Ceisteanna ar Sonraíodh Uain Dóibh - Priority Questions

After-School Support Services

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

22. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration the situation in regard to disadvantaged children being locked out of after-school programmes under the national childcare scheme (details supplied); and the reason new children to after-school services are ineligible for the national childcare scheme due to the employment status of their parents. [31304/20]

This question is on after-school services. What is the situation with regard to disadvantaged children who are locked out of after-school programmes that are under the national childcare scheme? Why are children who are new to after-school services ineligible for the national childcare scheme due to the employment status of their parents?

The national childcare scheme represents a significant step forward in combating the poverty traps that previous targeted childcare schemes created. It removes many of the restrictive eligibility requirements, for example, dependency on social protection payments. I emphasise that those using school-aged childcare services are not ineligible for the national childcare scheme. In fact, 45 subsidised hours are available where parents are engaged in work, training or study and 20 subsidised hours are available for parents who are not engaged in work, training or study. In this way, the scheme has anti-poverty or disadvantage objectives built in by encouraging work or training. The definition of "work" is extremely broad and covers full-time, part-time, week on week off and zero-hour contracts, and the study rule is also generous and allows parents to access 45 hours of childcare when competing any qualification from level 1 of the national framework of qualifications, even for a small number of hours per week.

I was pleased to increase the number of subsidised hours from September, partly to address the concerns that some providers had raised. A sponsorship arrangement is available within the national childcare scheme that offers additional support for families with complex needs. Once a child meets the criteria for sponsorship by a given sponsor body the child can automatically avail of 45 hours per week.

We have undertaken a series of measures to raise awareness about the sponsorship programme. The Department has been working directly with the sponsor bodies to build their capacity and support the new relationships been built between the sponsor bodies and the providers. We have been working with the city and county childcare committees to assist them with their queries. We have also been working with the teen parent support programme to ensure teen parents are aware of their right to access childcare under the national childcare scheme.

Overall, the national childcare scheme is designed to be highly inclusive and meet the needs of the most economically vulnerable children and those living in other forms of disadvantage. I will always keep the scheme under review and I will continue to work with the officials to identify any refinement needed.

I often think there is a disconnect between what we hear in the Chamber and what people experience. The reason I have raised this point is that a number of people not only in my constituency but throughout the country have raised the difficulty they are having in accessing after-school services, particularly where parents are unemployed or stay at home. They could fall into a vulnerable category but they are not vulnerable enough to come to the attention of Tusla. This can be where the breakdown is. The Minister mentioned the sponsorship programme. Under the new system, the HSE can refer only children aged under four, which rules out after-school services. Many people who think they might have to go to Tusla first for assistance or additional help would run a mile because they are afraid of the system and that somehow they will be highlighted as bad parents, when this absolutely might not be the case. There is definitely a disconnect between what the Minister is saying and what people are experiencing.

I thank the Deputy. I have engaged quite extensively with her colleague, Deputy Ó Murchú, on this issue. This is a new scheme, it is in its first year and we are in the middle of a pandemic. The manner of informing the sponsor bodies of their obligations and letting parents know about what is available has not worked as it should have and I fully accept this. This is why we have been engaging with the sponsor bodies, in particular on what they can offer. With regard to Tusla, it can be a sponsor for any child up to the age of 17 and there is a range of criteria it can apply.

I take the Deputy's point on some element of concern about engaging with Tusla but any child known or connected with the child protection system from level 2 onwards, which does not involve a high level of issues but perhaps some difficulties in the family, can avail of the sponsorship arrangements.

Is the Minister open to a review or consultation or submissions, particularly in this regard? It is definitely coming up as an issue with more than one or two people. I know we have an issue with Covid, and some after-school services have closed for a variety of reasons, but there is definitely an issue with funding after-school services. I would appreciate if he would examine it.

I cannot let this opportunity pass, a week after the budget, without mentioning the disappointment of the early years sector. Those working in the sector, those trying to keep crèche doors open and parents felt totally forgotten about in the budget. The Minister will say he pointed to a review but many people have been cut out of the workforce due to the cost of childcare, and those working in the sector certainly are not benefiting from the high fees. Their wages are very low. There is a lot of anger and hurt among people who provide the services, people who are working in the sector and parents who feel forgotten about in the budget. I want to take this opportunity to raise this issue with him.

I thank the Deputy. I will be able to address some of these issues in later questions from her and other Deputies. I am always open to reviews and examining in particular new structures to ensure they operate as effectively as possible. This is why I have had extensive engagement with Deputy Ó Murchú and other Deputies on this point. A significant part of the issue is the newness of the scheme and the lack of information out there. The Deputy mentioned services that have closed. We have the sustainability fund and it should support those services if there is a sustainability issue caused by the pandemic.

