Reappointment of the Ombudsman for Children: Motion

I move:

That Dáil Éireann recommends Dr. Niall Muldoon for re-appointment by the President to be the Ombudsman for Children.

I am asking Dáil Éireann to pass a motion that Dr. Niall Muldoon be reappointed by the President as Ombudsman for Children. Seanad Éireann approved such a resolution last week. On 15 December 2020, the Government supported my intention to arrange for the moving of the requisite resolutions for consideration by both Houses recommending Dr. Muldoon's reappointment for a second term of six years, with effect from 17 February 2021. Dr. Muldoon has served as Ombudsman for Children since his original appointment on 17 February 2015.

The reappointment is proposed in accordance with section 4 of the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002. The legislation provides that the reappointment shall be made by the President upon resolutions passed by Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann.

The Ombudsman for Children may be reappointed only once. The Office of the Ombudsman for Children was established to promote and safeguard the rights and welfare of children. The ombudsman is independent of Government and is accountable to the Oireachtas. My Department has general governance oversight responsibilities in respect of the office, primarily with regard to financial, staffing and other matters. The office will receive Exchequer funding of €2.955 million in 2021. The key functions of the office include promoting and safeguarding the rights and welfare of children, examining and investigating complaints about services provided to children, providing advice regarding children's rights and conducting research on relevant issues.

I acknowledge and record my appreciation for the work that Dr. Muldoon has done over the past six years. He has worked effectively to ensure that children within the direct provision system could access the services of his office following 17 years during which this was not the case. He was also a key protagonist in the development and setting up of the Barnahus Onehouse Galway pilot which offers a one-stop shop for children affected by sexual abuse. He has shown a dedication to raising the voices of seldom heard children in Ireland and bringing their issues to the Oireachtas through reports such as, Take My Hand, which focuses on children's inpatient adolescent psychiatric units, No Place Like Home, which focuses on homeless children living in family hubs, and Direct Division, which focuses on children in the direct provision system.

Investigations by the office, such as Molly's case and Jack's case, both of which focused on care for disabled children, have brought about important systemic change in areas such as health, education and child welfare. Over the period of the Covid crisis, Dr. Muldoon has kept a vigilant watch on the work of the Government to ensure that the rights of children are upheld when important decisions are being made, whether that relates to schools, examinations, child welfare or disadvantaged groups.

I recommend the adoption of this resolution by the House in support of Dr. Muldoon's reappointment as Ombudsman for Children by the President. I hope Members will agree that Dr. Muldoon has very capably performed these functions during his first term of office.

I too welcome the reappointment of Dr. Niall Muldoon. He has done a stellar job on behalf of children throughout the State and I am glad he is being reappointed. I acknowledge Dr. Muldoon's report in respect of unmet needs in the assessment of needs for children. We note that the figures have not improved significantly since the issuance of that report. I further acknowledge that Ministers are doing their best to create the right environment for assessment of needs to be conducted in a timely fashion, but they will be conscious that there has been much commentary about the number of children who still require an assessment of needs and that the desktop exercises, or 90-minute assessments, are open to legitimate critique. Dr. Niall Muldoon has stated that there needs to be a dramatic increase in resources such that proper assessments can be carried out and the requisite services would follow every child.

We welcome the reappointment of the Ombudsman for Children. We believe that he has been a stout advocate on behalf of children and calm in his delivery of key messages. It is a source of great comfort to parents and families that there is in this office somebody like Dr. Niall Muldoon who speaks truth to power. He has called out the fact that the statutory timeframe for completion of assessment of needs is not being met. I am aware that this a matter the Government is seeking to address. If we are to have ombudspersons in this State, it is only fair that when they issue reports, we respond in a timely fashion to what they are saying in their reports.

Dr. Muldoon has said that there is need for a tenfold increase in resources. We are not seeing any evidence of that yet. Notwithstanding that additional moneys were made available by the former Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Rabbitte, in respect of assessment of needs, there is still a job of work to be done within individual HSE community healthcare organisation, CHO, areas, where there are still massive variations in terms of meeting the needs of children. Ultimately, this is about children. We cannot skimp when it comes to children.

