Priority Questions

Child Care Services Provision

Robert Troy

Question:

106. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if he will provide the details of his proposed child care plan; the way it will make child care more affordable; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2371/15]

Last week’s front page of the Irish Independent had a story following a leak from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs that the Government would introduce tax credits to help families crippled by the costs of child care. Subsequently, we learned this was in fact not the case and that, instead, the Government was bringing forward a plan in this regard. Will the Minister inform the Dáil what the Government will do after four years in power to help families crippled by the costs of child care?

I am tempted to say we did more than Fianna Fáil did in 14 years in power but then that would be unfair.

There is clear evidence that investing in child care services which provide quality care and education for children in their early years pays significant dividends for both the children themselves and for society as a whole. Ensuring the best possible outcomes for children in their early years is, therefore, an important element in future economic planning.

The case for investing in children and young people on both social and economic grounds is supported by a body of international evidence. As the Minister with responsibility for this key area, I propose to establish a cross-departmental group at senior level to develop a whole-of-government approach to future investment in early childhood care and education and after-school care.

Another committee.

The group will undertake an economic and cost-benefit analysis of policies and future options for increasing the supply, accessibility and affordability of quality childhood care and education services.

It is clear accessibility, affordability and high-quality child care can play a critical role in achieving several Government priorities, including improving educational outcomes for children, reducing poverty and increasing parents' participation in the labour market.

The importance of this area is reinforced by continuing economic improvement and job growth and an increased focus on activation for those currently outside the labour market. To ensure that all the potential benefits can be realised, future public investment in child care must be evidence based and strategically co-ordinated. It must look at the provision right across the nought to six age group as well as consider the after-school needs of school-going children. It is crucial, therefore, that we develop a coherent cross-Government approach to investment in child care services.

I thought the whole purpose of having a new Department of Children and Youth Affairs was to co-ordinate all this. The Minister has had four years in office and I remind him of what the Government has done in those four years regarding the cost of child care. It has reduced child benefit, taxed maternity benefit and reduced the capitation rates that are paid to the child care providers. The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, promised a Scandinavian model and what we got was 6,000 after-school places. After 18 months of that scheme being in operation, fewer than 100 places have been taken up. In November 2013 the then Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, promised a review of the community child care scheme and the community education and training support scheme. That review has yet to take place. If the Minister wants to talk about the previous Government's record on child care, we created 65,000 places and ensured there was a proper infrastructure in place for the sector. We introduced a free preschool year. In the last two budgets, my party put forward fully costed proposals on how we could look at dealing with the crippling costs of child care facing so many families.

Thank you, Deputy.

If this Government was serious about dealing with this issue it would have used budget 2015 to deal with it, instead of announcing two weeks after that budget came into effect that it was going to establish yet another committee to look into a problem we already know is there.

Dead right, hear, hear.

Indeed, as the Deputy works himself up into a lather, we know that problem is there, and that one of the main reasons it is there is the state of the economy as we found it. There is no escaping that, although Deputy Troy might not want to be reminded of it. He personally, as opposed to the party he purports to represent here, may very well not have been in government then. The bottom line is that child care has become like a second mortgage for families and the costs around it, and this Government wants to put in place a coherent, properly-costed approach to support parents and children and to get the best outcomes. We know every euro spent in the early years gives the biggest dividend, but we also know families are struggling with the cost of after-school care for children who go to school and that there are concerns about what is available to teenage schoolgoers after school. Clearly, one of the underlying principles that we will be seeking to address will be to use our influence as a State to ensure that parents have choice, that it is affordable, but that we have some control over standards and the quality of care that their children receive. People want to be assured that when their child is in a facility, he or she is not just safe but is flourishing.

We all support quality child care provision and no one is questioning that. Anybody who is in receipt of State support should be fully tax-compliant and should meet the standards set out by the Department. That is fact and taken as a given. What we saw last week, however, was more spin by this Government, aided and abetted by the Irish Independent as it is so capable of doing in recent years. The fact of the matter is that the current Government is four years in power. We do not need another committee or another report. We have report after report highlighting and confirming that child care costs in Ireland are now among the highest in the OECD. An average family with two children is paying 40% of its net income. We have produced suggestions and solutions if this Government was of a mind to support them. Every budget that is introduced involves political choices and in the last four budgets this Government introduced, it did not do anything to support affordable child care. When will this Government act to ensure that we will have quality, affordable child care for the tens of thousands of families out there that are crippled with the cost now?

