Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Childcare Services Regulation

Anne Rabbitte

Question:

29. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the implications the new after-school care regulations will have for schools and childcare providers; and her views on whether sufficient consultation was conducted with the affected groups. [7238/19]

I ask the Minister about the status of the affordable childcare scheme and if she will make a statement on the matter.

Is that the first question, No. 29? That is a different question.

I am sorry; my apologies.

That is all right. The Deputy will be asking that question later.

I ask the Minister if her attention has been drawn to the implications the new after-school care regulations will have for schools and childcare providers; and her views on whether sufficient consultation was conducted with the affected groups.

I signed important new regulations recently which will come into force on 18 February. These will enable school-age childcare services to register with Tusla in time to take part in the affordable childcare scheme when it opens later this year. The scheme will make school-age childcare more affordable for many parents. The regulation of school-age childcare is an important measure to secure children’s health, safety and welfare. The affordable childcare scheme will only be available to services that are registered with Tusla, a critical quality assurance measure associated with the provision of State funding.

I am conscious of the impact that the regulations will have on providers, and I have made provisions accordingly. With regard to registration, existing services will have six months in which to apply for registration with Tusla if they are also registered as preschool services. Existing services that only provide school-age childcare will have three months in which to apply for registration with Tusla. A person who proposes to set up a new service will be required to apply for registration at least three months before commencing the service.

The regulations, including the minimum ratio requirement of one adult to 12 children, were developed following the advice of the school age childcare standards working group, which in 2018 submitted proposals for school-age childcare standards. Membership of the group included representatives from across the school-age childcare sector. In developing its proposals, the working group reviewed international evidence and practice. It was reconvened for a further meeting with officials in September 2018, during drafting of the regulations, for consultation specifically on the adult-child ratio and outdoor space requirements.

I acknowledge that some services may require additional time to adjust to the minimum ratio of one adult to 12 children. Officials in my Department have had discussions on this issue recently with a number of sector representatives. As a result of these consultations, I have decided to extend the commencement date of the minimum ratio requirements by six months. I acknowledge the Deputy's representations in this regard.

I thank the Minister. I am starting from the position that I am not opposed to the measures to increase the quality of childcare. I have been speaking for a long time about the lack of legislation and regulation in respect of the after-school sector. I am hesitant about the quick delivery of the ratio of 1:12 because some of the services may not have been working within the terms of that regulation. It will also take time to list and register the services. Will we have enough staff within Tusla to facilitate the applications which will come in? How are we going to monitor adherence to statements of purpose and function, complaints policies, policies on the administration of medication, policies on infection control, policies on managing behaviour, fire safety, child safeguarding statements, safety statements, and all of the regulations to which we expect adherence? How will we ensure that adherence is inspected? Do we have the staff to do that?

On the issue of when the adult-child ratio I have identified will commence and whether services will have time to prepare for the transition - the first issue raised by the Deputy - services will be given until 18 August to become fully compliant with these specific requirements, irrespective of the date on which they register with Tusla. As stated, I have now signed the necessary regulations. Furthermore, public consultation is planned for this summer in advance of the development of a fuller set of regulations - The Deputy knows that we will be developing these. They will replace the initial regulations and will cover additional quality objectives.

The Deputy also raised the question of whether Tusla will be ready for this. My understanding is that it will be, and has been, preparing in that regard. Obviously it has taken a while to develop these regulations. Many people have been consulted. That is all part of the preparation.

I also wish to query the role of the city and county childcare committees in the delivery of these regulations. Are they getting extra resources to ensure that all of those who decide to register and become compliant with the required policies and procedures will be able to do so? Will a standard template be rolled out to all after-school services to support them and to ensure that everybody hits the same benchmark at the same time and that everybody is on song by 18 August? Will the Minister be seeking feedback from the providers and the parents as to what they believe is a sufficient ratio? I know the ratio has been set at 1:12, but children in second and third class will be leaving a setting in which the ratio is 1:26 or 1:30 and going into a setting where the ratio is 1:12. I am sure we will need to get feedback in that regard.

