Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

Childcare Services

Permission has been given to Deputy Aindrias Moynihan to take questions on behalf of Deputy Rabbitte.

Anne Rabbitte


1. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if her attention has been drawn to the considerable capacity issues that exist within the childcare sector here, particularly with regard to the care of babies and toddlers; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22403/19]

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. The childcare sector in Ireland is under phenomenal pressure. There is a shortage of places and the cost of childcare is putting enormous pressure on parents. There are also serious challenges in terms of staff recruitment. Since the introduction of the early childhood care and education, ECCE scheme there is additional pressure on services, in particular for babies and toddlers. Is the Minister aware of this and what action does she propose to take to address the issues?

I thank the Deputy for the question. The unprecedented increase in investment in childcare over the last four budgets has helped to double capacity in the sector. We have doubled the ECCE-free preschool scheme from one to two years. We have also doubled the number of spaces for the zero to three age group. Baby and toddler places have increased from 13,700 in 2014 to over 31,000 in 2018, an increase of 128%. We do need additional capacity and I am continuing my intensive efforts in that regard. I am aware of the challenges providers face in offering services for babies and toddlers. The challenge is largely attributable to the cost of the higher staffing ratios required. The 2019 early years capital scheme has a primary focus on building places for the under-threes. I have made €4 million available for this age group and I expect to announce the successful applicants and the creation of 1,300 additional places before the year end. 

The national childcare scheme, to be introduced later this year, will also be a major incentive for providers to expand capacity. The scheme will provide a progressive system of subsidies, starting with the highest subsidy rates for children under one - up to €5.10 per hour - and the next highest subsidy for one and two year olds - up to €4.35 per hour. 

I also want to encourage further capacity for the under-threes and older age groups in the childminding sector. With this in mind, my Department has recently recruited a national childminding co-ordinator and will soon recruit a team of six development officers around the country to support the registration of more childminders with Tusla and thus enable them access subsidies under the NCS. My Department is currently finalising an action plan for childminding that will set out all the steps that we will take to improve access to high quality and subsidised childminding services.

I ensured that childcare would be identified as a strategic priority in the national development plan and I secured €250 million for this purpose, much of which will be invested in additional capacity.

I thank the Minister for her reply. The introduction of the ECCE second year is a positive but its value is diminished if people are not able to access and avail of it. According to Teresa Heeney, CEO of Early Childhood Ireland the second year provision has cannibalised the earlier years provision, in particular in areas where there is population growth, and it is more difficult to get a place for babies and toddlers. We are hearing that parents are deferring returning to paid employment because they are unable to find a place. I note that staff numbers have increased but turnover is huge in this sector, with one in four people leaving it as well. What action is being taken to address those issues? Will the Minister support the providers to ensure they can retain their staff and also to ensure there are places available for babies and toddlers in light of the difficulties being experienced in that regard.

I thank the Deputy. On the main issue he raised, and Teresa Heeney's comments, the question is whether the sector has been replacing baby rooms with ECCE rooms which are perhaps perceived as more lucrative.

I do not think there is any definitive evidence to support that assertion but we have some anecdotal claims. While there has been a significant increase in ECCE capacity in recent years, the data available from the early years sector profile reports, published by Pobal, show that that has been mirrored by an increase of capacity of the baby rooms. That is the first thing that I would say and what I have tried to outline. As I indicated, we were aware that this challenge of capacity for under-threes was coming. That is not news to us. That is why I focused the capital funding I received in 2019 on those aged from zero to three. I will be announcing those grants shortly in order that providers will have time during the summer months to ensure that they have capacity.

The Pobal report indicates that only 19% of facilities have baby rooms and that some 1,700 infants are on waiting lists, almost half of the total number of people who are enrolled. There is an especially acute issue with babies and toddlers. We know that the ECCE room will be exempt from rates, whereas the baby room is not. My colleague, Deputy Rabbitte, introduced a Bill to equalise that issue in order that childcare providers could be exempt from rates altogether. Would the Minister consider supporting such measures to level the playing field? Figures from Pobal indicate there is a move towards the ECCE rooms at the expense of the baby and wobbler rooms.

