It is opportune, welcome and long overdue that children and their rights, health and well-being are central to legislation and that such legislation is now centre stage because for too long it was off the stage of anyone's attention. When I spoke on the Cloyne report some time ago, I made the point that many nations have their dark moments. For example, the Jewish nation has the Holocaust and Cambodia has its killing fields but in our case, it is the systematic abuse of young people. I refer to abuse that was physical, sexual, intellectual, emotional and spiritual, carried out by those in authority, in the Church, in the State and within families. It also was allowed to go on by those authorities who could have intervened and could have made a difference like the health authorities and the Garda. A number of Bills are or have been before the House on this particular topic. While the Bill under discussion at present is the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill, I also refer to the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012, the children's referendum Bill, the Criminal Justice (Spent Convictions) Bill and the mental capacity Bill. The question is first whether all these Bills will ensure not simply adequate but thorough protection for children and second, whether there will be sufficient staff to cover all these measures.
Members must take on board that most abuses occur within families or are perpetrated by someone close to the family. Survivors of child sexual abuse and violence report that nearly 80% of them were abused by someone known to them, such as an immediate family member, a relation or a family friend. A further 12% were abused by those in authority, such as a religious figure, a teacher or a coach, a further 3% by strangers and then 5% by others. This means 92% of survivors of child sexual abuse and violence were abused by someone known and trusted by the family. Consequently, the "stranger danger" approach being taught in schools does not reflect reality. Children are told not to accept sweets, gifts or lifts from strangers but this is not a true reflection of the reality of child abuse. In confirmation of this point, statistics from the Rape Crisis Centre indicate that in one particular year, 97% of those abused as a child and who sought help from the centre had been abused by a family member or friend of the family. It would be difficult to convey in a school setting it is not simply about the stranger danger but also is about the danger within the family and balance is needed in this regard.
The first point I wish to make is vetting is not the solution but simply is an additional tool for safeguarding children. It is ironic that while those who put themselves forward to adopt children must go through a highly rigorous, intensive and necessary check that sometimes can go on for years, children can be left in abusive situations within their natural families. I believe the forthcoming referendum will address this issue. It is vital to tackle what is wrong and not to undo or to undermine the good that goes on in society and I note Deputy O'Mahony mentioned the work of the voluntary organisations. It is important to emphasise the vast majority of teachers and those involved with voluntary youth work and in sports organisations, as well as the majority of families, have the welfare of young people at heart and would do absolutely nothing to jeopardise that. They are equally as appalled and disgusted at what has happened in some families, institutions and organisations.
Arising from the various reports, namely, the Ryan, Murphy, Cloyne and Ferns reports, the HIQA national standards for protection and welfare of children that came out in July and the independent review report on child deaths, Members have better knowledge of the extent of the vulnerability and mistreatment of children and vulnerable young people and it has been a litany of failures. It is good this Bill has been welcomed broadly by most organisations dealing with children but the point is all these forthcoming legislative items must complement one another. Moreover, it is all very well to state the national vetting bureau is being established but the question is whether the staffing and resources are available to ensure this will happen. I make the point that with mandatory reporting and other demands, social workers are under serious pressure in their work. Members do not seek to have these highly trained professionals spending all their time on bureaucratic work, administration and writing reports instead of being in direct contact with vulnerable people, who need so much more from those services. Members are aware of the backlogs, of more than six months in some cases, which led to the Department employing additional staff on a temporary basis, including some under the JobBridge scheme. As the legislation will place increased demands on the bureau, will it be able to cope? I note longer delays mean difficulties for those organisations in need of staff, especially those in need of staff quickly. The other danger, of course, is the quality of the work of the bureau could be jeopardised.
I note the Bill does not reflect the urgency for clearance in situations where a child is in need of emergency accommodation with family members. In the constituency I share with the Minister of State, Deputy Costello, in particular communities that have been devastated by drugs and suicide, extended families, many of them grandparents, took on the care and rearing of the grandchildren when the parents died because of their addiction or whose addiction meant they were unable to care for those children. Improvements have been made in the grandparents' ability to access the children's allowance and obviously, the response in this regard must be quicker because many such grandparents are living on State pensions solely. Consequently, the interim measures that could have been used would have been to use the local knowledge available from the local school, community welfare officer, local community garda or youth club to ascertain that particular family's suitability to look after the children, that is, their grandchildren. Moreover, it is important the children's voice would be heard, which is a highly welcome addition in the new Bill, and such a commonsense approach is required.
