At the outset I want to welcome the Minister to the House and to congratulate him on his personal input into this Child Care Bill.
I welcome this opportunity to contribute to this most important Bill on children's rights. The Government are to be congratulated as this is a tremendous step forward in providing for the welfare and protection of children who are at risk. I welcome the Bill as its purpose is to update the law in relation to the care of children, in particular children who are being assaulted, ill-treated, neglected or sexually abused, or who are at risk in any other way. The majority of Irish homes are happy homes. Children born into them can be assured that they will be protected and provided for, loved and reared to adulthood by good decent parents. However, there are a small number of problem situations where children are born into families where they are not welcome or where abnormal situations arise. This Bill, hopefully, will resolve all such situations.
The existing legislation in relation to the care of children is largely based on the Children Act, 1908. It has served us well. Many of its provisions are still in use today. However, there have been sweeping changes in society in the intervening period which need to be reflected in our child care legislation. Our political and administrative structures have changed. New values and attitudes have evolved. There is a greater awareness of the rights of the child. While we live today in a more enlightened society, I am sorry to say there continue to be unhappy and deprived children within our midst. I understand that at any time about 2,600 children are in the care of our eight health boards. Many are in care because their parents are unable to look after them, whether due to marital breakdown or other family crisis. Most of these children are re-united with their families after a period of time. Others, unfortunately, remain in care for years. There is another group of children who come into care in more dramatic circumstances. They are the victims of child abuse, whether it be physical, emotional or sexual.
The Minister has indicated that in 1989 the total number of confirmed cases of all sorts of child abuse known to our health boards was approximately 1,300, of which the number of confirmed cases of sexual abuse was about 500. These figures represent an increase of some fourfold in five years. The Department of Health has not, as yet, completed the collection from health boards of figures in respect of 1990. All the indications are that the total number of confirmed cases in 1990, including child sexual abuse, will show a further increase.
The figures now indicate the need for up to date and good legislation to protect children who are at risk. While we must have the legal means to protect children whose health or welfare is at risk, it is also important to safeguard children and families from excessive interference by the State. Many of us who have been in public life over the last number of years are aware of frightening situations where children living in unbelievable circumstances are sometimes so traumatised and emotionally shocked that they cannot speak about their experience at home or to anybody in particular. They are unable to communicate with the police, the health centre or any other person about these happenings. They are usually too terrified of the abuser to do so in many cases. These situations have come to light through the school teacher or an astute neighbour. It is only then it is brought to the attention of the health authority and the Garda. In many cases this does not happen for the simple reason that people do not want to become involved. This leaves the children in an uncalled for situation.
In dealing with the care of these children the main thrust of this Bill is to place a statutory duty on the health board to ensure that the welfare of these children is being provided for and that they are given full protection. The health boards will be encouraged by this Bill, as it will give them extra powers to provide child care and family support services. It will enable them to move more quickly if children are in serious danger and to call on the assistance of the Garda.
This Bill will also enable the courts to place children who have been assaulted, ill-treated, seriously neglected or sexually abused in the care of or under the supervision of health boards. It will introduce arrangements for the inspection and supervision of pre-school services and revise provisions in relation to the inspection and approval of residential centres for children. All these provisions are well intentioned and required, but funding must be provided in order to make sure that the procedures laid down will work. As a result of this Bill the health boards will now have a duty and responsibility to protect and accommodate these children. The Garda can intervene immediately in a family where a child is under threat and remove that child to the care of the health board.
I am appealling to the Minister to ensure that the necessary finances are made available to the health boards for the provision of accommodation and the cost of care for children. It has been brought to my notice over the past few months in Tralee, where children of a very low age group have been involved in petty shoplifting, and vandalism, that the Garda have not got suitable accommodation in which they could be placed. If it is within the remit of this Bill I would like to see sufficient accommodation created where these children could be placed. Most of them come from broken homes.
I welcome the fact that day care means the right of the family to remain a family. It is to be appreciated that it is not the Minister's intention to destroy or to try to break up the family unit but to give the health boards responsibility to give support and assistance to families, especially families in difficulties. In all but the more difficult cases it will leave the child at home, but under the watchful eye of the health board.
I welcome the setting up of a committee within each health board area made up of representatives of voluntary bodies, in particular child care organisations, who should include a district nurse, community workers and teachers — people with a working knowledge of the area. This committee will be set up with the intention of advising the health boards of their duty under the Bill to carry out periodic reviews of the child care and family support services within the particular area. Here again I believe these committees should be grant aided in order to help them to provide a good service.