We are aware of the need to provide capital funding to increase the supply and capacity for under-threes. That is why I have moved the capital funding for 2019 in that direction. We are aware of the statistics. Pobal works closely with us. When we fully implement the national childcare scheme in November, there will be incentives of additional supports for childcare providers to have more under-threes. With regard to the issue regarding rates for baby rooms, the Minister, Deputy Murphy, has responsibility for rates. He knows my views on this and I have sent them to him in writing. I would like to see rates for services looked at and scrapped. It is worth noting that community-run services and those providing free preschool only are not subject to rates. Privately operated services are subject to rates and that is where issues arise. Within my control, I am moving to ensure that we will have capacity for under-threes.

Domestic Violence

Denise Mitchell


2. Deputy Denise Mitchell asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the measures she is taking to ensure safe oversight of child access in situations in which a parent has been accused of domestic violence; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22337/19]

What measures is the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs taking to ensure safe oversight of child access in situations where there are issues of domestic violence? Will she make a statement on the matter?

The impact of violence and abuse witnessed or experienced in childhood can last a lifetime. Where a child is in the care of Tusla and where there is a history of violence or other forms of abuse, the courts may order, or social workers may arrange, for access to be supervised to ensure safe oversight of the access visit. I am deeply conscious of and sensitive to the concerns of parents who have experienced domestic abuse, as having to arrange for their children to meet the other parent can be difficult and worrying. This was highlighted in a report that I launched for Women's Aid last month, which suggested that as many as one in five women were under threat of abuse from a violent partner during access visits. This is shocking. My Department and the Department of Justice and Equality have been engaging on this issue for some time.

I am convinced of the need for the provision of safe child contact spaces when they are needed for protective purposes. My Department has embarked on work to assess exactly what facilities and supports are available for families in this situation. Child access services exist through the family resource centres. Preliminary indications are that at least 42 family resource centres, FRCs, provide some sort of services for access visits. These have grown up in an organic and ad hoc way and are dependent on the facilities and staff available within a centre. For example, some family resource centres provide a pick-up and drop-off service, which helps in the avoidance of contact between parents if that is desirable. I want to build on the services available through FRCs and expand the number of locations where a child's right to have access to both parents is preserved in a safe way. The Deputy may also be aware of the Time 4 Us service in Galway, which is a family access service. Following the resolution of funding and governance issues, the service has now been absorbed into the ARD Family Resource Centre. I understand that this is operating very successfully and is now facilitating even more families than originally planned.

This is a serious issue. It follows on from some of the issues the Minister raised previously on provisions and supports relating to domestic violence. She has also noted that it was raised by Women's Aid, which recently raised it at the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs. Many people will probably find it shocking that there are situations where women have barring orders against their partners who have violent or abusive and there is no assessment of the safety of the children. An individual can have access arrangements to a child and it is up to the mother to facilitate it. She has to deal directly with the abusive ex-partner to arrange access. People like that feel that this is a risk. There also is no assessment of the child. Barnardos conducted a trial of supervised access centres to see if they could be considered and I note the Minister referred to family resource centres. I would like to think that we can revisit this proposal. I do not think that it comes down to funding as such.

As the Deputy described, these are significant issues for the children and the parents. As the Deputy acknowledges and I said in my original response, it is important that Women's Aid and other organisations highlight the significant concerns about potential harm done to children, as well as the ways in which intimidation etc. in a family can continue, especially with regard to children and access visits. It is important to have that information in front of us and to focus on that. We are intensifying our focus on where they are happening in respect of family resource centres. I have provided additional moneys for family resource centres in the last couple of budgets and hope to continue to do that, with a particular focus on this issue. We have some successful models emerging, such as Time 4 Us in Galway. It would be well worth looking at replicating it.

I hope that funding can be looked at to ensure that supervised access centres are rolled out across the State. I understand that it would not take a significant amount of funding. People have spoken about community centres being used in the past. Parish centres have also been identified as suitable locations. I ask the Minister to look at this. It is an important issue which has been raised by previous groups. Hopefully the Minister can give a commitment that this will be looked at. If extra funding is necessary, will she commit to giving us that in the 2020 budget?

I hope to do that. It is a great concern of mine. Over the past couple of years, we have got more information and knowledge, especially from experts, about the importance of ensuring increased complementary State support for this.

Often, it is possible for parents to be supported by community contexts or community centres themselves in order to ensure the safety of children, but the Deputy is asking about the importance of the increased investment by the State to ensure that those safe places are there for children during access visits.

