Other Questions

Child Protection Services

Denis Naughten

Question:

6. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs when the audit produced on foot of the recommendations in the report on the Roscommon Child Care Case will be published; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [46571/12]

As I recently indicated to the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children, the audit report referred to by the Deputy is being submitted this week to the HSE’s National Director for Children and Family Services, Mr. Gordon Jeyes. It is planned to publish that report by the end of the year, which covers audits conducted in Roscommon, Waterford and Dublin. That report was prepared by an independent consultant and it has now been presented to Mr. Jeyes but I have not yet received it.

One of the recommendations from the Roscommon inquiry was for a national audit of neglect cases to be completed, commencing with Roscommon. The HSE, in order to progress this recommendation, engaged the services of an external consultant to assist in devising a method of audit that could be applied nationally. Audits were subsequently completed in the former Roscommon, Waterford and Dublin South East local health offices. In each area it was decided, on foot of research advice, that a sample number of 30 cases would be reviewed. The purpose of the composite report is to maximise the learning from the process.

I have answered detailed questions previously in relation to this issue before. Since the publication of the Roscommon report the HSE has given assurances that the practice of assessing and responding to child welfare and protection concerns is being applied to the necessary standard across all regions. It is committed to learning from this and other reports to ensure that services are strengthened to help protect children to the greatest extent possible.

The Children First national guidance for the protection and welfare of children, published in 2011, provides greater clarity and guidance for individuals and organisations in identifying and responding appropriately to child abuse and neglect. The guidance stresses that the responsibility for child protection lies across all organisations and while the HSE and the Garda have particular roles in assessment and prosecution of allegations, working across sectors is essential to good outcomes. We saw that in the child death report too. A child protection and welfare practice handbook is now available. I also wish to inform the House that HIQA begins its inspection of child protection services and how they are responding to cases. We launched the HIQA guidelines in July and the first inspection will take place in Carlow-Kilkenny in November.

Deputy Naughten has asked me to speak on his behalf and I thank the Minister for her reply. As the Minister knows, the Deputy is quite anxious in this regard and has asked me to try to ascertain a definitive time frame for the publication of the report. I acknowledge that it was only presented to Mr. Gordon Jeyes this week and that the Minister has not seen it yet. She will need time to go through it. Can she give an indicative timeframe for when it will be published?

I intend that the report be published. I will pursue it with Mr. Jeyes and as soon as I receive it from him I will publish it. There is no reason to believe there will be a delay. He only received it this week.

Departmental Staff Recruitment

Michael Moynihan

Question:

7. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the number of social workers currently employed by her Department; if she will confirm if the targets as set out in the Ryan implementation report have been met; if such targets were met by recruiting new social workers or by converting temporary contract to permanent contracts; if she will provide a detailed breakdown of the number of permanent social workers now as opposed to March 2011; the number of temporary contracts now as opposed to march 2011; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [46728/12]

The HSE compiles a monthly census of employment in the public health and social care sector. The most recent figures supplied by the HSE indicate that the number of whole-time equivalent social workers employed in the children and families service area of the HSE was 1,300 at the end of July 2012. The number of social workers employed in the children and families service area at the end of February 2011 was 1,231. This represents an increase of 69 whole-time-equivalent social workers since February 2011. The total number of individual social workers employed in child and family services has increased by 86 in the same period. The HSE has made considerable progress over recent years in recruiting additional social workers, with 260 social workers recruited under the Ryan implementation plan at the end of 2011. A further ten social workers who were to be recruited after 2011 are currently at various stages of recruitment, with the first four already in position.

The national director of children and family services, Gordon Jeyes, will continue to apply his discretion to the filling of social work vacancies, taking account of identified need and subject to services being delivered within available resources. It is important to emphasise that work is ongoing within the HSE on the disaggregation of the children and families resource base from the HSE as part of the process of establishing the new child and family support agency next year. Consequently the number of social workers assigned to children and families services will continue to be subject to change as the mapping and classification of posts into care groups is further refined between now and year end. This project has involved considerable work and certain grey areas are still being examined.

Information regarding temporary and permanent contracts has been sought from the HSE. This information will be provided to the Deputy as soon as it becomes available. The figures I have provided include those employed on a permanent and temporary basis, with a significant overall increase achieved in the total numbers employed over the period.

I welcome that at long last the target promised under the Ryan implementation plan has been met. I am somewhat disappointed that the Minister cannot provide information on the numbers employed on temporary contracts but perhaps she can confirm whether the additional staff employed under permanent contracts were transferred from temporary positions and if those positions were ever filled. That is a key issue because the figures released by her Department in May 2012 indicate that the percentage of allocated social workers to children in foster or residential care has decreased, which means that more children were without social workers in May compared to 18 months ago. I ask her to clarify that issue.

