Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2015 [Seanad]: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to have this opportunity to introduce the Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2015 to the House. I look forward to engaging in a constructive debate as the Bill proceeds through its various Stages.

This Bill proposes to amend the Child Care Act 1991, and the provisions contained within it have three distinct elements. The main body of provision relates to aftercare. However, it also includes technical amendments on foot of the commencement of the Child and Family Agency Act 2013, in addition to amendments to sections governing early-years services. With regard to the latter, the Bill provides for amendments to the Child Care Act 1991 to enable the Child and Family Agency to visit premises where it is proposed that an early-years service be provided. It will allow inspectors access to an early-years facility before such a service has been registered with the agency to ensure it is fit for purpose.

With regard to aftercare, the Bill provides for an explicit requirement on Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, to prepare an aftercare plan for a specified cohort of children and young people as they transition from State care. As a result, national standardised and structured aftercare planning will become the norm. Although operationally the agency has been moving significantly in that direction, the Bill clarifies and copperfastens the requirement for an aftercare plan. It puts such planning on the same footing as other statutory obligations on the agency. It guarantees that the progress made to date will continue.

The term "aftercare" is used to describe the planning and support put in place to meet the needs of a young person who is leaving statutory care at 18 years of age. It aims to assist young people in making the transition to independent living. It is essential that all young people leaving care be provided with the type of transitional support their individual circumstances require. The most important requirements for young people leaving care include continuity of relationships and secure, suitable accommodation. Further education and employment or training are also important. Current aftercare provision incorporates advice, guidance and practical support. Other crucial elements of an aftercare service include advocating on behalf of young people to support their further development.

This will assist them in becoming fulfilled adults in their community and, when necessary, linking them to targeted adult services. The aftercare planning process is a natural extension of the care planning process. It is a necessary step in supporting and enabling the transition to independent adulthood, a change which can be challenging for many young people.

Between 450 and 500 young people leave care annually upon turning 18 years of age. Overall, of approximately 6,400 children in State care, some 93% are in a foster care family placement. A sizeable number of young people remain living with their foster carers, either full-time or part-time, after they turn 18.

The Child and Family Agency supports these aftercare placements by way of an aftercare plan, in addition to a support worker and financial assistance.

Young people who do not have family support from a foster carer or family base are assisted in finding accommodation in supported lodgings, sheltered housing or independent accommodation. They are encouraged and supported financially in furthering their training and education. The Child and Family Agency has advised that, as of the end of March 2015, there were 1,720 young people aged between 18 and 22 years, inclusive, in receipt of an aftercare service. Of those, some 1,012 or 59% were in full-time education.

Under existing operational policy arrangements an aftercare plan is prepared, in partnership with the young person, to identify supports that the young person requires. Some of the supports identified in the plan will fall to be delivered by the Child and Family Agency. Some will be delivered by other Departments and agencies, for example, income support, health services, education and local authorities, in respect of accommodation.

The voluntary youth sector has an important role too in supporting young people while in and leaving care. It works with local statutory providers in creating a supportive network for young people. By proactively including young people in their programmes and activities, further benefits for these young people may be gained.

One of the key objectives of the National Youth Strategy 2015-2020, which I recently launched, is to support young people at critical transition points in their lives. The strategy commits to promoting a stronger role for youth services in supporting young people as they transition from statutory support services.

The legislative provisions relating to aftercare are being strengthened in response to concerns that there was insufficient focus in this area and that such planning was not taking place on a properly structured and consistent basis. We all remember only too well some of the recent terrible tragedies that occurred to children or young adults leaving care. The approach adopted in this Bill is to impose a statutory duty on the Child and Family Agency to prepare an aftercare plan for an eligible child or eligible young person. Following a needs assessment, the agency will prepare a plan, in consultation with the young person, which identifies their need for aftercare supports.

The Bill builds on the existing provisions of section 45 of the Child Care Act 1991 and provides for a statutory entitlement to an aftercare plan. I am keen to be clear on one point. The Bill does not, nor was it intended to, provide for any change in the statutory entitlement to services. The provision of services to which those leaving State care may be entitled is governed by the existing statutory and administrative criteria of the relevant schemes and programmes. As Deputies will be aware, all State bodies are obliged to have regard to the resources made available to them in the provision of such services.

In this regard, my Department has held meetings with other key Departments in respect of the supports those Departments offer to young people leaving State care. There has been widespread recognition that some young people leaving care carry a particular vulnerability during the transitional phase of their lives between childhood and adulthood.

Discussions are ongoing on how best to support these young people to transition to independent living and, I am glad to say, the response from our partner Departments has been positive.

As Deputies will recall, the heads of the Bill were considered by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children last year. Representatives from my Department, the Children's Rights Alliance, Focus Ireland and Empowering People in Care, EPIC, attended the hearing. The Bill I am bringing forward today has benefitted from the recommendations in the committee's report and I thank all those involved.

The general outline of the aftercare provisions of the Bill allow for the preparation of an aftercare plan for an eligible child before he or she reaches the age of 18. It also provides for the preparation of an aftercare plan, on request, for an eligible adult aged 18, 19 or 20. In addition, a review of the operation of an aftercare plan where there has been a change in the adult's circumstances or additional needs have arisen, is incorporated into the Bill.

A key factor in achieving success is ensuring that assessment, preparation and planning for leaving care begins in the years prior to leaving care. This continues as part of the care planning process. This work is based on collaboration with the young person, his or her carers and partner agencies. The aim is to generate an aftercare plan that is specific to the individual young person's needs. The language used in such plans will be appropriate and suitable for the individual concerned.

I strongly believe that unless we have consultation and hear the voice of the young person concerned, these plans cannot be successful or supported in the required manner.

I will now outline the provisions of the Bill. Section 1 provides for the definitions required in this Bill, defining the principal Act as the Child Care Act 1991 and the Act of 2011 as the Child Care (Amendment) Act 2011.