With regard to the expert funding model review, which is ongoing at present, one of the issues it is looking at is how we direct streams of funding to areas of disadvantage and have a DEIS-type model for childcare. This is part of the considerations and it will be very important.

School Attendance

Denis Naughten

Question:

23. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration the truancy rate for children with a disability at primary and post-primary level; the engagement by school attendance officers with schools and parents in such instances; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30623/20]

Every year, more than 700 families are threatened with prosecution because their son or daughter has failed to attend school with no legitimate reason, where these parents have declined support and are unwilling to co-operate with Tusla. While Tusla is preparing files for the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP, to prosecute these particular parents, children such as those with autism are slipping through the system. A total of 91% of children on the autism spectrum who have had an extended absence from school receive absolutely no support from Tusla.

The Tusla education support service, TESS, operates under the Education (Welfare) Act 2000 and aims to promote attendance, participation and retention. Under section 22 of the Act, each school is obliged to have a statement of strategies to encourage regular attendance among all students. The school principal must ensure that the strategies outlined are followed, that parents are informed at the earliest possible point of the school’s concern regarding attendance and that the school follows the graded steps outlined in the strategy to address non-attendance. Where a school principal has a concern about a pupil’s attendance and where the school has made all local efforts to resolve the problem, a referral can be made to TESS and the school will be asked to document interventions made in line with the school attendance strategies. DEIS schools will also be asked to document additional interventions made by home-school community liaison officers and the school completion programme.

On the specific issue of disability, TESS has advised the Department that it does not record attendance rates for individual cohorts of students, including children with a disability, at primary or post-primary level. They are not, therefore, singled out within TESS's statistics. When it receives a referral, however, an educational welfare officer will engage with the parents of the child in question and identify any issues that may impede the child attending school. The officer will then put in place a plan to deal with these issues to ensure that the parents and the child can work towards establishing a more regular pattern of school attendance.

The provision of education for children with special needs is an ongoing priority of the Government. The numbers of special classes, special education teachers and special needs assistants, SNAs, are at unprecedented levels and my colleague the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Foley, has announced significant increases in the numbers. She will spend €2 billion, or 20% of her budget, on making additional provision for children with special educational needs, a significant investment.

Strategies are all fine, and it is true that principals will deal with children in some instances, but in others the principal will be- damn glad to see the child gone out the door and will not be too worried about whether the child comes back. Sadly, all too often that relates to children on the autism spectrum. One parent was quoted as saying that a poor understanding of the child's behaviour is sometimes caused by the way in which the staff deal with his anxiety within the school. Tusla is not fulfilling its role to that cohort of children, that is, those who are on the autism spectrum, because it is a case of out of sight, out of mind. It is a damning indictment of Tusla that 91% of parents of children on extended absences from school stated they have had no engagement with Tusla, and the reason is this issue is not being measured. It is being ignored and brushed under the carpet.

I have experience with children with significant degrees of autism in my constituency having extended absences. One of the key aspects is providing wider levels of support to allow those children, in some cases, to integrate partially in school through an autism spectrum disorder, ASD, unit, more of which have been rolled out. For children who can engage at that level, they are a fantastic development.

There are other children, however, whose degree of autism is so profound that even in the context of that separated ASD unit, their needs are not met. My area recently established a new special school for children with autism, the first to have been founded in the country in 15 years. It is running very successfully, with 24 kids with profound autistic needs being educated together. It is about providing the relevant and necessary supports for the children who need them.

I am glad the Minister raised the issue of the wider level of support. Most parents of children on the autism spectrum would say that if they got the help when they needed it, it would have made a big difference.

I turn to my part of the country and the ASD unit for Galway and Roscommon. There are 1,048 children on the waiting list in those two counties alone who are seeking access to occupational therapy and speech and language therapy. That impacts not only each one of those children but also the 136,000 children alongside them in their classes while they wait for five years to access that service.

Does the Minister believe it is right that the occupational therapists and the speech and language therapists who are supposed to be dealing with those children have spent the past seven months doing contact tracing within the HSE? Will he use his offices to ensure that those staff are back on the front line and treating children instead of making phone calls?

My colleague the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has been working very hard to address that issue of very significant backlogs for children who require these services, for both the initial diagnosis and subsequent access to the services. That is crucial and I welcome the work she has been doing in that area in conjunction with the Minister for Education and Skills. It is important that in this year's budget, we provided funding for an additional 235 special class teachers in 2021, which will provide education for 1,200 new special classes. The Government has recognised that there is a significant issue in the area and is putting in the investment in respect of it. As for the appropriateness of who is undertaking contact tracing, I fully take on board the Deputy's point.