I am pleased to report that the number of allocated social workers has increased over the past three years. The figures have improved substantially. There was a slight drop in 2011 but that can be partially explained by the difficulties surrounding resources arising from earlier budget reductions. I do not have figures on temporary and permanent positions but all 260 of the social workers I committed to recruiting are now in place. The number has increased and 86 additional social workers have now been employed. We have seen a welcome increase in the proportion of children in care with an allocated social worker to 93%, compared to 83% in 2009. In some of the cases where a social worker has not been allocated the children are with relatives.

I have listened to the series of discussions on this matter between the Minister and the Fianna Fáil spokespersons on children, Deputy Troy and, previously, Deputy McConalogue. It is difficult at times to discern the exact number of social workers in situ. At the end of the day, my core concern is not the fencing over the numbers but whether we will have sufficient support services, including dedicated social workers, to deal with the advent of the child and family support agency after 1 January and that we live up to the promise of the constitutional change we are urging the electorate to endorse on 10 November.

Clearly the point is that we can provide the kind of services we require. That is the intention of the reform. Gordon Jeyes and his new management team, which has been reduced from 36 to 19, are working hard to manage their budget and provide the best possible service. Significant reform is under way and I believe it will support workers on the front line. However, we face huge pressures because of the financial situation and demands on services.

Health Reports

Mick Wallace

Question:

8. Deputy Mick Wallace asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans to implement the recommendations of How We See It, Report of a Survey on Young People's Body Image, such as the need for a national positive body image awareness campaign aimed at teenagers; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [46750/12]

Seamus Kirk

Question:

37. Deputy Seamus Kirk asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the action she proposes to take arising from the survey on Young People's Body Image; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [46723/12]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 and 37 together.

On 15 October, I launched the report of a survey on young people’s body image, which marks an important milestone in giving young people a voice on this important issue. This survey was carried out directly on foot of a key recommendation from Dáil na nÓg 2010. At that assembly, the young delegates considered the importance of body image to teenagers’ mental health and, noting the lack of national data on teenagers’ body image, decided that it was an issue worth researching. The survey was completed by 2,156 young people, which is a large number given that poll information is often provided on the basis of 1,000 respondents, and it gives us new insights into how teenagers perceive themselves in an area of critical importance to their mental health.

The survey found that body image is a burning issue for young people in Ireland, with 77% of participants ranking body image as important to them. Of those surveyed, 57% expressed some level of satisfaction with their body image, which means 43% were dissatisfied. Comparison with others emerged as the most negative influence on girls’ body image, whereas bullying was the strongest negative influence on boys’ body image. We do not hear much about the impact of bullying on boys but this survey identified it as an important issue for them. The importance of media and celebrities in influencing teenagers’ body image also ranked as highly significant. The report also contains a number of international comparisons.

The young people called for action in schools and recommended an awareness campaign aimed at teenagers. They also advised that we should examine access to sports for young people. It was disturbing to find that many young girls dropped out of physical education and swimming activities in schools for the wrong reasons. Schools can take initiatives to monitor these developments. They also asked for more discussion of personal development in schools.

They also looked at the issue of vending machines in schools and recommended that if they were provided in schools, they should offer healthy food options. There is a series of practical recommendations on which we can take action. This goes beyond the remit of my Department and there is work to be done on the side of health promotion by the Department of Health. The new children and young people's policy framework will be about a whole of government approach to these issues. There are interesting findings in the report which need to be examined to see which Departments should progress the recommendations.

This issue is related to my previous question also. Significant health education is required in this regard, but the issue of education in general must also be examined. I would like to see the secondary education system, in particular, concentrate more on preparing kids for life, not just for taking up a job. I have been coaching under-age teenagers for the past 30 years and if I had to use one word to describe what they are like when I meet them first at age 15 or 16 years, I would use "insecure" as most kids lack self-esteem. One of the first tasks of a manager or coach is to help them to feel better about themselves before one can see them maximise their potential.

We also need to educate young kids about false advertising. The extent to which women are objectified in the media is leading a generation of young girls to believe their self-worth is directly linked with their physical appearance. Similarly, the male stereotypes perpetuated by much of the media suggest to boys that to be a man one must be physically strong and often aggressive and that displaying any hint of emotion or sensitivity is a weakness. I have been criticised in this House for being emotional. A direct effort must be made in schools to deal with the issue of kids' self-esteem and the difficulties that undermine it.

