Other Questions

Social Workers Recruitment

Finian McGrath

Question:

6. Deputy Finian McGrath asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the status of the shortage of social workers to assist children at risk; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3214/16]

The question deals with the status of the shortage of social workers to assist children at risk. I raise this because there are many children in the broader society who are at risk. Many of these children are the potential criminals of the future and many will get involved with drugs and end up in Mountjoy. What plans does the Minister have to deal with these children at risk?

At the end of December 2015, there were 1,402 whole-time equivalent social workers employed by Tusla. Tusla has been working in recent months to recruit some 239 more social workers to fill existing vacancies, and a number of these have now commenced employment. As the recruitment of social workers progresses, Tusla engages agency social workers to address staff shortages. At the end of December 2015, Tusla had 185 such temporary staff engaged to assist child protection and welfare teams.

I instructed Tusla to carry out an audit of unallocated cases and, following submission of its proposals, I asked that it would put forward a business case as to how to address the problem. It did that, and I was very pleased to be able to secure it the money it needs, namely, a sum of €6.1 million for 2016 to specifically address risk associated with these cases. Tusla intends to recruit 201 staff in 2016 in this regard, 168 of whom relate to social work staffing. The remaining staff will be recruited to provide important business support functions, such as clerical and ICT supports. In other words, we want social workers dealing with clients, not having to hand-write reports on jotters, with no clerical or ICT support.

It should be noted that all cases brought to the attention of child protection and welfare teams are either allocated to a social worker or reviewed regularly by a senior social worker and any issue requiring an urgent response is acted upon immediately. Furthermore, other staff within the agency, including family support workers and social care workers, are in constant contact with children known to its services while they are awaiting allocation to a professional social worker.

Tusla's data indicate that at the end of October 2015, 6,411 cases were awaiting allocation, and of these, 1,351 cases were categorised as high priority. It is important to note that a high priority designation does not equate to a child being at high risk of harm, as reported in the media, and each case referred to a duty social work team is screened, regularly reviewed and re-prioritised as necessary.

The additional funding of €6.1 million which I made available to Tusla in 2016 will make a vital contribution to the filling of social worker vacancies and helping to address serious concerns regarding unallocated cases.

Of course we need good quality front-line social workers. A point often missed in this debate is the calibre of social workers. It is not always a question of university degrees. Many quality people who work in the community would make excellent social workers but they do not necessarily have to have high points or university degrees. Recently I have met some mature students who have gone back to Trinity College Dublin to do social care and get involved in social work. These are the kind of people we need to deal with children at risk and those who are outside the system. Personality is a key part of the social care services.

There is a worrying trend at the moment of self-harm among boys. According to the 2013 annual report of the National Registry of Deliberate Self-Harm, hundreds of children between the ages of ten and 14 years required hospital treatment for self-inflicted injuries.

I pay tribute to the quality and commitment of our social workers. The attrition rate among social workers here is much lower than in many other jurisdictions, which is testament to their commitment to their clients and their durability. When I visited Empowering People in Care, EPIC, one of the things those children highlighted was the lack of uniformity and consistency. There is nobody better than the children to highlight the deficiencies in the service. It is really difficult for them to lose a social worker and have to develop a relationship with a new social worker. We do our best to ensure that is kept to a minimum.

Flow and stability are key to the relationship with a family or young person at risk. Social workers tell me they are snowed under. They cannot talk to their clients and the clients cannot get to them. There is all sorts of confusion and we end up in a worse situation. When we talk about planning social services and these issues, we need a lot of common sense. There is no point in someone having high points or a degree from Trinity College Dublin if he or she cannot talk to or deal with a family from a very dysfunctional working class or poor background in a crisis. There are many quality people in communities. The educational system should provide some way for them to get into the social care services because some are doing it voluntarily and are delivering.

