Other Questions

Children in Care

Brian Stanley

Question:

93Deputy Brian Stanley asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the number of children on turning 18 years who have left high support units or special care units during each of the past five years; and the number of these children who did not receive aftercare services. [23955/12]

Michael McGrath

Question:

114Deputy Michael McGrath asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she will introduce aftercare as a legal right for young persons in care who turn 18 years in line with pre election commitments; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24027/12]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 93 and 114 together.

The HSE has advised me that four young people left high support or special care units in each of the past five years on reaching 18 years of age. Therefore, there are 20 young people in total. I can confirm that an aftercare plan was in place on leaving care in each case. This is in line with the policy that young people who leave care with an assessed need should receive aftercare. I am satisfied this policy is being implemented correctly and young people with an assessed need are being offered appropriate aftercare support. I am advised by the HSE that a total of 1,310 young people were in receipt of aftercare at the end of March 2012.

Section 45 of the Child Care Act 1991 places a statutory duty on the HSE to form a view in regard to each person leaving care as to whether there is a so-called 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 or high support care, are entitled to an aftercare service based on their assessed needs. The core eligible age range for aftercare is 18 to 21 years. This can be extended until the completion of a course of education in which one is engaged up to the age of 23 years.

The most important requirement for young people leaving care is secure, suitable accommodation, in addition to further education, employment or training and social support. The most vulnerable group of young people leaving care comprises those who have dropped out of education and training and those who have left residential care. Some of these young people may have mental health problems or a disability. Aftercare provision incorporates advice, guidance and practical support. There is, therefore, a need for a proper assessment that identifies a young person's need for accommodation, financial support, social network support and training and education in the months before his or her 18th birthday. The level of support required will vary for each individual. It is essential that all young people leaving care be provided with the type of transitional support their individual circumstances require. There is no doubt the provision of an appropriate aftercare service is a key element in achieving positive outcomes for young people leaving care. Some 90% of children in care are in foster care and a large number of these remain living with their foster families, supported financially by the HSE on reaching 18 years of age. These young people continue in education and training as planned. That remains a key component of aftercare for young people when they leave care.

The HSE national aftercare service is underpinned by a national policy and procedures document which is being developed in co-operation with the key stakeholders, including the voluntary sector agencies involved in aftercare provision and my Department. The policy which was finalised in April 2010 commits to promoting and achieving the best outcomes for young people leaving care and in ensuring consistency of support for these young people. The HSE has established an inter-agency national aftercare implementation group to monitor progress in implementing the national policy and its work is ongoing. The implementation of the policy and the ongoing provision of aftercare services is being kept under review and I will continue to engage with the HSE on this matter in the course of the year.

There is still no statutory right to aftercare and there are no guarantees for young people leaving high support units or special care units regarding accommodation or support. Am I right in saying that in response to my question the Minister said that four young people have left either high support or a special care unit in each of the past five years, a total of 20?

In respect of the second part of the question, the Minister said the number of these children who did not receive aftercare services was zero, that they all received aftercare services.

They all received after care services.

The Minister will be aware there has been great concern in relation to this area for quite a number of reasons that we have articulated here in the past and, indeed, shared. The logical question is whether there is ongoing monitoring of these young people as they make their way through very difficult years into adult life. Is there ongoing monitoring of the level of support? Where the supports were provided, were they appropriate and successful? Did they ensure and guarantee that those young people had at least the comparable opportunity to prepare for the challenges of later years as those placed in foster homes, the greater number of whom would remain in those foster care settings where there is already a strong bonding and relationship with the family unit? I am concerned at the absence of a statutory right to aftercare. Does the Minister plan to ensure this right is provided for? We teased out this issue during a protracted engagement on previous legislation last year. I believe it is something that is absolutely required and I would be interested to hear what she has to tell us in respect of the profile of supports and care provided to the 20 young people of whom she has advised the House.