Section 2 provides for additional definitions of those eligible for an aftercare plan. A child who has spent 12 months in the care of the State, with either the Child and Family Agency or the HSE, in the five years between the ages of 13 and 18 years, will be eligible for a statutory aftercare plan. An eligible adult means a person aged 18, 19 or 20 who has spent 12 months in the care of the State, between the ages of 13 and 18. Where a child or adult has been in care for any period of time between the ages of 13 and 18 and has also been accommodated under section 5 of the Child Care Act 1991, any periods of time spent in such accommodation, and that spent in care, can be combined to meet the relevant 12 month threshold.

Section 3 provides for the removal of a reference in section 23J of the Child Care Act 1991 that is no longer valid on foot of the new aftercare provisions.

Under section 4, the Child and Family Agency will be obliged to produce guidance on the assistance that may be provided in accordance with an aftercare plan where the eligible person to whom the plan relates has been the subject of an interim special care or special care order.

Section 5 provides that the agency shall prepare an aftercare plan for the eligible cohorts of children and adults. It details the assistance that may be provided, once such a person has reached 18 years of age. The core age range for such support is 18 to 21. In the case of education, the agency may continue to provide assistance until the completion of the course in which the young persons are engaged or until the end of the academic year in which they reach the age of 23, whichever is the earlier. This section incorporates elements of the current section 45 of the Child Care Act 1991 and provides that implementation is subject to resources.

Section 6 provides that an assessment of need will be carried out in order to identify the supports and services appropriate to an aftercare plan. It also identifies the domains to be considered in any such assessment.

Section 7 provides for an aftercare plan for an eligible child and sets out what an aftercare plan will contain. For a child who is in the care of the agency, following an assessment of need, the agency shall prepare an aftercare plan setting out the assistance required to meet the needs identified in the assessment. An aftercare plan will be prepared at least six months in advance of the child attaining the age of 18 years, or within three months of that child having become an eligible child, whichever is the later. An eligible child no longer in the care of the agency, or a person acting on that child's behalf - a parent, guardian or person acting in loco parentis - may request an aftercare plan from the agency. Upon receipt of such a request and following an assessment of need, the agency shall prepare an aftercare plan setting out the assistance required. In such cases, an aftercare plan will be prepared within three months of receiving a request, or at least six months before the child turns 18, whichever is the later.

The child or young person will have a central role in the development of the aftercare plan. This is very important and appropriate.

In preparing an aftercare plan, the agency shall also consult with all relevant bodies playing a role in the provision of services and supports required. As part of this process, the agency must have regard to resources available to it in implementing an aftercare plan.

Where the agency cannot ascertain the views of the eligible child, an aftercare plan shall still be prepared. The agency shall consult with specific people, mainly those in loco parentis, in preparing an aftercare plan. However, this will not take place in circumstances where it is not in the best interest of the child to do so.

Section 8 provides that the agency shall prepare an aftercare plan for an eligible adult where none had been previously prepared. It sets out what an aftercare plan will contain. The agency shall, following a request from an eligible adult, or a person authorised by that adult, carry out an assessment of need.

It must then prepare an aftercare plan setting out the assistance required to meet the needs identified in the assessment. The aftercare plan for an eligible adult will be prepared within three months of a request for such a plan.

In preparing an aftercare plan, the agency shall consult with all relevant bodies playing a role in the provision of services and supports required for that aftercare plan. The agency must also have regard to resources available to implement the aftercare plan. The agency may consult with all people who, in the view of the agency, would be of assistance in preparing an aftercare plan for the eligible adult. Such consultation can only take place with the consent of the adult concerned.

For the avoidance of doubt, where the agency is providing assistance to a person under the original section 45 of the 1991 Act, it will continue to do so. In addition, if the person satisfies the eligibility criteria for an eligible adult, he or she may make a request for an aftercare plan. In all cases, for an eligible child in care, an eligible child no longer in care or an eligible adult, in preparing an aftercare plan the assistance identified will comprise supports and services that may be provided directly by the agency. This is in addition to assistance in accessing other supports and services for which the person may be eligible.

Section 9 provides that the agency shall conduct a review of the operation of an aftercare plan on request by a young person or someone acting on his or her behalf under certain conditions. If there has been a significant change in the circumstances of the young person, a review will be conducted. If the assistance being provided under the aftercare plan does not meet the need identified or if additional support requirements for the young person have arisen, a review will be conducted. Such reviews are to be conducted within three months of receipt of a request. In conducting any reviews the agency will have regard to those service providers of relevance and consult accordingly. The agency may also, with the consent of the young person, consult with individuals whom it considers may be of assistance in reviewing the plan. Aftercare plans may be updated following a review. Any such updating shall have due regard to the resources available to the agency to implement the updated plan.

As I mentioned earlier, this Bill also includes provisions relating to early years services. The amendments in this regard are set out under sections 10 to 12, inclusive. Regulation of early years services is provided for under Part VII of the Child Care Act 1991. In particular, this part of the Act introduced new powers for the Early Years Inspectorate regarding registering providers of early years services, removing providers from the register or attaching conditions to a registration.

As Deputies are aware, revised preschool regulations are currently being finalised. In the meantime, I am taking the opportunity with this Bill to give early years inspectors the power to visit preschool services premises before they open. This will allow inspectors to advise the provider on layout and generally check that the premises are suitable for running the service. While it is likely that providers would welcome such a visit, currently there is no compulsory provision for it in legislation and the inspector would have to rely on the consent of the provider. I am satisfied that the provisions proposed will form an additional safeguard to ensure that preschool premises are fit for purpose and will support the care and education of the young children in the service. The provisions will also facilitate preschool providers in understanding what is required of them in terms of the provision of appropriate facilities.

