Ombudsman for Children: Presentation

I remind members to ensure their mobile phones are switched off. This is important as they cause serious problems for broadcasting, editorial and sound staff. The purpose of this morning's meeting is to formally welcome Dr. Niall Muldoon, who is the new Ombudsman for Children, and enable him to meet the Joint Committee on Health and Children. I welcome Dr. Muldoon's colleagues, Ms Deirdre O'Shea, who is the acting director of investigations in the Office of the Ombudsman for Children, and Mr. Páraic Walsh, who is an investigator in the office.

The committee takes its remit with regard to children very seriously. Over the past year, the committee has met representatives of Comhairle na nÓg at its national conference and visited the site of the proposed new national children's hospital. It is currently holding hearings on the issue of child care. I invite Mr. Muldoon to give his presentation, after which I will open the floor to members.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I thank the committee for the invitation to meet it this morning.

I beg your pardon, Dr. Muldoon. I am new at this job. I need to remind the witnesses of the position in respect of privilege. I advise them that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. They are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing ruling of the Chair to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I ask Dr. Muldoon to resume his presentation.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I thank the Chair. I was deeply honoured to be chosen as Ombudsman for Children after spending nearly 20 years working as a psychologist, the majority of it in the area of child protection, and a further two and a half years as director of investigations at the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. I received my warrant of appointment from the President in February of this year. I welcome the opportunity to make my first appearance in my capacity as Ombudsman for Children at the joint committee to discuss the role and functions of my office. As members are aware, the Office of the Ombudsman for Children is an independent human rights institution that was established under the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 to promote and monitor the rights of children in Ireland.

My office has a unique combination of statutory functions. The one that is perhaps most familiar to the committee is its function in examining and investigating complaints made by or on behalf of children. In carrying out this function, the Office of the Ombudsman for Children observes the fundamental principles of an ombudsman. The office is independent and impartial. It is neither an advocate for the complainant nor an adversary to the public body. The office seeks at all times to promote the swift resolution of complaints at a local level, where possible. It aims to achieve systemic change through its investigatory work by tackling the root causes of the complaints it receives. The investigatory mandate set out in the 2002 Act also contains a number of distinct elements that are derived from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, namely the obligation to have regard to the best interests of the child and give due consideration to the wishes of the child when investigating a complaint. My office has developed considerable expertise with respect to engaging directly with children, some of whom are very young, when examining the cases that come to it. This aspect of accessibility has been identified by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child as an essential component to the work of a children's ombudsman.

In addition to examining and investigating complaints, into which I will go in more detail later, the Office of the Ombudsman for Children is mandated to promote and monitor the rights of all children in Ireland. The Oireachtas conferred a range of functions on the Ombudsman for Children under section 7 of the 2002 Act to carry out this complementary role. These functions include advising the Government and the Oireachtas on law and policy affecting children; advising Ministers on the development and co-ordination of policy affecting children; promoting awareness of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, including among young people; and engaging directly with children and young people to highlight issues relating to their rights that are of concern to children themselves. As examples of these functions, the office provided advice to the Government on the recent Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill and is now reviewing the education admissions Bill. In relation to engaging with children and young people, we have continued to build on our excellent programme for primary and post-primary school students. We provided human rights workshops to almost 1,500 young people from 17 counties in 2013.

The various functions of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children inform and support each other. Work undertaken in accordance with one particular statutory function may trigger complementary work under a different function. Similarly, where there is an obstacle to tackling a children's rights issue – for example, due to an exclusion from the office's investigatory remit – we can use another function to address the problem. In the case of St. Patrick's Institution, we engaged young people about how they found the place and the concerns they had. This happened prior to July 2012, when the office had no investigatory remit. My intention in setting out this example is to demonstrate that a broad mandate that blends different functions can offer a range of options to address children's rights issues. This is a very important aspect of the strong and robust mandate that the Oireachtas has given the office. Although the mandate is strong and robust, my office has identified areas in which the 2002 Act could be further strengthened. In March 2012, the office submitted its first review of the operation of the 2002 Act to the Oireachtas, in accordance with its statutory function. I am glad to report that many of the changes we sought in our review of the operation of the Act were achieved through the Ombudsman (Amendment) Act 2012. A number of public bodies previously excluded from the investigatory remit of the office, such as the National Council for Special Education and the State Examinations Commission, became reviewable agencies.

Despite the changes made at that time, my office is still seeking to clarify the remit in relation to direct provision. The joint committee is well acquainted with the need for an appropriate and independent means of handling complaints for protection applicants, including those currently residing in direct provision centres. My office's long-standing position is that the current exclusion from its investigatory remit of the administration of the law regarding asylum and immigration relates only to decisions on status. My office believes that everything else, including issues regarding accommodation, administration processes and internal complaint handling, are included in its remit. The Department of Justice and Equality does not share this understanding, however. The Office of the Ombudsman for Children has consistently recommended that the Oireachtas put the matter beyond doubt by legislating for protection applicants to have clear and unambiguous access to it. This is also the view of the Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions, which recommended in its recent report that "Children in the Direct Provision System should have the same rights as any other child in the state" and "for as long as the Direct Provision System remains in existence, that the jurisdiction of... the Ombudsman for Children be extended to include the Direct Provision System, the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) as well as the administration of the law relating to immigration and naturalisation".

I am also continuing to seek to have enhanced independence for my office. At present, the Office of the Ombudsman for Children receives its funding through the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. In practical terms, the control of the budget of the office by the Department has not proven to be problematic. However, it is inappropriate for an independent human rights institution to receive its funding through a public body it can investigate. I believe the situation should be remedied by providing for the office's funding to come directly from the Oireachtas. This recommendation was also made by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2006 and will likely be made again in 2016.

My office saw a significant rise in the number of complaints received in 2013, with 16% more complaints received than in 2012 and a 28% increase since 2010. The majority of complaints relate to education - 43% in 2013 - and a significant proportion of complaints received relate to family support, care and protection - 26% in 2013.

The vast majority of complaints - 75% in 2013 - are brought by parents on behalf of their children. Complaints received range in levels of complexity, and we maintain our focus on seeking to resolve each one within the local procedures mechanism and as quickly as possible. However, when the issues raised are of a more complicated nature, they may be more difficult to resolve locally and could, therefore, require a full investigation to achieve a resolution. Examples of issues we have investigated previously include the handling of child protection notifications by a social work area, access to education for children in care, resource allocation for children with special needs, and the admissions policy within a school.