Children in Care

Anne Rabbitte


3. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the steps she has taken to address the concerns raised in relation to staffing and other standards at private residential care homes used by Tusla. [22404/19]

Recent inspections have shown that serious concerns arise about the quality of private residential care homes, which care for 239 children. Has the Department taken steps to address the concerns that were raised about staffing and other standards in private residential care homes run by Tusla?

Caring for adolescents, many of whom have traumatic histories, complex behaviour and an ambivalence about their placement is a challenge. When this care takes place in a residential setting it requires high levels of experienced staff to support these children. As is the case in other jurisdictions, maintaining high standards in residential care is an ongoing challenge. At the end of April, as the Deputy indicated, there were 376 children in residential care, and 238 of these children are cared for in privately managed centres commissioned by Tusla. To put that in context,  6% of children in care are in residential care.

It is concerning that in some residential centres there is a high turnover of staff. There is also a dependency on agency staff. Staff have sustained injuries in the course of their work. That inevitably has an impact on stability in the centres, which has an impact on children, as well as an impact on staff.

One action that Tusla is working on with my Department is increasing the levels of assessment, therapeutic input, counselling and support to the centres. Tusla assessment, consultation and therapy service teams, known as ACTS, who provide the services, have developed significant expertise in terms of working with troubled young people. The process of helping these young people is slow and the support offered to them has varying results. That is the nature of this type of work. In practical terms, the ACTS team can assist in the development of a behaviour management and emotional support plan as part of the overall care plan for the young person on discharge from special care. That type of support can assist staff in residential centres to more appropriately manage and respond to challenging behaviour by traumatised young people. The staff that work with these children are carrying out the most difficult of tasks. Our efforts to improve standards is about making their workplace and their work life better, as well as supporting the children with the best service possible.

The Minister correctly highlighted some of the serious issues I wish to discuss such as staff turnover, lack of experience of staff and the dependency on agency workers. They have an impact on the mood of the entire centre. The children in Coovagh House in Limerick said they felt like they were living in a youth prison.

I understand that the person in charge has only visited the centre four times. A number of other issues have been highlighted. HIQA has responsibility for inspecting centres and following through on inspections but it does not have enforcement powers when it has identified issues. Could the Minister give it those enforcement powers, as was previously highlighted by my colleague, Deputy Rabbitte, in order that it can follow through, once it has identified an issue, to have it corrected?

I thank Deputy Aindrias Moynihan for raising the particular issue, which I will examine personally. As the Deputy said, HIQA has the responsibility to do the inspection and as part of that it works with the providers of residential care to ensure that a plan is put together in order to meet standards and then come up with a report. Oversight and ensuring standards are raised remains with Tusla and my Department. That is where the responsibility lies in that regard. They are supported and complemented by HIQA continuing with its investigations over a period. That is the process that is currently in place. What I have also tried to describe in terms of the wider breadth of the residential centres is that Tusla is also developing more efforts in terms of its ACTS team to support what goes on within the centres in order to ensure those standards are raised.

The issues were highlighted more than a year ago and there was a follow-up inspection last August. It does not make sense that when issues are identified they are not followed up. Why does HIQA not have the authority or the teeth to follow through and to enforce its own recommendations?

The situation in Coovagh House was identified more than a year ago. I understand that my colleague, Deputy Rabbitte, proposed that HIQA would be given the necessary powers. Could the Minister ensure that HIQA has the power to follow through and enforce its recommendations?

Deputy Aindrias Moynihan raises the question of enforcement as a tool of ensuring things happen, usually with force or by imposition. HIQA has certain responsibilities. It identifies where there are deficits and where the standards need to be raised. In the context of this exceedingly difficult work with very troubled young people, sometimes it takes a long time to resolve the challenges. That is the nature of the work. What we have done to ensure there is enforcement, to use Deputy Aindrias Moynihan's word, change or the raising of the standards is by means of the Tusla team coming in to support what goes on in that context. That is ultimately what will provide the sustainable change we are seeking and enable ultimately, if it is possible, the healing of the young people.

Childcare Services Provision

Gino Kenny


4. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans to address the issue of crèches turning away babies and toddlers in favour of preschool children that are seen as more lucrative; if the extra €50 million will be provided to cover the gap in the new childcare scheme; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [22682/19]

The question I raise today came up numerous times when we were canvassing in the past seven weeks and relates to crèches turning away babies and toddlers in favour of preschool children that are seen as more lucrative.

