I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the House today on the Second Stage of the Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2006 which provides that a foster parent or a relative who has had a child in his or her care for a continuous period of five years, the child having been placed with him or her by the Health Service Executive, may apply for a court order for increased autonomy in the care of the child.
Child welfare and protection policy is grounded on the principle that children who cannot, for whatever reason, live with their own families are provided with an appropriate alternative. Studies have shown that the development of a child is best achieved in a loving family environment, which foster care can provide. Foster care is the main form of alternative care provided by the Health Service Executive for children in need of care and protection. Our latest statistics from December 2004 show that more than 5,000 children and young people are in the care of the Health Service Executive. Almost 4,250 or 84% of these children are in foster care. This represents an increase of 4% on the previous year's figures. I welcome this increase in foster care which is in line with my stated policy and that of the Government. The number of children in residential care declined by almost 2%, from 527 to 442, between 2003 and 2004.
These figures show the critical importance of the foster care services in our child protection and welfare service. Families and family life are important to all children and the opportunity to experience the quality of family life is one of the main objectives of the national children's strategy. For those children who cannot be looked after in their own families, and need to be provided with alternative care, foster care is the best way for them to experience family life. The challenge for us is to provide an appropriate response to the children of this vulnerable group. This response must respect their rights to a childhood in a secure family environment so that they may fulfil their potential in adulthood.
Foster carers play a crucial role in the lives of children by providing a welcoming place in their homes at a vulnerable time in their lives. It is important that foster carers are recruited on an ongoing basis. As Minister for Children, together with the HSE, I actively encourage people to consider becoming foster carers. Last December I launched a research document entitled Lives in Foster Care, undertaken by the Children's Research Centre in Trinity College. I was heartened to see that the study produced positive findings on the daily lives of this young group of foster children in the areas of schooling, friendships and hobbies.
The study found that on the whole, the young people were leading regular lives, 98% of them attended school regularly and the majority were expected to stay on in school; and 92% had regular friends and these friendships were deemed to be beneficial. The study also found that, like most young teenagers, 90% of these young people had a hobby they did at home, including listening to music, playing the PlayStation and reading. As a society, we take these activities for granted but for many young people in care, taking part in such so-called normal activities and leading what they perceive as a normal life is an achievement, given the difficulties with which they have already had to cope.
This research also highlighted the benefits of relative foster care and the importance of being placed with a birth sibling. The latest available statistics from the Child Care Interim Dataset 2004 show that 32% of children in foster care were in relative foster care. This number has increased over recent years. At the end of 1998, 635 children were in relative care and by the end of 2004, the figure had grown to 1,349, an increase of 112%. This is a very positive development. Looking to the extended family members in the first instance for placement is a recommendation of the working group report and part of the national standards for foster care. It is important, however, that where the State places a child or young person with relatives, it also has an onus to provide the necessary supports to those carers.
As a result of this Bill, foster parents or relatives who have had a child in their care for a continuous period of five years will no longer have to seek the permission of the Health Service Executive when certain decisions have to be made in relation to the child. With the development and extension of fostering there has been an increase in the number of children in stable long-term foster care and it is important that the parents have the power to make decisions in the best interests of those children and do not single them out as against other children with whom they associate. For example, the foster carer will not have to obtain permission to seek medical or dental treatment for a child or for a child to receive an immunisation or to go on a school tour. The proposals outlined in the Bill will help to prevent the possible stigmatisation of these children in school when they have to wait longer than their peers or classmates for such permission.
Two new sections, 43A and 43B, will be inserted into Part VI of the Child Care Act 1991. Section 43A(1) provides that a foster parent or relative may apply for a court order whether the child is in care on a voluntary basis under section 4 of the principal Act or is the subject of a care order under section 18 of the Act.
Persons can be admitted to foster care under the principal legislation either voluntarily surrendered into care or the courts can make a care order in respect of the child. Section 43A(2) sets out the conditions on which the court must be satisfied before granting such an order. These include that the child must have been in the care of the foster parent or relative for a continuous period of five years; the granting of the order must be in the best interests of the child; the Health Service Executive must consent; and the parents having custody or the person actingin loco parentis must have consented if the child is in voluntary care, because the child has been surrendered voluntarily into custody and therefore the parent has an ongoing veto, or must have been informed if the child is the subject of a care order. The child’s wishes must also have been taken into account in so far as is practicable.
Section 43A(3) provides that the conditions in respect of the notification or consent of the parent having custody or the person actingin loco parentis do not apply if the parent or person acting in loco parentis is missing or cannot be found by the Health Service Executive or the court so directs having regard to the child’s best interests.
Section 43A(4) provides that, subject to any conditions or restrictions imposed by the court, an order granted authorises the foster parent or relative to whom it is granted, on behalf of the HSE, to have like control over the child as if it were the child's parents and to do what is reasonable to safeguard and promote the child's health, welfare and development. In addition, the foster parent or relative is authorised under the order to give consent to any medical or psychiatric examination, treatment or assessment and to the issue of a passport or passport facilities for the child.
Section 43A(5) provides that the court may impose conditions or restrictions to the extent of the authority granted. Section 43A(6) provides that consent given by a foster parent or relative to whom such an order has been granted will be sufficient authority for the carrying out of the medical or psychiatric examination, assessment or treatment or for the provision of a passport or passport facilities.