I would not disagree with anything the Deputy has said. This problem has been with us for decades and only a few years ago the Health Service Executive, HSE, and the then Minister were not even able to tell us how many children were dying in care. We have moved a long way towards transparency. The audit I asked Tusla to do was particularly important because it gave us an accurate picture of the scale of the problem and the challenge. It has come up with a three-year plan to address it and we have given it the money for the first year to do that. I have no doubt that successive Governments or Ministers will continue that because we need to address this problem. It will be a challenge for Tusla, which faces a recruitment challenge. I encourage people who have an interest in this area to go back to college and study to be social workers because there is a huge demand for them and we have made resources available to employ them.

Child Protection Services

Bernard Durkan

Question:

7. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if adequate professional personnel are in place to meet the needs of children or teenagers needing counselling, emergency care accommodation or other back-up services; the most commonly sought-after service; the extent to which this is available to young persons; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3198/16]

To what extent is the Minister satisfied about the availability of support services for children at risk, for whatever reason, whether economic, family, insecurity and how quickly those services can be deployed?

I welcome all the young people in the Visitors Gallery who have joined us. In 2015, Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, provided funding of €5.8 million to voluntary organisations offering a range of counselling and support services to children and families, including marriage and relationship counselling, child counselling and bereavement counselling. The funding provided by Tusla focuses on the development of support services within the community to assist children and families in dealing with difficult periods in their lives and to enhance family stability.

Children who are not in the care of their parents or guardians and present as out of home to emergency services have their needs assessed and, if appropriate, are received into care under the Child Care Act 1991. Tusla compiles and publishes an annual report, the Review of Adequacy, which reviews the adequacy of the child and family services provided as required under the Child Care Act 1991. According to figures from the 2014 report, there were 1,018 children aged 16 and 17 in care on 31 December 2014. On the same date, 16 children aged 16 and 17 years old were accommodated under section 5 of the Act.

Tusla provides a range of services aimed at addressing emergency situations in the area of child welfare and protection. In the main, these emergency situations arise out of hours. I am pleased to inform the Deputy that Tusla commenced the new emergency out-of-hours social work service last November. This service allows An Garda Síochána to contact a national emergency social work out-of-hours phone service for general advice or consultation.

Tusla child and family services are very much demand led and the services requested vary depending on levels of need and support required. My Department receives monthly and quarterly performance reports from Tusla which are available on its website.

I thank the Minister for his reply. To what extent is a service available to teachers, who may be the first to spot something that requires attention? How quickly can the system respond to the concerns expressed by a teacher about a home situation, bullying or a variety of things? Is there a need for an improvement? What is the most commonly sought-after service for children and teenagers?

In respect of the various situations the Deputy has outlined there would be a range of services available. In particular schools there is access to counselling services. There is the child and adolescent mental health service, CAMHS. There are youth clubs with mental health facilities provided by Jigsaw, which is very early intervention. It is run in such a way that young people can go in as if they were going to play pool or music or hang out and there is a discrete area where they can see a counsellor for advice and help.

Deputy Durkan mentioned the teacher. In relation to more serious issues, I want to reassure the House that where there is a serious and imminent risk to a child that a teacher has identified, that child will have a consultation with a social worker before he or she goes home. No child at high risk will be left unprotected. However, the high priorities that we allude to when we talk about high priority are cases perhaps where children are already in care in a safe environment but they do not have an allocated social worker.

Is the Minister satisfied that the extent of the support services available right now is sufficient to meet the current and future demands?

In many instances, the supports would benefit from improvement. That is the Government plan and that is why additional resources are going into this area. As the population grows, there will be a need for more investment in this area.

I would not stand here and say that everything is perfect in the services. They are far from perfect. We have come through the worst recession the country has ever endured. We have had to tighten our belt in a way that we never had to previously. With the economy recovering, with more people coming back to work and more resources for Government, this is an area of priority for Government. It is not only about getting the economy to recover. It is about using the economy as the engine to repair and strengthen our society.