There is increasing international evidence that this is an issue. We did not have much research available in Ireland until this study - How We See It, Report of a Survey on Young People's Body Image - and there are disturbing findings from the point of view of young people. The young people who conducted the survey have said they want it to be a point of discussion for young people because the fact that they were discussing it would help them to feel they were not alone and perhaps their self-esteem might be improved by sharing their concerns.

A range of actions can be taken, particularly in the area of health promotion and awareness. Schools have a role in that regard, but at the same time I am very conscious that we are asking them to do a lot. Discussion of these issues and giving young people the opportunity to deal with their concerns, speak about them, be supported and take part in sports are important in order to deal with some of the negative gender stereotyping which affects both young boys and young girls. This stereotyping impacts differently on young girls but also on young men. This came across clearly in the survey. It impacts on both genders in different ways. It is an issue about which we will hear a lot more.

This gives us an opportunity to speak a little about Question No. 16, to which we will not get, which asks about the national playground policy. The Minister should consider updating that policy to ensure equipment installed in playgrounds is exercise friendly and that it helps children to maintain an appropriate weight.

It is welcome that the survey was an initiative driven by young people because the chances are that will make it far more successful because it is something for which they are looking. We look for examples of what we can do and see the great work done under the Green Flag programme in increasing the level of environmental awareness in schools. There is a new Blue Flag programme which promotes physical well-being among children in schools. Such a pilot programme is being carried out in my local school and perhaps it might be considered for implementation on a national basis.

Has the Minister had consultations with the Ministers for Health and Education and Skills on this issue? They are the key Departments in the implementation of the recommendations made in these reports. Has the Minister had the opportunity to contact them on this issue and, if so, what proposals are forthcoming?

I will engage in consultation with the Ministers, but I have just received this report within the past couple of weeks. I work with both Departments on cross-departmental issues and this report will certainly be on our agenda. It is obviously linked with the report of the working group on obesity also, on which there is cross-departmental work on health education.

I agree with the education for life approach in schools. The issue addressed in these questions has a direct link with the issues of youth mental health and school bullying addressed in my priority question. The high and increasing incidence of eating disorders is a related issue. Are there particular initiatives being undertaken by the Minister?

The Minister mentioned a joint approach with the Minister for Education and Skills on school bullying, but are there initiatives being taken on related matters, particularly the issues of youth personal image and eating disorders? These must start at a young age. Is there a particular focus or undertaking in this regard?

This is an area we are just beginning to research and this is one of the first reports we have received. Significant work has been done in Australia on the issue of body image and young people's view of it and how it impacts on them. The initiatives on bullying are an important way of dealing with this issue and that of mental health. Equally, the SPHE programme in schools, changes to the junior certificate curriculum and a different focus in certain areas of education mean these issues will be included in a more integrated and mainstream way. Also, some of the initiatives on physical activity in schools such as the one being promoted by Senator Eamonn Coghlan will help. I hope this initiative will be piloted in schools. We must examine what we are doing with regard to physical activity in schools and how children and young people are participating. I accept the Deputy's point that this begins at a very early stage; we should really start working on this issue at primary level.

Will the Minister remind the Minister for Education and Skills that the job of teaching children today is probably more difficult than it ever was? That is all the more reason we need to attract the best people to the job. Therefore, cutting the pay of first-time teachers, as is happening, will hardly help to promote teaching at a time when there are such massive challenges. It is vital that we get it right and attract the best people into the profession. We need to remember this when their money is being cut.

I agree with the Minister that the fact that we are discussing this issue is positive and contributes to an airing of the issues involved. This is an enormous challenge, beyond anything we do here and at government level because of the influences and pressures exerted from outside. The pressure young people, particularly young girls, are being exposed to in order to conform to a certain image that has no bearing on reality is immense.

Since my daughter started secondary school, I have really noticed the different pressures, the emergence of friends with eating disorders and the focus on how one looks. We have to be really conscious of those issues. It is a question of having confidence in diversity. If every Government Department could use positive role models, it would be the beginning of an effort to be quite constructive.

I take Deputy Wallace's point in regard to teachers. I take this opportunity to praise the dedication of teachers who give such so much time outside school hours to support young people who participate in all sorts of sporting activities and school events. That is a very important aspect of the work of teachers in dealing with the kind of issues we are talking about today. Teachers help children to gain self-esteem and find their inner value and confidence. Clearly, we are taking steps to ensure our economic situation recovers so that we will not have to make decisions like those mentioned by Deputy Wallace today.