We all welcome the reappointment of Dr. Muldoon. All of us throughout the political system have great faith in him. I join in wishing him well in the next part of his tenure and I look forward to him working with the Houses of the Oireachtas and, in particular, the Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration, in respect of his ongoing work and advocacy on behalf of the children of this State.

I commend Dr. Niall Muldoon on the work he has carried out in his capacity as Ombudsman for Children and in advocating for the rights of the child in this country, particularly those who are the most vulnerable in our society whose voice remains largely silent. I am delighted to note he will continue in his role and I look forward to seeing the work that he and his team will focus on for the next few years.

As the Social Democrats spokesperson for children, I congratulate him on speaking out for all the children facing inequality at the hands of our State institutions, including the 6,000 children currently waiting for an assessment of their needs, the 20,000 with special needs currently without schooling during Covid, and the 365 children with disabilities in hospital because they cannot get the appropriate supports to go home safely. I also congratulate him on representing children living in direct provision, those in receipt of State services under Tusla, and those from minority backgrounds, including the Traveller and Roma communities.

Dr. Muldoon has continually highlighted deficiencies in Ireland's legal framework concerning children, including in key areas such as housing, mental health and disability. In all of the work he has carried out he has ensured that children have been consulted and asked for the views. This is incredibly important because often we forget to talk to children about what they want to see happen. Ombudsman reports have often directly quoted from children so that we can hear directly from them about how they feel ashamed, embarrassed and humiliated by the inequalities they have faced. There has been no sugar-coating it. The Ombudsman for Children gives power to children's words so that we, as policymakers, can no longer ignore them. It is apt that Dr. Muldoon quotes Brian Friel, "words are the weapons of the dispossessed". This is exactly what Dr. Muldoon has been able to do in his work to date.

One aspect that stands out from the ombudsman's work is that education continues to be the most complained about issue for children. According to the 2019 annual report, his office received 1,503 complaints, 49% of which related to education, which was an increase on the 42% in respect of 2018. Of the 49%, 75% related to schools, 17% to the Department of Education and 4% were associated with other educational agencies such as the National Council for Special Education and the State Examinations Commission.

Now that we are in a global pandemic, education has again reared its head as one of the most contentious issues facing children during Covid-19. Last March, when schools were facing lockdown, many children's rights activists called for contingency measures to be put in place to avoid the disproportionately negative impact school closures would have on children, especially those with disabilities or from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Ombudsman was part of that call. Dr. Muldoon repeatedly called out concerns about children with additional needs regressing when schools were closed and the impact that closure would have for those children living in poverty or at a socioeconomic disadvantage such as Traveller and Roma children, those living in direct provision or those who are homeless.

He warned that long-term school closures would end up exacerbating inequalities these children already face. He was absolutely right about that.

For this reason, since March, I have repeatedly called for a transition task force for children to be established in a cross-departmental capacity and for more representation of children's rights on the board of NPHET to ensure that the needs of children and young people will be met at this most difficult time. Unfortunately, my calls have been left unanswered and we are now witnessing the consequences of that. There have been two periods of school closures, a cancelled leaving certificate examination and one failed reopening of special education. Fortunately, provision for special education will be put in place shortly but there have been many failures in this area and many reports of children regressing and of mental health problems in young people. There is also the problem of the breakdown of trust we have seen between stakeholders and the voice of children remaining silent once again.

We must put children at the centre of what we do, both now and in the future. I want to reiterate something Dr. Muldoon said and which I have raised in the Social Democrats motion on child poverty that was brought forward in the Dáil. We cannot allow children to bear the burden of this pandemic and any economic downturn that we will face as a result of it. That is what happened in the last economic crash. Children bore the burden that we as adults placed on them and they were not protected from the fallout. There is a chance that if we do not protect children as we emerge from the Covid crisis, there could be children in this country who will experience two recessions in their young lives and who will never have had the benefit of an economic recovery at all. We must ensure that children's rights are protected first and foremost.

I congratulate Dr. Muldoon on his reappointment.

I am happy to support the reappointment of Dr. Niall Muldoon and I commend him on his work. Precisely because of the nature of his work and the very good job he and his team have done in reporting our failure to vindicate fully the rights of children and young people under 18, I am sure that he would want us to take this opportunity to highlight some of the issues that his reports have covered. It is important to highlight the failure of this State to vindicate the rights of children and young people, despite the regular lip service that is paid on that front.