Domestic Violence Refuges Provision

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

24. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration if funding allocated to women’s refuges as part of their response to Covid-19 will continue (details supplied). [31305/20]

My question relates to domestic violence services. Will the funding allocated to women's refuges as part of their response to Covid-19 continue?

Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, has statutory responsibility for the care and protection of victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. In 2020, my Department provided funding of €25.3 million for Tusla's core domestic violence services, supporting 60 organisations in various parts of the country. The Department is also providing additional supports to Tusla to allow these services to cope with the additional complications arising from Covid-19. Some €800,000 has been provided to these services. I anticipate that by the end of the year €1.2 million will have been allocated to these services specifically in respect of Covid.

Since the beginning of the crisis, Tusla has actively engaged with all services to support a continuity of service and prioritised domestic, sexual and gender-based violence in the context of the pandemic. We are all very much aware that this pandemic presents particular risks for the victims of domestic and sexual violence and can make it much more difficult for them to access supports. Emergency refuge accommodation provides a safe haven for those experiencing a threat to their safety, which is why Tusla has worked with refuges to identify and secure additional accommodation places where needs have arisen. Tusla has supported the sector with additional staff, personal protective equipment, PPE, and ICT resources in order that the services can remain open to everybody who needs them.

In the budget, I prioritised resourcing for Tusla so that it can meet the needs of the most vulnerable in our society. I secured an additional €61 million for Tusla this year, giving it an annual budget of €878 million. I have engaged significantly with representatives of the domestic, sexual and gender-based violence sector in recent weeks, and will continue to do so to hear their experiences of the pandemic and what my Department and Tusla can do to support them more. In my engagement with Tusla on its business plan for next year, the issue of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is foremost in my mind.

I welcome that. Unfortunately, there has always been the issue of domestic violence but, as we will all have seen, it has been one of the very negative highlights of Covid-19. While men are affected too, it primarily affects women. Children have been sneaking out to cars to try to make phone calls, and that is in cases where people may have felt able to reach out. For so long, so many women have been in a difficult place and have been unable to reach out.

The basis of my question was that the increase in funding is welcome. The refuge I deal with most often is Amber women's refuge in Kilkenny, which covers both counties Carlow and Kilkenny. I have always thought it has a high workload covering two full counties. The refuge welcomed the additional funding but there is a fear that it may be withdrawn. I accept that everything changed again yesterday with the announcement of the new restrictions but I hope the money will be ring-fenced.

We want to look at the Covid funding and, in light of the changed circumstances and reintroduction of lockdown, I will engage with Tusla on the Covid element over the next six weeks. It is important that, Covid aside, we have a significant increase in investment in Tusla and, in my engagement with the chair, Pat Rabbitte, and the CEO, Bernard Gloster, I outlined that I wanted to see domestic, sexual and gender-based violence, DSGBV, services broadly prioritised, Covid aside, in that spending. I am aware that they have had some increases but it has been a slow increase over the years. The Deputy touched on the fact that the pandemic has highlighted what we describe in the programme for Government as an epidemic of domestic violence that has always been taking place in this society. I also saw, including in my own community, communities rallying around the local refuge through fundraising and I hope we can build on that.

Most of the points have been covered but I will stress that some of the most important services they offer is counselling. One does not just physically need a safe place; one also emotionally and mentally needs an safe place. Many times, people will go back to a negative relationship if they do not have the support.

On the play therapy services that are often offered for children, play therapy is often underrated. It is an excellent service for children for many reasons but particularly in this situation. My experience of refuges is that they are always struggling for funding. The counselling budget is often separate from the Tusla money. If there is additional money there, I ask that they look at providing services like counselling and play therapy, which give a more holistic approach. Is there a possibility we could get a breakdown of the additional money going to Tusla and which services it is going to? Is some going to school completion or domestic violence and so on? I do not expect the Minister to answer that now.

The majority of the Covid money was for practical things like personal protective equipment, PPE, ICT services, extra computers so people could work at home and to enable them bring somebody in if a staff member was out sick with Covid or something like that.

On the new funding for next year, that will be in the Tusla plan and once that is drafted I am sure we will get questions on it. I think I have four questions today out of the top 20 on domestic violence. The Deputy's colleague is asking a question on domestic violence. It is good that we are having a much broader conversation about the issue. We are talking about the pressure the services have been under and it is worth noting that two new refuges opened in 2020, one in Galway and one in south Dublin. It is eight spaces so it is not a huge amount. Deputy Browne and some others will be talking about the wider issue of refuges later in this session.