Section 10 will allow the Child and Family Agency to refuse to register a proposed provider who refuses permission to an authorised person to enter premises for a pre-registration visit. Section 11 will allow the agency to inspect premises where it is proposed to carry out an early years service to ascertain if the premises complies with the Act. Section 12 will permit an authorised person to visit premises where it is proposed to carry on an early years service to ascertain if the premises complies with the Act.

Sections 13 to 15, inclusive, provide for several amendments of a technical nature to a number of Acts amended as a result of the Child and Family Agency Act 2013. Section 13 and Part 1 of Schedule 1 provide for technical amendments to the Child Care Act 1991. Section 14 and Part 2 of Schedule 1 provide for technical amendments to other Acts. Section 15 and Schedule 2 provide for a small number of repeals.

This Bill underpins and builds upon significant initiatives and reforms in recent years. They have been developed with the goal of improving aftercare services to deliver better outcomes for young people when they leave the care of the State.

A key focus of the Child and Family Agency service reform and improvement is the continued enhancement of leaving and aftercare services. This began with the development of a national leaving and aftercare services policy in 2011 in co-operation with the key stakeholders, including the voluntary sector agencies representing children in care and services involved in aftercare provision. There have been significant improvements in the delivery of aftercare services since the introduction of that policy. In implementing the policy, the agency has prioritised the development of dedicated aftercare services in each area. It has standardised a range of financial packages and introduced inter-agency aftercare steering committees at local level. A further development includes the provision of information on aftercare services. The Child and Family Agency continues to review its current policy to reflect legislative changes. In doing so, it will continue to work in partnership with those representing the views of children in care and those who provide such care and ancillary services.

In examining our care and social services, all too often we focus on the negative, a deficit reporting model, as it were. Although in many cases based on fact, it is this form of negative outlook which is transmitted for public consumption. However, it is fair to say that progress is being made in the provision of aftercare services. I offer one example of good practice. Recently, the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, found that aftercare service provided to young people in the Galway-Roscommon area to be excellent. In its inspection report on the foster care service in that area, HIQA found that the outcomes for children leaving care were excellent, with some remaining with foster carers and others placed in supported lodgings. Every young adult in aftercare had an aftercare worker and a written aftercare plan that was of good quality. Almost all of those in aftercare were attending third level education or training of some kind.

I know Deputies will agree that this is the standard to which we aspire for all young people leaving the care of the State. It is tangible proof that the changes made to date are progressing as we would wish. I remind the House that, one decade ago, the delivery of aftercare services was unstructured and inconsistent. We have made significant progress in the interim. This Bill builds on that success.

Overall, the Bill attempts to take account of the need for a degree of nuance in planning for leaving care for young people at a time that is appropriate and sensitive to the young person's particular needs. The intention is to ensure that these preparations take place in good time to allow a young person to participate in the preparations, a critical factor. It aims to ensure that the young person can prepare himself or herself for changes that may occur. Moreover, it aims to ensure that the necessary supports can be identified and, subject to availability, be put in place.

I thank Deputies for their support and engagement with the Bill. I look forward to our debate. I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill, which Fianna Fáil welcomes. It is an overdue step in the right direction and towards the ultimate goal of full legal entitlement to aftercare services for all young people leaving State care and foster care.

This legislation has been drafted in response to long-held concerns, including concerns over insufficient policy direction, focus and co-ordination of aftercare services as well as an absence of structured and consistent service planning for young people leaving State care.

The question we have to ask is whether this Bill achieves these objectives. I welcome and support the main goal of the Bill which is to introduce a statutory duty on Tusla to provide an aftercare plan for young people leaving care. It is essential that this statutory obligation to provide these young people with an aftercare plan being placed on Tusla should be regarded as simply a first step. There is a risk that the Department may use this legislation as a ruse to distract from the wider issue of adequate service planning for aftercare. It is my belief and that of care organisations such as Empowering People in Care that this Bill does not go far enough in obliging Tusla to put forward a full service framework and the necessary resources for aftercare. It is unfortunate that on Committee Stage in the Seanad the Government ruled Fianna Fáil amendments to the Bill out of order.

The Bill may not oblige the organisation to put in place fully resourced aftercare plans which are tailored to the individual needs of all vulnerable young people leaving State and foster care. I will address these issues in my contribution.

Many amendments to the Bill are required. I hope the Minister will engage with Opposition parties and outside groups which advocate for children in care and aftercare in order to facilitate an open discussion on the amendments required to strengthen and improve the Bill. I sincerely hope he will not take a bullish approach and rule amendments out of order for technical reasons, as he appears to have done in the Seanad.

We have a number of concerns about the eventual implementation of the legislation. As I said, the Bill gives Tusla an opt-out clause based on resources. Providing aftercare plans and services to young people leaving care is essential to safeguarding vulnerable individuals who lack the traditional supports young adults fall back on. Research by Empowering Young People in Care, EPIC, and others has shown that young care leavers are more likely to leave State care with poor coping mechanisms, poor education, poor life skills and a lack of support and friendships, leaving them more at risk of feeling isolated, suffering from mental health problems, engaging in risky behaviour, self-harm or suicide and becoming parents at a young age.

I was struck by what the Minister said about listening to people who have gone through the care system. A cross-party group on mental health recently held a presentation in the audiovisual room. During the course of the presentation, a woman who went through the care system and who now works with EPIC gave her personal experience for the benefit of legislators. She highlighted the deficiencies within the service and outlined how these could be addressed. In that context, I acknowledge that the Minister has accepted that he will engage with and listen to those who have gone through these services and know best what the issues are - they know far more about them than the Minister and I.