These are really good questions. I acknowledge the Deputy's interest and representation in this regard. It really helps us do the work we do. Her first question, which had regard to county and city childcare committees, is an excellent one. As the Deputy knows, the change we are bringing in for school-age childcare providers is significant. The Deputy is also aware that, as I have indicated, this has been a long time coming.

Research has been carried out and it has been consulted as part of the work of the working group. The report has come out and on the basis of that report, I have made my decisions. I have continued to listen to the sector and I have made some changes recently in that regard.

It is the job of the county and city childcare committees to support providers in the work they do. They would of course be aware of these matters. In other words, there is a long lead-in time. This is what they should be doing and I expect it is what they will be doing.

The Deputy asked about feedback. As we progress to a comprehensive set of regulations, I expect and hope the question around the ratios will be integral to that aspect of it.

Child and Family Agency Policy

Denise Mitchell

Question:

30. Deputy Denise Mitchell asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she is satisfied that robust systems are in place within Tusla to ensure child protection concerns are dealt with appropriately and suspected abuse is notified to An Garda Síochána in a timely manner; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [6784/19]

Is the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs satisfied that robust systems are in place within Tusla to ensure child protection concerns are dealt with appropriately and that suspected abuse is notified to An Garda Síochána in a timely manner? Will the Minister make a statement on the matter?

The Deputy asks a very important question with regard to the robust systems within Tusla. I will answer the question in two parts. The first part relates to the matter of the appropriate handling of child protection concerns and the second part relates to notifications by Tusla to An Garda Síochána.

Up to the end of November 2018 provisional figures from Tusla show that there were almost 53,000 child welfare and protection referrals. The majority of concerns received by Tusla were made to local offices or by mandated reporters through its web portal. Tusla has assured me that all referrals are screened and those appropriate to social work services are subject to a preliminary inquiry. Many referrals require a welfare rather than a child protection response and are referred onto appropriate services. Following an initial assessment, a social work intervention may be required. Tusla has developed a child welfare and protection strategy to deepen and strengthen the screening, preliminary inquiries and initial assessments through increased supports and the roll-out, for the first time, of a national approach to practise. The strategy is called Signs of Safety. The effectiveness of these practices and systems is monitored through independent inspections by HIQA and by Tusla's quality assurance processes. My Department also monitors Tusla performance and progress on improvements against monthly activity returns and oversight of the implementation of recommendations from independent bodies.

Clear procedures are in place for notifying An Garda Síochána but the Deputy will be aware that not every referral will require a notification to the Garda. The Children First joint working protocol between Tusla and An Garda Síochána was published to reflect the provisions in the Children First Act 2015. The protocol covers the respective responsibilities of the agencies in key areas, including notification of suspected abuse. The protocol emphasises that when a social worker suspects that a child has been or is being physically or sexually abused or wilfully neglected, An Garda Síochána must be formally notified without delay and it sets out the notification procedures to be followed. This joint working protocol is in place.

What prompted me to ask this question was the recent HIQA report on child protection services operated by Tusla in Dublin South-Central. The report found an absence of effective communication with regard to management, poor oversight of social work practices and that the appropriate measures were not consistently taken by social workers to protect children. I imagine we can all agree that is deeply concerning.

Is the Minister satisfied with the roll-out of the new integrated childcare system? This report indicates there are gaps in the records on the system and that the staff were not routinely inputting information. Is this situation down to the staffing crisis within Tusla?

Of course I am aware of that report. The report is deeply concerning. As Deputy Mitchell has indicated, some of the key issues in the findings of the report have to do with staffing. The issues identified specifically in terms of staffing have been corrected. A senior social worker practitioner has been assigned. More people have been brought to that setting. However, it is the case, unfortunately, that there are some areas throughout the country where the issue of staffing is acute and as a consequence it is possible for a practice not to be implemented in an appropriate manner. That is the case in that regard.