What the Deputy says is utterly untrue. In the last budget there was an increase in children's allowance and extra money was made available to my Department to support the Child and Family Agency. There was also a reduction in the marginal rate of tax, an increase in the threshold at which people moved into the higher rate of tax and reductions in the universal social charge. A further 80,000 were taken out of the net of the Fianna Fáil tax, the universal social charge. Much has been done by the Government, despite the ferocious challenges it faced when it took power and had to deal with the unprecedented financial mess in which Fianna Fáil had left the country.

The question is about the cost of child care.

It was an unprecedented financial mess in which Fianna Fáil had left not only parents and children but the entire country. Furthermore, our international reputation was in tatters. It is very easy for the Deputy to come into the Chamber and advert to the fact that we have been in power for four years and pick a specific area, in which, in fact, much has been done, but he is seeking for more to be done. To paraphrase Mr. Bill Clinton, the problem for those in Fianna Fáil is that it has taken us so long to clean up their mess.

Mother and Baby Homes Inquiries

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin

Question:

107. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if he will provide details of all homes and institutions that were excluded from the proposed inquiry into mother and baby homes, including the Magdalen laundries and Westbank, County Wicklow; the grounds on which they were excluded; the measures being put in place to ensure that survivors of these excluded institutions, now all in their senior years, will be heard, acknowledged and entitled to redress; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2373/15]

I want to establish the number of mother and baby homes and similar institutions that have not been included in the terms of reference of the new commission of investigation. I am keen to receive the full list from the Minister. I would like to know why certain institutions have been excluded. Moreover, I would like to receive an assurance that those who have gone through the harrowing experience of placement in excluded entities will have the opportunity to be heard in the course of the commission of inquiry sittings, that their hurt and pain will be acknowledged and that they will not be excluded from any redress scheme that may arise at the conclusion of the inquiry.

I thank the Members who engaged on this issue as their contributions were very helpful. In particular, I thank all those involved who consulted me during the course of the setting of the terms of reference, many of whom were affected directly by the mother and baby homes.

I announced the proposed terms of reference for the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes and certain related matters on Friday, 9 January. Relevant details are available on the Department's website, www.dcya.gov.ie. Since the announcement there has been a general acknowledgement of the comprehensive scope of the proposed investigative framework which reflects the range of matters the Government was asked to consider by the House and is a fair and balanced response to the many requests for related issues to be included.

During the course of consultations with those most centrally affected by these issues, as well as political colleagues across the spectrum, a clear consensus emerged on the need to thoroughly examine the experience of those who had spent time in mother and baby homes. These institutions have not been the central focus of previous statutory investigations. The approach taken, therefore, places a deliberate emphasis on the experiences of women and children who spent time in mother and baby homes during the period 1922 to 1998, over three quarters of a century. Accordingly, the terms of reference focus on institutions that can be identified as having both the primary function of providing sheltered and supervised ante and post-natal facilities for single mothers and their children, as well as an ethos which those running the institutions considered as one promoting a regime of work, training or education as part of an overall approach to either rehabilitating single mothers before they left the institution or giving them training to live independently. The commission will also investigate a representative sample of those county homes which had a considerable focus on these services.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

On the basis of the information available I am satisfied that the institutions included in schedule 1 to the draft order meet these criteria, whereas the institutions referred to by the Deputy do not, as they did not provide this specific range of services. However, it is not accurate to describe these institutions as being excluded from the commission's work. The commission is tasked with examining the extent to which other institutions were part of the entry or exit pathways for single mothers and children into or leaving these mother and baby homes. It is certainly open to the commission to give consideration to the role of the institutions referred to by the Deputy as part of the pathways and, in particular, the practices and procedures for the placement of children outside mother and baby homes. This will be a significant strand of the investigations of the commission. The issues to be examined in the social history module also explicitly cite adoption societies, homes for infants or children and Magdalen laundries.

It is important to be clear and realistic about our expectations. The commission is not intended to investigate every type of institution where it is considered there might have been past deficits or failings, nor could it; rather, my objective is to establish a focused commission with all of the necessary powers capable of establishing effectively relevant facts in a reasonable time frame. This specificity is required under the enabling legislation. Moreover, other inquiries have examined concerns about a wide range of settings, including children's homes and Magdalen laundries.