Between 400 and 500 young people leave care annually when they reach the age of 18. In 2014, 1,698 young people aged between 18 and 23 years were in aftercare. Some 946 were in full-time education. However, the most vulnerable group of children are those leaving residential care or short-term foster care placements. Children who come into care in their mid to late teens may not have developed the relationships with staff or aftercare workers that help them to achieve good outcomes.

While the Bill obliges Tusla to provide an aftercare plan for young people leaving care, section 8 gives the agency an opt-out clause. The section states that Tusla may limit the supports available to young people in aftercare due to a lack of resources and that the agency must also have regard to resources available to it in implementing an aftercare plan. It is a worryingly vague opt-out clause and seriously undermines all of the other provisions in the Bill, including the Tusla's statutory obligation to provide an individually tailored aftercare plan to all young people leaving care.

As the Minister well knows, Tusla has many statutory obligations which it is currently failing to meet either because of the lack of resources available to it or because of policy co-ordination and service management deficiencies. For example, it currently has a statutory obligation to investigate all child protection and abuse claims in a timely manner. On 2 November, however, the new Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, revealed some deficiencies in the protection and care system administered by Tusla. In his audit, he found Tusla managed to deal with just one fifth of all reports of child abuse in a timely manner, despite the fact that it had a statutory obligation to do so. By any measure, this is a gross systems failure on the part of the Minister and the management of Tusla. The latter was set up for the purposes of strengthening the child protection systems that existed under the HSE but we know it is failing in a massive way to immediately investigate child abuse claims. The new agency’s failure to protect vulnerable young people is widespread across its service remit, with the ombudsman also making the appalling disclosure that children with mental health issues are still being accommodated in adult psychiatric wards. Dr. Muldoon found that many children in distressing situation are simply being put on suicide watch and not being given the care, compassion and specialist treatment they require due to bed shortages.

I fear that we cannot simply rely on Tusla to provide adequately resourced after care plans. By giving Tusla the "as resources allow" opt-out clause, there is a risk that the Bill will not oblige the organisation to put in place fully resourced aftercare plans which are tailored to the individual needs of all vulnerable young people leaving care. We have concerns about whether Tusla will be able to implement this legislation. Will Tusla's budget enable it to undertake Its new aftercare remit? As I said, we have concerns that this Bill will be used as a ruse for the Minister and the Department to avoid putting adequate resources in place for aftercare services. Giving Tusla a statutory remit is not the same as putting place a fully resourced system of aftercare services and supports for all young people leaving care. It cannot be denied that from its inception Tusla has been grossly underfunded as a service organisation. While the additional funding for Tusla in budget 2016 is to be welcomed, it is a relatively small increase and is required in order that services might just stand still. The additional allocation will not be enough for significant service improvements but we are introducing legislation to put on a statutory basis the need for an aftercare plan. The Minister has dramatically underfunded Tusla since its formation. Last year, Tusla was at least €18 million short of meeting day-to-day expenditure for the provision of social worker services alone. Other community programmes that receive their budgets from Tusla - including family resource centres, school completion programmes, domestic violence community groups and rape crisis groups, such as SAFE, and the Rape Crisis Centre - were the subject of savage cuts in 2014 and 2015. It also remains to be seen whether this relatively small increase for a very underfunded organization will be enough to rectify service gaps in social and child welfare services, as well as providing funding for community programmes, such as family resource centres and school completion programmes, that are on their knees as a result of the annual 5% reduction in their budgets since 2012.

HSE and Tusla funding for domestic violence services has been cut by 17% since 2012, while funding for the Commission for the Support of Victims of Crimes domestic court accompaniment service has been reduced by 26% since 2012. Support agency funding for counselling services has also been reduced by 47% since 2011. Funding required to support these services is tiny compared to the protection and solace they offer to women and children in impossibly difficult situations.

The debate on this Bill allows us to discuss a related issue, namely, who has statutory responsibility for young people and children who are homeless. Tusla does not currently have a statutory duty to provide all children in emergency accommodation with an in-reach plan, which ensures their practical access to education, recreation, health and social services.

The Bill represents an opportunity to oblige the agency to put in place such in-reach plans to co-ordinate services for families living in emergency homeless accommodation and to reduce the risk that a period of homelessness would have a long-term damaging effect on a child's upbringing and development.

It is unclear at present which organisation has responsibility for the 1,600 children in families who live in emergency homeless accommodation. It is shocking that Tusla does not have a statutory remit to co-ordinate care and in-reach plans for these children. The Government's dismal record on housing provision is creating a cohort of children growing up without a fixed abode. In 2013, a total of 20 families were becoming homeless in Dublin every month. In recent months this has more than tripled, with more than 60 families becoming homeless every month. At present there are ten homeless families with children for every 100,000 people in Ireland. By comparison, there are only three homeless families for every 100,000 people in England.

It is shocking that Tusla does not bear any special statutory responsibility for putting in place in-reach plans to promote normal development and reduce the risk to the welfare of children in emergency homeless accommodation. Such care plans are essential in this extraordinary period of these children's lives to ensure they have co-ordinated access to social and educational services and to enable them to lead as close to normal a life as possible.

The Minister’s response to a parliamentary question I submitted recently effectively denies his Department has any responsibility to children who are homeless unless they are first reported to child welfare and protection workers. I was always led to believe by the Minister and his predecessor that the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the new agency, Tusla, were not simply going to be about reacting to problems but they were to be proactive and intervene before a problem manifests and gets so complicated it needs much more support. The Minister's reply to the parliamentary question on the issue stated:

Policy responsibility for homelessness, insofar as it extends to my Department, relates to children under 18 and any child welfare and protection concerns that may arise in the context of the Child Care Act 1991. Young people who are homeless, either singly or as part of a family unit, and not falling within this category, are the responsibility of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, and local authorities ... With regard to putting in place special care plans for children experiencing homelessness, homelessness as part of a family group is not, in and of itself, a basis for seeking to receive a child into care.