It is clear from the information I have given and from other information we have discussed here that there is an increased focus on aftercare services for young people leaving care. I congratulate groups such as EPIC which have highlighted the issue and the young people who have been involved. On Saturday I met a group of young people in care who are part of the implementation group in respect of the recommendations from the report published last year. I have set up a group of young people who are in care to tell us of their experiences and to ensure the recommendations from that report, about the voice of the child in care, are implemented in the coming year. I have said before, and I repeat here, that section 45 of the Child Care Act 1991 places a statutory duty on the HSE to form a view of each child leaving care as to their assessed need for aftercare services. It is important not to underplay the importance of that because that is the statutory provision that places the obligation on the HSE to assess the needs of the young person leaving care and to work out an appropriate plan for him or her.

The information I have received from across the country indicates that increasing levels of resources are being devoted to aftercare services. In addition, the number of those in receipt of aftercare has increased from 800 three years ago to 1,100 today. There has been a steady rise in the number of young people who are leaving care and in respect of whom provision is being made. In response to discussions that took place in the House, I have asked that the HSE routinely collect more quality data for the numbers leaving care each year. The collation of such data would allow us in the coming months and years to consider both the numbers leaving care and the numbers who require aftercare services. Many will remain with foster families.

I do not have details for the 20 young people to whom the Deputy referred, but collating data for them would certainly be a worthwhile exercise. I will see what information I can obtain on these young people. I agree with the Deputy that they are most vulnerable.

It is because they have been in high support special care units that I am concerned. The fact that they were in those settings means they had particular requirements and high support needs. The position for them is not the same as that for everyone else who reaches the age of 18 years and moves into young adult life. It would be very important to obtain some of the specific details relating to the specific supports which applied to them. I would welcome it if such information was obtained. If possible, I would like to gain some sense of how matters are with these young people. We need to take an ongoing interest in their welfare.

I agree. Of course, there should have been an aftercare plan in place for these 20 young people. There was such a plan, but I concur with the Deputy that there is a need for further research of outcomes. There is also a need to carry out additional research of young people in detention. We need to evaluate outcomes as we do not have enough research findings in these areas. I will certainly see if it is possible to obtain data for the 20 young people in question in order to try to assess what actually happened. There was an aftercare plan in place and I would like to discover what progress was made. These young people would, of course, be most vulnerable, as evidenced by the fact that they were placed in special care by the High Court for their own safety.

My question on this matter is relatively straightforward. I join Deputy Ó Caoláin in emphasising the importance of providing aftercare services once someone leaves the care of the State on reaching 18 years. When they reach that age, young people who were previously in the care of the State will in many cases continue to have needs and we must ensure they are met. Why did the Minister do a U-turn on the first item of legislation for which she had responsibility following her appointment? Why did she go against what her party and the Labour Party had been arguing in favour of just weeks before last year's general election when what became the Child Care (Amendment) Act was being debated in the House? When she and her party colleagues were on this side of the House, they advocated in the context of the legislation to which I refer the imposition of a statutory requirement on the HSE. However, when she became responsible for ensuring the legislation was passed by the Houses, she performed a complete U-turn. Will she explain why she took that course of action and why Fine Gael and the Labour Party changed their positions on this matter after the election?

The answer is very straightforward. The clear advice from the Attorney General confirmed that section 45 was legally sound and placed a statutory responsibility on the HSE to form a view in respect of each person leaving care in the context of whether there was a need for further assistance. If the HSE is of the opinion that there is such a need, it is obliged to provide services in accordance with the section and subject to the availability of resources. The information I have provided clearly shows that there has been an increased focus on aftercare services, that increasing amounts of money are being spend on these services and that more and more young people are in receipt of services. My initial reply also indicates that there were aftercare plans for all of the children who were in special care and who left such care on reaching 18 years.

The practice has certainly changed. The clear legal advice I received from the Attorney General was that section 45 covered the situation legally and that there was no need for further provision. When we debated what became the Child Care (Amendment) Act, I stated that if there was a gap or if the provisions were not being implemented, we could certainly consider introducing further regulations if such a course of action was deemed necessary. I have discussed this matter directly with managers throughout the country and I am aware that quite a demand has been placed on their resources at a time of major financial difficulty. The information they have made available to me indicates that more and more money is being put aside for aftercare services for young people leaving care.

Child Abuse

Mick Wallace

Question:

94Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her views on whether the statutory responsibility to report suspicions and allegations of child abuse contained in the proposed Children First Bill and the possibility of sanctions for those who fail to report same may have unintended consequences which will result in resources being diverted away from frontline child protection services; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24033/12]

Mick Wallace

Question:

96Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she has carried out a cost-benefit analysis of the proposal to introduce mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse contained in the current version of the Children First Bill; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24034/12]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 94 and 96 together.

