Other Questions

National Educational Welfare Board Remit

Denis Naughten

Question:

74. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the steps she is taking to expand the role of the National Educational Welfare Board by liaising with other Departments; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [53713/13]

Last year, nearly 1,500 children left primary school and were not recorded as turning up in secondary school. Did their parents continue to receive child benefit? By linking the National Education and Welfare Board with child benefit payments, not only would we encourage school attendance, we would also reduce fraud in the Department of Social Protection by approximately €100 million a year.

The statutory role of the National Educational Welfare Board, NEWB, is prescribed in section 10 of the Education (Welfare) Act 2002. The core focus of that work is to ensure that each child attends a recognised school or otherwise receives a certain minimum education.

The Deputy's question is about the broad role of the NEWB and the work it does, but the Deputy spoke about child benefit and whether it should be linked to school attendance. This is an issue on which people have strong views and I am aware the Deputy has strong views on it himself. Whether child benefit should be linked to particular behaviour by parents, in terms of sending children to school or looking after their children a certain way, raises a lot of questions that have not been teased out yet. These questions would need to be teased out if one was to go down that route.

What is happening with the NEWB is that all of its functions and staff are coming together in the new Child and Family Agency. All of the functions of the NEWB are being transferred to the new agency and school attendance and the role of the school will be central to its work. For the first time, we will have under the one roof, child protection social workers, education welfare officers and family support workers and these will work together in the interest of families. The overall educational welfare responsibilities will have high visibility and I see this as important. The transfer of educational welfare services into the agency will broaden the focus of the agency and its resources and tackle educational welfare as a key outcome for children in their own right. Apart from the particular point being made about child benefit, having this kind of focus on school attendance is critical for the new agency, because we know from research that non-attendance at school is a good indicator of problems in families.

I have seen initiatives that work to address non-attendance at school that do not involve taking money from parents by reducing child benefit. I have seen very successful initiatives where an all-school approach is token and where people work with the community, the families and children. A high priority is given to the number of days children attend school and there is close follow up with the children who do not attend. That is a very successful way of getting children back into school. I recognise the Deputy's interest in this particular issue, but I do not know what the research says about it.

Last year's NEWB report gives an example of the case of Jenny, who missed 65 days in school. In that case, the NEWB engaged with the family over a long period and eventually the parents came before the courts. The mother was fined €200 and the father was fined €100. The total cost of bringing the case to court was approximately €24,000. Since that process, the child has had an exemplary record in school. However, would it not have made more sense to have the threat of the suspension of child benefit as an incentive for the parents to get the child to attend school? Would that not be better than dragging the parents through the court system, having them fined, costing the Exchequer a huge sum and, most important, Jenny losing out on a year of school while the process dragged on?

I would have to ask what was in the best interest of the child. What would the impact be of taking child benefit away from those parents?

What would be the impact on the child's food and nourishment? I am making the point that while it may seem like a simple answer, I am not sure it would deal with the issue of non-school attendance which is very complex and often has to do with mental health issues for the parents or psychological issues for the child. It could be down to poor functioning of the family in general. I am not sure removing child benefit would resolve the issue of non-school attendance because it is complex and requires the type of approach about which I have spoken. I have never seen research which suggests removing child benefit would make children go to school. Perhaps the Deputy has access to research which states this is the case. In my experience one needs a complex reaction to ensure a child goes to school, including working directly with the parents, the child, the school and the teacher; examining the child's ability in school; and finding out the reasons he or she is not attending. These can be very complex. Sometimes it has to do with individual factors in the child and other times it has to do with the family.

I am not speaking about taking away the payment; I am speaking about using the threat as the mechanism to ensure children attend school. Surely fining parents €500 would not solve the problem if the parents were to end up in prison because they could not pay the fine. This is not a solution to the problem either. Is the Minister aware that a condition of the child benefit rules is that the child must attend school? Rather than the Department of Social Protection sending out 600,000 letters a year to check whether children are attending school, which would be enough paper to wallpaper Croke Park two and half times, would it not make far more sense to link the agencies to ensure more effective monitoring of school attendance? As a knock-on consequence, it would save €100 million by dealing with fraudulent claims, which is quite separate from the issue of school attendance.