As education is the focus of the majority of complaints to the office, I have looked especially closely at the issues and outcomes in this regard. It is clear to me that the concerns we have raised over many years in regard to the complaints architecture within education are falling on deaf ears. My office has urged successive Governments to commence Part V of the Teaching Council Act 2001 and section 28 of the Education Act 1998, both of which concern elements of the complaints structure that are not available to the general public. Parents are entitled to expect to be able to complain about the professional conduct of teachers and to assume there is a standardised complaints system within all schools. However, neither of those mechanisms is available to them at present. While the Office of the Ombudsman for Children was set up with the expectation it would be one part of the complaints landscape in schools, it has de facto become the only element available to many parents. That is not good enough. I urge this committee to seek to have both of those missing elements brought into being as soon as possible.

While we work continuously to provide a high standard of service within our complaints and investigations team, the increasing volume and complexity of complaints is placing significant demands on our capacity to respond. I take this opportunity to commend all my staff on their efforts in this regard and to acknowledge that it has put immense pressure on the whole office. This has been exacerbated by the delay in returning to a full staff complement following a number of vacancies in the past six months. I do expect all of the staffing proposals I made to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to be cleared by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform very soon. In the meantime, however, the delay is severely hampering my capacity to engage fully with the task at hand and makes the fulfilment of my statutory functions much more difficult.

I will outline a number of key areas of concern for me and my office as I begin my six-year term. After many years of pushing by this office, it was satisfying to see the 31st amendment to the Constitution, which was passed in 2012, voted into law in April of this year. This amendment provides that the best interests of a child should be the "paramount consideration" in all decisions relating to that child within the judicial system. This is a huge step forward for us as a nation in terms of how we view children. Specifically, it changes the way the State must take a child's best interest into consideration when making decisions relating to that child. The commitment from the State that comes with this amendment gives me hope that we can secure a future for all our children where the public service in general will seek always to consider the best interest of children when decisions relating to them must be made. In my former role as director of investigations, I found, at times, that individual children can be largely invisible and decision-making excessively bureaucratic and lacking in the necessary flexibility to meet the individual needs of children. It is my aim to see a mainstreaming of the best interests principle as a positive obligation in all relevant legislation.

The current level of homelessness among children is distressing and is part of the fallout from the devastation wrought by the economic crisis. Focus Ireland spoke on Tuesday last about receiving, in Dublin alone, 71 referrals in April for families who have been assessed as homeless. This was double the number in April last year. There are approximately 1,000 children in more than 400 families currently being housed in hotel type accommodations across this country because they have been made homeless by economic circumstances. When I talk to people about life in such settings I hear such phrases as "not fit for family life", "inhibiting children's social development", "exerting pressure on the mental health of the adults", "interfering with the education of the children", and "hampering access to health services". These families are the true victims of the economic crash and perhaps even the upturn, as many are homeless due to the rush of landlords to maximise rent on properties where they were formerly happy to receive rent supplement. I hear of families experiencing rent increases three or four months in a row, so they are eventually forced to leave a property. The use of hotel accommodation is a new phenomenon and the message should go out that this cannot be a long-term solution. Even a few months in such close quarters, with limited facilities and at the whim of the commercial hotel market, can be detrimental to a young child. This is an issue I plan to consider deeply in order to decide how best to bring the various powers of my office to bear to improve the lot of the children and young people involved.

I also intend to look more closely at the issue of youth mental health and examine what is being done to promote protective factors. In particular, my objective is to determine what is being done to ensure all children who need a service to help them are being provided with an equal opportunity, regardless of location and socio-economic circumstances, to access the best available services quickly. As a psychologist, I am acutely aware of the importance of early intervention when seeking to help children to recover from traumatic events such as sexual abuse, bereavement, separation or bullying. I am also aware that in many cases, the services available to those children are extremely limited or non-existent. When a child does receive an appointment, the service may be so stretched as to offer only a small number of sessions. A child of 12 years of age who is contemplating suicide or showing signs of serious depression cannot afford to wait a year for an assessment, but that is currently the situation in one third of all cases. Such a delay is extremely counterproductive and can make the journey to health much more difficult. I have worked therapeutically with some extraordinarily brave young people who have amazed me with their ability to recover from even the most horrific trauma. I see it as a crucial part of this State's duty to offer them the opportunity to recover as quickly as possible and in the most appropriate setting. I welcome the opening up of a conversation in this country around mental health in general. People, including children and young people, are starting to discuss the importance of staying well and seeking help when their mental health is not good. It is crucial that when those children and young people take that brave step forward to seek help, the system is there to support them. I will be determining how my office can play a role in ensuring that is the case.

I thank the committee for its attention this morning. I am very happy to address any queries members may have regarding any aspects of my role and functions as Ombudsman for Children.

I thank Dr. Muldoon for his opening statement. I will now take questions from members, beginning with Deputy Robert Troy.

I welcome Dr. Muldoon and congratulate him on his appointment. He faced very stiff competition in applying for the position and I wish him luck in his role. It is a welcome development to have him here before the committee to highlight the areas of major concern to him and to consider what we can do as legislators to assist him in performing his duties more effectively and efficiently. When one looks back to the establishment of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children, it was a significant development on the road to the promotion and safeguarding of the welfare of children. Nothing stands still, of course, and we must seek continually to improve on the systems that are in place. When we consider the percentage increase in the number of complaints, the need for that type of evolution is clear.

Given the importance of the work it is doing, I am concerned at Dr. Muldoon's indication that the office is understaffed. The ombudsman expressed confidence that this issue will be addressed. Will he indicate the timeframe in this regard?

Direct provision is a very serious issue. What is Dr. Muldoon's view on the Health Information and Quality Authority having an oversight role in this area? A report was published last week calling for independent oversight of the direct provision system given that one third of residents are children. These children are no different from those living in family homes. They are children of this State and it is vital that this is acknowledged. The Office of the Ombudsman for Children should have a role in safeguarding their well-being. When one considers that we are spending €20 million on an independent investigation into what happened at mother and baby homes, my concern is that if we do not address this issue now, future legislators will be sitting here and asking how we could have allowed the system of direct provision to continue. I have no doubt that when it was introduced, it was never envisaged as a long-term solution. Unfortunately, however, that is what it has become.

The number of children living in consistent poverty has doubled during the recession. That is a national disgrace. One hears about families living in hotels, families travelling to the airport because it is warm and families sleeping in cars. Every Member has observed the increase in the number of people coming in on a weekly basis with housing issues. Indeed, lack of housing accounts for the largest volume of representations to my constituency office. Local authorities are unable to provide housing or intervene in the private market in the way they were able to in former years.

