I thank the Chairman, Deputy Farrell, and the Vice Chairman, Senator Freeman, for inviting me and my colleagues to appear before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs. I am looking to present the Ombudsman for Children's office annual report for 2016. We were due to present this information in December of last year but, due to timing issues, our appearance was postponed. Therefore, we are very pleased with the opportunity to appear today, and I thank the committee for its rapid rescheduling of same.
As the committee is aware, the Ombudsman for Children's office is an independent human rights institution established under the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002. My office has a unique combination of statutory functions. We examine and investigate complaints made by or on behalf of children and, under section 7 of the Act, we promote and monitor the rights and welfare of children and young people in Ireland.
Our annual report, which was published in May 2017, lays out the main work of the office during 2016. It shows another increase in the number of complaints received by the office and outlines the work we have done in raising awareness of children's rights through our rights education programme, the advice offered on upcoming legislation and other policy work. I know all members have had access to our annual report but I will briefly mention a few of the key statistics from it. In 2016 we received 1,682 new complaints, which is an increase of 3% on 2015 and a 47% jump since 2010. Of those who contacted us, 78% were parents and, as has been the case for many years, education was the most complained about issue, covering 46% of our complaints. Child protection and welfare accounted for 23% of the complaints, which represented a slight drop on the previous year. Health complaints were up to 17% from 14%, and another area where we noted an increase was in housing and planning complaints, where there was an increase from 3% in 2015 to 5% in 2016. The majority of people who contacted us came from the main urban centres of Dublin, Cork and Galway.
In 2016 we interacted with more than 4,000 children and young people, many of whom took part in rights education workshops in our office, while we met others at events and seminars all over the country. We advised on a range of legislation and policy in 2016, including the Education (Parent and Student Charter) Bill 2016, the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill 2016, the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015, as well as the consultation on the age of digital consent. We also carried out a wide-ranging consultation with young people called Tune In, in which more than 2,000 young people responded to our questions about how they communicate and how they would like to receive information on their rights.
Having read our annual report, members will note that we have highlighted a number of key issues using case studies of complaints made to our office on behalf of children. In the case of Ciara, a young girl in need of a hip scan, we found that the process of faxing referrals was resulting in errors and subsequent delays in diagnosis.
We asked the HSE to analyse all similar cases, and in the 2,000 it analysed it found the same problem had affected 20 other infants. In this case, the HSE then put out a national order to stop faxing and introduced a new system. This is an excellent example of how making a single complaint can improve a system for other children and their families.
Other case studies outlined in the report highlight the continuing struggle faced by children with disabilities and their families. Children with disabilities continue to face barriers in trying to access services and live a normal life. Committee members may have noted that yesterday we published an investigation involving a young girl, whom we have called Molly. She is 14 and has Down's syndrome and severe autism. She was abandoned at birth and has been in foster care since she was four months old. We investigated the complaint made by Molly's foster mother about the level of support and services provided to Molly by the HSE and Tusla considering her disability. This case is important not only for Molly, but for the 471 other children with severe and moderate disabilities who are in State care and who need additional supports. This case, like those included in our annual report, highlights the need for increased and improved interagency co-operation to ensure the rights of children with disabilities are fully realised in Ireland. It is also important to mention the urgent need to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to promote the rights of these young people.
Homelessness affecting all children is an issue that is not going away. More than 3,300 children and young people in Ireland are homeless, trying to live a normal life while eating their dinner on their knees, sharing a single room with their family and having no space of their own. I have been clear in outlining my concerns about the issue of homelessness and how it affects children and young people. I do not believe the measures in place to tackle homelessness have fully addressed the disproportionate and long-term impact homelessness has on children. I have met the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Murphy, but still remained concerned about how children and families will be helped out of this nightmare and how long it might take. I appreciate that family hubs are being rolled out to address the issue of appropriate emergency accommodation for families who are homeless and that they offer a better alternative to hotels and bed and breakfasts. However, a commitment on the length of time that children and families will be expected to spend in these family hubs before finding a permanent home is needed. There is also an urgent need to implement national quality standards for homeless services.