Fraudulent claims for child benefit must be dealt with; there is no question about this. I am merely responding to the Deputy's point on child benefit and school attendance. The issue must be dealt with and I have no doubt it is being pursued. I am sure there are links between the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Social Protection with regard to the numbers of children in school and other data they need to share, but if this is not already happening, it could and should happen.

That is another question. It is not a question of using child benefit to ensure school attendance. The Deputy is talking about dealing with fraud, on which I take his point with regard to school attendance and the number of children in a given area. We must do this in the early years programme. There is a roll call of the 68,000 children attending. The data are available. My point is that dealing with the issue of school attendance would be greatly facilitated by the agencies working together. I take the Deputy's point on agencies working together. Education welfare will now be under the aegis of an agency working with child protection and family support workers and I hope this will ensure we will have a more effective working arrangement with families where non-school attendance is a problem.

Children in Care

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin

Question:

75. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans to progress legislation on aftercare provision for young persons leaving care to ensure they are provided with the type of transitional support that their individual situation requires; the date on which she expects this legislation to be published; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [53804/13]

The Minister gave a commitment during the passage of the Child and Family Agency Bill to address the recognised need for legislation on aftercare provision for children in State care. I am anxious to know whether she is in a position to advise on what progress has been made since the passage of the Child and Family Agency Bill and if she is in a position to signal with some certainty the legislation which will be presented and when it will be presented.

Is the Deputy asking about the Child and Family Agency?

No, I am asking about aftercare provision. During the passage of the Child and Family Agency Bill the Minister gave an assurance to the House that this was a priority to be addressed. She indicated that whatever legislation was required to facilitate its introduction at the earliest opportunity would be employed. I am asking for an update on the issue. Will the Minister tell the House what legislation will facilitate its introduction and how soon she expects to present it?

My apologies. Last month I obtained Cabinet approval for the Department's policy to strengthen the legislative after-care provisions.

It is proposed to amend the Child Care Act 1991 to provide for a statutory right to the preparation of a plan that identifies the support young people will need when they leave State care. The proposed amendment will provide clarity around eligibility and the arrangements for preparing, reviewing and updating the aftercare plan and monitoring young care leavers who do not participate in the process. Work has commenced in my Department and the legislation will be published early in 2014. We are finalising a few outstanding issues relating to the amendment of the Child Care Act 1991 which deals with bringing the three detention schools together. I will include the aftercare provision in that legislation which I envisage bringing to the House early in the new year.

I welcome this, as I did when the Minister first signalled it when we were concluding the debate on the Child and Family Agency Bill 2013. A statutory entitlement to aftercare to ensure young people leaving State care on the attainment of their 18th birthday have at least a comparable level of supports and encouragement to face the challenges of young adulthood is critically important. The provision of aftercare services has been highlighted as a key element in achieving positive outcomes for young people leaving care. When the Minister raised this issue - I note comments she has made since - she said consultation would commence when children turned 16 years to prepare a care plan. I am anxious to know with certainty that the legislation that will provide for the preparation of a care plan will also ensure adequate resourcing to follow through on the recommendations that the care plan will highlight. It is all very well preparing a care plan, but these most vulnerable of young people need certainty on the resourcing of the care plan specific to their needs and potential. This is about helping them to reach their potential in young adulthood that we would wish for our own children. It comes back to equality of treatment of children across the board.

I have indicated in the House previously the great strides made in this area. For example, at the end of June this year 1,431 young people were in receipt of aftercare services. That is a considerable change in recent years when the numbers were in the hundreds. There is much greater sensitivity shown to young people and a higher budget for them. A total of 1,000 aged between 18 and 21 years and 384 over 21 years were receiving some aftercare support. In addition, 656 of those aged between 18 and 21 years were in education and training, while 55.8% were in full-time education. Sometimes, people speak about young people in aftercare as if the vast majority are out of home, education and services, but they are not. A large number of children who have been through the care system are in education and doing well and being supported by the State. There is no room for complacency, but the aftercare provision I will insert in the legislation will bring an even greater focus to the needs of young people who have been in care for a period and need ongoing support when they leave the care system.