I would like to remind Deputy Clare Daly of some of the positive initiatives that are taking place around the country. In the youth work area, which is funded by my Department to the tune of tens of millions of euro, wonderful initiatives involving young people are taking place around the country. This funding is focused on a range of issues, such as the involvement of young people in community activities and their contribution to communities. Some 300,000 young people have been through the Gaisce programmes. Foróige is involved in initiatives throughout the country, including Big Brothers Big Sisters Ireland. I have to say I believe those projects, which I see every week, respect diversity and focus on values like those espoused by Deputy Daly, as opposed to the pressures that are putting so many demands on our young people.

Retail Sector Issues

Barry Cowen

Question:

9. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her views on inappropriate marketing targeted on children; and in view of this the action, if any, she is taking in conjunction with other Government Departments to ensure that such inappropriate marketing is curtailed. [46709/12]

I addressed this issue to some extent in response to Question No. 5, in the name of Deputy Wallace. Other Departments and bodies are involved in the regulation of advertising in broadcast and other media. Inappropriate marketing and, particularly, the sexualisation of children in advertising, which we have already discussed, are important issues for those of us concerned with the welfare of children and young people. I intend to examine this issue further as I develop the forthcoming children and young people's policy framework. I will not repeat what I have already said about the guidelines that have been issued to Retail Ireland.

The Minister can consider it read into the record.

I have given the details of the number of retailers that have signed up to the guidelines. That information can be considered as part of the reply to this question. In August 2011, the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland issued a consultation document on a children's commercial communications code and launched a related public consultation process on how food and drink should be commercially promoted to children in broadcast media. As part of my Department’s commitment to supporting participation by children in decision-making, my Department has facilitated a submission by Dáil na n-Óg, the national Parliament for young people between the ages of 12 and 18, to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland in relation to the consultation document on the children's commercial communications code. The outcome of the public consultation process that was undertaken with regard to the rules to be applied to the advertising of high fat, salt and sugar food and drink to children was announced on 12 October last. The rules will come into effect on 1 July 2013 and will apply to all radio and television broadcasters regulated in the Republic of Ireland.

As the Minister said, this question is somewhat similar to a previous question about the early sexualisation of children. I welcome the work that has been done in this regard. The Minister has said she feels that the new Broadcasting Authority of Ireland rules that will govern the advertising of food and drink to children represent an important step in the process of combating the alarming rise in childhood obesity. We will have to wait until July 2013 to see exactly what sort of impact the new rules will have. Given that a large percentage of television advertising viewed by children is broadcast on non-Irish channels, do we have an opportunity to do something at European level? I understand that 70% of television watched by Irish children is on non-Irish channels that will not be governed by the new rules.

This is clearly a complex issue. No particular authority in Ireland governs the broadcasting of the programmes mentioned by the Deputy. Clearly, there is scope for the best practice with regard to these issues to be examined at EU level. I am not sure how effective that would be, however. It is hard to know what impact it would have. I will make inquiries for the Deputy and revert to him on this issue. I do not doubt that initiatives are under way at EU level, but I do not have details of them with me.

I would like to pick up on the point made by Deputy Troy about the need for a European approach to this issue. We have discussed the marketing of food, drink and clothes to children, but I wish to focus on gambling with particular reference to a new Facebook application. Although it is currently available in the UK only, a number of parents' groups in Ireland have expressed concern about it. They have been told it is for the use of those over the age of 18, but they are concerned about the use of cartoon characters and children's drawings to advertise it. Can the Minister give her opinion on the matter? Will she work at EU level to examine how we can tackle the use of online applications to target young people?

Evidence is emerging to suggest that online gambling by young people is a serious issue. It is of more concern in some circumstances than in others. I would be happy to examine the initiatives that are being taken at EU level. Clearly, the issue of the regulation of the Internet, which has proved to be extremely difficult, transcends national and geographical boundaries. As in the case of cyber-bullying, it might be better to focus on educating parents and young people because international regulation is a much more complex matter. I will certainly examine the European initiatives that have been taken.

Given that Question No. 9 relates particularly to "inappropriate marketing targeted on children", I welcome the fact that the Minister has spoken about programming in general. Television programmes themselves, quite apart from television advertisements, can have a significant influence on young people. They often present young people in a particular way. One set of views might be regarded as normal behaviour, but it might be very alien and totally contrary to another body of young people. When a continual feed presents a set of norms or standards as acceptable and does not challenge them, it can have a significant impact on young people. While it is difficult to address all of this, we have to be very aware that it is having a significant influence.