We have had an unprecedented increase of 117% in investment for early learning and care and school-age childcare in recent budgets. The extra investment has supported a doubling of capacity in the sector, including both ECCE and the zero to three age group. It is clear, however, that further capacity is required and that is why I am continuing my intensive efforts in this area. In 2019, I provided €4 million in capital funding to support additional places for children under three years. Decisions on the allocation of the funding will be made very soon and I anticipate that it will support the creation of approximately 1,300 additional places before the end of the year.

In the longer term, I ensured that childcare would be identified as a strategic priority in the national development plan. To that end, I have secured €250 million for that purpose, much of which will be invested in additional capacity. The national childcare scheme, to be introduced later this year, will also incentivise additional capacity. It provides a progressive system of subsidies starting with the highest subsidy rates for children under one year, with graded rates for those aged from one year and upwards.

The €50 million figure quoted this week in the media refers to the full-year costs of the scheme in 2020. The Government was aware of the costs when it approved the enhancements to the national childcare scheme  in budget 2019 and these costs will be addressed as normal within the Estimates process for 2020.

Childminders form a key part of the service provision for young children. I want to support the registration of more childminders with Tusla in order to allow them to access subsidies under the NCS. My Department has recruited a national childminding co-ordinator and will eventually recruit six more people as development officers in order to support this. We will also finalise a childminding action plan to set out the steps we have to take to move forward.

This issue arose many times on the doorsteps while we canvassed in the past few weeks. In one case, a parent had contacted 25 providers in Tallaght and Clondalkin and still could not find a place for her child. The Minister has stated previously that successive Governments have under-resourced and undervalued childcare in Ireland. This problem is caused by providers that see the provision of childcare for toddlers as more lucrative than that relating to babies. The Minister has indicated that, under the NCS, a subsidy of €5 per hour will be paid in respect of every baby. Is that amount too little? Does it help make financial sense for childcare facilities to provide places for children under the age of one?

This is a challenging situation for people. I am aware that some parents cannot find places for children under three years of age. That is the reality and it is the reason we have provided capital funding of €4 million to focus on increasing capacity for that age group in particular. It is more costly to care for children who are under three years of age because a higher staff-to-child ratio applies. I have identified that we are also increasing the subsidy for the birth-to-three age category via the NCS, which will begin in November. We plan to deal with the concerns and difficulties in accessing places for those under three in a number of ways and we anticipate that the measures to be taken will make a significant difference.

In some cases, average childcare costs can equate to mortgage repayments. Some parents are paying up to €1,500 per month for childcare, which is completely unsustainable in the short and the long term. The provider of childcare has to be subsidised by the State. If the subsidy is €5 per hour and the baby is in crèche for 36 to 40 hours per week, it would amount to approximately €800 per month. If the average cost is €1,400 then €600 is paid by the parents. Are the subsidies too low? The Minister is asking for €50 million to plug the black hole relating to the NCS next year.

I am indicating that subsidies will increase in the 2019 budget. That does not mean that matters are being made considerably easier for parents in terms of the overall cost, but it does increase the level of support provided by the State. I agree with the Deputy and I am committed to seeking an increase in the subsidy, particularly for the age group in question. With the full establishment of the NCS from November, it will be much easier to invest the money for particular ages and it will be easier to increase the subsidy. The system being set up will be more streamlined. With all of the subsidisation, which will be continued, those families with the least will get the most.

Child and Family Agency Reports

Catherine Connolly


5. Deputy Catherine Connolly asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs further to Parliamentary Question No. 25 of 28 March 2019, 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. [22338/19]

When will the report of the independent review panel into the care of the three children who suffered heinous sexual abuse while under the care of the Health Service Executive, HSE, and Tusla be published? My question has taken on an acute meaning given the leak of the report last week and the 22 pages of outstanding findings.

 Earlier today, Tusla published a summary report in respect of the care of three children in a foster home in County Galway.

Once again, and particularly in light of today's publication, I would like to sincerely acknowledge the pain and distress suffered by the three women at the centre of this report.

Lessons have been learned and will continue to be learned from the findings of this investigation. No child should be exposed to the clear risks that were evident after the first disclosures in 2007.

The report provides a sober, full account of what happened, and a clear analysis of the failures that occurred in managing the case. In particular, the report finds that there was enough evidence at the time of the disclosure to warrant the removal of the remaining foster children from the placement.

