I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, to the House and congratulate her on her excellent work to date. I have no doubt she will have interesting knowledge to impart to us. I call on the Minister to address the House.
Early Intervention and Family Support Services: Statements
Ba maith liom buíochas a ghabháil don Cheannaire, Seanadóir Muiris Ó Comáin, as ucht an chuireadh a thug sé dom teacht roimh an Seanad inniu le haghaidh an díospóireacht tábhachtach seo faoi sheirbhísí do chlainne agus leanaí.
We are at the anniversary of the Government and while my Department of Children and Youth Affairs has a few months to go before it reaches that landmark, this week nonetheless presents an important opportunity to reflect on what has been achieved in the past 12 months and the outstanding challenges.
As I have stated previously in the Seanad, as the first ever senior Minister for Children and Youth Affairs I hope that in establishing a full Department I have managed to bring a seamless new approach to policy development and integrated service provision for children, with the ultimate objective of ensuring children are cared for and protected and that they have the best possible start in life. We must have this vision for children if we want to achieve it. One of the key elements of this new approach is the enhanced focus on early intervention and family support. We must be proactive, not just reactive, in seeking to improve outcomes for children's lives and to identify and respond to potential risks facing children and their families. The return on such a strategy should be clear. It involves improving the lives of children and ensuring better opportunities and quality of life. This contributes to the long-term economic and social development of the State.
I wish to outline in more detail the rationale behind the enhanced focus on early intervention and family support that I am pursuing. First, it is about intervention in children's early years. Early intervention in children's lives and quality early childhood experiences are crucial to a child's emotional, cognitive and social development. I recently attended a round-table OECD meeting on this topic in Norway. It was very interesting for me to hear the findings of longitudinal studies from around the world, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France and New Zealand. Many Senators will be familiar with the findings. We need to do more longitudinal studies in Ireland to highlight the benefits of investing in early years. At the round-table meeting, it was extraordinarily interesting to hear about the returns to the economies of their investments. Returns are between three and ten times the original investment. The children subject to intervention, sometimes for as little as three hours per day, five days per week, are better able to avail of the educational opportunities offered to them. They commit fewer crimes and have fewer alcohol problems. They do better in education and are more employable. Longitudinal studies are becoming very clear on this. It was very interesting to hear the economists say intervention is an important economic contribution to the life of any country. It is not only good for children as it makes sense economically also.
The OECD's economic survey of Ireland claims that in order for Ireland to preserve its strengths in human capital, we should recognise the importance of preschool education in having both a positive impact on later educational performance and an equity enhancing effect. The case for intervention has been made very clearly. There is no question but that Ireland has been behind other developed countries over the years in regard to our early years sector. Even in recent years, the roll-out of child care schemes has often been rooted in supporting labour-market activation. As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, I welcome the important role child care has played in supporting increased female participation in the workforce. However, for too long the focus has been solely on supporting parents and not on the quality supports needed for the development of the child. I am glad this important focus is receiving an increasing amount of attention.
Yesterday, I obtained Cabinet agreement for the development, for the first time in Ireland, of a national early years strategy. We have had a national children's policy but there was no particular focus on early years. I brought a memorandum to the Cabinet yesterday on this topic and received a very positive reaction thereto. I will work with other Departments to ensure we have a high-level policy and strategy that integrates and examines the services available for children from birth to six years. I will have a cross-departmental group working on this, including staff from my Department and the Departments of Education and Skills, Health and Public Expenditure and Reform, in addition to an expert group that will advise me on this matter. I want to prepare the strategy by the end of the year. This gives us an important opportunity to examine some of the key areas, some of which I mentioned. The literacy and numeracy strategy will be considered in conjunction with the Minister for Education and Skills, bearing in mind his very positive initiative in this regard.
Also considered will be the quality of early childhood care. It is not just a question of supplying a certain amount of care; it is also about the quality. Two programmes, called Aistear and Síolta, consider what happens to children in various child care settings and services, including child minding services.
We must also examine health. My liaising with the Department of Health will be very important because we need to consider the screening programmes available. I stated previously in the Seanad that the EU conference in Poland on children's health and screening concluded that one of every five to seven children will have difficulties with sight, hearing and speech and will need to be screened. It is very important that we identify at an early stage the needs of children and intervene earlier. The evidence is that if there is early intervention in regard to disability, the disability can lessen and be coped with better. That certainly makes sense.
There are some serious challenges in the area of health that require joined-up thinking. Some 25% of three year olds are obese or overweight. I was very shocked when I first heard that statistic. I found it hard to believe. The more I see the detail of the longitudinal study of children, the more I realise what a very serious challenge this presents for Irish society. It involves everybody. It is a matter of parental attitudes to food and exercise. There is much to be learned in this area and we need joined-up thinking to tackle it.
I visited a child care service just two weeks ago where I was told about a child of a year and three months who had to be weaned off crisps. I was also told about the difficulties very young children under two have in eating mashed potato because they have been brought up on types of food that are simply not good for them. A very caring woman looked after the children in question and was sharing with me her extreme concern over some of the eating patterns one sees in children under two. This is reflected in the longitudinal study that shows 25% of three year olds are obese or overweight. The same applies to nine year olds and, therefore, the problem features throughout the age range. We have serious work to do in this area.
We need to consider disadvantage and more targeted programmes for children who are under more pressures socially in a variety of ways. We also need to take the opportunity to have early child care services to involve parents more. Rather than having services where children are dropped off, we need to see the parents being engaged where appropriate and where they want to be involved. We are seeing more of this in the services. There are many opportunities available through current provisions but there is a significant opportunity to enhance what we are doing.
Recent years have seen some welcome changes. Senators will be very familiar with the universal free pre-school year scheme. There is a very high take-up rate. Some 95% of three to four year olds are participating and availing of a quality service. We can continue to improve the quality. We have an opportunity to take some of the steps about which I have been talking.
Protecting the universal free pre-school scheme has been a priority for me. I obtained an additional €9.8 million in funding to maintain the universal free year, which will see an increase of some 3,000 in the number of children participating in the programme next year.
My Department runs two other child care schemes. Several hundred million euro is being spent on child care at present. There are some places available now because of the economic downturn but it is a question of making those places accessible to children whose families need them most. With the new activation programmes and the changes the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, is introducing, I hope we will be able to link employment and training uptake initiatives to child care places to ensure child care will be available when families need it. Significantly subsidised child care places are provided to those in VEC courses or what were FÁS courses.
Last week, I launched a new scheme of capital funding for early childhood facilities to be spent during 2012. This is worth €6 million. There has not been a capital fund in this area for some years and I was pleased to be able to secure the funding. It is for remedial, maintenance and renovation works and equipment up to a value of €50,000 per project. This allows for continuing investment, albeit small, in projects that received capital funding over the years but which now need to be supported.
We need to look at working on developing the continuum of family services that are available in the community. Sometimes we take for granted the great wealth and broad range of services for children in families throughout the community. We have a vibrant voluntary sector, albeit under pressure because of finances, which provides a significant level of voluntary services for families and children. While I admire the voluntary spirit of those providing these services, perhaps the Government funding of them has been on anad hoc basis. We need a more streamlined approach to ensure that the families most in need get the benefit of the range of services, for example, the many parenting courses we have throughout the country.
