I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Jim Daly, for taking this issue. I assumed I would be speaking to Minister of State Deputy Finian McGrath, about this because I have spoken to him about it previously.
It is with deep concern that, once again, I must raise with the Minister of State the fact that there is no psychologist providing services for children with disabilities, including autism, aged between six and 18 years in the Waterford area. In Waterford Community Services, there are 1.6 whole-time equivalent staff providing early intervention psychological services. An additional senior psychologist commenced towards the end of last August, which is very welcome. This brought the figure up to 2.8 whole-time equivalent posts, but this increase has still not resulted in the targeting of the children between six and 18.
I have had several meetings with parents, Oireachtas Members and the staff of the HSE over the past two years. The HSE staff in Waterford have made the decision to aim all the psychological resources at those between birth and six. As we all know, early intervention is key and the most headway is made at an early age. I, for one, am not criticising what the staff do. They are the experienced psychologists but I have just outlined the facts of the matter. This is an extremely difficult decision for any team to make. Although the section is understaffed, however, the service provided is excellent once a child can gain access to it. I genuinely thank the team involved. It does fantastic work with limited resources.
When a child in Waterford reaches his or her sixth birthday, the service of a psychologist stops. It is non-existent. All the good work in the previous years lies dormant, with no follow-up of any substance. The children aged six are placed on a waiting list and the average waiting period is three years. This means the service simply ceases for a child in need of support who has just taken the first steps in formal education and who is learning how to cope in a classroom environment and learning new coping, socialising and behavioural skills, or for the parents of that child.
Mothers have sat in front of me and cried when their children turned six, knowing the excellent support their children received previously and the improvements made through early intervention would just stop. A mother told me yesterday that her son, who was recommended for emergency intervention 18 months ago, is still waiting. He is aged 11. Parents are trying to fumble their way through meeting their children's needs and demands. They are doing their best, hoping they are proceeding correctly, and they have no guidance or input from the professionals when their child reaches the age of six.
Just before the summer recess, Deputy Cullinane and I brought two parents from Waterford here to meet the Minister and HSE representatives. They said they would consider the issue, but unfortunately parents have informed me nothing has changed in regard to those aged between six and 18. How can the Minister, the Department of Health and the HSE stand over a system in which a group of children with disabilities, in their formative years and who are crying out for help are unable to gain access to services when they reach the age of six? This has been permitted to go on for too long. It results in isolation and a sense of betrayal among parents in addition to a sense that their children are not regarded as worthy of services. The Government, including the Minister of State, does not want to be responsible for this. Fundamentally, it wants to ensure that all children in need of services are treated equally. Unfortunately, because the children in question live in Waterford, this is not the case.
The reason I draw attention to this matter today is based on an answer I received to a parliamentary question as late as last September. The line in the response that is so damning states there is no psychologist providing services for children with disabilities, including autism, aged between six and 18 years and living in the Waterford area. That is the fact of the matter.