Children in Care

Finian McGrath

Question:

8. Deputy Finian McGrath asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the number of children in care in this country; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3212/16]

I seek information from the Minister on the number of children in care in this country. I take this opportunity to commend the wonderful foster families we have in Ireland on the amazing and Trojan work they do to protect and save children. I also commend the excellent child care staff, many of whom are often working against the odds rescuing many hurt and damaged children. However, we need to improve and to be vigilant, and support these children.

The Child and Family Agency, Tusla, has a statutory duty under the Child Care Act 1991 to promote the welfare of children who are not receiving adequate care and protection and, if necessary, to receive a child into the care of the State. Data published in recent years indicate that the numbers of children entering care has been decreasing while the overall number has increased due to children staying longer in care.

As of 31 October 2015, there were 6,331 children in care nationally. This figure can be broken down by four different regions: Dublin mid-Leinster, with 1,511; Dublin north east, 1,519; the south of the country, 1,846; and the west, with 1,455.

Children who are received into care, depending on their identified need, may be placed in foster care either with relatives or general foster carers, residential care, special care or other placement types. The majority of these children are in stable placements, with over 92% of children in care in a foster family setting. Residential settings represent most of the remaining placements, usually between 5% and 8% of all children in care. At the end of October 2015, there were 343 children in a general residential care placement.

As the majority of children in care are in foster care family settings in the community, indicators of stability of the placement and participation in education are useful in monitoring the performance of Tusla in overall welfare. I am happy to say that Tusla has reported that the results for these indicators are positive and show that placement stability is very high and participation in education is on a par with the national participation rates. In addition, there are standards in place for foster and residential placements and there is a regime of regular monitoring and inspections.

I welcome the fact that the number of children in care is decreasing, but we still have a very high number, at 6,331 children. In my part of the city, the number is 1,519.

The Minister also mentioned the important role of relatives in the context of foster families. Many of these are grandparents or aunts who have taken in other family members' children, who have addiction, drugs or other problems, and they are doing a fantastic job to save these families.

My question for the Minister relates to the 5% to 8% who are still in residential care. I accept that many of them are dysfunctional and have significant issues and maybe could not survive in a foster family but are there plans to reduce 8% in residential care by taking them out into a broader setting, perhaps a more family-friendly environment?

I pointed out that 92% of children in the care of the State are in foster families. That is way above international norms and reflects extremely well on the service.

Like the Deputy, I thank the many who volunteer to be foster parents and who give homes to children. It is a reflection on the quality of that care that many of the children leave school and go to third level, and that many stay on with their foster parents after their commitment at reaching age 18 has finished. That shows the strength of the bonds built up between the foster family and the child.

There are a small number who, as the Deputy has acknowledged, are seriously challenging. Residential care is always the last option. Of course, early intervention is a key part of addressing this, as are social supports for families who themselves are having difficulties parenting.

I take the point about the 92% in foster care. The Minister stated the rate is high compared to other countries. I would be interested to know how we compare with other European countries that would be examples of good practice in social care services for children in care, such as Sweden.

The other key issue I want to raise is that after they reach the age of 18, when they leave the foster family or care service, we need to be vigilant because we cannot have a situation where at that age they are on their own out there in the broader society. Some of them do very well, and good luck to them, but many do not. As a result of serious hurt and damage in their early childhood, such young adults are often very vulnerable and end up in trouble. We need to focus on this over-18 age group and not give up on them.

I absolutely agree with the Deputy. We all are aware of the terrible tragedies that occurred in more recent years where children, having left care, seemed to fall off a cliff with no supports and with tragic consequences for some. That is why we brought in the after-care Act. It is now a statutory right that any child who has been in care for longer than a year, from the age of 13 upwards, including if he or she has been in a section 5 accommodation, will be entitled to an after-care plan. Indeed, even if they had left care and did not want one, and changed their mind at age 18 or 19, we will accede to that. One should bear in mind that while the statutory obligation and the qualifications for that are clearly set out, Tusla will always be open to putting in place an after-care plan for a child, who may not meet that criteria but about whom the agency is concerned. This is recognition of what was a real problem for some of the most vulnerable in society who, if they are supported, can be hugely important in contributing to society in the future.