I understand why Deputy Mitchell is asking the question. My understanding is that only a few regions still have acute difficulties and that those are being attended to by Tusla.

As the Minister is aware, this morning HIQA representatives are before the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs. They have given a concerning presentation. One thing they have talked about is the retention and recruitment of social workers. They have talked about best practices in other countries. One of the suggestions is that we could employ social work assistants to help social workers in and around the administrative work. The idea is that this would free up social workers so that they can spend more time directly on the job they are doing, which is helping families and children. Is the Minister examining this system? There are major concerns, especially around the report from HIQA on Dublin South-Central. Did the Minister speak to Tusla about this report? Can she tell the House what Tusla said to her about the report? It was a damning report.

I am aware that HIQA representatives are before the committee. I was able to watch some of the proceedings before coming to the Chamber. Deputy Mitchell asked a question about bringing into an organisation additional administrative staff to free up social workers to do their job. That is part of the plan. I have also noted that Ms Mary Dunnion acknowledged the welcome increase in the recruitment of administrative staff, and that that will help.

A second point was noted by Ms Dunnion. I am aware of and have requested sight as soon as possible of the workforce strategy that has been in development with regard to Tusla for some time. My understanding is that the board has received a draft copy and it will be furnishing this to me as soon as the board is satisfied with it. This critical aspect will assist in terms of recruitment and retention.

Several other aspects of the recommendations of the report are being acted on. I wish to make another point. It has to do with working with third level institutions to look at the numbers of places of social workers and training. That work has begun with my Department as well.

Affordable Childcare Scheme Implementation

Anne Rabbitte

Question:

31. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to outline the status of the implementation of the affordable childcare scheme. [7239/19]

Will the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs outline the status of the implementation of the affordable childcare scheme?

I am pleased to report positive progress in the development of the affordable childcare scheme and to confirm our plans for the scheme to launch this October, with payments flowing from November.

The launch of the scheme will alter the landscape of childcare in Ireland. It will provide financial support for parents, establish a sustainable platform for investment in the childcare sector for decades to come and, crucially, it will allow us to continue to invest in giving our children the best start in life. Following the enactment of the Childcare Support Act last July, detailed secondary legislation and policy guidelines are being finalised. Our information technology development contractor is working with officials from the Department and Pobal to develop the scheme's supporting IT system to ensure it will be available on schedule.

In December I signed regulations that will provide, for the first time, for the registration of school-age childcare services with Tusla – a matter we have been discussing - and these regulations will come into force on 18 February. This means that school age childcare services will be able to participate in the scheme from the beginning.

An information campaign for parents and the public on the affordable childcare scheme will commence next month. This will run alongside comprehensive training and information supports for childcare providers and other key stakeholders to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to be well prepared in advance of the scheme's launch.

Under measures included in budget 2019, I was delighted to have been able to further enhance the scheme by raising the upper and lower thresholds for income-related subsidies. These increases will poverty-proof the scheme for families on lower incomes; allow more families with higher incomes to access subsidies under the scheme; and ensure that an even greater number of families overall will now benefit from the scheme once it is launched.

In designing the scheme we have been very careful to listen to the views of parents and providers so that we can deliver the most user-friendly system that is possible.

To this end, we have had significant engagement with consultative and focus groups, which comprise parents, providers and others, so that we design and develop the scheme with users in mind.

This issue has been a priority for me for a long time because 35% of the income of families is spent on childcare. With the ever increasing cost of electricity and the cost of running a household, that 35% is absolutely astronomical. I am glad to hear about the launch of the awareness campaign, which will let people know what is expected when they want to sign up to this scheme. That is to be welcomed. However, one has to have a mygov.ie account, and the uptake of those accounts, as I understand it, has been slack; only 200,000 people have registered. It should be a big part of the Minister's campaign. We have to get people to understand that there is no point in looking for a mygov.ie account when enrolling on the scheme because it will be swamped and it takes a couple of weeks to get up and running. Will that be a part of the campaign?