It was recognising what the Minister had said that led me to table the question in the context of the young child's care plan assisting him or her to reach his or her potential. Each plan will be unique to the individual young person's circumstances and needs. The HSE national aftercare service is underpinned by a national policy and procedures document which was developed in co-operation with stakeholders.

The HSE national policy on aftercare has been implemented nationally and is monitored by the HSE's aftercare implementation group which has responsibility for ensuring an aftercare service across all areas within existing resources. My question seeks to identify the gaps in resources. Will the Minister provide an update on the HSE's aftercare implementation group's identification of the gaps in the resourcing of aftercare services? This is related to the first point I made. Provision of care plans is fine but resources are critical.

As the Deputy noted, there is a national aftercare policy. The figures I have provided are the most recent available to me, but I will ask the national policy group for an update on the matter. I hope there are not too many gaps because we are trying to reach out to young people who need aftercare services to ensure they receive them. The statistics show that we are fulfilling many of the needs that arise. It is clear that many children decide to remain with foster parents after they reach the age of 18 years, with ongoing financial support. I will be happy to provide more up-to-date figures if they are available.

I refer to the aftercare implementation group.

Question No. 76 replied to with Written Answers.

Child Care Reports

Seán Kyne

Question:

77. Deputy Seán Kyne asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she will report on the progress of digitising inspection reports of child care facilities and on establishing a central database for such important inspection reports; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [53809/13]

I ask the Minister the progress made on the central digitised database for the inspection reports on child care facilities sent to Pobal. This is an important issue in the light of the revelations on "Prime Time" earlier this year.

Preschool services required under the Child Care (Pre-School Services) (No. 2) Regulations 2006 to notify their services to the Health Service Executive are subject to inspection by the preschool inspectorate on a regular basis. Previously, the inspection reports were generally held by the inspectorate in paper format and access to them had been an issue of concern, with many parents being required to make freedom of information applications. As part of the comprehensive preschool quality agenda, I asked the HSE to prepare the reports in order that they could be published online. I am pleased to report that the HSE commenced publication of retrospective preschool inspection reports online. I understand 1,912 preschool inspection reports have been published online. This figure includes 1,877 retrospective reports for the period to 1 July 2013. I also gave a commitment that new reports would also be put online when they were completed. I thank the inspectors and the staff of the HSE for completing this mammoth task. The paper reports had to be published online in a suitable format. In addition to the 1,877 retrospective reports, 35 new reports were completed since 1 July.

Parents should ask their child care providers for a copy of a report on their service. The vast majority, if not all, providers will give parents the most up-to-date report available. It is an important part of the information which parents should be able to access. Many services have begun to publish their reports or have made them otherwise available to parents. Pobal is hosting the publication of the reports which are available on its website.

It is welcome that 1,912 documents are now online. It is important that parents know what is happening in their children's care facilities. The same applies to parents who are considering sending their children to a new care service. Responsibility for the new system of registration for the country's 4,000 child care facilities will rest with the Child and Family Agency from January 2014. I understand the requirement is that services will register next year and re-register every three years. Does the Minister believe every facility will be inspected within those three years and does she believe we need to move to a system under which every provider would be inspected every year?

That is an interesting question. It varies from country to country. In some services we have a higher rate of inspection, for example, than in the United Kingdom, which has a rolling system of inspections over 18 months to two years. If there is a problem in a service the inspectors go back in to check that improvements have been made, and there can be more than one visit in certain services. As we have these services registered - they now must register - every service will be registered in the timeframe we have outlined.