One key area where we are failing young people and children is in the area of housing. It is to the great shame of this State that, taking the figure for 27 December 2020, there were 2,327 children who were homeless and in emergency accommodation. This is an absolutely shameful failure to vindicate the rights of children and it will mark many of them for life in terms of the damage it does. That crisis continues despite much hand-wringing about it and commitments to address it.

Beyond those who are in emergency accommodation, there are also the hidden homeless living in overcrowded conditions. To give a sample of our failure to vindicate their rights, I will refer to just two cases out of the many that I am dealing with at this time. A single mother who contacted me has three boys, one of them 15 years old, one a baby and the other a toddler. That family is only entitled to a two-bedroom housing provision because all of the children are boys. It is just unbelievable. We are rationing housing to the detriment of those children and their rights are, in my opinion, being breached. Another example is Zoe - she said it was okay to use her first name - who has three children: a 13-year-old daughter and two sons aged seven and nine. She has been on the housing list for 13 years and is living with her parents, both of whom have immunity issues and are susceptible to Covid. The six of them are living in a three-bedroom house. Zoe and her daughter share a bed and that daughter has, at the age of 13, never had a bed of her own. It is absolutely shameful. The father and mother are working at home in the current Covid situation and Zoe is trying to homeschool the children. It is shameful. Those two examples are only a snapshot of the cases that have been brought to my attention. Zoe applied for a transfer but was refused because she does not have a consultant's letter. Apparently, she needs a letter confirming what any person just looking at her case can see. One does not need to be a medical consultant to know that those children are being failed badly. For a child not to have her own bed for 13 years is, frankly, beyond belief.

Then there are children with disabilities and special needs. Under law, parents of such children are required to get an assessment of needs. The HSE must acknowledge the written application for an assessment of needs within 14 days and an assessment must commence within three months and be completed within six months. A total of 91% of the children assessed are not assessed within the statutory time limit. This is a breach of the most basic rights of the vast majority of these most vulnerable children. Even when the assessment is done and recommendations are made, for example, they might be referred to child and adolescent mental health services, they can be waiting five to ten years to get the services that are recommended. What does all the talk of early intervention mean when some of our most vulnerable children are waiting five or ten years for critical interventions?

My final point concerns the more general situation faced by young people, teenagers and schoolgoers at this time. My heart goes out to them in the situation they are in. It highlights precisely how, at the time when they are most in need of mental health and other supports, we are failing them badly and at many levels. Children are in overcrowded classrooms where they cannot get the sort of individual attention they need in a situation where schooling is difficult or impossible. There is the stress being put on leaving certificate students because of the uncertainty about the examinations and because we ration access to higher level education instead of giving everybody the opportunity to avail of the education they want. These are just some of the issues. I think Dr. Muldoon will be glad they were raised.

This State has carried out very important and good work in the past number of years in investigating and researching how previous generations have treated young children and mothers. Some of the findings that have been published so far are shocking and heartbreaking. It is important that this generation does not overlook the many young children who are in very difficult straits at this time. This focus on our own generation is extremely important because it allows us to have a positive effect and to fix the situations many young people are currently in throughout the country.

I would like to highlight three separate groups of young people and children, explain the difficulty they are in and call on the Minister to do his best to help them. In the past few days, my office has been speaking to family members and parents who send their children to Stepping Stones school in my county of Meath. The children are packed like sardines into tiny prefabricated classrooms with rotting floors, holes in the wall and rat infestations. One parent who helped to found the school told me that it was originally dubbed the school of dreams but has since become known as the house of horrors as the building becomes increasingly unsafe for staff and students alike. Another family I spoke to told me that they have had to stop their children with special needs from watching the news in recent times because it was causing panic attacks and serious stress for them. A party colleague of mine in Cork, Joanne Murphy, has been forced to lie to her son who has autism about the fact that the schools for children with additional needs are being closed in her area, due to the difficulties telling the truth would cause in her family. Other parents have told us about how the lockdown has seen their children significantly regress over the past few months, with children increasingly depressed and anxious for prolonged periods. A survey of childcare professionals revealed that 74% of providers have confessed to seeing regression of children with special needs and disabilities.