Section 43A(7) provides that where a foster parent or relative refuses to give consent in accordance with an order made under this Part, the HSE will have authority to give consent in accordance with section 18(3) of the Principal Act. Section 43A(8) provides that any consent permissible under section 23 of the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act 1997 will continue to be effective consent. This provides that a minor who has reached the age of 16 years may consent to any surgical, medical or dental treatment. Section 43A(9) provides that any access arrangements in place before the granting of an order under this section will continue unless the court orders otherwise, in accordance with section 37 of the Principal Act.
Section 43(A) provides that any other functions of the HSE in the child's interest, such as care planning in accordance with any other provisions of the Child Care Act 1991, will continue in force. Section 43B(1) provides that the court may vary or discharge an order made under this section on the application of the HSE, the person to whom the order was granted, a parent having custody at the time the child came into care or a person actingin loco parentis.
Section 43B(2) sets out the circumstances where an order granted under this section may cease to have effect. These include where a child in voluntary care returns to his or her parents or other person, where a care order is discharged, a child is adopted, a child is removed from the custody of the foster parent or relative by the HSE, the foster parent or relative requests that the child be removed by the executive or the child concerned reaches 18 years of age or is married. Part V of the Child Care Act 1991 which deals with jurisdiction and proceedings applies to proceedings taken under Part VI and the new provisions will be in Part VI, the District Court.
The importance the Government attaches to foster care was underlined by the publication in 2001 of the report of the working group on foster care, Foster Care: A Child-Centred Partnership. The report recommended strengthening and developing the service and provided the guidelines to improve standards in foster care. Following on from this, national standards for foster care were published in 2003. The standards focus on the quality and consistency of services for children and young people in foster care, standards and practices related to foster care and guidance to the HSE on how it can effectively meet its statutory obligations.
Since the standard's publication, the social services inspectorate has carried out a national audit and a pilot inspection of foster care services. The pilot inspection considered three of the standards of practice. Three community care areas, located in the HSE eastern, southern and western regions, were nominated by the former health boards to be inspected against these standards. The sample group covered both urban and rural areas. The case files of a total of 56 children and young people were considered during the inspection, representing approximately one third of the total number of children in foster care in the three areas.
On the basis of the information yielded by the pilot, inspectors found each of the community care areas provided a good foster care service. The inspectors found the foster care service provided stability and continuity of care for the children and young people, with the majority of children having spent on average three quarters of their time in care in their current placement. The inspection found the services provided children and young people in foster care with an opportunity to maintain links with their families of origin. It was noted over one third of the children and young people were placed with relative carers and two thirds of the children were living with at least one sibling at the time of the inspection. These figures were viewed as a demonstration of the former health boards' clear commitment to maintaining the connection between children and young people in the foster care system and their families of origin.
Each of the 56 children and young people had an allocated social worker and the inspectors found the social workers provided a good service to the children. They visited them regularly and often helped them come to terms with the reasons they came into care. They also maintained a high level of contact with the foster carers to provide them with support.
This was a pilot inspection. When the social services inspectorate is established on a statutory basis in the near future it will be in a position to broaden the range of inspections undertaken against the national standards for foster care to ensure services of the highest standard are provided.
While the proposals sensibly give the foster parents greater autonomy in the practical day-to-day care of the children, the children remain in the care of the HSE which will be responsible for their overall well-being and protection. To be effective service providers, we need a long-term vision for the children in our care. These young people must be empowered while they are in foster care so they can be happy, secure and successful adults in society. The Bill's proposals will help give them a greater sense of belonging in a family where their foster parents are responsible for many of the practical decisions affecting their lives. I salute the work done by foster carers. It is important we have more foster parents. I also salute the work of the Irish Foster Care Association which advocated the initiation of legislation along these lines.
The adoption (Hague Convention, adoption authority) Bill, which is being drafted, will ratify the Hague Convention, bringing it into force under Irish law. The legislation will also establish the Adoption Board as an independent statutory body known as the adoption authority. The issue of the adoption of a person who is 18 years or more by the person's long-term foster carers is one of the miscellaneous issues under consideration in the context of the Bill.
The Government attaches a high priority to the report of the Ferns Inquiry and to following up on the report's recommendations in the context of ensuring effective child protection and welfare systems are in place to protect children. Before the publication of the Ferns Report, I sought the advice of the Attorney General on the report, including the issue of the HSE's powers with regard to third party abuse raised in the report. The advice was that the executive had general powers under the Child Care Act 1991 regarding third party abuse.
In line with the recommendations, however, it was considered that the Department of Health and Children, in conjunction with the Attorney General's office, should undertake an in-depth study of the HSE's powers in third party abuse and this would be followed by legislative proposals as necessary. Following further detailed discussions between my office and the Attorney General's office on the question of conducting the in-depth examination of these issues, my office and the HSE are examining in detail the various issues involved. I expect this process will be concluded in the near future and that the advice of the Attorney General's office will be sought on the outcome of these deliberations as necessary.
When this is concluded, I will bring forward legislative proposals as required on Committee Stage. My officials are preparing proposals to reform and regulate the provision of public law guardianad litem services, identified as a priority area for reform. The issue of the courts’ role in special care is also being examined. An amendment will be required regarding school age child care to come within the requirements of the Child Care Act 1991 in the same way as pre-school services. I will return to these matters on Committee Stage.
I commend the Bill to the House.