In terms of the working model for the numbers of inspections, given that there are 4,500 child care services, one inspection a year is probably not to be expected, but there would be rolling inspections. If there were any particular difficulties there would be extra inspections, or certainly inspectors would go back if there were complaints from parents or if any concerns were noted in a given area. There are also the local child care committees, which should have a good experience of the state of services in their area and, if there are particular concerns, can draw attention to them.

We are at an advanced stage of recruiting five additional inspectors in areas where gaps have been identified - that is, Louth, Dublin south-east, east Wicklow, Cavan-Monaghan, Sligo-Leitrim and west Cavan. There is a budgetary allocation of €500,000 in 2014 to further increase staffing levels to strengthen the preschool inspection scheme. As these inspectors are put in place we will be in a better position to examine how frequently the services can be inspected. That will be a more realistic assessment than has been possible up to now.

If Deputy Kyne is happy enough with that, we will go on to Deputy Broughan's question.

Child Care Services Inspections

Thomas P. Broughan

Question:

78. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if it is planned that residential child care centres run by private operators in which children in the care of the State are cared for will come under the inspection remit of the Health Information and Quality Authority. [53791/13]

The Minister told me that up to August 2013 there were 115 children in the care of the State who were placed in private residential child care centres, at a cost of up to €8,000 a week for some placements in HSE south. On a key point, given that there is a significant lack of public knowledge about the number of children who are placed in private residential care, why, as she stated specifically, does HIQA not have a role in invigilating those places and keeping them under review?

The Health Act 2007 established the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, which incorporated the social services inspectorate. The office of the chief inspector in HIQA has the responsibility of inspecting and registering designated centres. Designated centres cover a number of residential-type centres for both adults and children. Residential care centres for older persons and centres for children and adults with a disability are registered and inspected under the provisions of the Health Act 2007.

Currently HIQA inspects HSE children's residential services and all foster care services, while children's residential centres run by the private and voluntary sectors are inspected by the HSE. All inspections are undertaken against national standards developed by the Department of Health prior to HIQA's establishment. To bring the Deputy up to date, my Department is currently developing two sets of regulations to allow for the registration of special care units - registration and care and welfare regulations - in accordance with the Health Act 2007 and the Child Care (Amendment) Act 2011. HIQA is currently developing national standards for special care units, with commencement expected early in the new year.

In July 2012, national standards for child protection developed by HIQA were approved, and since then we have started the inspection of child protection services and six inspection reports have been published. From 1 November, HIQA began the registration and inspection of residential and respite services for children and adults with disabilities.

The next priority in regulating children's services will be the commencement of the Health Act 2007 to allow HIQA to register and inspect all residential centres for children in care. The commencement of that provision, which is what Deputy Broughan is referring to, will be kept under review based upon assessment of the organisational capacity of HIQA to take on further responsibilities and the Government's priorities in expanding HIQA's remit having regard to areas of health and social services not currently inspected.

Last year, I took the decision that HIQA would inspect child protection teams for the first time. It was extremely important that we did so. It meant there had to be quite a bit of extra capacity in HIQA to ensure it was in a position to do that. It has done it, and we got good information from those inspections. Deputy Broughan correctly points out that those other services are still inspected by HSE but, as I said, it is a priority to begin to move towards a situation in which HIQA is in a position to inspect those services as well.

A brief supplementary is all we have time for.

On 12 March last I asked the Minister to provide a list of private residential child care centres, including the names of providers and owners and numbers of the staff and their levels of training and qualification, and she told me I would get that information by 21 November last. We are still waiting for it. I wonder whether that information could be transmitted.

Recent media reports alleged that a teenager from outside Ireland went missing after being placed by a private agency with a foster family in Ireland and was found sleeping rough on the streets. This report raises many issues of concern about these private agencies. It is something to which I would hope the Minister will give urgent attention.

The question of standards is critical. Whether the child is in a private residential service being paid for by the HSE or in a foster family being paid for by the HSE, the question of standards applies equally to both. I am not familiar with the particular circumstances Deputy Broughan outlines but I will certainly ensure that he gets the information for which he has been asking.