The Deputy has asked two questions. Affordability is an integral aspect of what we have been developing. I am aware of the fact that parents are still struggling, and that is why we have made a continuing commitment to increasing the investment over a period of time. The additional €89 million provided this year will support the continued delivery of the childcare schemes and supports. As I have indicated, the significant increase in the scheme's maximum net income threshold, from €47,000 to €60,000 per annum, means that an estimated 7,500 children will benefit. That is a key aspect of the scheme. I could say more about that.

I am glad the Deputy raised the question of mygov.ie. It is absolutely crucial and will be an integral aspect of the information campaign. It is one of the reasons we are bringing it forward. People will need to be registered, and they might not be aware of that. It will be a key aspect of the information campaign, and it will important that representatives support us in letting their constituents know that it is an integral aspect.

How successful has the pilot of the project been to date? The ICT has been rolled out, and I assume we are trying it in a number of different areas around the country. How is the broadband issue feeding into that? Is it a factor? It is a concern for people in rural areas. How are the checks and balances and key performance indicators, KPIs, of the pilot working out? Is the project on target from a costs point of view? Has the ICT programme come in on budget? If so, by what percentage is it within its budget?

I understand that the piloting is continuing and is being supported. We are learning a lot about the scheme, which informs my belief it is on target and will be delivered on time. I can assure the Deputy of that.

On broadband, I will have to consult with the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment because I do not have the answer to that question. We are rolling out the pilot scheme, but I will get back to the Deputy about the broadband issue.

On costs, I do not have any information that suggests the scheme is not within budget. I am sure I would hear about it if it was not. There has been much exchange in the last couple of years around the IT system and its development. I appreciate the Deputy's questions and concerns, but I feel that we can say with confidence at this stage that we are on target and within budget.

Children and Family Services Provision

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

32. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the fact that there are no assurances of the necessary funding which makes it likely that a service (details supplied) will have to close by April 2019 with the loss of six jobs and numerous clients; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [7149/19]

The Minister is very familiar with this case; I asked her about it several times since the middle of last year. I asked that she would do what she could to secure the necessary funding to avert what is now the imminent closure of the Cottage Home family support service in Shankill, which provides vital intervention and support services for vulnerable families and children to keep them out of residential care and foster care. It only needs €400,000, but it appears that Tusla is saying that it does not have the money. I really do not understand how it cannot secure that money in order to secure the future of the service.

I agree with the Deputy that this organisation provides valuable services to children and families in the south Dublin area. The Deputy previously tabled questions in relation to this service. Since that time, I have met with the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, representatives from the Cottage Home and representatives from Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. At this meeting, all stakeholders were provided with the opportunity to express their concerns. I subsequently raised the issue of the future funding of the Cottage Home with Tusla. I wrote to Tusla requesting clarification on budgetary projections for spending on family support services in the Dublin south and south-east Wicklow areas, and any shortfalls in Tusla's budget which would hinder it from meeting identified needs.

Tusla has informed me that it does not have any additional funding to support this service. The Cottage Home is located in the Tusla Dublin south-Dublin and south-east Wicklow area. Tusla has fully committed its funds for family support services in this area. As a result, there is no budget available to fund the Cottage Home family support service, which has never received funding from Tusla. However, Tusla funds the residential service run by this organisation. In 2018, Tusla funding to the Cottage Home’s residential service came to a total of €1.6 million.

Tusla has advised that it is currently compiling a commissioning plan for services in the area. Tusla’s commissioning approach involves looking at the priority needs within each area to ensure that all resources allocated will enable Tusla to achieve the best possible outcomes for children. Tusla’s overall aim, as cited in its commissioning strategy, is to ensure total resources are used: "In the most beneficial, effective, efficient, equitable, proportionate and sustainable manner in order to improve outcomes for children".

Tusla has planned a stakeholder event as part of its commissioning process in Dublin south and Dublin south-east Wicklow planned for the coming weeks. It has informed me that it will invite the Cottage Home to be involved in the process.