That is why it is critically important that education for children with additional and special needs must be opened fully and immediately.

The cost of the lockdown to these families is heart-breaking and it cannot simply be written off as collateral damage of a lockdown. There are approximately 24,000 children throughout the country in mainstream and special schools who are suffering significantly from lockdown and the deprivation of their education. This is in violation of their constitutional right to education. Remote learning is not sufficient for children who are unable to read, who cannot write, who have difficulty speaking and who cannot type. I note that the Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, who is up for reconfirmation today, is of the same opinion. Dr. Muldoon has stated that the blanket closure of schools is not a viable option because of the extraordinary impact it will have on our children and families. Without a doubt, children with disabilities and children from disadvantaged backgrounds will once again be disproportionately affected by Covid-19 school closures.

Many schools for children with special needs have done their best, despite inadequate Government support, to ensure their schools are low risk in terms of transmission. I have spoken to parents and they have told me of cases of Covid-19 that have been in their schools but that have not spread due to the necessary procedures being adhered to.

There are simple measures that the Dáil can take to protect the teachers who are working on the front line. We need to guarantee them proper testing and vaccination and ensure that they have a full supply of personal protective equipment so that we can remove additional threats to their lives and aid their return to schools. The Government has the resources at its disposal to get these children back to school. If we act swiftly, we can give teachers the confidence and allow children with additional needs to resume their education as soon as possible.

By European standards Ireland is one of the lowest investors in childcare. Only approximately 0.01% of our GDP is invested in childcare. Our childcare sector is in perpetual crisis since the access and inclusion model funding to help with additional teachers for children with special needs was cut during the lockdown. The early childhood care and education contract is opted out by the Government. I have been in contact with providers. They have told me they are in debt for tens of thousands of euro, that several of their colleagues have shut down during the crisis and that the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth has done little.

I wish to raise the matter of children in direct provision. There are 1,789 children in State-sponsored poverty according to the Irish Centre for Human Rights at NUI Galway. One of the difficulties I have is that the State does not collect any statistics on deaths that happen in direct provision. If we are not collecting information with regard to deaths that are happening of children in direct provision, then how can this generation say that we are doing right with regard to the children who were mistreated in instructions in previous generations?

This February will mark 12 months since the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in Ireland. On 12 March 2020 schools throughout the country closed. Dr. Muldoon has said time away from school has left children and young people devoid of school, hobbies, sports and access to close friends. It has been a long and tortuous road for many; for our most disadvantaged and vulnerable children it is doubly so. For those with special needs, the safety, routine and discipline of school is far more than education. It offers a pathway for them to grow and learn socially, which is vital if they are to reach their full potential. It is imperative that the Department of Education works with the education partners, public health officials and other relevant stakeholders as a matter of urgency to build on previous planning and put in place a clear comprehensive contingency plan that provides children and their families with the clarity they need now and for the future.

It is about time leaving certificate students were told what is being put in place for them. The battle on the future of the leaving certificate has gone on far too long. It took too long last year for a decision to be made and it is inevitable that a decision will have to be made this year. It could have been made sooner than now. How is it we are still making the same mistakes this year?

I hope Dr. Muldoon will be able to work closer to issues affecting young people in general, like access to beaches and safety for our children. A lady in west Cork has been fighting with me for several years. She sees the need for proper structures to be in place to keep people safe, especially children with disabilities. She wants people kept safe in west Cork near the beaches and so on. That is something we never looked at or never really cared to invest time in. Perhaps the Ombudsman for Children can do that.

I look at organisations like Jack and Friends in Bandon, an autism centre ran by volunteers with no staff. The founders receive no payments for the work they do to support families with children with autism on a daily basis. We need to have a stronger concentration on organisations and this focus needs to be given to these people who give of their time. I know that Claire, Samantha and others in Bandon do phenomenal work on a voluntary basis. I urge the Minister and the Ombudsman for Children to look at and fund these organisations, including Jack and Friends in Bandon. They are taking much of the burden off the State.

I am glad to get the opportunity to talk on this important matter. Children are vulnerable and, as elected representatives, we must do everything to ensure they are properly looked after. This time of virus has been a concerning and upsetting time for many children. They are away from their schools, hobbies and friends.