The proposed arrangements, in particular, Article 6 of the terms of reference, ensure the commission will have sufficient opportunities to identify additional matters it considers may warrant investigation. It is specifically tasked with reporting to me recommendations necessary in this regard.

The commission will be critical in coming to terms with our history. Some of what we learn will be painful, but the commission will establish how we, as a society, responded to single women and their children who needed support and assistance, rather than judgment.

I acknowledge the effort invested in preparation for the launch of the commission of inquiry, but the Minister has not replied to the question asked and I am keen to establish the reason.

The Minister's answer does not in any way shed light on it. I am deeply concerned about the exclusion of Avoca House in County Wicklow; Braemor House in County Cork; St. Gerard's, Herbert Avenue; St. Philomena's, Leeson Street and later Northbrook Road; St. Joseph's baby home, Stamullen; St. Kevin's Institution, James' Street; St. Patrick's Infant Hospital, Temple Hill, Blackrock; St. Rita's Nursing Home, Sandford Road; the Nursery Rescue Society, Fermoy; the Westbank or Mayil orphanage, County Wicklow and many other institutions that should be addressed in the course of the at least three-year inquiry that lies ahead. Since the public launch on Friday week last, I have met people who have gone through a number of these institutions. I think back to the commentary of one woman who went through the Westbank entity in County Wicklow. She spoke about being robbed of her identity and of all that was precious. She is no longer a young woman and said she was being robbed yet again. She is not one of those to be properly included. I have always outlined to the Minister and his predecessors that inclusivity is the critical factor by which we should gauge this particular undertaking. On the basis of her evidence and the evidence of others I have met who have been through the Westbank experience, there is absolutely no question but that it ticks the box as having performed a role as a mother and baby home. That was a distinct and integral part of its work.

The Deputy's question relates to the Magdalen laundries and Westbank, County Wicklow. On the basis of the information available, I am satisfied that the institutions included in Schedule 1 to the draft order meet the criteria, whereas the institutions referred to by the Deputy do not, as they did not provide the specific range of services. However, it is not accurate to describe them as being excluded from the commission's work. The commission is tasked with examining the extent to which other institutions were part of the entry or exit pathways for single mothers and children into or leaving these mother and baby homes. It is certainly open to it to give consideration to the role of the institutions referred to by the Deputy as being part of the pathways and, in particular, the practices and procedures for the placement of children outside mother and baby homes. This will form a significant strand of its investigations. The issues to be examined in the social history module also explicitly cite adoption societies, homes for infants or children and Magdalen laundries.

It is important to be clear and realistic as to our expectations. The commission is not intended to, nor could it, investigate every type of institution where it is considered there might have been past deficits or failings; rather, my objective is to establish a focused commission with all of the necessary powers that will be capable of establishing effectively relevant facts in a reasonable timeframe. This specificity is required under the enabling legislation. It is also the case that other inquiries have examined concerns about a wide range of settings, including children’s homes and Magdalen laundries.

I have to try my best and take the positives from what the Minister said, namely, that people are not being excluded if an entity has not been named. I hope that will prove to be the case. I ask the Minister to make his response and wishes in that regard patently and abundantly clear to the commission of investigation membership.

Child trafficking is not a new phenomenon. We know from the evidence that children were moved back and forth across the Border without proper or prior approval or recording. They were moved back and forth by individuals and entities with specific religious outlooks. It is critically important that the commission of investigation properly recognise this fact. Any advertising to inform people of the opportunities the commission will present must include advertising north of the Border, as well as in other settings in Britain, the United States and elsewhere. That is very important.

Will the Minister confirm the Northern dimension to this issue, including in respect of the entities which operated in the manner I described?

The Minister may not be able to answer my next question but I am flagging the issue now because we will have an opportunity to address it more substantively tomorrow. Is he in a position to advise if researchers will have access to the Clandillon index card file, which contains information on boarded out children? Does he have any idea where the file is held? Will it be among the documentation that will be required, sought and secured by the commission of inquiry in the course of its work?

The proposed arrangements, in particular Article 6 of the terms of reference, ensure the commission will have sufficient opportunity to identify any additional matters it considers may warrant investigation. The commission is specifically tasked with reporting to me any recommendations necessary in that regard. It will be critically important in coming to terms with our history and I have no doubt that some of what we learn will be painful.