Tusla has examined a number of options to source funding for this service while maintaining existing funded services, but has been unsuccessful to date. Should the service have to close, Tusla will work with the Cottage Home to ensure it can provide the required alternative services to children and families.

I do not doubt that the Minister has tried, but I just do not understand this. Hundreds of millions of euro have been wasted on the national children's hospital, and we are looking for €400,000 to keep a service that we know works. It provides support for 50 vulnerable families and their children, which saves the State a lot of money down the road. If this service is closed, and the support provided to those families disappears, many of these children will end up in residential care and in foster care, which will cost the State more money. Why would it be allowed to close for the sake of €400,000? I just do not believe that the Minister cannot come up with €400,000 for a service that she and Tusla acknowledge works. It is frankly unacceptable. I cannot believe €400,000 cannot be found. We can find more than €400 million to pay builders who have ripped the country off, but we cannot find €400,000 for a service that is absolutely vital. It is not on.

I understand the Deputy's questions and I appreciate his representation. He asked what I have done and I have indicated that I did a number of things. I went back to Tusla and asked whether it was possible and if there were additional moneys. The Cottage Home does great work, as the Deputy has indicated. I have met representatives from it. It is true, as the Deputy has indicated, that prevention work potentially saves money down the line. I acknowledge that. Tusla has been interrogated on this issue and it does not have additional moneys. Although, given the scale of other issues, €400,000 does not seem to be a significant sum of money, it is significant generally speaking, in the context of the budget that Tusla has to provide services for families and children in various regions. There is not the money at this time.

The second part of my answer is that they have been invited to come and look at the planning as we move into the additional time. There may be a possibility, although I am aware it may be too late for the service and I deeply regret that.

I do not doubt that the Minister has made efforts and I know she knows the value of this. However, in that context, I find it shocking that, although the Minister knows the service should not close, the service is going to close, almost certainly, in April, because €400,000 cannot be found. How many Supplementary Estimates have we had for health in current and capital spending? Could we have a few Supplementary Estimates for services such as this? I am serious. It does not seem like rocket science to go to the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, and ask for a small Supplementary Estimate for a measly €400,000 to save six jobs and provide this service to 50 vulnerable families. I do not think anyone in this House would object. It should be done on moral grounds but also on value-for-money grounds for the State. Without a shadow of a doubt, it will cost the State more if this service goes. I appeal to the Minister, if there is anything else she can do along those lines, to do it.

I understand the Deputy's passion. Currently, in the context of the budget for that region, if there was a decision to give them the €400,000, it would have to be taken from some other services that no doubt are also doing a good job. That is important to outline. On requesting Supplementary Estimates, I am not necessarily ruling it out but there are certain time periods for doing that. The challenge is that many other services are also looking for funds, and the funds are not there to meet the need. We need to continue to increase the budget; there is no question about that. It could cost more if the service closes and that is a good argument. I will use those arguments when I go back to the Minister for the next set of budget negotiations.

Child Abuse Reports

Catherine Connolly

Question:

33. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs further to Parliamentary Question No. 27 of 13 December 2018, when the report of the review panel which commenced on 16 May 2016 in respect of the care of three children in a foster home in County Galway will be published; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [6745/19]

My question is in the context of the utter failure of the State to protect three young children. The Central Criminal Court was told last year that they were sexually abused and raped on a weekly basis between the ages of six and ten while they were in foster care in Tuam, County Galway. The independent review panel took over to conduct an investigation. It is now 2019. The first disclosure was in 2007, the second in 2011 and the next in 2013, and we have no result from the independent review panel.

The shocking abuse suffered by these brave young women while in foster care in the early 2000s has disrupted and deeply impacted their lives. I am conscious of the significant public interest in the case. The Deputy will be aware that the review process begun by the national review panel in 2016 was paused at the request of An Garda Síochána to allow criminal proceedings to conclude. Following the conclusion of the criminal case and sentencing of the perpetrator, the review was resumed and has now been completed.