We have a number of initiatives by a wide variety of groups, much of it of a very high quality. Many services are provided but the challenge is to build on them and support their integration with the statutory services, so that there is greater integration between the statutory and voluntary services. We need to see more inter-agency work. If that were to happen in a more focused way, we would have earlier identification of developmental problems, potential incidences of neglect and could respond more appropriately to them. We could be more proactive at an earlier stage. We do not have to reinvent the wheel but work remains to be done.
We have seen significant investment by philanthropic organisation in private projects. I pay tribute to Atlantic Philanthrophies and the various other organisations which have invested significant sums of money in Irish children, and in developing services around the country and trying to improve outcomes for children. Much of this funding will cease in a number of years and in the period of transition from that funding, the integration of the lessons which have been learned from those pilot projects will be the key challenge. It will be very challenging. Examples of these pilot projects include the GDI in Tallaght, Youngballymun in Ballymun and Preparing for Life in north Dublin. Up to €60 million, which is an extraordinary figure, has been invested in these projects by the Department in conjunction with the philanthropic organisations. We must look at the evaluation reports from the projects and see that the lessons are learned and then how other organisations can learn from them.
We have another initiative, the National Early Years Access Initiative, which involves Atlantic Philanthropy, the Mount Street Club Trustees, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Pobail. There are various projects around the country, each of which seeks to deliver innovative inter-agency responses to improving participating in quality early years care, education and development. On Monday I was in Athlone to launch one of these projects, Tús Nua, which serves the Longford Westmeath area. It is very encouraging to see the quality of the work and what is actually happening for children when they attend these facilities. High quality work is being done with them individually in these child care setting. This work is very effectivein helping children understand their identity, work on projects. It also helps them understand various concepts. A common goal of these projects has been a focus on evidence based practice and ongoing project evaluation for the purpose of advising future policy. That is essential, as everybody would agree. I see a very important role for NGOs working with statutory and community based organisation and giving families support.
The third key area is the reform of our child and family services. We have an ambitious agenda about delivering services in a new way. It involves moving child and family support services from the HSE to a new stand-alone agency, called the Child and Family Support Agency, which will be established by 2013. Under that reform agenda, we have got some additional funding for child and family services in 2012. Demand is very high in this area and there are serious financial deficits which will take a great effort to sort in the coming months and years. This year we have seen the creation of a dedicated budget subhead for child and family services, while management structures are currently being developed for the new agency, at national, regional and local levels. This will pave the way for the establishment of the new agency.
Change is not easy. We asked people to support us as much as possible. It will be a change for the workers who have been working in the HSE structure to move to a new agency but from my travels around the country the response has been very positive. People see it as a new era in child protection and a new opportunity to get these services right. It will not be done overnight. There is a considerable deficit in this area. I have to look to the high support areas and the report that was published in Ballydowd yesterday and the previous report that was published in Cork confirm this. I must admit openly there are serious issues, which need to be addressed, about the services which we offer to young people. We must go abroad for some services as we do not have them in this county. Mr. Gordon Jeyes, and the section dealing with child and family support services are working on this issue. We are working on a national policy that will support the development of these services nationally. It is very clear from the 15 or so reports on this area of child protection which have been published over the years that much remains to be done and there is need for early intervention services and the development of a targeted family support service. There is a range of other issues which I have outlined in my speech, which has been circulated, highlighting some of the key issues affecting children in families.
The abuse of alcohol is significant factor, in terms of the number of children coming into State care where alcohol is frequently cited as a key issue. Many young children, under five years, are coming into care because a family member is abusing drugs or alcohol. This is a national issue and we need to intervene to try to protect our children. The evidence from the longitudinal studies shows that young Irish people are drinking earlier and are drinking more than other European children. This is a real challenge for all of those who work in this area and is a major problem for families.
I will give some statistics for the numbers of children in care. Between 2006 and 2010, the number of children in care increased by 13% and since then there has been a further increase in 2011 from 5,727 to 6,160, an increase of 433 children, or 7%. This is in line with increases in comparable jurisdictions. Ireland has fewer children in care per 10,000 of the population than those of other jurisdictions. We need to do all we can to keep that figure as low as we can. The goal of our policy is to keep children at home and to support families by the measures I have outlined. The HSE agenda for child services, which was prepared by the child and family centre in Galway, highlighted the importance of health and social service provision built on the premise of a child remaining at home and being supported within the family and the local community. That is the goal of our work.
The HSE is also looking at assessment of risk and we need to conduct far tighter assessments of risk when families come to the attention of the services to ensure that the correct decisions are taken for families in order that we do not have tragedies. I will be publishing the review group's report on the deaths of children in the past ten years, some of whom were known to the care services, were in care and were in after care. That is being cleared legally but one of the features that stands out is the appalling early childhood experiences that many of those children had. Apart from the time those children came into care, the issues about their early lives and the quality of experiences many of those children had, some of which were already in the public domain, there are some very serious questions that arise about the experiences many of the children had as well as their experiences in care.
I am holding a referendum on the rights of the child this year, which I hope all Senators will support. It is about ensuring that the voice of the child is heard, that we look at the child's best interest and appreciate and understand that a child has rights by virtue of being a child. That referendum is about supporting proportionate means of intervention. As I have outlined clearly, the primary goal is to keep children within their families and if intervention is needed by the State to help some children, that intervention must be appropriate and proportionate.
I hope my statement to the House has provided Members with an understanding of the approach I am taking as Minister and, particularly, the enhanced focus I placed on early intervention and family support services. I see this year as a time when the focus will become much clearer and sharper as we develop the capacity and effectiveness of these services to ultimately improve outcomes for children by intervening earlier, through actively supporting families and promoting the protection and care of children in their home setting.
I thank the House for the opportunity for a debate on this important topic.
I thank the Minister. We will have contributions from the group spokespersons who will have eight minutes, a contribution from one Sinn Féin Senator of three minutes and all other Senators will have one minute to ask questions. It is planned to conclude proceedings at 1.45 p.m.
If I do not use all my time I would like to share it with my colleague, if that is possible.
I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to the House. There are only four Members who were Members when she was Leader of the Opposition. In that capacity she was exemplary in her work. There was always a great debate on the Order on the Business when she had done her research. I was delighted that she was appointed as Minister for children, a full Cabinet position, which was a good move by the Government. She has done an excellent job since her appointment less than a year ago as it took some time to establish the Department.
It is unfortunate that the number of children in care is high, but it is not as high in proportion to other countries. There are too many young people in care. For a country of its size with a family-oriented people, it is extraordinary that the number in care has increased by 13.7% between 2006 and 2010. Since then the figure increased further from 5,727 to 6,160, an increase of 433, or 7.6%. These numbers are very high. I pay tribute to those who care for children and, particularly, foster parents who provide an great service. From my experience foster parents have gone above and beyond the call of duty in doing this work.