Youth Services

Kathleen Funchion

Question:

25. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Integration the extra supports his Department has in place for young persons that have been severely hit by Covid-19, particularly in terms of their education, career and employment and the impact on their mental health. [31306/20]

My question asks the Minister what supports are in place for young people who have been severely hit by Covid-19, particularly in terms of their education, career, employment and the impact on their mental health.

I thank the Deputy. We had a good discussion about this issue in the select committee recently. Young people have been severely affected by the restrictions brought in to protect public health during this pandemic. This has been borne out by a good deal of research, particularly a recent piece of research commissioned by my Department and undertaken by SpunOut called How's Your Head.

In recognition of the vital role played by youth work in providing support to young people, funding levels were maintained throughout the current crisis period. This enabled the youth services to continue to provide services to young people, particularly to marginalised, disadvantaged and vulnerable young people.

Early in my tenure, I was able to provide an additional small grant to support local funded organisations, youth information centres and youth clubs to defray some of their Covid-19 costs. Since then, in last week's budget, I secured an additional €5 million investment in youth services for 2021. I see this funding as supporting the front-line services as they seek to innovate in order to continue to provide critical services to vulnerable young people. I hope this significant increase in funding is seen as a recognition of the role youth services play in the lives of young people, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic. My officials and I have a good working relationship with the youth sector and I will continue this engagement as we seek to support young people through this challenging period.

At a broader level, my Department is committed to leading a discussion with all relevant Departments and agencies to ensure that mental health services, educational institutions, youth services and sports clubs work together, so each is aware of the challenges young people have been facing and can help ease them back into everyday life and support their resilience. We are acting on the funding element with the significant increase in funding in the budget but also acting on the policy element. In the framework for reopening, there is a significant reference to mental health issues and the research by SpunOut fed into the framework.

I welcomed the increase. I will be honest: I was critical and stand over my criticism of the lack of funding for early years but I welcome the money that was invested for youth. It is a sector that got a bit forgotten about during Covid. I know people involved and who work in the sector did their best to reach out to young people and include them. There is a huge number of young people interested and involved in sport but there is also a huge number of people who are not. I always feel that the drama and other groups sometimes get pushed to the margins. I refer to the work, for example, of Young Irish Film Makers, of whom I am sure the Minister is aware. We have an excellent Young Irish Film Makers in Kilkenny that does amazing work. My children are involved in it. I have a child coming into the teenage years and the difference is incredible. They need emotional supports at that age and the lockdown and Covid was difficult on them. It is important we ensure that they are part of the recovery. We hear a lot of talk about economic recovery but it is important for our young people that they are not forgotten about.

As someone who fitted into the category of not being particularly sporty at that age, I recognise the importance of supporting the interests of young people beyond the area of sport. We in the Department have universal schemes and targeted schemes. The targeted schemes are to help young people, particularly in disadvantaged areas, but there is also the universal element. It is important that a young person from any area in the country should be able to avail of youth services. They are, as the Deputy outlined, so important to developing an individual's confidence, self-esteem and ability to lead. I recently engaged in a Zoom meeting with ECO-UNESCO, a group of young people focused on environmental issues. Their capacity to engage with me and to advocate was incredibly important and impressive. Their engagement with me prompted me to ensure this significant budget allocation, which is more than they asked for.

The Minister was on the Zoom conference the National Youth Council of Ireland had a few weeks ago. That was excellent. There were two young people, in particular, who addressed it.

Now that we are coming into lockdown two or phase 5, the plan is to keep schools open. The reality is that school is one important part but there are all the other social activities. Anyone who hears me speaking knows I am always talking about counselling, mental health and play therapy for kids but we also need normal, fun activities. That is why it is more important than ever that there is funding and supports there. It is not good to have so many people of a certain age group nearly locked in their rooms. They are not actually locked in their rooms but they are at that age where they are not kids and they are not adults. They do not know where they are, they are trying to figure things out for themselves and it is really difficult. I noted that the youth council said in its presentation that many people ended up not engaging, after a while, with the online supports. One can only do so much online before people miss normal human interaction.

There is no doubt that the move to level 5 presents challenges everywhere. The Deputy probably noticed yesterday that we continued to allow training for young teams. That is on the sports side of things but it is important for the issue of mental health, which the Deputy flagged.

During the previous lockdown, a lot of youth services moved online very quickly and, as the levels of restriction came down, were able to come together in smaller groups. Unfortunately, for the time being we will be back to online provision only. I think many of them have got better at it and because of some of the capital supports we have been able to put in, there might be slightly better technology. I hope that technology will be significantly enhanced next year.

I know that some groups were considering doing socially distanced drop-out visits to deliver food or little care packages containing books and so on to keep people entertained. I acknowledge the great work that has been done. We are still engaging with the sector at all times and if we see methods by which we can support their work during the next six weeks, we will use them.