Many teachers in many schools are entrusted with the job of seeing that children are fed properly, given meals and looked after in certain ways. I worry that they have been missing all this for most of last year and again this year. I sincerely hope these children are not hungry. It is the one reason I hope the schools will be open, especially special needs schools. These special children need special attention and they have been denied that. We know that they go into reverse quickly if their routine is not continued. I hope there will be no other blockage to prevent special needs school children from going back to their schools, crèches and places of care that they were used to attending.

It has been a trying time for all children of school-going age because they are away from their friends, hobbies and sports. We must recognise and hope they will be back doing the things they want to do. Children get tired of being in the one place or being at home in a room if the day is wet or whatever. We need to hope this vaccine is rolled out and that children and teachers can get back to school. The current uncertainty cannot continue or be allowed to arise again in respect of any cohort of children.

A fellow Donegal man, Dr. Niall Muldoon, was appointed as our second ever Ombudsman for Children in February 2015. I absolutely support the motion that Dr. Muldoon be reappointed for another term.

Dr. Muldoon has been Ombudsman for Children while we have been experiencing a catastrophic failure in housing policy that has made thousands of children homeless. We have had countless reports and reviews on the issue. The only problem I have with the Office of the Ombudsman for Children is that it does not have the teeth to take action against the Government. It must be tough to receive complaints and heart-breaking stories to report to the Government but to have one's recommendations ignored.

Ireland signed up to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1992. These rights need to be put on a legislative footing. This major systematic change is required to make a difference. It is what the children around Ireland need.

An urgent need now relates to children with disabilities. We know that there have been major delays in assessment of needs and appropriate supports for families over the years. Now, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed greater failings of the State. The closure of schools, including schools for children with additional needs, during the pandemic meant that many children with additional needs regressed without their structures, routines or required attention. This has even led to children with additional needs being expelled from schools designed specifically to meet their needs.

When the schools reopened during the Covid lull, high numbers of children were left without schools to attend. Children with additional needs have a constitutional right to education that is being taken away by the State's failure to provide appropriate supports to schools, teachers, assistants and their families. This is vitally important. As I have said, the Government should be legally held to account by the ombudsman. The Government should reappoint Dr. Muldoon and give him and his team the power to ensure that their recommendations are implemented for the sake of the wains.

I welcome the opportunity to give my support to the nomination again of the Ombudsman for Children. Will the Minister make a promise here today that we will have a debate at the very least once a year on the annual report of the ombudsman? It is really worth looking at the report and the ombudsman's submission to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the list of issues prior to reporting on the fourth periodic examination of Ireland. Reading the two reports together, one could easily despair. Although the ombudsman points to the limited improvements in respect of some legislation, he highlights the more serious issues. I know the Minister is familiar with this, but at this point we have report after report.

One would have to question why we need an ombudsman in the first place, although I am fully supportive of his office. Imagine we need an ombudsman to enforce what should be basic human rights in respect of housing, health, disability and members of minority groups. We need an ombudsman's office to monitor the Health Service Executive, Tusla and local authorities. That in itself is deserving of a debate. I think this is the first time the reports the ombudsman has placed before us have been down as an item for debate. On the previous occasion I think, subject to the Minister's correction, there was absolutely no debate at all. I hope this is the start of a debate.

What are the serious issues the ombudsman is raising? He is raising the most serious issues regarding the absence of mental healthcare for children and the absence of data. We have no proper data. He reinforces the need for housing to be part of the Constitution and the need to look at housing for children and families as a basic human right. He goes on to highlight the fact that we have failed to ratify the optional protocol to the disability convention. He also tells us we need to ratify the second optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The very last page calls on us to ratify the optional protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography without further delay. Imagine we need an ombudsman to tell us this is what we need to do for children.