The proposed referendum was part and parcel of the commitment of the previous Government and this Government. The report published in February 2010 was chaired by the former Minister, Mary O'Rourke, the Vice Chairman of which was the Minister for Finance, Deputy Michael Noonan. The Minister, Deputy Frances Fitgerald, played a comprehensive role in that most comprehensive report. I have particular praise for the Chairman who was very patient and all the members of the committee. The Minister was an active member of the committee as was Deputy Shatter and other Ministers. It was a matter on which there was consensus and an agreed Twenty-Eighth Amendment of the Constitution Act 2009 in respect of children's rights. That was the final report.
I ask the Minister to elaborate on her views as of today in respect of the referendum. I appreciate she has given a commitment to have the referendum in 2012 and that it will be a stand-alone referendum. Will she confirm if the work is under way for the preparation of the required legislation, and when she expects the wording for the amendment to the Constitution to be finalised? While the Minister has committed to a single referendum, at that time nobody was aware that a referendum would be required in respect of the EU fiscal compact treaty. I ask her to bear in mind the circumstances. There is great support and interest in having the referendum this year, given that it is more than two years since the report was published. At that time, the wording was generally agreed by the Attorney General. Since then there has been a change of Government and the Government has the right to decide.
When summing up, will the Minister comment on the Ballydowd special care unit in the Health Service Executive Dublin Mid-Leinster inspection report published on 6 March 2012? Certain recommendations and views expressed in the report have caused concern, particularly in respect of the isolation of an individual child and the management of this unit. Inspectors found from unit records that this child was confined to a bedroom on five occasions since July 2011 for periods ranging between one hour 30 minutes and 12 hours. These incidents were recorded and reported as single separation. The concerns of the authority in relation to this child were brought to the immediate attention of the national director for children and family services and the national manager for high support and special care services. In addition to this case being addressed directly with the national managers, this standard cannot be met unless all incidents of single separation are acknowledged, reported and recorded in a way that meets the national standards for special care. The Department of Health and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs probably have responsibility in this regard. This will be a timely opportunity for the Minister to outline her views on the report prepared by the Health Information and Quality Authority published on 6 March 2012. It is an important and detailed report on children in care. I appreciate it can be extremely difficult to manage these children. I do not say it is a particularly easy job for anybody. That is not a criticism of the standard of care but the procedures and the resources available to them.
I welcome the fact that the Minister has appointed 62 new social workers. That is a great achievement at a difficult fiscal time, as is the fact that she is successful at the Cabinet table. If she did not have a full Cabinet position she would not be able to achieve so much but given that she is in a position to persuade, the Cabinet will support her.
In regard to other innovations in the child care area——
The Senator has two minutes
Time goes very fast when one is dealing with such a topic. We are fortunate to have so many new Members who have such a knowledge of child care. Has the Minister considered the question of a parent's right to slap a child? I do not think they have a right to slap a child. As a parent, when one comes across it in public, rare as it may be, it is difficult to take. I ask the Minister to have a discussion on the whole area of how we treat children. Children are right in their own way. No adult has a right to slap a child. A former colleague of the Minister, John Boland, removed such slapping from schools. I thank God for that because we were treated abominably at school. I do not blame the Christian Brothers. They were right to give what I call "six of the best" with a designed leather strap.
I have great respect for the Christian Brothers because without them I would not have received an education. At the time children were fearful going to school and, thanks be to God, the Government has removed that. Unfortunately, that fear extended to the home. It is possible to safeguard children in public places. It is wrong for anyone to hit a child and it is unacceptable behaviour. I want a discussion on an adult's right to strike a child, to consider reform in this area. I would like to hear the views of the Minister.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I am pleased that she has placed a new priority focus on early intervention and family support services. As we know, early intervention in children's lives and quality early childhood experiences are important to a child's emotional and social development. There are huge benefits from investment in the early years of children. I am pleased that the Minister and her Department have started work on Ireland's first early years strategy. It will provide an innovative and dynamic blueprint for the future strategic development of Ireland's early years sector.
The Government has invested €1.3 billion in early childhood during the past decade and I am pleased that the Minister has maintained strong support for the sector. Early education and child care services make a huge contribution to local communities and represent the first steps our children take into education. Despite the difficult economic circumstances I am pleased that the Government is determined to support the sector.
There have been difficulties in the HSE child and family services and I welcome the reforms that the Minister has taken on the establishment of the new child and family support agency in 2013. I also welcome the prevention and early intervention programme for children and the specific projects that it supports and are co-funded by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Atlantic Philanthropies.
While on the subject of philanthropy, I want to mention funding for the Jack & Jill Children's Foundation. I spoke about it in the House before and this is primarily an issue for the Department of Health. As the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, and as one who has great concern for issues affecting children, particularly seriously ill children, I am sure the Minister will take on board the issues. The foundation worries about the slow erosion of HSE supports as small cuts at community level add hugely to the stress levels of families with sick children who are already on the brink in terms of coping. If parents cannot cope and care for their sick children at home more children will end up in hospital. I ask the Minister to speak to her Cabinet colleagues and create a national budget for paediatric home nursing care and increase funding to the Jack & Jill Children's Foundation to enable it continue and expand its invaluable services.
The last time the Minister was here she gave a commitment to set up a project on the 116000 missing children hotline. I am glad to know that ComReg has granted a licence to the ISPCC to operate it. Perhaps the Minister might update us on whether the project team has the support line up and running.
The year 2012 is important for children due to the forthcoming referendum on children's rights and I congratulate the Minister on her work to date on it. I warmly welcome the recent confirmation by the Taoiseach that the referendum will be a stand-alone venture and no other question will be put to the people on that day. Is the Minister satisfied that sufficient funding has been ring-fenced for the referendum and how much does she estimate it will cost?
In the next few months a greater emphasis will be placed on the fiscal compact referendum but we must not lose sight of the children's referendum. Lessons must be learned from last year. I ask the Minister to immediately undertake a national publicity and public information campaign throughout the country. The referendum will only be passed with the full engagement of all of the people as every citizen is a stakeholder in children's rights. I am aware that the Minister and her Department have been working hard on the wording. Perhaps my following question has been asked already but can she advise when she expects to publish the proposed wording for what I assume will be an autumn campaign?
Senator Leyden mentioned slapping. Students on a child care course at the Institute of Technology Sligo conducted a survey on smacking that produced interesting results. They may have sent it to the Minister already or will soon do so but I am interested in it. I do not how one would oversee such a project but I am interested to hear what she has to say on it.
I welcome the Minister to the House. As we approach the Cabinet's first anniversary I recall when the post of a Minister for children was announced and I was in Brussels. I have learned that people in politics keep saying that they are not surprised by announcements. I did not expect such an announcement and was surprised. The Department has great potential and for once we had joined-up thinking rather than just talking about it. Today I am still as excited as ever about the Department's potential. It has taken time to bring together the various components and youth affairs was added. It now has the potential to deal with the transitions from the cradle to early adulthood and these are essential building blocks in a young person's life.