I understand that the report is extensive. It contains detailed personal information regarding the cases examined. I am mindful of the vulnerability of the young people involved. Tusla must strike a balance between meeting the public interest through the publication of the review and protecting the well-being of the victims who were children in State care at the time. The well-being of the young people must be to the fore, and the process regarding the decision about publication must involve them. It is essential that they have an opportunity to understand the findings and to offer their views on next steps. The timing of this process will be determined by the needs of the young people.

Tusla has advised my officials that it is currently in the process of taking the necessary steps to consult the young people involved in the review. It is important that those most affected are given the time to give their views and prepare themselves before anything further is put into the public domain. However, I am most anxious that the matter of publication be settled at the earliest possible time, having regard to all the circumstances of this case. It is critically important that the facts from the review and the learning from it should be made public, subject to protecting the young people affected, as soon as possible. I will continue to engage with Tusla and will urge timely conclusion of the consultation process and revert to the Deputy as soon as possible.

The Minister's reply is totally unacceptable. The protection and vulnerability of the children were never in the minds of the HSE or Tusla. An independent review panel was set up. In April 2018, in response to Deputy McDonald, the Taoiseach said the publication of the report was almost complete. It was only completed in December. It is with Tusla, a body that Mr. Justice Charleton said has an inability to reflect. A public body paid for by the taxpayer has a fundamental duty of self-scrutiny in pursuit of the highest standards. The administration of Tusla was found to be sorely lacking in application and dedication to duty. In respect of the criminal proceedings, a HIQA report that the Minister commissioned pointed out that it is imperative that Tusla ensures its own operational arrangements and does not allow criminal investigations to impede its statutory duty to safeguard children. The children were abused. The facts are out, unfortunately. The Central Criminal Court in Dublin heard all those facts last year. Out of 29 sample charges, the man was convicted of 23. We know all of that and, unfortunately, the children, who are now young adults, know all of that. What they want is some type of accountability from the system and an independent review panel's report to be published. If it is not to be published, why not?

It is important for the Deputy to outline the timeline and the issues and concerns, which I understand. I am fully aware of them as well. The Deputy raised many of the criticisms of Tusla in respect of the Charleton tribunal as well as other matters, particularly the HIQA statutory investigation that I commissioned. I am aware of this and the Deputy will be aware that measures have been put in place with the board, with which I work on an ongoing basis, to put in place plans to change that. We have an expert assurance group that oversees the process, led by an independent chair.

In respect of the Deputy's second set of questions, it is important and it is in the public interest that this report be published ultimately. From the perspective of Tusla and its work in that regard, the agency needs time to consult the people whom the report is about prior to its decision to publish.

I welcome that the Minister is saying she would like the report to be published, if I heard her correctly.

I welcome that but I cannot but be frustrated on behalf of the people who have suffered in a system that is now heaping abuse onto abuse. I only criticise Tusla because I am quoting from the HIQA and the Charleton reports. Clearly it does good work but in this situation the agency took over from the HSE, which itself is under scrutiny in respect of this. The independent review panel has been engaged in this process since April 2016; it is now February 2019. Mr. Justice Charleton reported within two years. He came back on a regular basis to give the Minister updates yet the independent review panel cannot update her on anything. In reply to previous questions of mine, the Minister said the panel was independent and she could not interfere. Since then, she has clarified that there are issues in respect of the panel further to an independent monitoring process by HIQA which I cannot get my hands on. I would appreciate if the Minister clarified that in respect of governance. At this point I want an assurance that there will be no more delays in the publication of the report in order that we can empower people, particularly those on the ground who have suffered, and that they know there will be accountability.

It is my hope as well that it could be published as soon as possible. Tusla is going through a process right now in the context of awareness and changes in its practices.

The decision of the people involved, including the social workers and managers, is that they need the time to consult the young people. My understanding is that one of them has waived her right to anonymity but that the other two have not necessarily done so. I assure the Deputy that I will continue to urge the people involved to conclude the process as soon as possible. I need to respect the decision to work with the young people and consult them in the process of publishing the report.