We all know that the longer children spend in poverty, the poorer their life chances are. From an educational point of view children living in poverty do not perform to the same level as children not living in poverty. I welcome the fact that this is a priority on the agenda of the Ombudsman for Children. Will Dr. Muldoon comment on how we could support him in that role? Obviously if the office is not adequately resourced it is a major issue. Does Dr. Muldoon think there are any legislative changes we could bring about which may be supportive?

This is not something Dr. Muldoon touched on, but what is his opinion on the rights of a child to an identity? This relates to promised legislation in the programme for Government to introduce the adoption (information and tracing) Bill. I compliment Senator van Turnhout who has worked with my former party colleague, Senator Power, to bring forward legislation in this regard. This is something I have highlighted myself. It is so important to give a child the right to an identity and I would welcome Dr. Muldoon's views on the matter.

The Supreme Court judgment on the children's referendum from a month ago is welcome. The fact that the matter has now been adjudicated on puts an onus on us as legislators to enact the enabling legislation. I would welcome Dr. Muldoon's opinion on this. We can have all the legislation we like. We have enshrined the rights of children in our Constitution and the Supreme Court has adjudicated on it. At the same time we have a critical lack of necessary resources. The chief executive of Tusla has said that the organisation does not have the necessary resources even to stand still. We have a situation where not all of our children in care have an allocated social worker. We have had situations like those in Laois and Offaly where 1,000 files went unassessed for a period of time. Organisations which promote and support children with a disability have had funding cut to the tune of €86,000. Funding for domestic abuse help services in my constituency has been 100% cut by Tusla. These are real and serious issues and I would welcome Dr. Muldoon's views.

Dr. Muldoon stated he met representatives from Comhairle na nÓg. The same representatives made a fantastic presentation to this committee in the audio-visual room. This is an area I have an interest and one where I have worked since I was a councillor in my constituency. What I see at the moment is a very disjointed and unco-ordinated approach in the mental health system. Many agencies and groups have been established to fill the shortfall by the State, for example, a group in Westmeath called Good2Talk. Pieta House and Console are doing great work. There are so many different organisations but they are totally unco-ordinated. Does Dr. Muldoon not believe it would be better to have a national approach to this issue on the basis that it is a national crisis? The number of our young people who are taking their own lives and suffering from depression and anxiety is alarming. It should not be left to community and voluntary groups. The approach should not be left unco-ordinated and disjointed. We need a national plan to ensure a consistent roll-out in this area. I would welcome the views of Dr. Muldoon on the matter.

Again, I wish Dr. Muldoon well. Certainly, he has highlighted some of the areas that we can work on from a legislative point of view and we would be happy to do that.

I thank Deputy Troy and call Deputy McLellan.

I thank the Acting Chairman. I welcome Dr. Muldoon and thank him for his presentation. I wish him well in his role. I wish to pass on the apologies of my colleague, Deputy Ó Caoláin. Unfortunately, questions to the Minister for Health are clashing with this meeting and he is on his feet in the Chamber as we speak.

Some of the points I wish to raise with Dr. Muldoon have already been touched on. The first point I want to speak about is direct provision. Dr. Muldoon said the Ombudsman for Children is mandated to promote and monitor rights of all children in Ireland. I raised this important issue with the Minister on a number of occasions and asked whether he agreed he is the Minister with responsibility for all children on this island and, therefore, has a responsibility to investigate the many tragic deaths of children in direct provision and the precarious living conditions for those children. Unfortunately, he sidestepped the question by passing it over to the Department of Justice and Equality. What are the views of Dr. Muldoon on the matter? Dr. Muldoon has also stated that despite changes made the office is still seeking to clarify the remit in respect of direct provision. What is the process for that clarification? What progress has been made? Will a decision be made on the matter any time soon?

Has Dr. Muldoon ever had a complaint from someone in direct provision? What would happen to such a complaint if it is not under the remit of the Ombudsman for Children? I agree with Deputy Troy in that I believe this will be the next scandal to hit the State and if we do not do something and act on it now, then in 20 years' time we are going to have another inquiry similar to the mother and baby homes inquiry. It is simply not acceptable.

Reference has been made to homelessness. Colm O'Gorman of Amnesty International recently made the salient point post-marriage referendum that he hoped the wave of public awareness and support around the issue of equal rights would spill over to people fighting for a more equal Irish society. Unfortunately, we have children who are homeless and living in poverty. How many cases is the ombudsman currently adjudicating on relating to homeless children? How does this bear out nationally? Has the Ombudsman for Children made any decisions on these matters? If the Ombudsman for Children makes a decision in this area, what implication does it have with regard to all the other homeless children? The homeless children to which Dr. Muldoon adverted are living in hotels, but we have serious overcrowding as well whereby whole families are living in one room and children are sleeping on sofas. That is another issue which, unfortunately, needs to be addressed.

Dr. Muldoon mentioned staffing. He said the Office of the Ombudsman for Children is understaffed currently and that this impacts on how the organisation can do its job. Is the Ombudsman for Children currently under-funded and, if so, by how much? Is the organisation in a position to be able to stand still currently or is it fighting against the wind? Would the office have all the necessary resources to do the job if the staffing issues were resolved in the coming months?

Dr. Muldoon mentioned that the majority of complaints are brought on behalf of children by their parents. I gather that accounts for 75%. What is the make-up of the other 25%? How long does it take, roughly, to investigate a complaint? I realise some are more complex than others but in the overall scheme of things does it take long to actually investigate a complaint?

Several issues come through our constituency offices. One that comes up on a regular basis relates to children who are waiting for assessments. Parents come to us because of constant breaches of the Disability Act. The Act provides that children should be seen within three months but often it is eight or nine months and the delay is getting even longer. Given the increase in the number of caseloads for the office, does this mean it will get an increase in funding and staff to actually deal with them?

Dr. Muldoon referred to mental health and in that context to the suicidal 12-year old child who might have to wait a year to be allocated to or to see a social worker. If someone made a complaint to Office of the Ombudsman for Children, how long would it take to make a decision on the case? Would it be quicker than waiting to see a social worker? I do not think I have any further questions so I will leave it at that for the moment.

I welcome Dr. Muldoon who will find that we are exemplary as a committee on children's rights. We very much work together on an all-party basis on many children's rights issues. I hope he will find friends here. The only thing we will do is urge him to go further and to highlight more. It would be good for us to have more regular engagement in order for us to highlight issues. Even the fact of having the meeting keeps children's rights on the agenda, which is really important.

