Priority Questions

Children and Family Services

Robert Troy

Question:

1. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the resource implications of making her aspirations for children's rights a reality; the way she intends to ensure the necessary resources are available; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [46939/12]

The purpose of the proposed constitutional amendment is to recognise children in their own right within the Constitution. It also acknowledges that each child enjoys rights and deserves certain protections from the State by virtue of the fact that, as a child, he or she is vulnerable. The referendum will not address all wider issues that impact on children.

This referendum is the fundamental backdrop to the wider programme for change for children being pursued by the Government. These reforms focus on intervention to ensure the safety and welfare of children and to ensure that child protection services can respond proportionately to all child protection concerns. Central to the programme for change for children is the plan to take child protection services out of the Health Service Executive, HSE, and establish a new dedicated child and family support agency. This agency will be fully operational in 2013 and will mean a move to a situation where child and family welfare will be the sole focus of a single dedicated agency, overseen by a single dedicated Department.

The report of the taskforce, which I set up to advise on how to best organise services for children, was published in July. Its report maps out an executive agenda for the development of services so that we can do the very best for parents, children and families. Ahead of the establishment of the new agency, an additional €21 million in funding has been made available to the HSE child and family services in 2012, reflecting the priority attached by the Government to the reform of child welfare and protection services.

Since February 2011, there has been an increase of 69 whole-time equivalents and 86 individual child and family social workers with an increase in the proportion of children with an allocated social worker.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Since taking office last year, it has been evident to me that there is a particular need to improve the quality and accuracy of information available from the HSE in child protection services, together with a need to provide more timely and meaningful information. The introduction of the national child care information system, NCCIS, will help to greatly improve performance in this area. I am pleased to say good progress is being made by the HSE with regard to the introduction of this system, which will help to significantly improve the level, quality and accessibility of information in respect of children and family services.

The matter of resources for services to children will be considered by the Government in the context of the overall budgetary arrangements for 2013. While it is not open to me, in that context, to pre-empt decisions to be made by Government, I would point out that the Government continues to invest very significantly in services for children across a range of areas. The Government will continue this approach, to the greatest possible extent, in dealing with the serious financial challenges facing the country overall.

I thank the Minister for her reply. She knows all Members support the referendum on children’s rights. Earlier, we were all across in the playground in the Merrion Square park calling for support of the referendum. While it is an important step in recognising children’s rights, it is not a panacea. Since my appointment as my party’s spokesperson on children and youth affairs, I have sought clarification on funding and resources for child services on numerous occasions.

I assume when the Minister was drafting the constitutional amendment, she engaged with other Departments to ascertain what resource implications the referendum would involve. Will she make available any information she may have on this? On Wednesday the Minister told the Law Society about the importance of family support and the need for adequate resources being made available for it. If the referendum is carried and the attendant adoption legislation is passed, hundreds of children will be able to apply for adoptions. Will additional resources be made available to meet these demands? Will the required personnel and social workers be in place to ensure the voice of the child is heard? Will the foster care payment be maintained for fostered children who may be adopted? If the foster payment is maintained, the children involved will no longer need a social worker. Such persons could then be redeployed to front-line services where they are crucially needed.

As I have often said, the referendum is one aspect of our serious intentions to deliver on children’s rights and services. The broader issue is how we deliver services and available funding. That is why I was pleased to get the additional moneys last year, such as the extra €13 million to provide an early intervention family support system for all three and four year olds. The National Education Welfare Board got an extra €1 million as it is important we identify those children who are not attending school to ensure supports are made available to them at an early stage. The overall extra funding of €21 million I got from the Government went into the areas outlined by Deputy Troy.

I am focused on ensuring people are aware the referendum is happening and they have the information to understand its provisions. The Deputy is correct that various agencies such as the Adoption Authority will have extra work to do if the referendum is passed. It is also important we examine the reforms needed to deliver services more effectively. I have inherited a very inconsistent child protection service across the country. If we manage the reforms properly and provide a national service in which families are appropriately supported and receive, as the referendum states, proportionate intervention at an early stage, many cases will not become child protection issues. I have outlined my significant reform programmes with which the HSE is involved. The proper use of resources is key. There will be ongoing assessment of the level of demand for these services. All Departments are facing a very difficult financial situation. While my Department is not immune to this, with proper reform, services can be delivered more effectively.

Will Members be as tight as they can in their questioning, otherwise we will go out of time control?

Will we have to be as tight as the Minister for Finance?