The Minister is a relatively new Minister, and I am not here to harangue him, but let us do things differently, as I have said to him before. If we have an ombudsman and reports, let us have time in the Dáil to look at the good things that have happened and the gaps and the serious issues that this man and his office of 20-something staff are raising with us. They are pleading with us to look at this and to do something about it. Giving the thumbs up to the ombudsman is good - who could object to that? - but far more useful would be to have a debate on what the Government thinks are its next steps. When will the promised review of the Children Act be done? What about the mental health legislation we have been promised a review and an update on? There has been none of that.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for accommodating me. Since its establishment in 2004, the Office of the Ombudsman for Children has played a pivotal role in promoting and further enhancing the welfare and rights of children in Ireland. I commend the current ombudsman, Dr. Niall Muldoon, on the work he has overseen over the past six years. I often speak to people - obviously, all of us are in the same situation as part of our work - and I frequently hear complimentary and positive feedback about the office and the work it does. Dr. Muldoon leads an office that is open, approachable and transparent, and I take this opportunity to commend him on the leadership he has shown in the role. It says something about the office he runs that everybody seems to be in agreement here today, which is great.

The importance of independence from the Government and from any external pressure is so important to the essential function of the ombudsman's work. Dr. Muldoon's background in clinical psychology and child protection makes him highly qualified to ensure that children are properly respected and listened to. There have been several important pieces of work from the ombudsman's office. The most recent report, Unmet Needs, published in October of last year, examined the challenges faced by children who require an assessment of their needs. The findings of the report were stark and raised serious concerns about the ongoing violations on the part of this Government of the rights of children with disabilities. The report made a series of recommendations. The ombudsman appeared before the committee on children recently and was scathing of the Government's record in addressing lengthy delays faced by children and their families, extensive delays despite the legal requirement to begin an assessment of needs within three months of receiving an application.

This report shows that the ombudsman's office has been a strong advocate for children with disabilities and their families and that it aggressively pursues the rights of children, which is exactly what we need the Office of the Ombudsman for Children to do. The focus of its work must be to ensure that the Government and Government agencies take a child-centred and rights-based approach when dealing with the welfare of children. Going forward, it is import that the ombudsman continues to highlight the rights of children: their right to education, to live in a safe home, to healthcare, to food and nutrition, to practise their religions or cultures and speak their own languages, and to be empowered to be the best versions of themselves.

The most recent work on life in lockdown for children living in direct provision during the Covid-19 pandemic shows the importance of the independence of the office. There is little doubt that direct provision poses many challenges for children normally, not to mention during a pandemic. It is so important that children in Ireland are given every opportunity to enjoy safe, fulfilling and happy lives. This is particularly significant as we reflect collectively on recent weeks, in particular everything to do with the mother and baby institutions. It is evident to all that we have a fairly shameful track record when it comes to defending the rights of children in this country. The work of the ombudsman must robustly challenge the Government of the day and hold Ministers and Departments to account, and the ombudsman's office must not be simply a talking shop. It needs to examine and expose wrongdoing when it feels that children's rights have been violated. It is so important that children's rights are promoted and protected in the actions and decisions of Government bodies, including hospitals, schools and child protection services, that the service is easy for children and their families to use, and that it provides an impartial and safe environment in which children and their families can raise concerns.

I appeal to the Minister and other Government representatives to listen to the work of the ombudsman and his office as they have been doing excellent work. I wish them every success with it in the future.

I thank the Deputies on all sides of the House for their contributions to the debate on the motion. It is my pleasure to recommend to the House that Dr. Niall Muldoon be reappointed by the President to be the Ombudsman for Children. Dr. Muldoon comes to this post with a wealth of experience. He has served very effectively as Ombudsman for Children over the past six years. He has previously served as director of investigations at the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. He is a registered clinical and counselling psychologist and was formerly the national clinical director of CARI, the children's charity. He also has extensive experience working in the area of child protection. In Dr. Muldoon I am fully satisfied we have a well-qualified, experienced and suitable nominee for reappointment as our Ombudsman for Children.

I very much welcome the significant work Dr. Muldoon has already done as Ombudsman for Children. The role of Ombudsman for Children is an integral part of what is a very significant framework supported and enabled by the Oireachtas to help improve the lives of our children and young people. I am confident that Dr. Niall Muldoon will continue to bring his extensive experience and knowledge to the position, and I am happy to put forward this resolution, namely, that the House recommends Dr. Muldoon for reappointment by the President to be the Ombudsman for Children.

Question put and agreed to.