I subscribe to the concern outlined by my colleagues at the delay in appointing staff. I will ask the Chairman to discuss the committee writing to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform to express our view that the appointments should be expedited. Given the scarce resources in the office, we should ensure that at the very least the resources are in place. There should not be unnecessary delays.

I will make a whistlestop tour of issues and then raise some broader issues. I wish to raise direct provision. I totally agree with what was said by my colleagues. I very much believe that there should be an independent complaints mechanism and that the Office of the Ombudsman for Children needs to have that role in relation to children. I very much endorse that position.

The other issue I wish to raise is corporal punishment because it is in the news with the Council of Europe decision yesterday. Yet again, Ireland is failing. I put forward an amendment to the Children First Bill for us to remove the defence of reasonable chastisement. It is a practical way forward. It is not a case of us trying to encroach too much. I do not think we could be accused too much of nanny stateism. One hundred years ago one could beat one’s wife, one’s dog and one’s child and we still allow children to be beaten. I find that reprehensible that we allow that in our laws. I know it is not being used in the courts, to the best of my understanding, but I take issue with the fact that we leave it in our laws.

Deputy Troy raised adoption information and tracing. I welcome recommendation No. 38 of the Ombudsman for Children in his report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child that he does not see a block to retrospective information and tracing. I would very much welcome his voice on that.

Homeless children is another issue that was raised. I do not believe it is just because of the recession. We accommodated children who were homeless in bed and breakfast accommodation when we were at the height of the boom. Again, it goes back to how we view children and families. In the UK, it would not be acceptable to house a family in bed and breakfast accommodation and yet in this country we seem to deem it acceptable to inappropriately accommodate children in hotels currently and previously bed and breakfast accommodation but still on a bed and breakfast basis. I very much endorse Dr. Muldoon’s sentiments in that area.

The other issue I wish to raise relates to gender recognition and recommendation No. 20 in the report. Could Dr. Muldoon review his position on gender recognition? He said it should be open to those aged under 16 but we have had some very good debates recently in the Seanad and the Dáil on children in which we urged the Government to go further on its gender recognition Bill. I cited the recommendations of the Ombudsman for Children but we should go further in light of the constitutional amendment on children now being part of the Constitution and the best interests of the child. Perhaps Dr. Muldoon could examine the position in order to find a system for children so that they can go to the schools of their choice. Why do we send someone who identifies himself as a boy to a girl’s school and make him wear a girl’s uniform? That is a real children’s rights issue. Perhaps Dr. Muldoon could review the position on gender recognition?

I very much support recommendation No. 13 on reducing the voting age to 16. Perhaps Dr. Muldoon could again consider urging the Government to amend the position for voting in European and local elections. That would not require a referendum. It could be done by the Government at any stage. Perhaps the issue could be examined.

Marriage age is another issue to consider. Senator Bacik and I tabled a motion and we are working to bring forward legislation to make the marriage age in this country 18. It is unacceptable that we have up to 30 marriages a year of children in Ireland. Once we allow exemptions we are saying it is okay, and we are saying that to other countries. What brought me to the issue was Boko Haram. We wondered what we could do when we saw those children being kidnapped and I looked at our own laws and discovered that they allow exemptions. That sends a message that it is okay in some cases to have child brides. It is important that Ireland would make the marriage age 18 and be unequivocal about it.

Mental health is another important issue. I am concerned that the child and adolescent mental health services remain outside the remit of the Child and Family Agency. I would welcome progress in that regard. Building on the point made by Deputy Troy, could Dr. Muldoon also consider the pathways for people to access the services?

More generally, I call for more engagement with the Oireachtas in regard to reports from the Ombudsman for Children. It is sometimes frustrating for us when we see a report in the newspapers and we have had no prewarning of it or knowledge that it is coming out. We would love to provide a voice of support. Perhaps Dr. Muldoon could keep us informed when he is planning to release reports.

Dr. Muldoon has immense experience in complaints and investigations. In his presentation he said that children can be largely invisible. I sometimes feel that about complaints and investigations. We need to hear more of the voice of the child. We hear very much about the perspective of the parents or the adults in the child’s life. Perhaps we could make progress in that regard.

My final question before I get cut off relates to Dr. Muldoon’s appointment with the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child the week after next. He has all the recommendations in his report. If he were to pick out two or three things for the committee that this country must immediately tackle, what could be done in the time available? Whatever we say, the Government now has less than a year left in office. What should we address before the Government is before the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child?

I have tabled a Commencement Matter in the Seanad this morning and I must leave soon. I thank Dr. Muldoon very much for his very detailed presentation and for outlining the work he is doing. He raised homelessness and children and the considerable pressures on local authorities at the moment. It is an issue that must be tackled urgently.

I was involved in referring two cases to Dr. Muldoon’s office. I know they are under investigation. I will assist in whatever way I can on the matters I referred to him, which relate to local authorities, children with disabilities and the role of access officers within local authorities. There seems to be a huge misunderstanding within local authorities about the role of access officers. The Disability Act clearly sets out the role of the access officer. I have already spoken to the Disability Authority on the matter and suggested that it would be helpful for it to correspond with local authorities. Access officers are there to help people with disabilities but it appears there is an interpretation in some local authorities that their only role is to talk about access to public buildings, which is a very strange interpretation.

I wish to refer briefly to the issues I raised. They relate to cases of children with major disabilities, both physical and intellectual, who are living in local authority houses but the local authority prevents any alteration being done to a house even where it has been offered on a voluntary basis. In one case an architect and team of builders agreed to carry out alterations to a house on a voluntary basis as a contribution from the local community but the local authority said it could not be done. The houses in question require to be adapted to accommodate the children with serious disabilities. There is a considerable variation between the waiting time in local authorities to get adaptation work done. I understand the waiting time in the Louth County Council area is less than three months, whereas in my area it is six and a half years to seven years.

It is outrageous that this is happening.