Bullying of Children

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin

Question:

2. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she has or will engage with the Department of Health and the Department of Education and Skills on the issue of school bullying of children by children and the grave implications of this targeted abuse on the mental health of young persons in their youth years and in later life; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [46903/12]

The scale of bullying in Ireland remains a matter of grave concern. This is borne out by recent research findings. My Department’s Growing Up in Ireland study found that more than 24% of nine to 17 year olds have reported being bullied. The Anti-Bullying Centre in Trinity College Dublin has found one in four girls and one in six boys have been involved in cyberbullying either as a victim, bully or both.

Research commissioned by the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network, GLEN, and BeLonG To on the experiences of young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, LGBT, people in Irish schools has found that 58% reported the existence of homophobic bullying.

Deputy Ó Caoláin and I, as well as every other Member, are aware of the terrible and corrosive effects of a bullying culture on our children and young people. These effects relates to their confidence, learning outcomes, self-esteem and mental health and they can last for years. Sadly, in some case they can result in the loss of young lives. In recent times we have learned of several tragic cases involving bullying. On behalf of the Government and on my own behalf I extend my sympathies to the families and friends of the young people who have died.

As Minister for Children and Youth Affairs I am committed to working with colleagues in government to ensure that integrated policy responses to combat bullying are high on our agenda. The new Children First guidelines, which I published last year, recognise for the first time the problem of bullying. Earlier this year the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Quinn, and I hosted the first national anti-bullying forum to bring relevant stakeholders together. This was a great opportunity to bring together people who are working to address the issue, to explore how best to tackle bullying in schools and to consider the strategies and practices required to address new challenges associated with modern communications technologies.

The Education (Welfare) Act 2000 obliges all schools to have a code of behaviour. I call on schools to redouble their efforts to address the problems of bullying.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

I commend the work of the National Centre for Technology in Education on responding to the rise of cyber-bullying. I encourage parents, teachers, young people or anybody else with concerns about cyber-bullying to visit the website, www.webwise.ie, and I call on Members to help promote this website in their constituencies.

It is my intention to ensure that the actions recommended by the national anti-bullying forum working group and other measures to respond to bullying will be prioritised in the new children and young people's policy framework being prepared by my Department. As part of the preparations of the children and young people policy framework I have received a detailed submission on the issue of bullying from the anti-bullying centre in Trinity College and this is under review by my Department.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I wish to clarify one point in respect of the strategy. Did the Minister state that it obliges schools? Sadly, the evidence suggests that the address of this issue is most often down to the individual penchant of the school principal. We need something a good deal stronger to provide for where there is not sufficient or worthwhile compliance to what amounts only to a request. We need to make this central to our address of this serious problem.

I recognise that youth mental health is a critical issue that impinges not only on the wellbeing of young people in their young lives but it will impact on them throughout their lifetimes. We have seen not only the tragedies to which the Minister referred but some high profile international instances, not least the case of Phoebe Prince, a young Irish girl who died tragically in the United States, and the most recent case highlighted in County Leitrim. Many lives have been seriously stunted, impaired or crippled by these experiences. We will never know the real number of tragically lost lives attributable to school bullying. Many of the situations where young lives are lost do not highlight the issues and it is not easy to establish the backdrop to the series of tragic incidents that present throughout this island on almost a weekly basis.

The Minister indicated she was taking an initiative in conjunction with the Minister for Education and Skills. How does the Minister propose to progress it? Will there be any examination of international best practice? The Scandinavian countries are often pointed to as good global examples but there are also examples here at home. Has there been any consideration of them? The Minister made mention of the anti-bullying centre in Trinity College, Headstrong and Dr. Tony Bates, who recently addressed Deputies.

The Minister will have little time to answer.

However, there are also community examples addressing this particular concern. I highlight the Erris community development project in County Mayo which launched an important, worthwhile and successful initiative earlier this year.

Deputy, you have left the Minister only 40 seconds to reply.

The Education (Welfare) Act 2000 obliges all schools to have a code of behaviour. The National Educational Welfare Board, which comes under the remit of my Department, has issued guidelines requiring each school to have policies to address bullying and schools must make it clear in their code of behaviour that bullying is unacceptable. Compliance by schools with this NEWB requirement is now inspected by the Department of Education and Skills inspectorate during whole school evaluations. The Department and the National Educational Welfare Board could not be clearer about the advice, guidelines and direction to schools in this regard. The guidelines document, which has been sent to all schools states:

The Board of Management of a school must have policies to prevent or address bullying and harassment.

Schools must make clear in their code of behaviour that bullying is unacceptable. Teachers have a professional duty of care to address bullying and the Department of Education and Science reinforces this duty in requiring schools to have anti-bullying policies.