There has been a lot of talk about report cards. I do not need to remind the Minister of the Children's Rights Alliance report card on her performance and it gave her a good rating. She has good intentions that point in the right direction but there are many challenges. Resources are a challenge and ranges from staffing to what is within the Minister's remit and we, as a Seanad, need to pay close attention.
The Minister gave a strong commitment to early years education and those early years in a child's life. I too echo the welcome for the early years strategy. Yesterday she sought and secured approval for same from Cabinet and it was an endorsement of her view that the strategy is important.
With regard to the Minister's commitment to the free pre-school year, there has been some cuts. Her strong commitment to it has ensured that it is in place and will continue. I underline the importance of quality. We all need to be mindful of funding cuts. We can get away with little ones but we need to be aware that too many of them could lead to a deterioration in the quality of essential early years education.
We are today concerned with early intervention and family support services and I will focus on them. The Minister mentioned the new child and family support agency and I welcome her work on it. The agency has the potential to be a powerful vehicle for reform in how we work with and support children and their families. Ultimately, it will lead to better outcomes for children and their families here.
We all talk about the difficulties with the HSE and I am mindful that in establishing the agency we must get it right. We have a real opportunity to get it right. For me it is important that all actors must be clear about their roles and responsibilities, particularly their statutory duties outlined under the child care legislation. There needs to be clear lines of accountability. Who will the agency report to? I assume that it will be to the Minister. We also need to ensure that the agency caters for all children and that it will not be like a NAMA for children. It must be an agency that deals with child protection, welfare and well-being.
I ask the Minister to strongly consider adding the role of public health nurses to the agency. They play an important role in identifying early any difficulties in a family or supports that a family needs to ensure that it works. All too often we have focused on social workers, who play an essential role, but they are not the only ones that interact with families. We need to ensure that people like public health nurses are part of the new agency.
I am conscious that the national children's detention centre at Oberstown has now come within the Minister's remit. It is a children's rights issue and I have made my views known on it. I am aware that schemes like the Garda juvenile diversion programme are an early intervention measure. The scheme does not come within the Minister's remit, therefore, her Department has to deal with them when they end up in the detention centre, not the early intervention aspect. Nevertheless, it is important that the Minister plays a role in shaping the early intervention policy around the juvenile diversion programmes.
I also stress the importance of youth work. I know there have been funding cuts to youth work organisations. However, they play an essential role in early intervention in children's lives, in supporting them and in helping them develop.
The Minister spoke about and named specific prevention and early intervention programmes which have been funded by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Atlantic Philanthropies. The programme for Government states:
A new approach is needed to break the cycle of child poverty where it is most deeply entrenched. We will adopt a new area-based approach to child poverty, which draws on best international practice and existing services to tackle every aspect of child poverty. Initially, this model will be rolled out to up to ten of Ireland's most disadvantaged communities, in co-operation with philanthropic partners to co-fund and manage the project.
To me this is a vague commitment. Part of me knows what it means but another is not quite sure. Will the Minister give us more detail on these projects? Will it be her Department that will take the lead or another agency?
Earlier today the Ombudsman for Children published a report on her investigation into the refusal by the Department of Education and Skills to provide an assistive technology grant for a child. Will the Minister take note of this report? Can we intervene in this child's life? Could the cost of the ombudsman's investigation have provided the technology for the child in the first place?
Yesterday evening I came across a case, one which has been going on for some time, of a young child with cerebral palsy whose assistive dog has not been allowed go to school with him since Christmas. His parents, accordingly, have decided to home-school their child. The child has written a letter to the President, Michael D. Higgins, to see if he could intervene to help him. The child's dog is assistive, not a pet, and stops him from falling over. Will the Minister give this case some attention?
I was disappointed the third annual child and adolescent mental health service report stated services have been organised for children up to 15 years of age but that it cannot deal with 16 and 17 year olds because of the increase in frequency and severity of mental health disorders above the age of 15 years. This is not acceptable as a person is a child until 18 years of age. How dare the service say that in this day and age. Will the Minister give this her attention?
The Minister can be assured of my support on the referendum on children rights. It is all about early intervention. Proportionality is the most important element in this and would allow the State to recalibrate the threshold for intervention in a family. Rather than being seen as a person with the clipboard checking up on a family, an early intervention service professional should be rolling up the sleeves to support the family to work, like public health nurses. The term "proportionality" will be important in the referendum wording.
I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, to the House. Like other speakers, I congratulate her on being the first Minister with specific responsibility for and a full ministry on children and youth affairs. Everyone accepts we have had a difficult and traumatic past when it comes to how we approach children in our society. There is much in this regard of which we do not have much to be proud. Over the past 15 years, however, we have come a reasonable way in seeking to protect children, in putting their interests first and recognising the importance and role of the family in protecting the child.
The Constitution states the family is the natural, primary and fundamental unit of society and we accept its role in this regard. There is recognition in all relevant children's legislation that the family unit is the best place for a child to experience childhood. Care is a last resort and it is aimed to ensure a child's experience of a care facility is always as short as possible. Considering that the definition of family in the Constitution is one based on marriage and the current reality in society of the varying units that constitute a family, does the Minister believe the definition needs to be re-examined in the forthcoming constitutional convention? It would help ensure not only that there is legislation that puts the interest of the child first but also that states categorically that we do not limit our supports for families to those based on the constitutional definition.
I welcome the Minister's success in having the Early Years strategy adopted by the Cabinet. A recent OECD economic survey of Ireland recognised it made sound economic sense to place early intervention and family support services high on the agenda. I feel a certain sense of disappointment that we have to be told by the OECD that this represents sound economic sense. As far back as 2005, the National Economic and Social Forum report, Early Childhood Care and Education, stated:
Ability gaps open up early and persist. This is true for many other measures of verbal and mathematical ability.
The report continued that there is a clear relationship with the experience vulnerable children have in the education system and their outcomes in life while early interventions contribute to improving cognitive ability early in life which affects skill acquisition later in life. It was not only yesterday that we discovered early intervention is important and has positive outcomes for children and society at large. It was not only yesterday we discovered the relationship between the levels of interventions in a child's life and later problems of homelessness, crime, poor health and unemployment. Barnardos estimates every euro spent intervening in a child's life ultimately saves the State €8. I congratulate the Minister on getting Cabinet support for the early intervention strategy. I wish some of the policy had been in place earlier.
Since 1994 those who interface with children in the first line of contact, such as teachers, health service professionals and social workers, have been trained in child protection. This is important because frequently they are the professionals who first identify difficulties with a particular family. While there is a role for policy in prevention and early intervention, there are other issues which must also be addressed. In 2002, research was published on children who end up in front of the Children's Court. Does the Minister accept that, in spite of our best efforts, many of the children who experience difficulties with the system come from poorer backgrounds and are deprived economically and socially? According to the study, some of the factors are occupancy of a local authority or rented house, belonging to a single parent family, low family income, consistent poverty, parents in long-term unemployment and poor housing. We must not lose sight of the fact that the significant economic factors that cause children to be at risk do not present for the wider community.