Child Care Services Expenditure

Clare Daly

Question:

9. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if he will raise the issue of deficiencies in the area of child care here, as noted in the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child's review of the report on Ireland, with the appropriate Departments; and the steps he will take to ensure that appropriate, affordable child care is available for every child. [3056/16]

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child questioned the Minister about what it described as the "deficiencies" in child care in Ireland. The deficiencies are obviously fairly glaring, given that the average amount spent on child care is 12% of income per household across the OECD and 35% in Ireland. The average cost of child care for two children is €22,000 per annum nationally. What action does the Minister propose to deal with this deficiency and what discussions has he had with other Departments?

Last year, I established an interdepartmental group to consider options for future investment in early years and after school child care. This group reported to the Government last July, setting out a range of options for future investment to enhance the affordability, increase the accessibility and improve the quality of early years and after school child care.

In the 2016 budget, the Government announced additional annual funding of €85 million for the child care sector to support the achievement of many of these options. This funding represents an increase of 33% in the annual investment in child care supports and provides for the significant enhancement of a number of programmes implemented by my Department. The funding is in addition to the €260 million annual funding already committed to the sector.

The €85 million package of additional investment for child care includes funding for an extension to the early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme from September 2016 so children can enrol in the programme at age three and continue in it until they make the transition to primary school. This will reduce child care costs by an additional €1,500 per child and will increase the current 38 weeks of free preschool provision by an average of 23 weeks, and up to 61 weeks depending on the child's date of birth and the age at which he or she subsequently starts primary school.

The investment will fund a suite of supports to help children with a disability to participate fully in the ECCE programme. This delivers on my commitment to address these children’s particular needs in mainstream preschool settings.

The investment package will provide 8,000 extra places in 2016 under the community child care subvention programme to help low-income and disadvantaged families access quality child care. These 8,000 places are in addition to 5,000 places previously announced with savings achieved in 2015. We will provide a range of measures to improve the quality of early years and school aged child care, including an audit of quality, an extended learner fund to support professionalisation of the sector and an enhanced inspection regime.

I thank the Minister. I was struck by this issue during the episode of "The People's Debate with Vincent Browne", which the Minister managed to miss.

He will bottle it.

During the debate, the Fianna Fáil Party candidate was ochóning the cost of child care, and stated that she paid an astronomical amount of money and asked what would happen if Fianna Fáil were returned. The exact same points applied ten years ago when Fianna Fáil was in power and the Government had loads of money. The problem is that we view child care the wrong way around and the model is based on privatised child care. If we do not address this, the measures will not get to the overall root of the problem, although some of them will help some people.

After maternity leave and before children go to school, there is an enormous gap during which families are, in the main, left on their own and have to pay through the nose. Has there been any discussion about linking serious preschool as a State-run programme, like education, which every family could access? We can address it only by funding it from central taxation.

I am glad the Deputy raised the issue of where I might have been on the night she was entertaining a certain gentleman.

Tell us where you were. Were you knocking on doors?

Hold on a second. Another Deputy is waiting to ask his question. The Minister has only two minutes left.

I was in Fingal County Council celebrating with the six young women from Loreto Secondary School in Balbriggan who had such an outstanding achievement in the Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition. We should be very proud of these young women. They showed the power of the diversity of our community and the future we all have, which we can face with confidence.

My God. Parish pump politics.

Hold on a second. The Minister has ten seconds, and another Deputy has a question. The Minister is over time.

The additional funding also provides for a range of measures to improve the provision of after school child care, including a once-off minor capital fund to develop after school services in conjunction with community, not-for-profit and private providers. The Government is committed to child care and children.