When I recently met representatives from my local authority to discuss this matter, I inquired about the case of a person who had been on the waiting list for six and a half years. The individual concerned was sent a letter in July 2008 in which it was stated the necessary work would be carried out. Six and a half years later the work has still not been done. The person concerned has serious physical and intellectual disabilities. There is a second case with which I am dealing in which the scenario is similar. When I raised it with the representatives from the local authority, they stated the person involved had only been on the waiting list for two and a half years. There appears to be a culture that unless people are on the waiting list for five years, there is no point in them knocking on the door. Local authorities must be made aware of the fact that they have an obligation to make provision for work to be carried out where it is required because the children to whom it relates are being deprived of basic services. Even where people are offering to do the work on a voluntary basis, they are being prevented from doing so. This matter must be given priority. I fully accept what was said about homelessness and children and the fact that a huge number of families require housing. However, we must also cater for those who have houses but which are unsuitable, which is the cause children do not have their needs met. They are not being accommodated in the proper manner. Account must be taken of this fact. I have requested a meeting about this matter with Dr. Muldoon. I look forward to that meeting, but in the interim it would be easy for his office to highlight for local authorities that this issue should be given priority during the remainder of 2015.

I again thank Dr. Muldoon for his presentation.

I will hand over to Dr. Muldoon and ask that he seek to address some of the issues raised by members. Perhaps the experts accompanying him might also like to contribute.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

If Senator Colm Burke needs to leave, perhaps it might be best for me to address the points he raised first.

When will the Senator be obliged to leave?

In about ten minutes.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I will ask Mr. Walsh to deal with the points raised by the Senator.

Mr. Páraic Walsh

On housing, homelessness and delays in making adaptations, it might be of assistance were I to provide a quick snapshot of the complaints process. I am aware that Senator Colm Burke is very familiar with it, but perhaps I might outline the work done at the preliminary examination level.

The Office of the Ombudsman is the last resort for people. In the context of complaints about housing, in certain instances it is not as if the relevant experts and professionals - occupational therapists and physiotherapists - have not already made reports to the authorities responsible for housing. I will speak in generalities in seeking to outline the process involved.

When we receive complaints, we always try to promote the local resolution of the issues involved. On the first example provided by the Senator, namely, where a family might be in a position to mitigate its own circumstances, local resolution is something we always promote. The beauty and benefit of a local resolution process is that before a matter ever reaches the point where there is the need for an investigation, it provides space and flexibility in pushing the boundaries in terms of what can be done. I am aware of cases involving the widening of doorways and other simple things in which this process can prove extremely useful. I am not talking about building large extensions but about simple, practical improvements that can help families. That has always been our approach. Usually, we are not the first to advocate this approach, but we are generally doubling what someone else has stated. In the context of eliminating poverty, some families are not able to mitigate their own circumstances and, as a result, there is an inequity.

On the case to which the Senator refers involving a delay of seven years, we have tried to adapt our processes. When we make initial contact with local authorities, the push-back in respect of resources is obvious, but we move past this in order to ensure decisions made in these times of economic difficulty are both fair and equitable. That has been our strategic aim. Resources may be the first issue raised when we pursue a matter, but we tend to push straight beyond this in order to discover what common-sense and practical steps can be taken. We always try to promote this approach. However, the number of complaints we are receiving in respect of homelessness and delays is not comparable with the number we were receiving four or five years ago. It is almost as if this is the end stage and people are now bringing matters to the attention of the Senator and other public representatives, as well as our office. While the country might be on the up economically - we all hope that is the case - we are certainly reaching the end stage regarding complaints which people have tried to resolve locally and in respect of which they are at breaking point. We share the Senator's concerns.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I wish to provide a good example of some of the things which could work in those situations in the context of people's best interests. We are obviously not in a position to examine the resource element of things, but let us consider circumstances where somebody has been on a waiting list for three years and the local authority is aware that the occupational therapist's report is only valid for three years. Reports of that nature must be kept up to date in order that when money becomes available, work can proceed. We are aware of cases in which the delay has been exacerbated by the fact that up-to-date reports had to be obtained. It can take up to six months for a report to be forthcoming. We are in a position to keep on top of administrative matters of this nature. It is about seeking to ensure simple best practice and that the child remains at the centre of the process. As Senator Colm Burke stated, there appears to be a culture that until people spend a certain amount of time on the waiting list, they have not earned the right to have their cases considered. Communication does not occur on a regular basis. We often come across cases in which, following the sending of the initial letter, say, in 2008, a second letter was not issued. The culture in this regard must be changed in order that the child will be placed at the centre of the process. If we do this by means of holding monthly or bi-monthly meetings, different solutions begin to be arrived at and local resolution becomes more likely. That is why I emphasise the need to focus on best interest principles being legislated for and being used across all systems. That is the real example which does not change the position on resources in the slightest, but it does create an energy within the culture of the system - in this case, the local authority - whereby the child becomes the focus. We need to move towards that model much more quickly than we are doing.

I thank Dr. Muldoon and Mr. Walsh.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

Deputy Robert Troy referred to staffing. In the first week or two after I took office, I sent a staffing proposal to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. It has since been signed off on and forwarded to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I am under the impression that the matter will be dealt with relatively quickly from here on in, but it has taken some time even to reach this point. This is an example of where independence might have made a difference. If I had control of the budget, I would have advertised six months ago as opposed to being obliged to wait for a further three months, when clearance had been received from the relevant Department, to finally appoint staff. If we had budgetary independence, we would not be in this position.

In the context of what Deputy Sandra McLellan stated, we are maintaining our output as best we can. Obviously, there has been a slowdown in the rate of our activity. Assuming we can get people in place before September, I do not see a major loss of productivity on our side. There will probably be some loss of productivity, but it will not be major. From my point of view, this is what happens in organisations when an upturn occurs and people have the opportunity to change direction in their careers. That is fantastic for them and casts the office in a great light because its staff are moving on to different jobs. The point, however, is that, in the context of flexibility and speed, we are encountering difficulties in filling their positions. If we had our own budget and the ability to hire people independently, it would make a huge difference.

Deputy Robert Troy referred to the doubling of the number of people living in constant poverty and the lack of housing. Poverty has so many facets. As I stated in my opening contribution, this is a matter on which I need to reflect in considering how best I might bring my powers to bear in dealing with homelessness and children. When I have done so, I will return to the committee with suggestions as to changes which might prove useful. There are so many strands to child poverty. Obviously, housing and the availability of options are key once somebody becomes homeless. There is also the aspect of prevention. I mentioned the economic environment and the upturn for a particular reason.

There probably was a way of preventing those approximately 400 families with 1,000 children from becoming homeless, a way of going upstream and preventing them from having to leave their homes. I am not going to give the committee an answer on an issue upon which I am not clear yet but it is certainly something that I will work on over the next number of months and bring back to the committee the next time I am here, if that is acceptable.