The Children First National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children, which I published in 2011, provides for clarity and guidance for individuals and organisations in identifying and responding appropriately to child abuse and neglect. It also sets out what organisations which care for or work with children should do to ensure they are safe while in the care of such organisations. The Government has committed, as a priority, to the introduction of legislation to underpin the Children First guidelines and the heads of a Bill have been prepared and submitted to the Joint Committee for Health and Children for its consideration. Quite a number of the organisations which work directly with children have given evidence to the committee in recent weeks. I understand the committee plans to hold further hearings. While the draft heads of the Bill have been prepared, they will only be finalised when the committee has concluded its deliberations. A very broad consultation process is taking place across Departments and agencies. Aspects of the details of the draft heads of the Bill may change and I am open to listening to what the committee and the organisations which either have already or will come before it have to say in this regard. As is the case with all legislation and as part of the preparatory process relating to the Bill, we will be carrying out a regulatory impact analysis which will further quantify the potential costs associated with compliance and enforcement. This will be submitted to the Government when I am seeking approval to draft the Bill.

Experience in other countries indicates that guidance for those responsible for reporting and the effective screening of all reports are important in designing an effective filtering system which deploys resources appropriately, based on child protection criteria. In that context, I will be developing guidance for reporting abuse to assist organisations to deal with issues such as definitions, thresholds and appropriate channels for the reporting of abuse. The guidance will require the designated officers and professionals named in the legislation to consider a number of factors in order to determine whether the concern reaches the threshold of a report under the legislation. It is important to state I have been previously been assured by Mr. Gordon Jeyes, the HSE's national director for children and family services, that all referrals, when initially received, are assessed and that the action taken is prioritised by risk.

Huge resources have been put in place in the past ten years in respect of Children First. Massive developments have taken place and the HSE and the Garda Síochána work closely together on this matter. The HSE has provided a great deal of training, information and advice on the implementation of Children First. I pay tribute to the organisations - representatives from many of which I have met - which work directly with children and have taken the Children First guidelines so seriously since their introduction. I refer, for example, to the Irish Sports Council, the GAA, groups representing teachers, etc., have all taken the guidelines on board and examined how they apply to their organisations. I recently attended a meeting held in Croke Park when over 200 volunteers from the GAA came together in order to discuss their work on this matter and how they might develop it in the future. The position in this regard in the context of a range of other voluntary organisations is the same. A great deal of work has been done and much experience has been gained during the period in which the Children First guidelines have been in place.

In addition to the existing structures in place to support Children First, there has been an increase in the number of social workers operating in the child welfare and protection area. The recruitment of these additional social workers was recommended in the Ryan report implementation plan and some 220 were taken on.

I, along with the Government and other parties in this House, gave a commitment over the years to put the Children First guidelines on a statutory basis. It was felt it was important to change the culture of ambivalence which we had regarding the reporting of child abuse, one which was most recently seen when the Cloyne report was published. We decided the important thing to do was to be very clear that if someone was concerned about abuse, it should be reported. That is why we have decided it should be placed on a statutory basis.

This is only one part of a wider reform agenda in this area. We also have a range of other actions such as the setting up a new child and family support agency which will be a key element of the reform of this area.

I can assure the Minister the Football Association of Ireland, FAI, has been strongly involved in this and it is the largest participant sport in the country.

I have to support the Deputy on that.

I do not understand this area as well as the Minister does. I note, however, Professor Eileen Munro of the London School of Economics has warned that it may end up draining resources from front-line protection services. Dr. Helen Buckley, Trinity College Dublin, made several points in correspondence with me. For example, the claim that the harm and misery experienced by some of the children who featured in recent high-profile cases were as a result of a failure to report is a misperception. In fact, she points out the majority of these cases had been reported many times to the Health Service Executive social workers but too often there was a failure to respond adequately which is a different issue. She also points out the proposed legislation will not address some of the systemic weaknesses in child protection practices identified by the research review of recent child abuse inquires and the National Review Panel reports which include inadequate management oversight, lack of strategic multidisciplinary planning, absence of child-mindedness on the part of adult health and related services and a general dearth of joined-up work between the sectors serving children and families. Reviews have also demonstrated a dearth of local policy on assessment and planning for children in out-of-home care-----

Would the Deputy like to put his question?