As well as making explicit that bullying is prohibited in the school, and having an anti-bullying policy, the code of behaviour should say what action the school will take in relation to alleged breaches of the schools bullying policy. Templates and guidance on anti-bullying policies are available from the Department of Education and Science.

The anti-bullying forum will examine international practice. It is working with representatives from the NGO community as well as officials on a cross-departmental basis to develop a strong set of recommendations on how to further tackle this serious issue which affects so many children.

I remind Deputies that there are two minutes allocated to reply formally and four minutes for a supplementary question and answer. I will be tighter the next time.

We appreciate the Chair's discretion.

Foster Care Provision

Mattie McGrath

Question:

3. Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans to introduce measures to compensate foster carers in respect of deliberate damage caused to their property by a foster child, when such damage is not covered by home insurance due to the deliberate nature of the damage; if her attention has been drawn to the fact that the Health Service Executive has for many years informed carers that they could make such claims from their house insurer if they had informed their insurer they were foster carers when in fact no such cover was available; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [46901/12]

The HSE has advised me that all foster carers are covered by an indemnity insurance scheme. The policy provides indemnity to the individual foster carers while engaged in the fostering of children under schemes operated by the HSE. The indemnity provided is restricted to legal liability for accidental third party bodily injury or third party property damage arising from their activities as foster carers. The HSE has in place a procedure whereby foster carers are informed of this insurance cover when they apply and that it does not cover their private property. Damage to property by a foster child will be considered by the HSE on a case-by-case basis and may include some financial compensation.

In August 2012 there were 6,000 children in the care of the State, some 5,739 of whom were in foster care. A total of 1,803 of these children were placed with relatives.

While individual problems may occur from time to time it is not the case that children in foster care lead chaotic lives or that a significant cohort are prone to engaging is risk-taking or violent behaviour. In reality, the vast majority of children in foster care are in stable placements and in this country we are fortunate that so many children in care are being looked after by foster parents. The Deputy will be aware that the national standards for foster care serve as a basis for consistently promoting quality of care in the foster care services. The Health Information and Quality Authority inspects foster care services on an ongoing basis and publishes reports on the standards. The standards provide that an assessment of the needs of each child or young person is made prior to any placement. Supports are available to foster parents from the local child and family service if there are any difficulties. Prospective foster carers or applicants undergo an assessment and training process to establish their suitability and competence as future foster carers to prepare them for the role and what to expect.

A significant range of supports is available to encourage the provision of foster care. Individual cases can be considered by the HSE and it is open to those who are dissatisfied to use the HSE's statutory complaints procedure to have an independent review of any issue.

I thank the Minister for her reply and compliment her on her work to date in the portfolio. I fully agree with what she said about the standard and professionalism of all the family carers, especially those who are high support carers for very special cases. I am not suggesting in my question that there are many incidents, but there always are a few. I am talking about a case of which I know where, because of an incident, there was considerable deliberate and malicious damage done which the foster parents could not afford.

The real issue, which varies from area to area in the HSE, is that the HSE has been informing foster carers that if they tell their insurance company when they are insuring their home that they have foster children, they will get cover. That is untrue. For the foster carer in the case I am talking about, where there were two major episodes which resulted in significant damage being done and considerable trauma caused for the foster child as well as for the family and the other foster children, if that carer were to make a claim, they would have to commit fraud. They would have to make a claim fraudulently to the HSE by falsely filling out the form stating the damage was done accidentally. If it was done deliberately, they would not get cover. We all know the nuances of insurance, whether motor insurance or whatever. The insurance companies will get out of it for whatever reason.

Obviously, times have moved on. I am talking about a case that has been ongoing for years. While the Minister stated there is a dedicated agency and a dedicated Department, I look forward to it. All has not been 100%, or anything like it, in HSE area districts in dealing with these issues.

Foster carers give splendid treatment to children, for the good of the children and for no financial gain. They want to do so. It is their passion and they do it professionally. Where there are incidents, however, there should be redress.

I suggest that Deputy Mattie McGrath write to me specifically on that case rather than try to deal with it in the House by way of parliamentary question. I would be willing to take up the case and examine it. The series of events he describes sound very unfortunate. If such a situation arises for householders, they would most likely have to cover the damage themselves and it is not any different with foster families. There is third party indemnity, which I explained to the Deputy. Each case can be looked at individually, and if there are ongoing issues in that case, I would be willing to have them examined and revert to the Deputy.

I will write to the Minister.

