The Minister of State is aware of the urgent need to provide full local day services for young school leavers on the autistic spectrum in Dublin Bay North and Fingal as we both attended a productive meeting with representatives from the HSE in Swords a few weeks ago which I understand Deputy Clare Daly organised. I, of course, wish the Minister of State well in his appointment to such an important portfolio. Given his knowledge of our shared constituency of Dublin Bay North, I sincerely hope he urgently progresses the commitments already set out in the programme for partnership Government. The programme states that the Government is committed to ensuring that all 18 year old school leavers with intellectual and physical disabilities continue education or training opportunities. However, the programme does not specify that these continued education or training opportunities should be delivered as an immediate follow-on to second level education.
I was informed by way of a parliamentary question that planning for the service provision for approximately 1,500 young people with disabilities and autism who will require continuing health-funded supports on leaving school or rehabilitative life skills training this year commenced in September 2015 but the 2015 cohort of school leavers were left, as the Minister of State knows, without appropriate local full-day services when Gheel Autism Services was unable to provide placements. The parents and children I regularly meet and represent were, and still are, very distressed by this, and I know the Minister of State has also met them.
What strikes me most are the experiences of parents of school leavers on varying points of the autistic spectrum. Many of the parents say their children had previously benefitted from investment in schools, special needs assistants and specialised places in local school services and they had seen improvements in their children's behaviours due to the level of service provided and especially the established routines so necessary for the cohort of young people in the service. However, since the upheaval and uncertainty caused by having no local full-day service available to them, many have reported regressions in the children's behaviour since September 2015.
The Minister of State's Department and the HSE informed me that €7.25 million has been allocated from the €1.56 billion health budget to provide services to the estimated 1,500 school leavers concerned. A HSE response stated that 2014 saw significant improvements in the way in which the health service responded to the needs of young people leaving school or exiting rehabilitative training and yet the lived experiences of the families to whom I refer shows otherwise. The reply went on to state that the HSE's mapping exercise identified 1,340 persons requiring a day service in 2015 and that capacity was available to just 508 individuals. This means that 832 young people were then placed in alternatively funded services. I am sure the Minister of State would agree that the number of young adults without a full-day local service is unacceptable and not in line with commitments in the programme for Government. While alternative services were provided, the parents have reported to me that they are wholly inappropriate for the needs of their children in terms of location, the time allocated and the quality of the service provided.
The Minister of State and I heard what the parents had to say about the existing provision, which went nowhere near providing a full-day local service. These families and young school leavers need well-resourced, local and needs-appropriate full-day services. Service providers such as Gheel and Praxis must be properly resourced so they can meet the needs of the families in their catchment areas and forward planning of at least four or five years in advance must be in place to ensure that there is a sufficient supply of places to meet the growing demand.
I understand the parents have outlined a number of issues with the proposed service of Praxis Autism Initiative and Prosper Fingal, including the need for a qualified nurse or a psychiatric nurse in each of the service providers. They have also requested that a floating autism specialist move between each of the service providers to review progress, measure goals, behaviours, etc. A similar initiative is employed by the National Learning Network. Respite services are, of course, required to give families much-needed respite time, as is an out of hours service.
I hope in his reply the Minister of State will specifically address the questions he and I asked our HSE colleagues a few weeks ago. Will he immediately provide more resources to Gheel Autism Services and other service providers and improve planning for future needs? September 2016 is just a few months away. Will all of the 2015 and 2016 graduates have places in their preferred local service providers? The HSE estimate of 1,500 young people with disabilities seems like a low number, given the large number of families I and the Minister of State have represented. A north-east HSE official spoke to us about its strategy for 2021 for a well-resourced provision for these young citizens. Has the Minister of State read the strategy? Would he immediately begin to implement it? Has he had a one-to-one meeting with the Taoiseach to discuss the priorities for the Dáil term?
I have the programme for partnership Government here. Item No. 24 refers to day services for school leavers with disabilities and the programme makes a commitment to address this matter once and for all. I note the Minister of State has only been in office for three weeks and I accept he is settling in and acquainting himself with the many demands his position entails but he now has the opportunity to examine this issue in his new capacity as Minister of State. I hope he hits the ground running, takes urgent action and looks after this cohort of most vulnerable young Irish citizens.