-----and the community which leads to a substandard practice.

I am not pretending to be an expert on the matter but is the Department taking the concerns of these two notable individuals on board?

I thank the Deputy for raising this question. I have said all along that reporting is just one aspect of this area. The Children First guidelines, which have been in place for ten years, and the proposed legislation are about working effectively with other agencies, having good quality interagency work and sharing information. That is the kind of culture to which we need to move to provide the best services for children at risk.

Professor Eileen Munro has done interesting work in the UK. I have worked in this area in the UK but it is a different situation to here. I accept the work in this area is very stressful as was highlighted in the report published yesterday. However, what has been missing to some degree in the management of social work services in this country is a clear national policy, the gathering of consistent information and an ability to compare what is happening in one part of the country with another because the data is not consistent or standardised. A significant amount of reform of management has to be done. That is one of the reasons we decided to take child and family services from the HSE and have a separate child and family support agency to deal with this difficult area.

We are also examining how we provide services for children and families. We sometimes forget the large amount of funding the State gives to a variety of agencies which work with children and families. We want to arrive at a position where those working in the HSE on child protection are also being supported by and work with those providing family support.

We want to prevent children coming into care. That is the key approach.

I call Deputy Ó Caoláin for a brief question because I want to go back to the main questioner.

Has the Minister had any cross-departmental engagement on the critical need to increase additional funding support for the implementation of this legislation? There is an across-the-board recognition that there will be an upsurge in reporting. Some spell all sorts of calamitous situations but we all have to be realistic that there will be an increase. The services are already under significant strain. The legislation of itself-----

In fairness to the main questioner, could Deputy Ó Caoláin conclude?

-----without adequate resourcing will not suffice. Will the Minister please comment on this?

Deputy McConalogue has a question as well. I ask him to be brief.

I commend Deputy Wallace for these two very important questions. They really go to the nub of what is important in improving our child protection system. I am concerned the Minister's priority is about giving the appearance of improving the system when, in reality, we may be putting more pressure on it and draining resources away from where they are needed. I think it is time for the Minister to give up the charade.

Have you a question, Deputy?

Yes. It is time for the Minister to give up the charade and admit social work numbers have increased. The figures she gave today show they have definitely not.

Deputy, you are taking someone else's time.

There is mounting evidence that mandatory reporting will put an additional burden on resources. The Minister needs to ensure those resources are made available so an effective child protection system is in place. As Deputy Wallace said, in the serious cases we have experienced in the past, reporting-----

I must stop the Deputy now. I call on Deputy Wallace.

-----has not been the issue.

In the case of the new measures creating extra workloads, will additional funding be made available? I know it is a hypothetical question. However, looking at recent statistics from the HSE's children and family service, of the 29,000 plus reports in 2010, only 5% recorded an outcome of confirmed abuse which is way below the European average. We all realise that adequate funding will be required if we are going to be serious about this.

I compliment the Minister for giving us an answer without reading a script. I can see she is passionate about what she does and she should be complimented for that.

I thank Deputy Ó Caoláin for his comments on this legislation at committee recently. I can assure Deputy McConalogue there is no charade going on. It is far from that. There is actually action for a change on this issue.

Cross-departmental discussions are taking place on additional funding for training. It is one of the issues that will be addressed. Quite a bit of money has been put aside by the HSE for training over the years, as well as by the organisations involved themselves which we expect. If they are providing a service for children, we expect them to contribute to the training and the supports required to make their services safe for the children who use them. I compliment the GAA, FAI and other groups which have put money into this area and trained their staff. We will continue in the interdepartmental group to assess this issue and see what implications may arise.

I do not believe the introduction of legislation to underpin Children First will divert resources. At the end of the day, what is more important? We must ensure that those referrals of children who are at risk, abused, raped or neglected are made and dealt with adequately. That is the point of Children First - to remove any ambivalence about reporting. When would one not want to report such a situation? The committee has the opportunity, in discussions with the different organisations, to get their views on resources. I am struck reading the reports of the committee so far at how supportive the organisations are about moving in this direction. They are the ones who have had front-line experience for ten years and know the issue of resources. I accept it is a difficult time for everyone when it comes to resources but we must examine the resources available and ensure they are used as effectively as possible. For example, family resource centres should function with front-line child protection workers in a unified approach in assessing these cases and getting the best services to them. There is still scope for more effective inter-agency work.