A major portion of the Bill deals with the responsibility of the court under the heading "care proceedings". In cases where health boards are seeking the custody of a child they apply to the court for a care order in respect of the child. A care order would suspend the parents' rights to custody of the child and place him or her in the custody of the health board. To receive a care order the health board must satisfy the court that the child has been subjected to assault, ill-treatment, serious neglect or has been sexually abused, or that the child's health has been at risk or is being impaired or seriously neglected. They must also satisfy the court that the child requires care or protection which he or she is unlikely to receive unless he or she is under the care of the health board. In granting the care order the court must take into consideration the rights and duties of the parents under the Constitution. More importantly, they must take into consideration the natural rights of the child. This care order would remain in force until the child reaches the age of 18 years or until it was successfully challenged by the parents or discharged by the courts because of the changing circumstances.
This provision in the Bill is to be very much welcomed. The health board can also apply for a supervision order which enable the board to have the child visited at his or her home to ensure that he or she is being cared for. The court could also have the power to direct the parents to bring the child to a day centre, child guidance clinic, hospital or other service or help which the child might need. A supervision order would apply for 12 months and could be renewed. I would like to know how the Minister will carry out this provision.
The court will also be responsible for a number of other matters, including the right of parents or other persons to have access to the children in the care of health boards. The follow up provisions are also covered in the Bill and I welcome them. What happens to children in the care of the health boards or under the supervision of the pre-school services? What happens about the standards and administration of children's residential centres which will come under the Minister for Health and, in some cases, the Minister for Education, something which is satisfactory and adequate?
The Bill provides also for the fines of up to £1,000 or 12 months imprisonment for anyone selling solvent-based products to children who use them for glue sniffing. We have seen over the past few years where a number of children and teenagers died from sniffing these products. This is provision will be welcomed by parents and guardians.
I believe this Bill is up to date and will go a long way towards ensuring that the rights of children are maintained and provided for.
I wish to refer to sections 1, 2, 3 and 4 of the Bill. Section 1 states that the Bill be known as the Child Care Act and empowers the Minister for Health to bring the various provisions into effect by order. It is the intention that this Bill, when enacted will be brought into operation as quickly as possible. Section 2 defines various uses of the Bill, of which the most important is the definition of child. At present, the Children Act, 1908, as amended, defines a child as a person under 15 years of age. This means, in effect, that a person over 16 years of age may not be placed in health care, regardless of how desirable this might be in his or her interests. There is a growing number of older children who would benefit from being in care, but cannot be admitted under the present law. It is proposed, therefore, to define "child" for the purpose of this Bill as a person of up to 18 years of age.
The main effect of this Bill will be to raise to 18 years the age up to which health boards will be responsible for children and the age to which children may be admitted into care.
Section 3 places a statutory duty on health boards to promote the welfare of children who are not receiving essential care and protection. This is one of the most important provisions of the Bill. It imposes a clear obligation on health boards to provide child care and family support services so as to assist parents in caring for their children and to prevent children having to be placed in care. These services may include social work support for families at risk, counselling and advice services, pre-school services, home help and homemaker services, child guidance, day fostering, family resource centres and special projects for the young homeless, and other at-risk groups. Thus, the emphasis is on providing support and assistance so that children can remain at home. Only in exceptional cases are children to be taken into care.
Section 4 deals with voluntary care. It will enable health boards to receive into care, without reference to the courts, orphans and abandoned children, and, with parental consent, children whose parents are unable to care for them, for example, due to serious illness, sudden bereavement or family breakdown. At present, about half of the children in care are there on a voluntary basis rather than under court orders. While there has been some increase in recent years in the number of children entering care through the courts, I expect a significant proportion of admissions will continue to be on a voluntary basis.
Voluntary bodies have played, and will continue to play, an important part in our child care services, in particular in the region of residential facilities. I acknowledge this excellent work. I wish to make special reference to the Nazareth Home in Tralee, where the Sisters of Mercy over many years have provided an excellent service. This is now in the care of an excellent lay staff but they find themselves with serious financial problems. At the moment they are catering for approximately 40 children but the subsidy and subvention they are receiving from the health board is certainly not covering the upkeep of the property. At this time they are running on a substantial overdraft. I appeal to the Minister to see if there is any way around their situation. They are dedicated, work many hours outside the call of duty and, on most occasions, are not paid for the overtime they do. This is wrong. It is all very satisfactory while there are committed people, but we could reach a point where we will not get this type of worker. For that reason I appeal to the Minister to try to resolve this situation.
I welcome the Bill. It is up to date and will go along way towards ensuring that the rights of children are maintained and provided for adequately.