As this response makes clear, Tusla has no special statutory responsibility to put in place care plans for children to safeguard development and reduce risks to their welfare arising from their family’s period of homelessness. The experience of homelessness and constant disruption is having a profound effect on these children's development, such as on their ability to access their school or GP, their contact with relatives or friends or simply being able to eat a meal in a regular environment.

Tusla should be taking a lead front-line role in safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children. The Bill is an opportunity to put in place a legal obligation on the agency to provide in-reach plans for co-ordinating and integrating all social services for these vulnerable homeless families and managing and reducing the risk that a period of homelessness would have a long-term damaging effect on a child’s upbringing and development.

I want to raise a question about early years services. The Bill includes provisions on early years services in sections 10 to 12, inclusive. The Minister stated that as Deputies are aware, revised preschool regulations are being finalised. What is the hold-up with publishing these regulations? They were promised by the Minister's predecessor following the "Prime Time" exposé, "A Breach of Trust". The regulations were promised as part of the quality improvement agenda almost two and a half years ago, but we have yet to see them published. In his reply, will the Minister tell us what is the delay?

I thank the Minister for bringing forward the Bill which is very welcome and is certainly a step in the right direction. My party will support it. The history of the State in dealing with our most vulnerable children has been questionable to say the least, and the Bill will go some way towards ensuring our children’s best interests are at heart and that they are valued citizens. The Bill is overdue, but I am glad to see it coming before the House before the termination of the Government.

Aftercare programmes play an integral part in the care system in Ireland. They are a vital part of young people's lives on their exit from care. They set out an important foundation to enable them to cope with the difficult time when leaving care and, in some cases, embarking on a life of their own with their own independence and responsibilities. This can be a difficult task for young people, especially at the age of 18. It is a lot to expect from young people, some of whom have lived very unstable and fractured lives, to assimilate into society and conform to social norms without the aid of those who have their best interests at heart.

The proposed legislation puts these programmes on a statutory footing as well as obliging those at management levels to give these programmes the due consideration and attention they require for the benefit of young people leaving care. Since its inception, Tusla has not been able to meet fully the potential of these programmes, which no doubt has had a negative impact on the lives of young people who have left care in recent years. I am aware of some cases where a small number of these young people have ended up homeless due to the lack of supports available to them on the back of leaving care. I agree with the Minister that the aftercare service provided to young people in Galway and Roscommon is the level to which we need to aspire and which we need to achieve when these young children leave State care. The implementation of these aftercare programmes will give children a sound foundation to go forward and live a life of fulfilment or at least have an equal opportunity to do so.

Real-life situations and practical considerations have been legislated for in this Bill, and this is very positive. I am glad to see this acknowledged. Young people do not just develop into fully functional adults on their 18th birthday. In the event of a young person’s reluctance to engage in an aftercare programme, it is welcome that he or she may be afforded the opportunity to re-engage with it at a later date when he or she feels fit rather than being cast to one side and forgotten about. I hope the Bill will limit the isolation of those experiences for young people leaving care, and will be as inclusive and accessible as possible. However, I am of the opinion that amendments can be made to strengthen the legislation significantly.

There are many holes and shortfalls indicative of a get-out clause on the part of both the Department and Tulsa. I have concerns surrounding the use of language contained in certain elements of the Bill. The amendments I will table will further strengthen the Bill by making those at the helm more accountable and will ensure the best interests of our young people are not overlooked. They will give those who fall through the cracks, when it is not the fault of the young people, a formal pathway for recourse in the event that their best interests have been neglected.

We will be proposing these measures in an attempt to establish some sort of tri-partied relationship between the child, Tusla and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. This would put an onus on all parties involved to engage to the best of their abilities. We will also be presenting proposals to extend some of the age ranges within the document in order to make aftercare services more encompassing of all those who may be in need of the support. In this regard, this Bill does not go far enough.

Barnardos commented on this Bill recently and the comments are worth noting. It stated:

While the publication of the Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2015 is a step forward in terms of providing a statutory entitlement to an aftercare plan for the majority of care leavers, it is disappointing key recommendations outlined by the joint Oireachtas committee report were not taken on board. Also, there is a real concern the absence of resources (personnel and financial), together with the breadth of supports required to comprehensively meet the aftercare needs of young people, will seriously affect implementation of these aftercare plans.

My summation of those comments would be that the experts in this area and advocacy groups who know the issues inside out are in agreement with me in stating that this Bill, although welcome, does not go far enough. We will not be opposing this Bill and we will be happy to see it implemented as soon as possible, as it is a major step forward. I hope recommendations proposed on Committee Stage will not fall on deaf ears and will be properly considered.

To conclude, children leaving care are possibly some of the most vulnerable children in our State, and in many cases they are leaving care on the back of some very traumatic experiences. These children deserve the opportunities and access to enable them to live both happy and productive lives. They are the future generations of our nation and should be treated equally, being cherished and nurtured in a way that allows them to realise their full potential.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak to this new legislation, the Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2015. I broadly welcome the debate, although not the Bill itself, as it does not go far enough. The bottom line is that it does not give a statutory right to the implementation of the aftercare plan. After all the talk, experience and damage done to young and vulnerable people, we need to be able to guarantee a proper aftercare service. These young people are at risk and need our total support. There can be no ifs or buts and it is the bottom line.

Before getting to the detail of the legislation, my view is that there should never be cuts to services for children and young adults, whether they are services for children with a disability or other vulnerable youths. This should always be a red line for all politicians, and not just those from the Government or leading Opposition parties. This Government must focus on the issue and get on with the job. There is no point in having a children's referendum and speaking about children's rights if we do not provide proper services to facilitate those rights.