As a point of information, the Minister is correct in that the committee is doing good work, with excellent groups coming before it. The structuring of these Houses means that while we are dealing with the Minister in Question Time today, the committee is having further deliberations on the Children First guidelines in the basement, meeting groups coming before it. We have not got the gift of bi-location so that practice should be avoided.

I agree completely with the Deputy.

Departmental Programmes

Martin Ferris

Question:

95Deputy Martin Ferris asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the date on which she will publish her Department’s Early Years Strategy. [23962/12]

My Department is developing a new children and young people's policy framework to cover the period from 2012 to 2017. It will build on Our Children - Their Lives, Ireland's first children's strategy, which was published in 2000. This high-level policy framework will also facilitate the preparation of a number of more detailed strategies, including Ireland's first ever national early years strategy. The early years strategy will be developed during 2012 and cover a range of issues affecting children in their first years of life, such as health, family support, learning and development and care and education, and it will identify the structures and policies needed to improve early year's experience in Ireland.

I have appointed an expert advisory group comprising external experts from a range of specialties, including paediatrics, early childhood care and education, child protection and public health nursing, and it is now in place, chaired by Dr. Eilis Hennessy of UCD. The first meeting will be held shortly. A public consultation will shortly be commenced as part of the consultation on the overall children and young people's policy framework. There will be further focused consultation with key stakeholders later this year with regard to early years, and I invite the Deputies to be involved in that consultation. I hope there will be a seminar later in the year on the development of the policy.

The new children and young people's policy framework is being developed in a holistic way to comprehend the continuum from infancy, through early and middle childhood, to adolescence through to early adulthood. I intend that this will be the overarching framework under which policy and services for children and young people will be developed and implemented in the State. The policy framework will allow an opportunity to address emerging issues affecting children and young people, such as the impact of new technologies, media and consumerism. It also provides an important opportunity for cross-departmental collaboration to promote the well-being of children, which is essential to putting in place an holistic strategy that is required. Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

I am keen to ensure that the new policy framework will be informed by the views of children themselves as well the experience and expertise of a wide range of stakeholders in matters of interest to children and young people. The new policy framework will be informed by the results of a consultation, which I launched in 2011, in which almost 67,000 children and young people throughout the country participated, as well as the advice of the National Children's Advisory Council, which comprises representatives of a range of organisations, both statutory and non-statutory, that work with children and young people. As stated, plans are being finalised in my Department for a further strand of public consultation to capture the views of a wide range of other stakeholders. It is envisaged that the consultation arrangement will be in place in the coming weeks.

The first children's strategy document, Our Children - Their Lives, was published in 2000. The Minister is aware that a significant number of intentions forming part of that strategy have not been realised over the intervening 12 years. Will the Minister give us a detailed outline of the areas that have not been addressed or addressed fully? Will she assure us that they will be given priority for consideration and inclusion in the new strategy that will be published shortly?

Of course, it makes absolute sense if we are forming a new strategy to review the old one, examine what has been implemented and consider outstanding issues. The new strategy will be more comprehensive, illustrated by the fact that there was not a focus on the early years which I am now establishing with the policy group; we will have a detailed strategy on those early years. We will examine the areas where there has been good success and where there is ongoing work to be done. I will revert to the Deputy.

The report indicated "children will be provided with the financial supports necessary to eliminate child poverty". We are all well aware of the reality in which we live today, and an end to child poverty has not come about for many children, as they face poverty in daily life experience. There are also measures relating to social exclusion, particularly the fact that many children from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds will never realise their full potential. There is a need, in bringing forward a new strategy, to do all that is humanly possible to overcome the imbalance, giving every child a real chance in this society.

I was pleased the Government could give extra resources to my Department last year for child protection and to maintain the early years universal free pre-school year. An extra €19 million was provided so those services could be available to young children. That is a protective action for young people and we will continue it so that early years services can be protected.