The commission will establish how we, as a society, responded to single women and their children, who needed support and assistance rather than judgment. The confidential committee is a vitally important aspect of this work. It will be under the control of the commission and will operate under the direction of and be accountable to the commission. Its procedures provide for individuals who wish to have their identity remain confidential during the conduct of the commission and its subsequent reporting. It will produce a report of a general nature on the experiences of the single women and children which the commission may, to the extent it considers appropriate, rely upon to inform the investigation set out in Article 1.

The social history element of this process is also critical. The commission allows us to investigate a wide range of issues. It is not simply an exercise in information gathering per se as the commission also has the power to compel people to produce documents and give evidence.

Child Poverty

Finian McGrath

Question:

108. Deputy Finian McGrath asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs his plans to deal with child poverty in 2015; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2324/15]

I ask the Minister to outline his plans to address child poverty this year. He will be aware that Ireland ranks 37th out of 41 OECD countries, ahead of Croatia, Latvia, Greece and Iceland, in a league table measuring relative changes in child poverty. Approximately 130,000 children in the State are living in dire poverty, which means their families do not have enough food on the table and they do not have breakfast before leaving for school each morning. Many of them rely on school completion programmes to feed them before the school day begins. I do not want to hear the Minister engage in a blame game or allude to committees that are examining this issue. What is he doing to address child poverty?

Child poverty is a serious issue which is being considered by the Government. Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures: the National Policy Framework for Children and Young People 2014-2020, which was published and launched by the Government in 2014, provides the overarching framework for the development and implementation of policy and services for children and young people. As provided for in the framework, the Department of Social Protection is the lead Department on child poverty and has lead responsibility for the commitment to lift more than 70,000 children out of consistent poverty by 2020. This would deliver a reduction of at least two thirds on the 2011 level. The Department of Social Protection also has lead responsibility for the National Action Plan for Social Inclusion.

The outcomes of the recent national seminar under the auspices of the European Commission and Departments of Social Protection and Children and Youth Affairs will inform the development of an implementation plan for tackling child poverty.

My Department is working on a number of initiatives which are relevant in addressing issues related to child poverty.

For example, in terms of other provision, my Department is spending €260 million annually on child care support programmes which provide child care to 100,000 children. A number of these programmes are targeted at those on lowest incomes. The community child care scheme programme provides subvention support to parents on low incomes and parents in receipt of certain social welfare payments whose children are enrolled in community child care facilities. Additionally, the three training and employment child care, TEC, programmes - the child care education and training programme, the community employment child care programme and the after-school child care programme - provide child care supports to eligible parents returning to work or to education.

The Department is leading the implementation of the area based childhood, ABC, programme. The ABC programme is being co-funded by Atlantic Philanthropies and will have total funding of up to €29.7 million. The ABC programme draws on best international practice to break the cycle of child poverty where it is most deeply entrenched and improve the outcomes for children and young people and existing services.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The outcomes of the recent European Commission-Department of Social Protection-Department of Children and Youth Affairs national seminar will inform the development of an implementation plan for tackling child poverty.

The Minister used the buzz-words "lead Department" and spoke about plans for 2020. What I am interested in is what he is going to do in 2015. It is important that the Minister and the Government acknowledge there is a huge problem in regard to poverty in this State. Yesterday was an example that proved how out of touch the Government is, when we had the Taoiseach, Ministers and the IMF prancing around Dublin Castle and patronising the Irish people about having to put up with austerity for the last number of years.

I would like to remind the Minister of a couple of things. Eighteen OECD countries recorded a reduction in child poverty during the same period, including Chile, Australia and Poland. Is the Minister aware that UNICEF has said the impact of the financial crisis saw a disproportionate decline in children's well-being? In other words, its report disputes the "blame it on the recession" or "blame it on Fianna Fáil" syndrome. The fact is that out of the 41 countries, 18 managed to reduce child poverty despite the economic downturn whereas Ireland managed to increase it.

The Minister should answer those questions and stop distracting people with his other comments. His job is to try to get children out of poverty. He should get on and do it.

My job, as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, is to secure better outcomes and brighter futures for children, and that includes getting them out of poverty and also includes supporting their parents. As I was saying in my initial reply, my Department also provides targeted support for disadvantaged, marginalised and at-risk young people. This is provided through the special projects for youth scheme, the young people's facilities and services fund - rounds 1 and 2 - and the local drugs task force projects. In addition, some 31 national and major regional youth work organisations are supported under my Department's youth service grant scheme and other schemes include the local youth club grant scheme and the youth information centres. In 2015, current funding of €49.93 million will be provided to my Department for these schemes.