A question was asked about the right of a child to his or her identity. We are on the record as being clear that this is an issue which is very important. The right to one's own identity is a human right and we have recommended that consistently over time. There has been no change in that regard and I commend the Senator on bringing forward the relevant legislation.

Regarding the referendum on children's rights, one of the recommendations we will be making to the UN CRC is that adequate resources are made available to Tusla. We were one of the first to call for the responsibility for child protection and welfare to be moved out of the HSE because it was getting lost in that huge monolith. The setting up of Tusla was hugely important as far as the Ombudsman for Children's office is concerned. The same is true of the setting up of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Now that we have a focus on children, we need to provide adequate resources, although I am not sure what the correct amount actually is. While resources are an important element, there are also systems problems that need to be fixed. There are areas where there is a lack of co-ordination and consistency across the country. The last time we appeared before this committee we brought forward a meta-analysis relating to children in care. We spoke about issues like the standardisation of reports and social work supervision, for example, as well as the need for co-operation between agencies. These are consistent themes and the problems seem to be harder to fix than was the case in the past. As Tusla finds its feet, it is very important that it is supported and that the required systems are put in place. Obviously we are very concerned about recent reports regarding Laois-Offaly. The issues raised by those reports have been raised by us previously.

One of the issues we have highlighted with Tusla directly is our concern around the numbers of children who are referred for suspected abuse and who undergo an assessment. The target is that such children would see somebody within 21 days of a referral. However, the figures from quarter three of last year show that only 21% of such children were seen in that timeframe, which leaves a lot of children in a very vulnerable position. That is an issue of major concern for us and is something which can be improved upon through systems changes.

On the issue of youth mental health services, the phrase "disjointed and un-co-ordinated" was used, which is a good description of some parts of it. Senator van Turnhout spoke about access to the system and the pathways being difficult. She referenced a number of voluntary services, including Console, Pieta House, It's Good 2 Talk and so forth which are certainly making a huge difference and are the community's answer to a real problem. As I said in my report, local communities and society in general, to their great credit, are starting to open up the discussion around mental health. The more we do that, the better. There are also national offices working in this area, including the National Suicide Prevention Office and the national mental health division within the HSE. I hope that the latter will make a difference in the co-ordination of the work. It should not be the case that primary services are provided through the voluntary sector. While organisations such as Pieta House and others do great work, they are picking up the slack for services that should be provided by the State.

Our report, entitled A Word from the Wise, gives a very clear description of the problems in the area of mental health. One of our complainants, a young girl, was admitted to an adult mental health facility after two suicide attempts. She said: "I was being watched 24/7... I couldn't shower or go to the toilet by myself... I felt I was let down... I needed help and it wasn't there." This child tried to commit suicide twice but the best we could offer her was somebody to watch her so that she did not commit suicide in the adult ward. She was not provided with care, therapy or education, which should not be allowed. She went on to say: "I had a terrible experience and other teenagers shouldn't have to go through it." The most valuable point she makes is the following: "I have a lot to say for myself in the world and about the world. I just wish the right people had listened at the right time." We really need to be listening to the people who are suffering and to adjust the system accordingly. It cannot be just about resources; much of it is about how we do things and how we provide services. If we put the best interests of the child first, we would probably set things up differently. Youth mental health is an area around which I will be pushing very strongly.

I hope I have covered all of the issues raised.

Could Dr. Muldoon deal with direct provision please?

Dr. Niall Muldoon

On direct provision, we are very clearly on the record that the time has come for change. I am very hopeful that the working group will make a difference. The Minister for Justice and Equality showed herself to be very strong on children's rights when she was Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. She made the very important change with regard to St. Patrick's Institution and taking 16 and 17 year olds out of the adult prison system. That change affected 60 or 70 young people whereas direct provision affects between 1,500 and 1,600 young people. It makes sense that we would have oversight of the system and, indeed, other Oireachtas committees have argued for that too. I hope that the time has come for us to say that we cannot stand over a system that was set up initially as a stop-gap. It was set up, if I remember correctly, because there were issues at Rosslare. A hotel was available and new immigrants were housed there. That seemed to work for a while but then we ended up creating a system in which people have been left in such accommodation, in some cases, for almost 15 years. It is not tenable and as has been said by the other Oireachtas committee, it is not fit for purpose. When that report was being launched, I sat and listened to the parents who were living in direct provision accommodation. One parent spoke of having a birthday party for her ten year old son the previous day. He was born in the direct provision system and has had ten birthdays in that environment, with no option to develop friendships or to invite people home to his place. His family has lived for ten years with no privacy. The HIQA report published last week highlighted the damage that can be done under the direct provision system. It showed that child protection issues are more prevalent within the system. It is time to reconsider the entire system and it is certainly time to increase my office's oversight of direct provision.

I have a question about complaints. If the Ombudsman for Children's office receives complaints, what happens?

Dr. Niall Muldoon

Complaints relating to direct provision?

Dr. Niall Muldoon

We have had a small number of complaints relating to direct provision. We deal with them as best we can. We have a working relationship with the Department of Justice and Equality and while the Department does not believe that direct provision is within our remit, it does work with us and co-operate. We have had complaints relating to child protection concerns, food and other issues. The number has been small because we have not been able to promote ourselves within the direct provision system. Furthermore, as we all know, those within the direct provision system often have difficulties coming forward in case it impacts on their rights and their asylum applications. I will ask my colleague, Mr. Walsh, to give some examples to the committee.

Mr. Páraic Walsh

It is a good example of how our threshold works, in terms of what we might look at. We have had complaints about living conditions, diet, access to education and so forth but because the complainants are in direct provision, their environment is unique. It is not the same as someone raising a complaint to mum or dad at home and having that space to do so. We would always try to engage early in such cases and make sure the complaints are dealt with at a local level. To date, the issues have been addressed but these would not be matters that we would see as heading towards an investigation.

Other issues of a more serious nature would relate to child protection and how concerns in that regard are dealt with. Irrespective of any view held about our remit, we would see us as having an absolute remit in that regard and being involved in such cases, regardless of whether there is Tusla, or formerly the HSE, involvement. That would not have been the intention of the good people of the Legislature when they drafted our governing Act in 2002 in terms of what actions would be excluded.

It relates to the administration of law regarding naturalisation and citizenship, but it would not relate to child protection or welfare. That is not the intended outcome. If one takes a purposive approach to what was meant, that is the space we are working in as regards the legislation. We continue to push at that but, as Dr. Muldoon stated, there is a barrier. There is a definite need for signposting.