The Bill does not introduce a statutory obligation to implement the aftercare plan or provide aftercare services. It contains a new explicit duty to have regard to the resources available to Tusla to implement the plan when making it. Organisations like Barnardos have commented on the legislation. Barnardos stated that "the Bill only guarantees a plan, not its implementation, which is a crucial difference, given the breadth of supports that care leavers require, such as accommodation, financial and practical life skills, health and education". Barnardos is very concerned that Tusla and other agencies identified in the young person's care plan are inappropriately resourced in meeting this additional demand. It is an important aspect of the legislation on which we should focus.

We are discussing children and dealing with young adults and their aftercare but we should also reflect on what is going on in the real world. There are currently 6,364 children in care and many of those have been allocated a social worker. Of those, 90% have a written care plan. Again, people ask the question of whether that comes through on the ground. Every year, between 450 and 500 young adults leave the care of the State and they must have an aftercare plan. Is that the reality on the ground? At the end of March 2015, a total of 1,783 young people of all ages were in receipt of aftercare support. Of those, 1,338 were aged between 18 and 20 and in full-time education or in receipt of aftercare support. We must be very careful in considering the figures as they relate to young and vulnerable people. Tusla has advised that 90% of young adults receiving aftercare service are in some form of stable accommodation, including the 45% who remain living with their former foster families.

This is an opportunity to commend and thank the magnificent work done by our foster families. When we speak about children in care, the wonderful work of foster families might be forgotten about all of a sudden. The vast majority of foster families do an excellent job in bringing stability to the lives of young, vulnerable adults and children when they are in crisis. Many of these youths and children come from crisis homes and are very severely damaged. Nothing is as difficult in life as being in a family position where the child is not loved or wanted, or where there are major problems like drug and alcohol abuse or sheer neglect. Imagine somebody who is four, five or six in that position when we think of the care that most children get from families in this State. I use this opportunity to commend the foster families, as they do a magnificent job. Of those in aftercare, 45% remain living with their foster families.

I have direct experience of this as my late mother and father were involved with foster care for many years. The joy that this brought to many young people was unbelievable. It is important to acknowledge these foster families, which do the State a great service. We should look after them, nurture them and develop them. Often, such families stop young adults and vulnerable people who are severely damaged and hurt from ending up with addictions or in Mountjoy. It is a reality, so these people must be protected.

I have heard much discussion about social workers. We need social workers as they form an important cog in developing services, although it is not the only element we need. Some people in this House seem to think that if a social worker is allocated to a youth, the job is done. The key element is a stable, happy and secure environment for the young person in question. This goes back to the idea of the foster families, which have the strength and ability to provide that. We need to resource and support them; we must also regulate them while providing that support. These young people and children need stability and if one speaks to them, they would say they need a bit of love, care and stability. With that, much work can be done in preventing other problems later in life. It is not trendy to say that in some elements of the Government but we must stand up for children and children's rights. We need to develop services before youths end up in aftercare. In fairness to the Minister, although we have our differences at times, I know he thinks about this and focuses on it in his portfolio.

I recently attended a meeting in Coolock when the issue of early intervention arose. There should be a commitment to such early intervention because if we offer key quality supports and programmes during the important phases of childhood, the results can be absolutely outstanding. I know many groups have come to the Minister and at the meeting I told them it was important to prove that such an approach works. There are wonderful people involved with the Northside Partnership like Mr. Noel Kelly who do a great job. Such people deal with facts rather than fairy tale economics or services. They want to provide services to prevent problems and early intervention is key.

We need to invest in childhood futures. The current spend on universal services in early intervention and delayed intervention should be realigned so resources go from crisis intervention to prevention and early intervention.

We need to get this message out to broader society. We need to deliver on the national policy framework for children and young people. The framework makes a number of important commitments to prevention and early intervention relating to child poverty, early years education, parents' supports, upskilling of professionals and rebalancing of resources. The whole Government needs to work together to deliver on these commitments. We also need to ensure that the support used works. The people on the ground have the research to prove prevention and early intervention improve the lives of children. We need to use this information and to build on it. We also need to ensure the best interests of our children are central to all Government and service decisions. Children were the most affected by the recession in Ireland. Now is the time to invest in them and to make building blocks of Ireland's recovery. The hard-nosed economic argument is that if we do this we will save, in that we could get in there and prevent these children ending up in worse situations, whether in prison or in violent or conflict situations, as we have seen even in recent days.

On placing a child in care, under the Child Care Act 1991 the Child and Family Agency has a statutory duty to promote the welfare of children who are not receiving adequate care and protection. In some cases parents are unable to cope due to illness or other problems, and they may agree to their children being taken into care. This is known as voluntary care. At present the majority of children in care are in voluntary care. That is something many people do not realise. Under the 1991 Act there are a number of procedures the agency can use when dealing with children who are at risk or who are in need of care. It may apply to the courts for a number of different orders which give the courts a range of powers including decisions about the kind of care needed and access to the children for parents and other relatives. These orders include emergency care orders, care orders, special care orders and supervision orders. These orders involve the child being taken into care. Children in the care of the State live in residential care and foster care. That is another important thing. They may also live in hostels or high support facilities. Children in residential care are largely placed in open residential centres run by either the Child and Family Agency, Tusla, or private and voluntary providers in communities across the country. That is what is happening on the ground. I emphasise the need for early intervention, because we need to get out there and support these children.

Research has shown that poor outcomes for children in care, including homelessness, addiction and in some cases death, are typically associated with young people who have, among other things, received little preparation for leaving care - that is something we need to focus on; been given little or no aftercare support; left care in an unplanned way; and had not been adequately consulted about arrangements for moving on from care. They are the issues. If the Government does not focus on those issues, we will end up with homelessness, addiction and, in some cases, death and horrific situations. The bottom line is that we have to focus on these issues when we are coming up with sensible solutions. Barnardos also comments:

...for some of those who have been raised in the State care system their journey can be characterised by multiple placements leading to subsequent feelings of low self-esteem, uncertainty and unpreparedness... They have to leave the care system once they turn 18 and are less likely to have a strong network of support. As a result, there is a necessity on the State, as the corporate parent, to prepare a young person for life after care, providing a range of supports including: financial, housing [and so on].