The Minister did not address the point. Unless those very talented school leavers had received free or affordable State-led child care in their youth, the Minister's answer was irrelevant. The key issue is affordability for many people. Some 70% of women earn less than €30,000 per year. Child care for two children in a Dublin crèche costs €27,000, leaving no money for anything else. Unless we address this, all the Government's platitudes about putting people back to work are utterly irrelevant. While I appreciate that there has been some State support around the edges, the model is all wrong, given that it is essentially based on private child care. The Minister has not commented on this. Does he not think it would be better if we attached early child care or preschool in an educational context, linked to our education system, rather than a privatised model?

The Government has shown its commitment by increasing the child care budget by one third. While we would love to do more, even if we had more money the sector has highlighted that there are capacity issues, and that is why we have done it in a staged and staggered fashion. We want affordable and accessible child care, and we want quality child care. I will not engage in an ideological argument as to whether it should be purely public or private. We have community facilities which are very much supported by the Government, and we have private providers.

We have made provision to expand the community child care subvention scheme to private providers in areas where there is no community facility. We understand that this is a barrier for people returning to work, particularly women. We want to remove the barrier. We cannot do it all in one fell swoop. We have an interdepartmental group that lays out a clear pathway for the future and future investment in this area, which is one of the key areas for the Government into the future.

Deputy Boyd Barrett, please cut out the preliminaries, given that we are over time.

Emergency Accommodation Provision

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

10. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to report on the United Nations committee hearings on Ireland's record on children's rights and the new measures he is planning following the hearings, in particular in relation to children in direct provision and children in emergency homeless accommodation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3201/16]

On 14 January, I led the delegation at Ireland’s examination in Geneva by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, regarding Ireland’s consolidated 3rd and 4th periodic reports. As is normally the case, the delegation consisted of officials from the Attorney General’s Office, my Department and officials from a number of other Government Departments, namely, the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Education and Skills; Social Protection; Health; Justice and Equality; and the Environment, Community and Local Government.

I had the opportunity to make an opening statement for the purpose of outlining to the committee the achievements, challenges and priorities relating to the advancement of children’s rights in our country. My statement to the committee was published on the day it was delivered and the Deputy can access this information. The Deputy can view the dialogue that took place with the committee by accessing the recorded webcast of the proceedings which is on the committee's website. I pointed out that in recent years we had a children's referendum, which enshrines the rights of children in their own right in the Constitution, that we have established a new Department of Children and Youth Affairs with a senior Cabinet Minister and a new Child and Family Agency. We have also put in place many other pieces of legislation on aftercare, removal of "reasonable chastisement" and other initiatives around the Child Care Act and putting the Children First guidelines on a statutory basis, to mention but some.

The Minister has given commitments, words and aspirations. Does he not think we are very badly failing children in emergency homeless accommodation? In my constituency there are two sisters who were made homeless because their rent increased. One of them is working. They are being accommodated in a hotel in Gardiner Street. They have three young children who go to school in Dalkey, Clonkeen and Johnstown, respectively. Does the Minister not think his Department should give local authorities some money to allow those parents to self-accommodate close to their schools? They are missing school and their ability to engage with school is being affected. They are very stressed and upset. The local authority says it is dealt with by central placement services, which is fine if one is in Dublin city but not if one is in other areas. Will the Minister give local authorities money to ensure children in emergency accommodation are accommodated close to their schools?

As the Deputy well knows, housing is an issue for the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, which received a separate budget. My Department has a budget to support children who are at risk.

The Child and Family Agency has a specific team that engages with homelessness services to seek to ensure there are no child protection risks and action is taken if such risks arise. The Deputy spoke about "words", but I remind him that the deeds which have been done in the Acts passed in this House - I refer, for example, to the removal of the words "reasonable chastisement" - are not platitudes; they are real actions that will have an impact on the reality of children's lives.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.