I thank Deputy Mattie McGrath. That was neat and tidy. I like that.

I thank the Acting Chairman. He is a neat and tidy Acting Chairman.

Adoption Legislation

Robert Troy

Question:

4. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans for the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill; the key measures likely to be contained in the legislation; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [46940/12]

I assure Deputy Troy that the adoption (information and tracing) Bill continues to be a priority of mine. The drafting of the heads of Bill is well advanced in my Department and consideration of the policy issues on all aspects of the proposed Bill is ongoing. As I stated previously in the House, it is intended that the legislation would provide for a structured and regulated way of safeguarding adoption records and providing access to adoption information as much as possible.

It is intended that the heads of Bill would provide for the Adoption Authority of Ireland to have responsibility for the safeguarding and maintenance of all adoption records in the State. This would include the establishment of a register of all relevant records held in various locations which would be maintained by the adoption authority. This is urgent and I cannot understand why it has not been done previously. It makes it very difficult for those who are trying to trace. Different standards are applied and there are different practices. The measures I will have in this Bill to bring those records together in one place are the right way to go.

It is also intended that the heads of Bill would provide that the authority would have responsibility for ensuring that access to these records was provided to an adopted person or to a birth parent, in accordance with the Bill. As all persons have a constitutional right to privacy, it is envisaged that there may be some restrictions on the information that could be made available without the consent of the parties involved. I have been in ongoing discussions with the Attorney General on this issue and I will take this tracing service as far as I possibly can within the constitutional constraints.

It is also intended that the Bill will establish the National Adoption Contact Preference Register on a statutory basis in order that adopted persons, birth parents and others separated as a consequence of an adoption will have access to the tracing and information service.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The National Adoption Contact Register was established in 2005 to assist adopted persons and their natural families to contact each other, exchange information or state their contact preferences. The applicants decide, through a range of information and contact options, how they wish to proceed. It is also intended to establish a national tracing service on a statutory basis to assist persons who have been separated by adoption and are seeking assistance in tracing or contacting with relatives. It is intended also to provide the tracing service to persons who have been separated as a consequence of an informal arrangement, for example, in the case of an informal or unlawful birth registration where no actual adoption took place.

The draft heads of the Bill will be submitted to Government for approval prior to commencing the drafting of the legislation. I hope to publish the Bill as soon as possible having regard to the current priority workload relating to the children's referendum, the adoption (amendment) Bill, and the child and family support agency Bill.

I thank the Minister for her reply. I am glad that she has re-emphasised her priority in this regard because this is legislation that affects between 45,000 and 50,000 people and it is quite important. It is legislation the Minister promised on assuming office 18 months ago. When we talk about giving children rights in the context of the children's referendum, a child's key right is the right to his or her identity. This is something that needs to be prioritised.

I welcome the Minister's frank reply but would respond with one simple supplementary question. When will we see heads of the Bill coming before the Dáil in order that my colleagues and I will have an opportunity to examine them in detail and in order that the many who are affected by this and are waiting on it will have an opportunity to look at them and propose amendments, all of which will ensure this much needed legislation is brought through the Houses of the Oireachtas?

The staff of my Department have been doing a considerable amount of work on the referendum, on the adoption legislation which I published that will arise as a consequence of the referendum being passed, and on the establishment of the new agencies. I am pleased to say, however, that a considerable amount of work has been done on the adoption tracing Bill and, depending on the demands of those other issues which will be substantial in getting Dáil time, I will attempt to have the heads of Bill brought before Government before the end of the year, if possible. While I cannot guarantee that because of the range of other work in which we are involved, certainly it will be early in the new year. If I can at all, I will have the draft heads of the Bill going to Government before the end of this year and we can then progress the legislation in the House early in the new year. It is a priority of mine.

Last week I met the Adoption Rights Alliance and I am working as closely as I possibly can with it to deal with the issues it is pursuing on behalf of the many people who make representations to it. I have said to the alliance that I shall continue to consult and meet it to try to deal with the range of issues which are of significant concern to it and its members.

The right of identity is a core right under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. By not having legislation in this area, are we in breach of that United Nations agreement?

Primarily, this is impacted here by the Constitution. There is a balance here that people have spoken about traditionally, which is, as Deputy Troy correctly states, the adopted person's right to information but, equally, on the other side of the equation, the mother's right to privacy. One can argue, as Deputy Troy did, that both of those rights exist, but so far the Supreme Court has sided with the right to privacy, and that is the fact of the matter.