It finds that the safety plan was flawed, and that there was a management failure to recognise the seriousness and complexity of the case.

These were very grave errors which have led to lives being changed forever. In the intervening years, there have been changes with Tusla's practices and standards.

They are now far advanced from those of the HSE service in the past. Tusla has worked hard to improve its child protection and foster care services, by way of standards, staffing, resources and practices, and I want to make sure that it continues to do so.

Today's report includes four recommendations. Two of these are on the development of practice within Tusla, namely, that there is a review of the national policy and procedures for the link social worker role and for Tusla to include risk assessment and skills relating to managing child sexual abuse cases as core professional development in the Signs of Safety practice framework.

A further two of the major recommendations include developing an integrated approach to the investigation, assessment and management of child sex abuse allegations.

As referenced in the report, work is already under way with the development of the One House-Barnahus model. The first centre will be in Galway.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

It is also recommended that Tusla develop a multi-agency policy response to how complex cases are managed by Tusla, the Garda and areas of the HSE. This is critical to the State response to children who are being sexually abused.  The report recommends a greater recognition of the fact and dynamics involved in sexual abuse by adolescents.

The report sets out the social work practice, its context and what went wrong. It provides insight into the secrecy and dynamics of child sexual abuse that affects many families.

I am determined to complete and advance the reforms under way as part of the child protection and welfare strategy and to pursue actions to minimise the chances of anything like this happening in the future.

Did the Minister state that a summary report has been published?

Why is a summary report being published? Is that the report that was leaked last week? Do the 22 pages that were leaked last week constitute the summary report? Can the Minister clarify how it could possibly have taken until now for a summary report to be published? Is it being published simply because the pages were leaked? Who leaked them? Does the Minister have any idea? Does Tusla know who leaked the pages? It is very important that a report of this nature should not be leaked. We have raised this matter continuously during Leader's Questions. I have looked back and discovered that I raised the matter nine times in the last year. This should have come before the Dáil via the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, or through the Minister opposite and it should have been presented to us in order that we could discuss it. How could it possibly have taken this long? The Minister indicated in replies to parliamentary questions I tabled that it was completed at the end of November, six solid months ago, yet we are only getting a summary report now as a result of a leak. I would really appreciate simple, straight answers to my questions.

I will do my best to answer some of those questions. We do not know who leaked the report; I assure the Deputy that it was not leaked by Tusla. The publication of the summary report was planned for today, and it was published earlier. The Deputy asked why this is a summary report and not the full report.

My understanding is that Tusla took legal advice regarding the publication of the full report. In light of the different identifications of people etc, in the report, the full report could not be published and it would need to be in summary form. The summary form outlined the recommendations for what is needed for change.

The work my Department has done tells me that it fully incorporated what is necessary in order for us to move forward with the changes.

I thank the Minister for making the effort to give me a straight answer. I have great difficulty, however, in believing in this process. I see no sign in the replies to me that today was the due date for the publication of the summary report. It simply did not occur to anyone doing the replies on the Minister’s behalf to tell me that date is today. That raises serious questions in my mind about trust.

I believe it was leaked for a purpose. I can only surmise that someone felt this report was never going to be published and then took it upon themselves to leak it. That is deeply troubling if that is what happened. I do not want to believe that narrative but, when I look back, I see nothing else. That a report on this matter should be leaked is unacceptable. Has Tusla carried out a review into the leak? It is extraordinary, given that it was carrying out a review into its behaviour and handling of this issue.

Why was it not brought back in? If today was the day, was the Minister going to bring it back in before the Government and before us in the Dáil in order that we could discuss it? Considering what happened in this case, it was set up in 2016 and three years later we get a leaked report. It goes back to heinous abuse.

I thank the Deputy.

On the first set of questions that it was never indicated to the Deputy that today was the day, I will check on that.

It was not in previous replies.

I accept that. I will check as to why that was not the case. I am not sure exactly when that decision was made. Tusla asked for the report. The report was done by the national review panel, NRP. It was then presented to the chair of Tusla and it decided to put out the report today.

I do not think any review has been done of the leak. I appreciate the Deputy is concerned about the motivations behind the leak. We are too. It was always intended that the report would be put out. Ultimately, in terms of legal advice, it was put out in summary form.