Other Senators touched on a number of issues relating to the question of funding. As the Minister acknowledged, there are many non-governmental organisations, NGOs, in the children and youth affairs sectors. The relationship between them and the statutory sector might benefit from greater clarity and the usage of further service level agreements. I am from an NGO background and am aware of a significant issue with NGOs' funding mechanisms. We have not succeeded in moving to a biannual or triannual funding basis. As such, many NGOs are effectively funding Government programmes for 12 months or longer. These organisations have salary, pension and legal commitments to their staff. Will the Minister consider influencing this situation, in so far as it is within her control?
The Minister referred to childhood obesity. The idea of a fat tax, that is, placing a tax on food substances, has been proposed in the Seanad. Would the Minister favour such a tax if it was ring-fenced for the provision of school meals specifically? Compared with other countries, school meals are not provided to a significant extent in Ireland. Should we consider this proposal?
I also wish to raise the issue of the privatisation of child care. Ireland's child care system does not speak with the education system. They are two separate structures. In light of the need to use State resources more appropriately, we must consider using the existing educational infrastructure to bring about better child care outcomes. Will the Minister consider this proposal?
I welcome the Minister. Like many Senators, I was delighted when I heard that she was to be appointed to this portfolio. Senator Barrett reminded me that we were getting two for the price of one, as I did not know that the Minister's husband was a professor of paediatrics at Trinity College.
I have been educated by this debate and the Minister, but I was also educated at this morning's meeting of the Joint Committee on Jobs, Social Protection and Education, which was attended by the Ombudsman for Children, Ms Emily Logan. She reminded us of the work she is doing and the work that still needs to be done. Her main criticism was of the frequency with which bureaucracy became a factor in the work to which she and the Minister are committed.
Senator Henry referred to the missing children hotline. We are one of the few countries that has not yet put it into operation. The number is 116000 and funding has been available since last October. The hotline is used in the North and 16 other European countries and I would love to see it in operation in Ireland. I am not sure why it is not, but I gather that it is not a difficult technology to implement.
The Minister educated me on the issue of obesity, as I had no idea. The Minister stated that 25% of three year olds were obese. Some of the descriptions she gave were frightening and some of the ideas on how to tackle this issue were interesting.
In the US, families are not given a children's allowance, but food stamps. These cannot be used for alcohol or tobacco. There are moves towards changing our system, but could we consider the approach of the United States? We come across instances of people who abuse the children's allowance. We might be able to do something about that problem and create a real benefit.
A number of Senators will discuss early intervention and the Minister referred to investing now to save money in future. If we are committed to early intervention, could we make a change and number our school years from birth, not primary school? This would underline the idea that education starts at birth as well as the importance of the preschool years. It could be argued that this would encourage school readiness among parents and children. We must make it clear that the education cycle does not begin at primary school. My wife and I are fortunate, in that we have five children and 14 grandchildren. Listening to those Members who are experts in this field, I have needed to consider some of my personal experiences.
According to Professor James Heckman and his colleagues, every euro invested in providing preschool services for at-risk children reaps a return of between €8 and €9. These are considerable figures. I would love to strengthen the Minister's ability to convince the Government to open the purse strings for this sensible investment. The early years are a crucial time, particularly for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
New research published in the December issue of the journalChild Development showed that young children do better in socially mixed settings. For instance, when children with weak language skills are in preschool settings alongside children with strong language skills, their language skills develop faster than the skills of children who are in settings where all of the children have relatively weak skills. The rules of the community child care subvention scheme discourage a social mix, as it is only available in community child care settings, which are primarily located in disadvantaged areas. This means that there is little or no incentive for better-off families to use the same settings. I am unsure about how to overcome this problem, but it is a shame. Young children from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to be in preschool settings where many of their peers are from similar backgrounds.
Many parents do not send their children to preschool. I listened as the Minister cited a figure of 95%. She might correct me on that. My sense is that those who are unemployed and cannot afford it do not send their children to preschool. How do we nudge parents to make their children attend? The Minister mentioned Scandinavia. Although the majority of kindergartens in Norway are privately run, there are public subsidies and national regulations that set maximum fees. In 2011, the maximum fee charged to parents in Norway was €310 per month, equating to €70 per week. Is reform in Ireland possible?
We must consider how to help people return to work. Sometimes, it is too expensive for people to find jobs if they have children. The children of many experienced mothers have left home. Could we match those mothers up with new jobs and create the conditions for people to work? In Denmark where local authorities are responsible for ensuring the availability of day care facilities, including childminding, childminders are supervised and often co-ordinated by the local authorities, which help to match them with children. We could consider this system closely, as it possesses significant potential.
People forget that disadvantage and mental development are linked with nutrition, as the Minister reminded the House today. International research led by the Institute of Brain Chemistry and Human Nutrition, IBCHN, has shown that poor maternal nutrition leads to poor cognitive ability, developmental brain disorders and a higher risk of cerebral palsy. Is it possible to act on this knowledge? A fat tax and a sugar tax have been mentioned, but people could be dissuaded from eating unhealthy food through the use of social welfare vouchers.
We must also remember that the non-cognitive skills such as interpersonal skills, persistent communication skills and other skills that I call soft skills are very important. A nurse who is easily able to comfort patients has non-cognitive skills and sometimes the most persistent, self-disciplined, adaptable and reliable students and professionals outperform those with higher cognitive skills according to Heckman and Krueger.
The British Labour MP, Graham Allen, published a British Government-sponsored report into early intervention programmes for young children in order to save a considerable amount of money. His idea was simple: place the costs to the taxpayer of a successful child if he goes through life next to those of a non-successful child and calculate the difference. The figure can be seen as a profit. If private investors want a slice of that profit, all they need to do is to agree to fund early intervention projects designed to prevent a child from going off the rails. I was delighted the Minister mentioned some of the philanthropic involvement, but we can encourage far more than that. We have not been good at this and some of the tax changes we introduced in recent years have made it less attractive. We have a lower level of investment in Ireland because those people who are wealthy enough find they cannot give money away without also being taxed on it. It was only introduced a few years ago, but it is possible to change it as there could be a huge opening there. Everybody supports child care and early intervention, and the examples the Minister gave us are also worthy of support. Let us do nothing to hinder it. I congratulate the Minister. What she has done today reminds us of the great work that is being done and we need to encourage more of it.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach. I also welcome her to the post in which she serves. Along with Senator van Turnhout, I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children. I have been impressed with the Minister's performance in the engagements we have had at that committee. I am sure there will be positive changes in the area of early intervention and family support services.
I welcome the opportunity to have a debate on the issue today. It is important for us to get off the treadmill of debates and discussions on this issue and start putting in place actions and policies to deal with some of the problems in the system. I welcome two specific developments. First is the children's rights referendum and look forward to the publication of the wording from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in order that we can analyse what it means. While it is important to enshrine rights for children in the Constitution, we need to go beyond that and vindicate those rights to ensure we have a framework of policies that are underpinned not just by intentions, but also by resources. I also welcome the Minister's commitment to begin work on the State's first early years strategy, which will represent a significant amount of work for the Minister and her Department in coming years.