Multiple placements, it says, lead to "feelings of low self-esteem, uncertainty and unpreparedness". They are the three key terms.

This is also an opportunity to commend the work that is going on, particularly in our DEIS schools, our very disadvantaged schools. People often forget this. There are excellent programmes there that deal with issues, particularly in junior and senior infants. If one gets in early, one can deal with the problem of low self-esteem and work with those very young children. It could prevent them going down the road later in life of having a dysfunctional life or experiencing addiction problems. Hurt and damaged children can end up in very violent situations. We see it every single day in our courts. We see the horrific consequences of what has happened to their lives. If a child is abused or is in a very negative or violent situation, do not expect that child to be normal. Do not expect that child to go into class and have his homework done. That is the reality on the ground. Early intervention is key.

Digging further into the legislation, section 6 of the Bill inserts a new section 45A into the principal Act which deals with the assessment of need to be carried out prior to the provision or not of an aftercare plan. The new section provides that Tusla must carry out an assessment of the needs of an eligible child or adult and these assessments must be recorded in writing. I welcome that. Section 45A(3) states that this assessment must include, but is not limited to, the needs of the person in relation to education, financing and budgeting matters, training and employment, health and well-being, personal and social development, accommodation and family support. Section 6 is a strong section and I support it.

Section 7 inserts a new section 45B into the principal Act which deals with an aftercare plan for an eligible child who can be in Tusla’s care or not. There is an explicit obligation on Tusla to have due regard to its resources to implement the plan when drawing up an aftercare plan. Section 45B(4) states that Tusla may, rather than must, provide care to an eligible child or adult. There is no statutory obligation on Tusla to provide aftercare services. That is my little complaint in respect of this issue.

The issue of aftercare for young adults has been highlighted by a number of groups. There has been no comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of aftercare services and there is evidence that providing these services has long-term socioeconomic benefits, such as reduced homelessness, welfare dependency and criminality. The bottom line is, as many people believe, that if we get into a situation where we can deal with this and get in early, we can reduce homelessness, welfare dependency and criminality. In fact, it is an economic argument. Even if one has a heart of stone, it makes sense from a money point of view. Focus Ireland, for example, has stated that, "Provision of aftercare makes sound economic sense as this type of structured support and accommodation has been shown to help prevent people from becoming homeless and also getting sucked into difficulties, including addiction and crime". Again, that means less spending later on if we deal with this issue. That is sound economic sense, outside the question of the rights of the child. Just imagine if we could make a dent in preventing addiction or criminal problems. How many people would be alive today if we dealt with these issues? That is very important.

However, the Bill only guarantees a plan, not its implementation, which is a crucial difference. Given the breadth of supports that care-leavers require, such as accommodation, financial, practical life skills, health and education, I am very concerned that Tusla and other agencies identified in the young person’s care plan are inappropriately resourced to meet this additional demand. That is also a valid point. The absence of resources is the deal breaker on how successful this legislation will be and yet the long-term consequences of not supporting these vulnerable young people during this transition phase can be fatal, as we know from previous experiences. The facts stand up to serious analysis. Another point made very strongly by Barnardos, which I support, is that placing aftercare on a statutory basis would strengthen the political commitment to these children, ringfence funding for these services and ensure better outcomes for them, their families and wider society. That is where we need to come on board and put on the pressure. In broader political society, we need to support this kind of policy, which I am sure the Minister has to push every day of his life. Prior to the publication of the Bill, the Minister announced that funding of over €676 million would be provided in 2016.

This seems to be an increase of €38 million, and I welcome that. Some of the funding will be used to hire additional social workers, and I welcome that as well.

We must avoid inconsistency in the provision of aftercare services. There are some brilliant examples of good practice. There are some brilliant examples of foster families that would be a lesson to everybody in life.

There are many good support services in place at present, but there are gaps in the system and we need to focus on these gaps. As for the provision of aftercare services in Ireland, there are parts of it that are patchy, inconsistent and inadequate, and this leaves vulnerable young people exposed to the risks of which I spoke earlier, whether it be drug or alcohol addiction, prostitution or imprisonment.

It is important when we are planning for the future that children and vulnerable adults are at the centre of these plans. It might not necessarily be politically popular, but we need to ensure that these services and supports are put in place. Not only is it the right thing to do, and not only does it create a society that is built on social justice and equality, but it also builds a society that is sustainable and safe, which is something we need to focus on as well. If one ever meets children who are hurt or angry or come from very dysfunctional families - I met many of them in my previous day job - one can see the hurt in their eyes, and many years later, if one visits the prisons, looks into the cells and meets some of the prisoners, one will see the same hurt and anger in their eyes. My point is that if we get in early and provide support services, then, when they leave the aftercare services, we have to keep a close eye on them. As I stated earlier, there are more than 6,000 young people in care in Ireland at present. The anchor for this is the important provision of stable, committed and professional supports, but also the provision of a warm and happy home, as provided by many foster families.

I will respond, if I can, to Deputy Troy first. I have to say, I have no idea where Deputy Troy got the figure of €80 million.

Which figure of €80 million?

Deputy Troy made a statement a few minutes ago during the course of his speech that Tusla was €80 million short, and I do not know where that comes from because there is no validation for it whatsoever.

Was it not short last year?

Last year it got an increase of €20 million.

Last year the budget was short.

For next year, they are getting an increase of €38 million, plus €20 million to deal with any legacy issues around legal and other matters. The Deputy could make it up as he goes along, I suppose.

There was a deficit. If there was not a deficit, the Minister would not have to give an increase.