I wish to refer to a particular abuse situation for a couple of minutes and while it is in the past, abuse is never in the past for victims of abuse. One group that has been protesting outside Leinster House comprises two gentlemen who were involved in swimming circles for many years. I acknowledge the progress made by Swim Ireland in trying to ensure those horrific abuses at the hands of swimming coaches will never happen again. However, they have happened in the past and the pain, anguish and suffering of those victims continue. It is particularly difficult for those people who had great talent in swimming in the past and whose careers were cut short with the consequential lost potential, not to mention their lives and relationships. Perpetrators still are coming to trial, including one some months ago, but one highly significant perpetrator has not been brought to justice. A question must be asked, namely, who facilitated his entry into the United States. I am appalled that two sports organisations in receipt of State funding are pursuing one of his victims for costs in a case. Regardless of the settlement this person received, I find it appalling that these two organisations should so do, given it was their inactivity, laxness and disregard that led to the abuse in the past - they did not listen to those voices in swimming circles who tried to bring these abuses to the attention of the authorities at that time. Those voices were ignored. My sincere wish is this Bill will ensure that no child going to a sports club will ever be subjected to the abuse to which our swimmers were subjected in past years. While it is too late for some of the swimmers concerned, who are now adults, the pain continues for those who were badly affected.
The other group to which I wish to refer is the Magdalene survivors. Members are aware of the abuse that went on and of the lack of care, consideration and everything in their lives. It is very disappointing to learn that the report, which is in very good hands with Senator McAleese, will not be published for another few months. It also is disappointing that it will not make recommendations. Again, these women, who were severely abused by the State and by religious institutions, will not get the apology they seek. I use the word "compensation" very loosely because no one can compensate for what they went through, but I refer simply to their entitlements now as older people.
As for the concept of upholding the balance between the competing rights of the individual person to privacy and society, I welcome the argument made by the Minister. It confirms the ability of someone to rehabilitate, if previously convicted of minor crimes unrelated to children. Organisations should interpret vetting results on a case-by-case basis to allow people who have shown they are rehabilitated an opportunity to work in certain positions. I note the HSE has a blanket ban on recruitment of anyone with a previous conviction, regardless of his or her crime. The legal grounds for the employer must be clarified to protect both the right to rehabilitation and reform and the needs of society. The data transfer of criminal convictions between Departments, agencies and State institutions still is not unified. While the Constitution protects the right to privacy, the question is whether this can complicate the rights of the individual to reform and the rights of society to know. This is the reason vetting is not the sole solution but is simply a tool. I will turn to the soft information that also will be made available in vetting procedures, as the current legislation only provides the hard information in respect of courts and appeals. Soft information will now include allegations of harm, neglect or any other information that might suggest someone could harm or cause harm or put a child or a vulnerable person at risk of being harmed, that is, anything that has not led to a criminal case. I hope commonsense will prevail in this regard. The Irish Penal Reform Trust and the Irish Human Rights Commission have concerns about people with minor convictions, some of them from years previously. I hope such convictions will not be an obstacle to their employment. The word "allegation" is used, and that must be handled very sensitively. I know of adults against whom accusations were made and, following a lengthy process, those allegations were proven to be unfounded, which caused devastation.
There is an appeals mechanism upholding the balance between the rights of the individual and public safety. The Bill references not just children but also vulnerable persons, including those with mental, physical and intellectual disabilities. The provisions on re-vetting are positive. However, the Minister has said this will only happen in the long term owing to lack of resources in the meantime. It is an important part of protecting children and vulnerable persons as it provides updated information on the status of those working with children.
While I accept improvements have been made in homes for the elderly, it was horrific to read what went on in those institutions. I know of people who were vetted for one organisation and that vetting did not carry over even a few months later, which puts unnecessary demands on vetting.
An area of concern is children in direct provision centres. One third of residents in State accommodation for asylum seekers are children who are especially vulnerable because vetting is not part of the employment practice of direct provision providers. This means children, women and people with mental health difficulties are living side by side, sometimes sharing toilets, accommodation space and dining areas with strangers from around the world, some of whom have had traumatic experiences from different countries. There are obvious serious safety and overcrowding concerns in this respect. That is where I see a limitation of the potential of the vetting process. These vulnerable people in the system are dependent on good practice codes of direct provision providers. We need further legislation to protect children in those vulnerable situations.