Two aspects of the strategy the Minister mentioned were improving educational outcomes, including progressing the objectives of the literacy; and examining approaches to providing targeted early childhood education programmes for disadvantaged children. We need to ensure that the strategy is cross-departmental because we saw what happened with the plan to take teaching posts away from DEIS schools. Resource hours and special needs assistants are being lost from schools. It is important to have a crosscutting, cross-departmental approach to this. I welcome that a strategy is being developed.
When speaking about child benefit, Senator Quinn mentioned the possibility of issuing food stamps. I do not believe there is widespread abuse of that system. Although a very small number of families may abuse the system, many parents use the supports they get for food, clothes, schoolbooks and many other things. I plead with the Minister not to go down that road and to maintain child benefit as a monetary payment. It is one of the few payments parents get directly for their children. I again thank the Minister for her presence today.
We will have one-minute questions. Five Senators have indicated and I call Senator White first.
When the Minister was Leader of the Opposition in the Seanad, she played a very vibrant role in highlighting issues relating to children. I produced my policy document, A New Approach to Childcare. All of us together were part of getting the Government to introduce the free child-care scheme, which has made a dramatic change in the lives of children, particularly those from disadvantaged families. Based on my research, before we had the free child care, it was pretty obvious that parents with money were able to send their children to pre-school and they were ending up in national school with a considerable start on children whose parents did not have the money. I congratulate the Minister on maintaining the funding. I also congratulate her on getting Government agreement on the early years strategy. I agree with the Minister on the drive to improve the lives of children from birth — actually from before they are born. From the time a child is conceived, maintaining the mother's health and the baby's health is part of the overall development.
I am dealing with an issue relating to a disadvantaged family with six children, with whom I have been involved for a number of years. After visiting their home recently, I said to the HSE person that we should keep our mouths shut when we are being critical of human rights in China. If this woman had been born into a normal family, she would have been a member of Mensa — she is of exceptional intellectual ability. However, because she is a Traveller — I want to maintain confidentiality — and was not able to develop her skills, she is totally frustrated by not having been able to use her potential. I have known her for more than 20 years. She has six children and there is——
Does the Senator have a question for the Minister?
Excuse me, Madam, I have a very serious question to ask the Minister.
While I appreciate that, we have just one minute per question.
I will leave it and will talk to the Minister again about it if I am taking up anybody else's time. I feel very emotional about it. The family is not able to stay in the one establishment because of relationships with other people around them. I visited the latest place two weeks ago and had to walk out in shock. In the previous place they lived the six children were going to school and getting on quite well, but now they have regressed. I pleaded with the local authority to get the family housed as soon as possible into proper living conditions in a humane society. There is a big hole in the roof and dust is coming through the ceiling of the bedroom of the little child. I am ashamed of my country that we are treating a family in this way. When the local authority person asked me whether I thought this person was capable of living in a house, I confirmed that she was. However, it is now necessary to wait for the social worker to give an opinion. I told the gentleman from the local authority that we could not afford to wait for the social worker to decide if this family needs to be housed in a certain place. As the Minister knows, I am an action and policy-driven person. I plead with the Minister to lift the burden from my shoulders because I am desperately worried about these six children.
Unfortunately, we have only one minute to speak but we could speak for hours on this matter because it is so in-depth. I add my voice to those who have commended the Minister on her work to date. It is most impressive and although she has not been in office for long she has done a good deal of work and I thank her for it.
I wish to raise one issue to which the Minister gave only a fleeting reference in the report, that is, the issue of family resource centres. The Minister referred to the importance of early intervention in family support and the need to identify and intervene as early as possible. To my mind this is exactly what the family resource centres are doing. They invite people in and go through the problems. Families do not feel they are going to an official Department. They identify the problems and they are an integral part of the set-up. They deserve more than simply a fleeting mention.
The national forum for family resource centres represents 107 family resource centres. However, there is no representative from the forum on the new agency the Minister is setting up. Will she consider appointing a representative from the family resource centres to the agency? Those involved have endeavoured to hold a personal meeting with the Minister and they have been waiting for it for some time. Will the Minister see her way to meeting them in the near future because they have several important issues they wish to discuss?
I welcome the Minister to the House and the national early years strategy which, she announced, went to the Cabinet yesterday. I commend the ongoing work the Minister is doing in the area. I wish to ask the Minister specifically about early intervention in services for children with disability. The multidisciplinary teams are vital in this area. Physiotherapy, occupational therapy, speech and language therapy, dietetics and psychology are all vital services for a child with a disability and must be available in the early years. It has been shown that the quality of the life of a child with a disability can greatly improve with effective early intervention. I call on the Minister to ensure that the funding and staffing for these vital services will be preserved. I have personal experience of availing of these services and I have seen to my horror how much they have been cut severely in recent years. It is vital that effective communication between these multidisciplinary departments is ardently encouraged. Often, those involved are too busy to link back because there are so many cases.
I call on the Minister to examine respite services for children with a disability. Sometimes, these services can be a lifeline for parents and families. Not only are they beneficial for children but also for others in the family who perhaps do not get sleep at night and for whom one night of respite care per month is their only respite.
Does the Minister have any plans afoot to instruct the HSE to accept private psychological reports? There is a significant backlog and a delay in providing psychological assessments for children in the early intervention years. It would be most helpful to ensure that there are sufficient school places available for the children when they reach four years of age.
I welcome the Minister and offer one compliment and two questions. Like everyone else, I compliment the Minister on the national early years strategy. It signals that she is championing a cultural shift from later to earlier intervention and many of us working in the sector have called for this for some time. The Minister is setting Irish public policy to view the zero to six years of age bracket as a single period of childhood and not simply a matter of child care between zero and three years and education between three and six years. This distinction is critical.
The Minister referred to prevention and early intervention programmes. I established the childhood development initiative in west Tallaght. Evaluations are now coming on stream from the three sites. The Doodle Den literacy programme is demonstrating positive impacts in terms of literacy outcomes, as is the early speech and language intervention programme. All of the sites have a good deal of learning in terms of inter-agency collaboration and I am pleased that the Minister intends to take these on board. Is the Department committed to providing ongoing support to what works in these programmes?
My second question has to do with quality. The Minister has indicated a commitment to quality services especially in the early years. I am concerned with the recent budget because there was a decrease of 3% in the subvention going into these services. Almost no time is being allocated for training and reflective practice. The Minister noted that Síolta and Aistear, our quality and curriculum frameworks, have been rolled out. Only pilot training has taken place in the case of Síolta and there has been little in-service training in the case of Aistear. As the Minister is aware, all of the research suggests that training is one of the primary requirements for improving quality. Will pre-service and in-service training form an integral aspect of the Minister's early years strategy?
I welcome the Minister. I was delighted by her appointment and agree with Senator Quinn's sentiments that there is more expertise in this area in the Fitzgerald household than anywhere else in the world. Should the child and family support agency have linkages to school attendance officers, public health nurses and juvenile liaison officers when it is configured?