I again take the opportunity to record my gratitude and thanks to the tens of thousands of volunteers who support our young people through these clubs. Their volunteerism is extraordinary and is among the best in the world. In fact, we have information showing that this country has the greatest amount of engagement of young people in this sort of organisation.

I would like the Minister to develop the point further. Would he agree that countries should place the well-being of children at the top of their priorities during an economic recession? My second point is that children who live in poverty are more likely to become poor adults and continue this cycle. It is sad to see that it takes a report from an outside agency like UNICEF to highlight the poverty of our own children. We need to stop this short-termism and look at interventions to prevent long-term problems of child poverty. This is not being addressed and we need to be more inclusive and creative. I said earlier we have 130,000 children in severe poverty and we need to do something about it.

Poland, which I mentioned earlier, has reduced child poverty by 30%. Perhaps the Minister should look at how it did it and perhaps he should visit Poland for advice, because there has been an increase in child poverty in this country while Poland and other countries have reduced it by 30%. I suggest the Minister should look at examples of good practice across Europe and get on with the job.

I assure the Deputy that children and child poverty are a priority for the Government. This was the first Government to create a full Cabinet level post for a Minister for Children. Our commitment to improving outcomes for children is clear and I make it clear that our children are our future. I am privileged to have been the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs for several months and I have found nothing but enthusiasm and energy from our younger people. I feel secure about the country's future when I see the young people who will lead us into the future.

My Department has a critical role in regard to child poverty, but the lead Department is the Department of Social Protection. We look to other jurisdictions to see what they do well and what they do not do so well. The idea behind the setting up of the interdepartmental group is to look at affordability and access and, as it says in its title, to look at future investment in childhood and how we invest in our children. It seeks to look at the entire investment we make. While my Department spends €260 million in this area, the Department of Social Protection spends a lot more. Other areas also spend significant sums. We are seeking coherence and understanding of how all of this money is spent so as to be able to get best value for money before we invest further money.

I believe we will need to invest further money and believe the interdepartmental group will come forward with a coherent policy that will cover all of the age groups. It will look at different ways of supporting all age groups to help children and parents and achieve better outcomes for children.

Child Care Services Regulation

Robert Troy

Question:

109. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs his plans to address the concerns regarding the conditions of those who work in the child care sector in view of those who are concerned that the sector is facing more regulation and extra requirements for qualifications and training without any corresponding increase in capitation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2372/15]

What are the Minister's and the Department's plans to address the concerns about conditions for professionals working in the early childhood care and education sector? Many concerns have been raised in the sector concerning increasing regulation and extra requirements for qualifications and training without any provision for increased capitation or support from the Department. This sector faces serious challenges, but how does the Minister plan to address these?

It is estimated by Pobal, from information provided by respondents to its 2013 annual survey, that there are approximately 24,000 staff employed in the child care sector.

Child care services in this country are provided by private commercial and community child care services and the level of remuneration provided to child care workers and the conditions of employment are matters for the management of these services. I appreciate the considerable contribution of child care staff to the provision of quality child care services and to the delivery of the child care support programmes which are implemented by my Department. Funding in the region of €260 million is provided annually by my Department directly to child care services to provide for the delivery of these support programmes. This funding is a major source of support to participating child care services and has, at a time of economic difficulty, ensured the sustainability of many of these services and also helped significantly to maintain employment levels in the sector.

The early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme for example is provided by almost 4,300 preschool services, which is almost all of the preschool services in the country. Funding totalling almost €175 million is allocated annually to these services for the provision of the free preschool year under the ECCE programme. Despite the budgetary situation that prevailed in recent years, the Government maintained this investment and thereby ensured that participating child care services had a guaranteed source of income. This funding also ensures that many parents who would otherwise not be able to avail of preschool care and education for their children are able to enrol their children for the preschool provision.

The ECCE programme also provides a higher rate of capitation to participating child care providers who wish to employ staff that hold a higher level of child care qualifications. This higher rate of funding enables child care providers to provide employment opportunities to child care staff who have obtained professional child care qualifications. This is an important incentive for child care providers to improve the quality of the child care provision. In the school year 2013-14, more than 1,400 child care services received sanction from this Department for the higher capitation rate in accordance with the terms and conditions of the programme.