The Deputy's point is well made, but it is not really a question.

The best response in the circumstances outlined by the Deputy is to continue to educate our young people. That is why I welcome reports like the body image survey and the work on the retail guidelines. Education and self-awareness are needed. We have to give young people an opportunity to discuss these issues in places where they are supported. Many of them are involved in activities like those I have mentioned. That is clearly the best defence. Clearly, we need to consider whether other initiatives need to be taken.

Children's Rights Referendum

Timmy Dooley

Question:

10. Deputy Timmy Dooley asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the way she proposes to put in place the resources that will be required to uphold and vindicate the rights of children; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [46717/12]

The purpose of the proposed constitutional amendment is to recognise children in their own right in the Constitution and to acknowledge 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. It is the fundamental backdrop to the wider programme for change for children that is being pursued by the Government. These reforms focus on intervention to ensure the safety and welfare of children and to ensure 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 HSE and to establish a new dedicated child and family support agency, to be fully operational in 2013. This will involve 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 task force that I established to advise on how best to organise services for children in this country was published in July 2012. The task force report maps out an executive agenda for the development of services so we can do the very best for parents, children and families. Ahead of establishment of the new agency, an additional €21 million in funding has been made available to HSE child and family services in 2012. This reflects the priority attached by the Government to the reform of child welfare and protection services. There also has been a further increase in the recruitment of child and family social workers and an increase in the proportion of children with an allocated social worker.

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 relation to child protection services, together with a need to provide more timely and meaningful information. The introduction of the national child care information system 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 the Government, I would point out that the Government continues to invest 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.

This question is similar to Question No. 1.

This issue has been covered already.

Is the Minister happy to move to the next question?

I would like us to stay on this question to facilitate those of us who were not able to ask supplementary questions earlier because Question No. 1 was a Priority Question.

I accept that further questioning under Question No. 1 was limited to the presenter of that question, which was of similar substance to the question now before the House. Therefore, I will allow further questions on the topic covered in Question No. 10.

We have spoken about the resourcing that is needed to enable social workers to uphold and vindicate the rights of children. I am particularly keen to make an additional comment on this issue in the House because it is the last opportunity I will get to do so before 10 November. I reiterate that resourcing will be essential. We have embarked on a major initiative to enshrine children's rights in the Constitution. The electorate will have an opportunity to do that two weeks from this Saturday. I join the Minister and others in this House in encouraging the greatest possible endorsement of the "Yes" position.

I urge Deputies not to be complacent and to utilise fully the remaining time to promote the very sound reasons we believe the "Yes" position is the right one to adopt on 10 November. Given that the Dáil is not sitting next week, we should avail of that opportunity to make our case. I would say from the engagement I have already had with others, as well as on the basis of the ongoing inquiries, that people who have had less than satisfactory experiences with the State's approach to the protection of children in the past have legitimate concerns. We need to ensure we are in a position to give the necessary assurances to the effect that those failures will not continue after this constitutional amendment is adopted.

I would also like to take this opportunity to encourage people to vote on 10 November next. It is a Saturday, which should facilitate people. It is important for people to come out to vote and to give a strong endorsement to this amendment. The information is out there. It is available to the public. People always ask for more information. Two booklets are being delivered to every home. All of the political parties are making material available to citizens to ensure they are informed about the key provisions we are proposing. I encourage people to make themselves aware of the information that is available, including the substantial body of information that is available online.

I take the Deputy's point that we have a dreadful history, in many ways, with regard to vulnerable children and over decades of institutional care. That institutional care has come to an end, for the most part. St. Patrick's Institution is an exception. We are taking action to change that. Before I saw any report, I took action to ensure 16 and 17 year olds will no longer be detained at St. Patrick's Institution. I emphasise that when care services try to help families, they provide family support in the first instance. That has been the case for quite a long time. It is only in exceptional cases that young people end up in care. When young people come into State care, they are placed in the care of families. Some 91% of them are with foster families. They are getting a chance of family life. It is important for people to understand it is not residential care.

I will conclude by referring to one of the difficulties in the discussions that are taking place in relation to the referendum. The fact that so many family law hearings take place in camera or in secret means people do not realise we already have strong legislation in this area. Every day of the week, the courts hear family law cases relating to families that are in trouble. They make decisions about care orders and supervision orders, etc. Every year, some 1,500 children are confirmed by the child and family services as suffering from physical abuse, sexual abuse or neglect. We need to protect those children.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.
The Dáil adjourned at 6.35 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 6 November 2012.