The Deputy also-----

The Minister should acknowledge that there was a deficit last year.

Let the Minister reply. The Deputy can get more detail on Committee Stage.

Deputy Troy is obviously reading the same speech that his colleague in the Seanad read. On behalf of Senator Leyden, Senator Paschal Mooney, a gentleman, made a point about comparing the figures in this country with the figures in the United Kingdom - clearly, two very different countries. As I said to him, the United Kingdom is in a far better financial position than we have been over the past number of years because it did not have the benefit of a Fianna Fáil Government for 14 years, and to ignore that is to ignore why we had to ask the Irish people to make the sacrifices that they made.

The real shame is to ignore the fact there are 1,600 children homeless in the State.

The truth is not fragile; it will not break. Deputy Troy cannot shout it down.

On some of the other issues, the Government does not rule out amendments, as Deputy Troy says. This is done on the basis of the rules governing the Houses and the call is made by the relevant clerk.

A number of Deputies mentioned Empowering People in Care, EPIC. I met Ms Jennifer Gargan and those who work in EPIC and they do fantastic work. What singularly impressed me is the number of young people who, having been in care, are still involved with EPIC and still helping and advising those who are in care now. On the floor of this House, I thank them for their tremendous generosity and the courage they show, and also their tremendous intelligence around how to communicate with younger people, including the excellent book they produced about children going into care. Not only is it useful for the child, but the sub-message underneath it is good advice for the carer and the foster family in terms of what matters to children.

Deputy Troy mentioned the reach of the agency. I do not agree with him. We do not need a plan to duplicate the work of other State organisations. A statutory obligation on the agency to deliver that would be a duplication of resources. Homelessness among families is a problem, and we meet regularly at the social policy committee of the Cabinet to address this issue. Homelessness is clearly the remit of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, and that obligation is under law and very clear. The Deputy talked about the agency being responsible for the implementation of the aftercare plan. It must deliver, he says, on social welfare, education, housing, etc. Clearly, this is also a duplication of role, function, remit and budget. It would not make sense even if we had unlimited resources, which clearly we do not. Core plans are for children in the care of the State and they are not for those who may be homeless and otherwise in a stable family setting. We must have regard to the role and function of the agency under its establishing Act. As such, under the Act of 2013, the agency is responsible for allocating its budget, and to cut across this would not be in accordance with the Act because it would not have regard to its resources.

Deputy Troy also mentioned the Early Years programme and the regulations. These are under discussion with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel. There have been a number of issues which required detailed discussion with that office in order to move them forward, including one matter that I am providing for in this Bill - that is, inspections before these premises can open.

The Bill is to provide for consistency and aftercare planning and to address the gaps referred to by Deputy Finian McGrath. Deputy McGrath also talked about multiple placements. While multiple placements are in some cases an unfortunate reality, by international standards the number of children in care who have multiple placements in fact compares very favourably. I would be very concerned about an issue that was raised by the children in EPIC. One of the big issues from their point of view was lack of continuity, even in relation to social workers. We will strive to avoid that. It is difficult to build a relationship with somebody. It is difficult to build trust. When such trust is established, it is difficult, if there is a change of personnel, for the young person.

I wanted to address Deputy Finian McGrath's concerns around early intervention. Of course we firmly believe in early intervention. I have always believed in it. As a doctor, I have seen how early intervention can change lives. Clearly, the moneys that we have made available now to extend the Early Childhood Care and Education, ECCE, scheme will be most helpful in this regard. The bottom line here has been, and it is now proven, that those who gain the most from that programme are, in fact, the children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. It gives them the chance to level the playing field. They go to school with better reading skills and so on. Later in life, as has been shown in other countries that have achieved higher retention rates in education, achieving a higher educational attainment makes one more employable, gives one a better standard of living and helps young people to come out of poverty.

On the issue of the budget, Deputy Finian McGrath is quite correct. We have increased the budget now to €676 million, which is an increase of €38 million. Within that budget, I had asked for an audit of unallocated social workers for children at risk.

When I received it, I requested a business plan to address it. Tusla has produced a three-year business plan and priced the funding it needs over those three years, and we have met in full its ask for the issue for next year.

Some will say three years is too long. This problem has been with us for decades and it is sensible and pragmatic to take an orderly approach that will be successful. I do not want to remind the Deputy of what I have said to him about this problem. Ireland has a very poor record on children historically, and we know the terrible tragedies that occurred when children left care. They seemed to disappear over the cliff, with disastrous consequences for them. They need ongoing support, and the Bill is aimed at identifying what those supports should be for each individual in consultation with each individual.

With a knocked out clause.

The Deputy is aware that every Department has a budget allocated to it according to the resources available to the country. This is, and has always been, the reality. For the Deputy to try to pretend that somehow we can have unlimited resources in one area and disregard all other areas is neither pragmatic nor credible.

I thank Deputy McLellan for her support for the Bill. She also raised some issues. The theme of isolation has come up and my officials and I are aware of it. We are discussing it with EPIC and will work towards addressing it. My Department funds a number of programmes focusing on prevention and early intervention, including the Preparing for Life project mentioned. Research emerging from these programmes will inform future policy and development.

The Bill is another step in the right direction and will achieve better outcomes for young people. A critical change which has occurred during recent years is the insistence on the involvement of young people in planning services for them. I commend the Department of Children and Youth Affairs on being a world first with its children and young people's participation hub, ensuring the voice of young people is heard. My job at Cabinet as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is both to ensure my colleagues, when they are developing policy that can impact on children and young people, are aware of this participation hub and to ensure young people's voices are heard. I commend the Bill to the House. I thank the Deputies for their observations and look forward to taking it to Committee Stage.

Question put and agreed to.

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Next Thursday.

Committee Stage ordered for Thursday, 3 December 2015.