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.