One question referred to parents being natural advocates and asked for further details. In some circumstances there is a natural barrier, concern or impediment to bringing complaints forward for fear of affecting decisions. Not only should there be clarity in terms of the remit, but we need to take on some work to make sure people feel able to bring complaints and concerns to our attention.

Senator van Turnhout asked about corporal punishment, the Gender Recognition Bill, the voting age and the marriage age.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

Regarding corporal punishment, I think we are on the same page. It is time to remove the defence of reasonable chastisement. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs said yesterday that he would prohibit corporal punishment within all State care scenarios. If corporal punishment is banned for children in State care but it is still okay to allow the defence within the home, such a position would be untenable. We would encourage the removal of that defence.

I refer to adoption information. The recommendation was that the State should bring forward legislative proposals regarding information and tracing and ensure that they respect fully the rights of the adopted person. In addition, the Adoption Act 2010 should be further amended to provide for more open forms of adoption and a statutory basis for post-adoption services. The right to know one's background and parentage is crucial.

On gender recognition, Senator van Turnhout suggested we consider the recommendation that a 16 year old would be able to have the right to his or her own gender identification.

I referred to all children under 16 years of age.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

The Senator suggested all children aged under 16 be included. I will consider that. It is a recommendation that has been in place since the Gender Recognition Bill was published.

There is a recommendation on the voting age. We have advised that the State hold a referendum on lowering the voting age. It was recommended by the Constitutional Convention. The idea that it could be done within the Legislature for EU and local elections is something that could be considered.

On the marriage age, it is international best practice and the recommendation is that 18 years of age is the way forward. I do not have the numbers. I understand there is a process whereby those under 18 years of age can apply to the Circuit Court. I will examine the issue.

I will send Dr. Muldoon more information.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I thank the Senator. She also mentioned CAMHS. From our point of view, there has been a disjointed approach, as well as a lack of co-ordination and co-operation. We are conducting a number of investigations in this area and have found that CAMHS in different areas do not refer children or accept referrals from each other. I do not mind who the parent body is; if the system works correctly, that is fine. I do not think any child minds who pays the bills, as long as CAMHS work together and the system operates properly. It is to be hoped the mental health division will make a difference in that regard. However, there is a serious difficulty with the pathways to access these schemes. One of the recommendations in our report to the UN is the need for an equivalent child therapeutic service for children as the national counselling service for adults, which is free and accessible within an hour of each person. That is something that is long overdue and it would make a major difference.

The Senator asked about reporting to the Oireachtas. It is something I will look into and I will check the timings. I hope the committee has received the reports in a timely manner. She discussed the need for the voice of the child to be heard within complaints and investigations. From our point of view, we are legislated to listen to the voice of the child in every complaint we take. The majority of complaints, as the committee can imagine, come from parents, and rightly so because they have to navigate the system.

Every time we receive a complaint we consider meeting the child directly, and in many of our investigations we will do so. In a number of investigations we have quoted young people in that regard. It is something we monitor at all times in terms of whether we are keeping true to our voice and listening to the voice of the child. That is part of the reason we included children's voices in our booklet, A Word from the Wise, for the UN. It something we keep under review and keep trying to improve on.

The Senator also asked about the UN CRC priorities. I am currently working on my priorities. I do not want to pre-empt them.

That is fair enough. It would be useful if Dr. Muldoon could send them to us.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I can certainly do that.

I thank Dr. Muldoon. Does Deputy Healy want to ask any questions?

Deputy Séamus Healy

I have one question.

I will come back to Deputy Healy.

I congratulate Dr. Muldoon and wish him every success in his new role. So much has happened regarding children over many years in this country. He has touched on a few of the positive things that have happened in the past few years, of which the establishment of Tusla has been one. We would like to see more of him and I ask him to keep in touch more regularly. As Senator van Turnhout said, we are a very good committee and speak about many issues concerning children.

In the next few weeks the committee will visit Oberstown. The term "resources" has been mentioned a few times today. It is something we need to consider. I am a member of a Government party. We need to apply a serious amount of pressure in order to ensure that we get a substantial amount of funding, in particular now that Dr. Muldoon is developing a list of his priorities. That, along with the necessary funding, is very important. We have a job to do to ensure that he gets sufficient money to carry out his list of priorities.

Deputy Séamus Healy

I thank the Acting Chairman. I welcome Dr. Muldoon and his staff and thank them for the presentation. I wish him well in his appointment. I welcome, in particular, the issues on which he will be working, especially youth mental health. Does he have any indication of the type of actions or areas in which he might involve himself in that regard?

I refer to admissions to schools. I understand he is currently reviewing that and is not in a position to give us any specific information. What are the broad policy issues that might inform his views on that?

I wish to add to that. The presentation stated 43% of complaints related to education.

Is Dr. Muldoon saying that should be put back into the education sphere in order that the office can focus on family support, care and protection of children, or is he saying he is quite happy to send on the complaints if he had that infrastructure in place in the Department of Education and Skills to deal with complaints from parents?

Dr. Niall Muldoon

No, I am not looking to push back anything. I am saying that the system, as it was envisaged, was a tripod, whereby the Teaching Council would look after anything in regard to the professional conduct of teachers and the section 28 provision would allow for a consistent complaints system across the education system. Neither of those is in place, which means we are dealing with 3,000 different types of complaints systems given that each school can do it whichever way it wants and then those issues come to our desks. We would expect that if that those other elements - the other parts of the architecture - were in place, the numbers that would come to us would be fewer and that when they did come to us, they would have come through a different system and there would have been more opportunity to have a local resolution in that regard also. We are trying to encourage that a proper fully-rounded complaints system is available to parents.

There was also the question regarding mental health.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

In response to Deputy Healy's question, what I plan to do is to go back to basics and listen to what is being said. I will visit people who have been in that situation and listen to what they have to say. As the Deputy will know from the quotation I gave to earlier, there are powerful stories to be told. Many people in the youth area such as those involved in Jigsaw, Headstrong and some of the voluntary groups have already done much of this work. I will gather the information rather than telling the Deputy exactly what I will do and in what areas I will do it. One area we need to examine is going upstream and helping young people to maintain a healthy approach to their mental health while they can. We need to consider some provision in primary schools and post-primary schools where the conversation has not started to open up about seeking help when a problem arises. We also need to encourage the positive protective factors. That is something I would be very interested in examining. I am not quite sure what shape that will take as yet.