Whether we can give effect to both is precisely what I have asked the Attorney General to examine, and that is where the consideration and discussion is at present. There are various options. One option might be to include certain presumptions in the legislation, such as a presumption that it is in everyone's best interest that the information must be shared unless there are compelling reasons this would unjustifiably conflict with a living person's right to privacy. I am examining the various options.

As I stated, to date the Supreme Court has been on the side of the mother's right to privacy. Since that Supreme Court decision was taken, there have been many developments in understanding the importance of a person's right to his or her identity and to information, and that is what I am examining. I hope to bring the heads of the adoption (information and tracing) Bill to Government as soon as possible.

Retail Sector Issues

Mick Wallace

Question:

5. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the number of childen's wear retailers who have, to date, signed up to the Retail Ireland Children's Wear Guidelines; if she has been active in encouraging retailers outside of Retail Ireland membership to sign up to the guidelines; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [46751/12]

Earlier this year I issued an invitation to Irish fashion retailers to prepare guidelines to address increasing concerns over the sexualisation of childhood and issues such as body-image. The invitation was taken up by Retail Ireland and on 28 June this year, I launched its new children's wear guidelines. It is important to note that these guidelines are not just about restricting what retailers can sell, but instead provide a more constructive guidance on best practice on a range of issues such as styling, slogans, age-appropriateness, size, labelling and marketing. These guidelines are an important part of a framework to ensure that we deal with some of the issues which are emerging in this area. Retail Ireland has also put in place a follow-up mechanism.

The guidelines are still new, having been launched just four months ago, so it is too early to judge their effectiveness. Retail Ireland has been in regular contact with my Department and will be providing an annual report on progress. The signatories to the guidelines are Arnotts, Brown Thomas, Clerys, Debenhams, House of Fraser, Marks and Spencer, Next, Penneys, Tesco and TK Max, which is quite a range. Heitons are due to sign up shortly. There are some notable companies that have not signed up yet and I have written to some of them asking them to do so.

Retail Ireland members met in early October to discuss the implementation of the guidelines and I understand that an updated report will be presented to me in the near future. I also understand that yesterday Retail Ireland met some parents' representatives to review the implementation and consider some concerns which the representatives had. It is good that the launch has been followed up by the emergence of an ongoing process to review the implementation and compliance.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Most of us are aware of the fact that the problems in this are have grown in recent years. The move on the part of the Minister and the retail sector is definitely in the right direction but I wonder if there is scope for guidelines such as these to be made compulsory and put on a statutory footing to ensure that childrens' wear retailers prioritise the well being of children over the pursuit of profit.

I understand that Retail Ireland plans to put in place a mechanism to facilitate the reporting of concerns by parents and others through a central e-mail address and also plans to provide an annual progress report to the Minister's office. While this is an improvement on where we were, it does smack of self-certification. Given that most retail outlets are focused on their profit margin more than on any other priority, it would be good if we could monitor the situation independently rather than accept their word for it. I am not accusing them in advance of not being honest but the Minister understands that if we had independent certification and independent monitoring of how things are going, to ensure that best practice is being followed, that would be a good thing.

I thank the Deputy for his comments. The approach I have taken, in the first instance, is to have voluntary guidelines which are positive and constructive and the sector has responded well to that. This approach has also been taken in the UK. There are some extras in the Irish guidelines, however, including the central email address for complaints, the review of emerging issues and the annual report to my office. In the first instance, this should be voluntary. The issuing of guidelines is the way to go. I take the Deputy's point that it is self-regulation, with no outside body involved, except myself. However, there is a report to me every year, which is important. I suggest that we see how the guidelines work in the first year, see what the first report on them has to say and identify the concerns that parents may or may not have raised in that year. There has been an enormous welcome for the guidelines from parents and grandparents and it must be said that Irish retailers, for the most part, act very responsibly in this area. People have remarked to me on the changes that have taken place already in relation to the clothes that are available, particularly for children under 13. The intention is to rely on the voluntary approach initially and to monitor that and see how things develop in the course of the year.

On a different, but related issue, I recently read that an American child beauty contest will come to Ireland soon. I am not so sure that we should start going down this road. I would be very wary about such contests because they really amount to an inappropriate sexualisation of children and that is something we should discourage.

There has been some comment on that recently and obviously there are increasing concerns over the sexualisation of childhood. Many people would argue, and I would agree, that events such as the one the Deputy refers to encourage the early sexualisation of young children. That is something that can be very stressful and quite dangerous for some children. We have seen what is happening in that context in regard to the Internet and cyber bullying. We must be very careful about this issue and that is why I initiated those guidelines earlier in the year.