The slapping issue was raised by Senator Leyden. The Minister stated that 29% of women and 26% of men have suffered from some form of domestic abuse at some stage. People such as the former Senator Sheehy-Skeffington and the former Minister, John Boland, banned slapping of children by teachers. The idea that we should not intervene against violence because it is domestic is inappropriate. We should be against violence everywhere. In view of the Taoiseach's statement on redefining our relationship with religion in this country, has the doctrine of original sin been over-emphasised? Children are not born evil and need not have anything beaten out of them either by teachers or parents.
I refer to the successful programmes of safety on the roads. How does the surgeon feel when someone is brought in and they are patched up and glasses are put on them so that people will be unaware that they have been given a black eye by their spouse? We must make it clear that violence is unacceptable politically, on the streets, in sports and certainly in households. How do we move to get this message across?
Should the referendum on children's rights not include voting rights at 16 years of age as recommended by the National Youth Council of Ireland? People of this age take courses in civics and they would make excellent members of the national electorate. Perhaps there could be a supplementary question on extending voting rights in the referendum.
I realise I have only a short time but I cannot let the opportunity go without expressing the appreciation of the people of Ballinasloe for the successful visit the Minister made on Monday during which she opened a new €1 million 50 place community child care facility and then visited an innovative preschool facility run by Ballinasloe social services for children with special needs. Later, she met youth leaders in the area which went down well.
My question relates to something the Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan, stated this morning at an Oireachtas committee meeting which I attended. She referred to parents highlighting the difficulties they face in engaging with multiple agencies, often under the aegis of the same Department, when trying to secure adequate supports and services for their children. In one case, a mother told how she had to interact with 21 individuals in various agencies to address the needs of a child with special needs. How can we do better and make it easier to do business with Government agencies? Such agencies should respond in a timely manner to parents of children with special needs, who are struggling from day to day.
I thank all Senators for their contributions to the debate. I welcome the rich seam of knowledge in this Seanad concerning the issues we are addressing today. At a time of such economic difficulty, it is important to have the sort of support and understanding which we have seen in the House today concerning early intervention. We have not always had that but it is something people have grown to understand in recent years. Senator Quinn spoke of thinking about education as beginning from birth onwards — that it is not just about when a child enters primary school. There are also issues concerning our approach to education. Many countries, such as Norway for example, regard the early years as opportunities to play and mix as opposed to formal learning. We tend to move into formal learning at an earlier stage. Some countries leave it to five or six years of age or even older. There is an interesting debate in that regard.
Senator Hayden spoke about the links between education and child care, and the fact that we need to have more engagement between the early childhood care sector and our education system. There is no doubt that we need to have a much more engaged discussion between both sectors — those who are supplying early childhood care and the primary schools. The Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, is very interested in this matter and I look forward to working with him on it. The síolta-aistear is about having quality standards for young children whether they are at the pre-school stage or in primary school. Therefore an interesting linkage is already beginning in that respect.
I welcome Senator Barrett's unequivocal statement on violence, which we would all share. Senator Leyden and others asked about the physical punishment of children. It is important to note from all the studies we have, particularly the major longitudinal study, that the great majority of parents do not use smacking as a form of discipline. Some 0.5% of mothers reported smacking their children regularly or always. However, we have seen a big change in attitudes to physical violence against children, both in schools and generally. It may occur in families where there are enormous pressures. My approach would be to support the positive changes we are seeing and reinforce them by giving families the necessary supports in order that they do not find themselves in this situation. On the other hand, we have had some extreme cases of non-accidental injury where intervention must occur. We know from the reports on neglect and abuse, including child sexual abuse, that some children are subject to severe forms of abuse. Nonetheless we must welcome the sort of cultural and attitudinal changes to physical punishment we are witnessing.
Section 246 of the Child Care Act provides clear legal deterrents to the use of excessive physical discipline within a home setting or otherwise. I will not quote the section in full, but subsection (1) states:
It shall be an offence for any person who has the custody, charge or care of a child wilfully to assault, ill treat, neglect, abandon or expose the child or cause to procure or allow the child to be assaulted, ill treated, neglected, abandoned or exposed in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering.
We therefore have this legislative provision which has been used on many occasions. Some severe sentences have been handed down. I wanted to make that point concerning the particular topic which was raised by a number of Senators.
The general discussion today has highlighted how important early intervention is, in addition to its economic benefits. Given that we are in a time of economic difficulty, I welcome support from Senators for funding in this area. My Department has been subject to funding cutbacks but, as with other Departments, it has kept them to a minimum. Given the economic situation facing us, however, we must examine reform of the services, including better agency working. We must look to many national organisations, be they in the youth work or child care areas, to see how they can work together, pool resources and share services. That is a challenge for all such organisations. A huge amount of money was made available to the voluntary sector over a long period but we are now in a new situation which involves embracing efficiencies and reform. We must ask agencies to work well together and take a fresh look at how they operate. The reaction from most agencies is positive and they are doing that, but I do not want to see the number of front line youth workers being reduced. I want to keep such services. I know that some of our really good voluntary organisations have had to examine their own management structures. It is fair to say that some management structures have grown hugely in recent times. That may well need to be looked at with a view to having more efficiencies, as in every other area.
The referendum on children's rights was referred to by a number of Senators and we have done a lot of work on it. We are effectively working on the committee report because we have given a commitment that the new wording will be based on the committee's wording. Senator Leyden raised this question first and I acknowledge the committee's work as well as that of the former Minister, Mary O'Rourke, who chaired 64 meetings. A lot of work was done in that regard. The previous Government moved away from the committee's wording on the advice of the then Attorney General. I am now drafting a wording that will reflect the committee's commitments. The key areas on which we will be focusing are to ensure that children's rights are in the Constitution, that the child's voice will be heard in matters that affect it at judicial level, and that the child's best interests will be considered.
I also plan to publish legislation on adoption that would accompany the referendum. Although it had not been worked on previously, I am now working on that legislation so that in voting on the referendum people will know precisely what they are voting for concerning adoption. Senator Hayden raised a question about the family. Children of marital and non-marital families are dealt with differently. For example, children of marital families are not eligible for adoption. We have between 1,600 and 2,000 Irish children who, if our law and Constitution had been different, would probably have been adopted. There is great interest in inter-country adoption but we have a minimum of 1,600 young Irish children, although older now, in foster care. Many of their foster parents would like to have adopted them, while many of the children themselves would like to have been adopted, but they could not be because of the strictness of the interpretation of the law as it currently applies. When the constitutional referendum is passed it will make a difference to those children.
It will also mean that Irish children of marital parents who are not in a position to care for them will be eligible for adoption. People sometimes find it hard to believe the kind of pressures such parents are under. A number of Senators spoke about the pressures on Irish families. People may be unaware of the great pressures that lead to families not being able to look after children in those circumstances, which are rare and exceptional. The concept of giving the child a second chance is one we should incorporate as much as possible. That is the goal of the referendum. A date for the referendum has not yet been decided and the wording has not been finalised. However, a significant amount of work has been done. When that stage is reached, the Cabinet will decide on the timing for the referenda. However, the Taoiseach and I have both given a commitment that the referendum will be held this year.