Committee members will see from our annual report that children with mental health issues still have to jump hurdles to access necessary supports. The services provided for children need to go to the children who need them when they are needed and in the way in which they are needed. This is not what is happening. At present, a child must take what the system can offer and make do with what is available. The child is doing all the adapting. Children should not have to wait until they reach breaking point before they get some type of help. I know committee members are aware of the various committees, reports and task forces dealing with mental health issues. I am sure they share my concerns that all of these mechanisms should not only work together, but lead to action for those children who are very much in need. In this regard, I commend the work of Senator Freeman and her committee last year.
The national youth mental health task force report published in December included some very positive recommendations. The recent establishment of a specific Oireachtas committee on the future of mental health is to be welcomed. Again, I implore all Members of the Houses to demand results and outcomes for our young people. Many young people have nobody to speak on their behalf or they do not feel able to speak out. Oireachtas Members are their voices in the highest place in the land. Please use that power effectively. My office is undertaking consultations directly with children and young people who rely on mental health services. There is no doubt whatsoever the service they receive and the supports they avail of now have a profound impact on their long-term outcomes.
Education remains a key issue for the office due to the number of complaints relating to education and due to the key legislation in train. It is not that surprising that many of our complaints relate to education considering the amount of time young people spend in school. It is also worth pointing out that many of the education complaints we receive overlap with health, disability or transport issues. Our recent School Transport In Focus report is testament to this crossover.
The education (parent and student charter) Bill, which, to our delight, has been renamed the education (student and parent charter) Bill and which puts children at the centre, has been broadly welcomed by the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. We believe promoting consistency in complaints handling, improving engagement and addressing issues as early as possible will minimise reliance on formal complaints procedures in the education system. If passed, this may, in time, reduce the number of education complaints we receive.
Child protection is always one of my key concerns, and while there was a slight drop in the number of complaints relating to it in 2016, 23% remains a large proportion.
I have been vocal previously in my criticism of Tusla's delay in dealing with complaints which come to my office. However, I am happy to acknowledge a marked improvement in this regard for 2016. The introduction of mandatory reporting may result in an increase in referrals to Tusla and, perhaps, a subsequent increase in complaints to my office and it is essential, therefore, that adequate resources are provided to deal with this. The reporting of any and all child protection concerns can, in my view, only be a good thing.
Another area I would like to mention briefly is health. In 2016, we saw an increase in the number of health complaints received by the office. The health system is still not operating to a satisfactory level and too many children are still getting caught up in administrative problems that are impacting their treatment. Never has this been clearer than in the case of children suffering from scoliosis. In 2016, we received a number of complaints about this issue and in March 2017 we published a report highlighting scoliosis as a children's rights issue. Many commitments have been made by the Government to meet the demand for scoliosis treatment but, unfortunately, there are still issues for children waiting for diagnosis or surgery. I am concerned that while the numbers on waiting lists are decreasing, children whose surgery has been outsourced to the UK, France or Germany, on arrival in those countries are being deemed unsuitable. Where do those children fit into the waiting lists on their return? We cannot allow waiting lists and administrative practices to worsen an already terrible condition.
The final area I would like to comment on is direct provision. Members will note that in our annual report for 2016 and in previous annual reports we have called for children in direct provision to have the same access to complaints procedures as other children living in Ireland. In April 2017, the necessary steps were taken to allow us to begin to accept these complaints. Since that time, myself and my team have travelled across the country and visited all of the centres, including the emergency reception orientation centres, EROCs, where children are living. By and large, we observed extremely passionate and hard working staff in direct provision centres and EROCs but we were shocked at the difference in standards between the centres. It seems to be pot luck whether a child ends up in a warm, pleasant, well-resourced centre or a centre where facilities are simply not to the same standard. There continues to be a reluctance among those living in direct provision and EROCs to come forward and make complaints, which is of concern to me. It is also clear that direct provision allowance is not adequate to support normal family living and that the provision to allow people in direct provision to work will not in and of itself solve that problem. These are only a few of the issues that have come to my attention since April 2017. We will continue to work in this area in 2018.
I thank members of the committee for taking the time to listen to my contribution, which I hope clearly sets out the work we are doing to promote children's rights and a child centred approach across the public service.