The Minister has outlined nothing new. He has quoted statistics about which we are aware. He referred to service providers, which are fulfilling a role the State is failing to fulfil. We need to support the early childhood care and education sector, which has expanded at a rapid pace over the past decade. There have been many positive developments, including the provision of 65,000 new places and the introduction of the free preschool year. When it was introduced, it was the first time minimum qualifications were required. Síolta, Aistear, the early childhood curriculum framework and the workforce development plan are great programmes but they are not being implemented. Does the Minister acknowledge that the sector is on its knees? The evidence for this is that for the first time ever the sector plans to hold a protest rally in front of the gates of Leinster House in a few weeks because more and more regulations and standards, as is proper, are being introduced but the Department is not matching their requirements with the necessary supports.

Quality, educated and professional staff working in this sector earn little more than the minimum wage and they have to apply for social welfare benefits when early childhood centres close for the summer, which is not right.

I utterly reject the Deputy's contention that the programmes are not being implemented. While new qualification requirements are being introduced as part of the ongoing progression of the early years quality agenda, my Department has made €3 million available over two years under the learner fund to assist child care staff to obtain the higher qualification levels. I am aware of the significant impact co-ordinated Government investment can have on developments in the child care sector and, for this reason, I propose to establish a cross-departmental group at senior level to develop a whole-of-Government approach to future investment in early childhood care and education and after school care. This group will undertake an economic and cost-benefit analysis of policies and future options for increasing the supply, accessibility and affordability of quality childhood care and education services and will also consider workforce development issue as they relate to quality and sustainability.

I acknowledge the Minister made €3 million available; that is not in question. However, in a sector that employs 24,000 people, that equates to €125 per head. That would not buy the books to study at FETAC level 5 or 6. The staff in the sector feel they are undervalued and under resourced for the pivotal role they play in society and they are right. If they did not feel that, they would not travel to the gates of Leinster House in February. The Minister is correct but Síolta and Aistear are being fragmentarily implemented. They are not being implemented across the country because the resources are not available.

New regulations are on the way with no consultation whatsoever with the sector. They are being foisted on staff. Following the "Prime Time" exposé, new regulations were to be implemented. We still do not know what they will be. We were also promised inspectors would be employed from the early childhood sector. Only a few weeks ago, it was announced that the new inspectors have to be public health nurses, which is a reneging on the commitment. The Department is pursuing an agenda and implementing change without consultation and without giving staff and service providers the necessary supports and resources to implement the change that is needed.

The Department and I are acutely aware of the difficulties being experienced in the retention of staff. The ECCE programme is for but three hours a day and it only covers 38 weeks annually, which presents challenges.

That is what the interdepartmental group is about. There will be engagement with the sector to address that issue so that we can ensure we have high-quality staff with the right qualifications to secure the best sort of care and outcomes for our children. I know that they are committed to it and I thank them for their commitment to our children. We will look at further ways of addressing the issues that have become apparent. I am aware of the unrest in the sector and we will seek to address it through this group in an approach that will be well-informed so that we get the best outcome primarily for our children but also one that permits a sustainable service.

Children in Care

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin

Question:

110. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if he will provide details of the revelations that a care home run by Tusla for teenagers was found to contain drug paraphernalia; his plans to ensure that teenagers in such homes may be guaranteed safe environments; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2374/15]

I raise a disturbing report prepared by HIQA following an investigation into an unnamed centre in the Cork area providing high care, ostensibly, to a small number of children. The report shows that the young people concerned are involved in daily illegal drug use and other criminal activity. I would like to know what assurances the Minister can give that the situation has been properly addressed in that specific instance.

In order to protect the identity of the young people involved, I cannot comment on the particular care home in question. I will say, however, that I take the safety of all children and young people in care very seriously, as do all of the staff in the Child and Family Agency. The latest figures I have received from the agency show that in October 2014, there were 6,454 children in care. The majority of these children - 93% - are placed in foster care - 6,001 of 6,454 - but when a foster care placement is not suitable, children, often older teenagers, are placed in children's residential centres. Residential care accounts for a very small percentage of children in care at less than 5%. This is 317 children of the 6,454 children in care.

