In particular, relocation some distance away would necessitate a change in school and this would clearly conflict with supporting the young person with his or her exam preparations. I have discussed the matter with the national director of the HSE and have asked him to review the cases with a view to providing continuity in education for the young person in preparation for the leaving certificate.

The Minister has asked the question but has she got a response? Can we have certainty that her request will be acted upon? She is right in that preparation for leaving certificate examinations is a huge challenge in the life of a young person at a very difficult time in the life of any young adult.

Those in care also have the added worry of reaching their 18th birthday in the course of their preparation for the leaving certificate and not knowing what the future will hold. This is in the context of after care and the entitlement to it. We have spoken about the phrase "is subject to resources" and have tried to have it taken out of the current vernacular because it can be a cop-out.

The Minister has demonstrated her awareness that these are real cases. I am also aware of this. It is very important that we recognise this group of young people will repeat present as the leaving certificate and other such challenges in life come about. We need to have a holistic approach in place, one that is truly caring and all-encompassing. I support the Minister's request. I would like to have some certainty as to what action and performance we can now expect.

As I have made absolutely clear, I am deeply concerned when I hear that it has been decided to move young people from their current placements. The level of disruption that would cause would clearly be detrimental to them at a particularly challenging and crucial time in their life. I have contacted the HSE and asked that the decision be reviewed and that the young people concerned have continuity of care when they are doing the leaving certificate. The HSE is to revert to me very shortly. I have outlined my concerns in great detail to it and expect the decision to be reversed in order that the young people concerned can continue to remain in their current placements.

I respect the intent of the Minister. When she uses the phrase "asked it to review" I always become concerned because it offers escape clauses. I have no doubt she will be forceful in conveying her wishes which are just as strong as mine. I hope it is understood on the receiving end that this is what is expected, end of story. It cannot apply only at this time for this particular cohort of young people in this situation. It must be part and parcel of the HSE's realisation of its duty of care and responsibility into the future.

The policy is clear. When a young person reaches the age of 18 it has been policy and practice for him or her to remain in his or her placement if he or she is in a leaving certificate year. The vast majority of those doing leaving certificate examinations are aged 18 because of the slightly later school starting age. I have made it absolutely clear I am concerned about the decisions taken. They should be reversed and I believe they will be. Best practice is that young people stay in their current placements until they complete the leaving certificate.

I very much welcome the tabling of the question by Deputy McLellan. The transition from childhood to adulthood is not as crude as any one calendar date. I ask the Minister to examine the issue of children who turn 18 years of age while completing third level education and the trauma that can be inflicted on them when they have to move a significant distance.

The Minister should examine how the Child Care Act interacts with the Refugee Act. A number of people who came to the country as minors have completed their leaving certificate in supportive lodgings but at 18 years of age are put in hostel accommodation and are unable to complete third level education. There is no economic saving to the State.

I take the point the Deputy is making. We have a much better understanding of the after care needs of our young people who have been in care. It is important they are addressed and a proper assessment is done in each case. Financial resources come in to play as young people get older, as well as whether the service can sustain the kind of support suggested by the Deputy. I take the point that we need to have the most supportive services available to young people who have been in care because we know they are a very vulnerable group.

As I said, there is a particular issue in regard to separated children seeking asylum. They transfer to the adult services operated by the Department of Justice and Equality. That can be very disruptive to those young people, whether they are in a secondary school or third level education. Perhaps it is an issue that Deputy could take up with the Minister for Justice and Equality and he and I could examine it.

Health Service Staff

John McGuinness

Question:

9 Deputy John McGuinness asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the number of the 60 additional social workers to be employed in 2011 under the Ryan report implementation plan that have been employed to date; if all 60 will be in place by the end of 2011; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40321/11]

I am very pleased to be able to tell the House that is provided for in the HSE's 2011 service plan, the recruitment of additional social workers is at a very advanced stage. The 60 posts have been cleared completely. The budget is in place and the latest information available from the HSE indicates that 53 additional posts have been filled or accepted. A further five posts are being offered to candidates this week and the rest will be filled very shortly afterwards. As the Deputy will see from the figures I have provided, this is a high priority.

I informed the House on previous occasions that the 60 additional social workers requested under the Ryan report implementation plan would be in place by the end of the year. I am now confirming that they will have been recruited by the HSE within that timeframe, which is very welcome. These additional workers will be targeted at priority areas of the service, having regard to the overall assessment of workload which is being undertaken by the national director of children and family services at the HSE, Gordon Jeyes, and his team. The recruitment of the additional social workers is one element of a broader change agenda within the executive which will enable us to deliver better outcomes for children and families. This reform agenda will involve the establishment of a new child and family support agency which will provide a dedicated focus on child protection, something we did not have in the past when child protection was part of the broader HSE remit.

The language the Minister used in her response was very unclear. I asked a straightforward question as to how many of the promised 60 social workers are now in place. The Minister referred to posts being "cleared" and plans being "at a very advanced stage". She said the budget is "in place" and that 53 of the posts have been "filled or accepted". I have been hearing for months that candidates have accepted the posts, but that was the end of it; they were not subsequently appointed to their roles. I am asking how many of these staff are in place, as of 15 December 2011.

My concern is that through the course of this year — the figures speak for themselves in this regard — we have, in fact, gone backwards in terms of social worker numbers. The most recent figures from the Department show that at the end of September, there were four fewer social workers in place in the system than was the case at the beginning of the year. Moreover, the decision by the HSE not to cover maternity leave or replace temporary posts means there are even fewer workers in the system.

The impact of that is easily foreseen. Last week in the Central Criminal Court we saw a father sentenced to life imprisonment for abusing several of his children. That abuse continued in the last decade even though the health authorities first became aware of the family in 2000. The response of the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, to that case was to focus on the introduction of mandatory reporting. This ignores the reality that the key problem in this particular case was that the health authorities had failed to intervene at an earlier stage, which allowed the abuse to continue. That comes back to the requirement for more social workers. The unfortunate reality, however, is that, as of today, there has instead been a reversal in this regard.

The Deputy has asked on several occasions about the 60 social workers and my responses have not been in any way unclear. As I said, the budget is in place and I have indicated the numbers who have been recruited. The 60 social workers will be commencing work and some have already started.

Some 53 of the 60 additional posts for 2011 requested under the Ryan report implementation plan have been filled or accepted, with the remainder being offered.

The Deputy is incorrect in his claim that there has been a decrease in the number of social workers working with children and families. On the contrary, there has already been an increase of 24 this year within that area, and now we will have the additional 60. That amounts to 84 additional posts in the child and family protection area. The Deputy should recognise that the 60 social workers will be in place. The money is there and the posts have not been affected by the recruitment embargo. Those 60 social workers will be working in the HSE in the course of 2012. That is the situation and there is nothing unclear about it. I have made absolutely clear that the funding has been made available for those 60 posts and that they will be in place. Moreover, an additional 24 are already working in the system.

As the Deputy knows, to maintain numbers within the public sector generally in the current economic circumstances is extremely difficult. As such, these additional posts represent important progress. The staff in question have a very challenging workload to undertake. The Deputy should acknowledge that the 60 social workers will be in place.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.

The Dáil adjourned at 5.45 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Friday, 16 December 2011.