The Deputy also asked about the education admissions Bill. There are number of positive areas in that respect. The section 29 independent appeals provision has been retained in it. We have concerns around the derogation in regard to past pupils, which we have aired previously. That can be a soft barrier for many children who arrive in an area and their parents have not been in school in a certain area, or some children may not have been to a post-primary school. That is something about which we have had a concern and those are the areas we are examining. I hope to have advice on that for the Minister for Education and Skills soon.

There was the question on Oberstown.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

We have pushed for a long time for all young people to be moved out of the adult prison system, and that is imminent. As far as I can tell, the children (amendment) Bill will provide for that last move and the young people currently in Wheatfield will move out there. Oberstown is certainly a step forward because it is focused in a different way. It is not seen solely as custodial. There is education provision, therapeutic services and access to psychiatric services and there is also the ability there to change a child's life. That is what we are looking for, namely, that opportunity for life to change. They will not all take it. Some will stay on the path they are on, but the opportunity and the availability of different options is there.

We would also be eager to build on trying to keep young people out of Oberstown. The concept of last resort is what Oberstown should be, so the judge should be looking at the Garda diversion programmes. That is something which has not got enough credit. Much good work is being done in those situations where children are being prevented from taking that final step. We have tried to find different ways to do that and they have worked very well. We want to make sure that we do not use Oberstown for every single opportunity there is involving a young person who has committed a crime. From our point of view, Oberstown is a huge step forward. I have been there a number of times since they started building last year. I have linked in with the campus director. Our staff have been out there during the induction of new staff. They have told them about our complaints system and how we work. That is a very big step forward and I hope we will build on it. There will probably be another intake soon. The idea that we are a presence out there is something I want to make sure we build on. That means young people, the parents and the staff know that if something goes wrong and they have not been suitably looked after, we are available to them. That is crucial and it is something that was very difficult within the prison system, but it has been taken on much more within Oberstown. I look forward to that being something we can build on.

Thank you, Dr. Muldoon. I want to bring in Deputy Neville.

I wish to briefly comment on the subject Dr. Muldoon raised. There is still concern about children and adolescents being treated in adult mental health services. Considerable improvement has been made there. The number has decreased from more than 300 but there were still approximately 90 there last year.

The number increased last year from the previous year.

Commitments have been made to eliminate that. I know there are problems in regard to the three locations of Dublin, Cork and Galway. A child from Donegal who has to be admitted will have to travel to Galway and their parents will have to travel to Galway to be with them. There are problems around that and I do not know how we can get over it. The number of child psychiatric beds has increased threefold during the past ten years. Despite the commitment to eliminate that practice, children are still being treated in adult wards in the adult mental health services. That is inappropariate for any child and even one child being treated there is one too many.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

Absolutely. I would not disagree with any of that. The figures I have in front of me indicate that were 290 admissions last year, of which 89 were to adult wards. That is shocking. I have been in adult wards on a number of occasions under various guises. It is scary to be there when one is healthy and one knows one will be leaving it. However, if one is a young person who has already attempted suicide, or is close to that, and is left in that scenario where people are so scared around one that they follow and special one, that is a very distressing situation, which makes it all the more difficult for one to recover. Certainly it is something that is inappropriate.

The commitment was made in 2011 that this would not happen and every report now goes to the Mental Health Commission. We are way behind on that. One of the things I would hope we can do is reduce the number who need it. That is probably the best thing to do so that people do not get that far. Young Cait, whose name is included in the report to which I referred, was on her second suicide attempt before she ended up in a ward. What happened after her first suicide attempt? Why are we not doing something to prevent a second suicide attempt from happening? We have had complaints from a young person who had made ten or 12 suicide attempts and then was brought into a ward. What are we doing prior to that to prevent those young people having to get to a ward? Examining that area would be the best way forward. The commitment to creating extra beds is one part of it, but if we find ourselves in a situation where young people are in adult wards - that is totally unaccountable - we need to consider if a better service can be provided while they are in those wards and if the time spent in them can be reduced.

Instead of only specialing young people, we need to consider can we special them and bring them out to therapy. In that way the time spent there in such a ward would not be dead time. The time spent there now is literally lost time. If a young person of 16 years of age is in an adult ward for two months, that young person will not have recovered. All they have done is stayed alive and then they might be brought to a ward where they can be helped. Why are those two months spent in the ward now being lost? There are things that can be improved upon. It is not all about resources because the money that is spent on specialing a young person would facilitate the creating of many resources. Much work can be done and it is something on which I will focus.

I will take a final question from Senator McLellan.

I want to return to Senator Burke's point on the housing adaption grants. It is a major issue but if one lives in a private house, one accesses that grant differently. One submits the application and one will receive the adaptation grant within a number of months. However, a person living in a local authority house on submitting an application will have to wait ten years for an adaptation grant. Therefore, all children are not being treated equally. What is required may need a policy or legislative change, but it would be useful and if Dr. Muldoon examined that and wrote to the local authorities about it. I wrote to the Minister previously about this and pointed that out.

I put it to him that all the grant applications should be treated the same. If a person lives in a local authority house and goes to the local authority if they need to get an adaptation, the local authority stamps it but it does not come out of the same fund. It comes out of different funds. Children are not being treated equally. Children with the same disabilities living in two separate scenarios are being treated differently, which is extremely important.

In respect of the availability of beds and mental health, my investigations show that in respect of beds that are available for children in certain areas of the country, they are self-selecting what they deal with. In Cork, they will deal with bulimia and anorexia but will not deal with other complex issues. The message that sends to a child, which Dr. Muldoon would understand even more than I would, is that the child is so out of control that they cannot deal with them and will send them to another bed. This is unacceptable. These beds are there for children and adolescent mental health. Places are self-selecting what they will deal with. I do not find this acceptable.

Will Dr. Muldoon agree to write to the local authorities?

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I will take a look at that. I might link in with the Deputy.

Dr. Muldoon might also revert to Senator Burke.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

Absolutely. We will certainly work on that.

I thank Dr. Muldoon for attending the meeting. He may not be aware of this but ten times today he mentioned putting the child at the centre, listening to the voice of the child and the best interests of the child. He spoke about adjusting the system and it is very uplifting for us to hear that this is his focus. I thank the expert witnesses, Ms Deirdre O'Shea and Mr. Páraic Walsh. We look forward to meeting Dr. Muldoon in the future. The committee will meet the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in a number of weeks so we can raise some of the issues that have been raised here today. We will suspend for ten minutes before hearing a presentation from the deaf-blind community in Ireland.

Sitting suspended at 11.02 a.m. and resumed at 11.19 a.m.