Ireland is somewhat unusual in that we have quite a number of 16 and 17-year-olds coming into care. Latest figures from the agency indicate over 14% of young people coming into care in 2013 were over the age of 16. My officials are in discussions with the agency about this trend, including earlier and alternative care responses. Some of these teenagers had very difficult lives before coming into care, including histories of emotional and behavioural difficulties and substance misuse. Staff in the agency, including residential care staff and social workers and indeed other agencies across the education and health sectors, have to work together to ensure the best possible outcomes for the young people involved. School attendance is vital for good outcomes, as is attendance at specialist services that they need, including substance misuse or child and adolescent mental health services. Figures I have received from the agency show that at the end of September 2014, 98% of children in care under 16 years and 92% of 16 and 17-year-old children were in full-time education. Some children's residential centres, such as the one in the south referred to in the HIQA inspection report published on 12 January 2015, have psychology services provided on-site for the young people.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The inspection of residential and foster care services is integral to ensuring safe and good quality care. I assure the Deputy that the residential care home in question is currently the subject of a review by the agency and the action plan required is currently at an advanced stage with completion due in the coming weeks. I have instructed my Department to work with the agency and ensure that all recommendations made by inspectors have been implemented to the highest degree.

It is important that the Minister comments. We are not here to identify the specific setting but it is a HIQA report into an entity that is run by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, which is now directly under the Minister's departmental control. Children at this care centre in the southern region routinely engaged in illegal drug use and criminal activity during frequent absences from the facility. That is what the HIQA report stated following a visit to the setting last July. The report is very critical. Inspectors found that all three children were engaged in the use of illegal substances on a daily basis outside the centre. Highlighting a number of deficiencies, inspectors paid particular attention to a contributory factor to the anti-social behaviour of the teenagers, namely, the high rate of absenteeism at the facility.

In the 24 month period prior to the inspection, more than 300 absences without authority were recorded, of which 87 were classed as "missing from care" episodes. This is a very serious matter. I am concerned in the first instance that we get an assurance the circumstances described in the HIQA report published this month have been properly addressed and that the findings from its visit last July no longer apply in respect of the oversight and management of the centre and those who are employed to care for and support the children concerned.

I welcome that we have independent inspections and reports because they are essential elements of quality improvement alongside our internal processes. HIQA has statutory responsibility for inspecting Tusla residential centres for children. It focused its inspections in residential care in 2014 on how staff manage children, usually older teenagers, some of whom can present with challenging or difficult behaviour. It found that three of the children living in the centre in question at the time of the inspection were taking risks with illegal substances while outside of the centre. I remind the Deputy these are not detention centres. The staff tried to ensure the children were safe but were unable to prevent this behaviour. Managers were aware of the situation and made efforts to stop the young people but without success. The inspectors also found that staff worked hard to ensure children were treated well, were listened to and had their needs met. The report found that children's rights were met with written policies and information available. I assure the Deputy that the internal review is ongoing and we will shortly have the plan for how this is to be further redressed. At present, there is only one child in that centre.

I accept the Minister's assurance that every effort is being employed to ensure the deficiencies highlighted will be properly addressed. I do not think the fact that the number of children has been reduced to one is in itself indicative of everything being addressed. Removing problem children from a setting does not necessarily mean that all measures have been implemented. Leaving aside the specific case of this southern area location, I am aware of cases comparable with that described in this report which emerged prior to the establishment of Tusla, while the oversight of these matters still rested in the Department of Health through the HSE. This is not an aberration or something that happened out of the blue; there is a long record of difficulties in respect of such facilities. Can the Minister give us an assurance that every measure has been employed and that they continue to be reviewed, and strengthened if necessary, across all of the care settings in this State under Tusla's remit?

I do not suggest for a moment that the situation in this centre is unique. I know that all avenues are being explored and that the plans have to address all eventualities, but I equally understand that one of the problems arising may pertain to the suitability of the child concerned to be placed in such a residential home. A higher and more secure detention centre might be more appropriate in certain instances. Clearly that is a last resort, and children are given every opportunity to avail of a residential centre. These are not detention centres, and there is a limit to the extent to which managers can deal with difficult or challenging behaviour.

That is not to say more innovative and different ways to address these issues cannot be found; in fact, they will. Sometimes, however, the issue also lies with the setting itself, which is to say it might be more appropriate to have the child in a more secure location.