A number of points were made about the secure units. I admit there are legacy issues with regard to secure units and I refer to the reports on Gleann Álainn and Ballydowd. However, the report published yesterday noted the range of improvements which had been implemented. I visited Ballydowd some weeks ago and saw at first hand the much improved physical structure and the work of the staff. Yesterday's report stated that inspectors found there had been a marked improvement in the standard of care in the secure units since the previous round of inspections. The main areas of improvement were in management, the delivery of care to the children and the overall presentation of the unit. The safety concerns raised in the previous report had been well managed and risk-assessed but there were some ongoing challenges which required attention. There was a discussion about one particular child and a disagreement between the views of the inspectors and what the clinicians who had been dealing with the child thought was the best action.
The work in these special care units is very difficult and challenging. The children and young people have very complex needs. A national policy on these units is required and this has been missing until recently. There is an over-dependence on agency staff in these units and a number of other issues need to be addressed. The director of the child and family services in the HSE, Gordon Jeyes, is addressing these issues and he is working on producing a national policy. In the meantime, it must be ensured that standards are as they should be.
I welcome the HIQA reports. I have met HIQA on a number of occasions and its role is crucial with regard to secure units. Great care must be taken when dealing with secure units which must be monitored closely because of their nature and the challenges which they present. I also had a meeting with HIQA about Gleann Álainn in Cork where changes were noted but HIQA decided there was more work to be done. The young people in these units are getting better quality care as a result of the inspections but there is work to be done at a national level on the development of these units.
Senators have provided many questions for me to answer and we could have a very lengthy debate if I were to answer each question in detail but I will do my best on the range of issues which have been raised. Senator Henry referred to the Jack and Jill Children's Foundation and I am very aware of its work. The Department of Health is the funding Department in this instance. I have been to a house where I saw the work done by the foundation for a young child who needed the sort of support services it provides. If the same child were in residential care one can only imagine what the cost would be and I take the Senator's point in that regard.
Senator Henry raised a very interesting point about information on the referendum and the importance of ensuring that people understand the concept of children's rights. I ask for the assistance of all Senators because much work is needed; many people are unaware that children remain unadopted because they are children of married parents. I think the general provisions of the current Child Care Act are not generally understood by the public. We need to educate the public on why children are coming into the care system and that it is not an action taken lightly. I take the Senator's point about the information campaign which will be needed and I will follow up on her suggestion.
Senator van Turnhout covered a number of areas. She stressed the quality issues relating to early intervention and I agree with her views that any cutback will have an impact on services. We must ensure that the standards in the early years services are as high as possible and this will require ongoing work. The standards vary and we aim to achieve an even and high standard in every service. We must be vigilant in this regard. I note that in the changed economic circumstances, many parents who previously took an extra six months of unpaid leave cannot take such leave and therefore more families are looking for child care for very young children of six months of age. This raises very specific issues about the quality of care provided for those children whether in a childminding setting or in a child care service. Other countries provide longer parental leave which gives greater choice to parents as regards the care of very young children. I would like to see the same arrangements in this country although there has traditionally been resistance to the extension of parental leave and paid parental leave but such a measure is a great support to parents. I refer in particular to the arrangements in the Scandinavian countries.
Senator van Turnhout also spoke about the juvenile diversion programmes and I have responsibility for policy in this area. The programmes come under the remit of the Minister for Justice and Equality but I am working on the policy issues in this area with the Irish Youth Justice Service which is under the remit of my Department. It is interesting to note that fewer children and young people are going into detention with the numbers decreasing quite dramatically. However, many of those young people are now coming into the care system instead and this is putting the care system under significant financial pressure when dealing with the complex needs of these young people. These issues need to be considered from a national policy point of view and this has not been the case up to now. We need to develop a policy for dealing with children requiring a high level of support. Such care already incurs a very significant financial cost. If we could ensure that those young people were helped at an earlier stage it would be better for them and it would be far less costly. The HSE child and family services budget last year was overdrawn by €72 million, a very great sum of money. This demonstrates the pressures in the area of child services and it is one of the budgetary issues I am required to address. This is a very serious and challenging deficit. The issues relating to high support units contribute to that deficit because they are very expensive and we need to develop a national policy to deal with them but this will take some time.
Senator van Turnhout made quite a number of points about the area-based approaches which are contained in a commitment in the programme for Government. This policy will be led by the Tánaiste's office and by my office and it will be dealt with under the social policy committee of the Cabinet. A range of initiatives will be undertaken to roll out programmes for children, particularly for children in disadvantaged areas. The evaluation process needs to be completed. Very significant investment has been made. We need to study the research reports to see what is working because some things are not working. I refer as an example to an after-school service which was not working successfully for specific reasons. The research showed that for a range of reasons, this service was not the best intervention in a particular circumstance. We must evaluate the reports to see what lessons can be learned from the pilot projects and how these lessons can be applied generally. As the same level of investment will not be available, it is about learning the lessons from the very detailed work being done.
The Senator raised a number of issues in regard to a particular case. She might give me those details.
On the point about child and adolescent mental health services, or CAMHS, and 16 to 18 year olds, it is essential that these services should be working with this age group. I intend to discuss this issue with the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch. This is a very vulnerable group and one cannot write those involved out of a service. They have to have one, being a needy group with many issues around addiction and high-risk behaviour. It is unacceptable that at this stage we can say that 16 to 18 year olds do not have a mental health service or that there is no place identified where they can find one. It is a very big challenge.
Some of the issues raised today are primarily the responsibility of either the Minister for Health, Deputy Reilly, or the Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, which highlights the type of interdepartmental approach that is needed. Disability was mentioned several times as was the assessment of young children by the various teams. That must be discussed because the National Council for Special Education, NCSE, does not come under my Department but under another. Therefore, the cross-departmental link-in is really important. As Senators know, we do not have brilliant models for cross-departmental work. We must develop ways of working across Departments so that we can deal with these issues in an integrated way. That certainly is the intention.
I responded to some of the points made by Senator Hayden. Both she and Senator Quinn asked me about the hotline. When I was last in the Chamber I stated I had set up a group to examine this matter for the first time. I asked the Garda, ComReg, the Department of Justice and Equality and my Department to come together to see how we might ensure a 111600 hotline for this country. During the course of the project team's work ComReg, which has responsibility for the allocation of this number in Ireland, it received an application from the ISPCC to operate the hotline. I thank that organisation for its interest in this matter. ComReg allocated the number to it and at this stage the group is working on technical issues about activating the telephone number. I expect that will happen this year and I hope sooner rather than later. The funding is being examined and the precise cost is under investigation. There is the EU Daphne programme which provides funding and I hope there will be a successful application to that fund. We will then examine the funding gap that remains and see how it can be met.
The Senator also spoke about training for professionals, about which I can only agree with her. She highlighted the needs of particular children who are at risk of poverty and-or in disadvantaged areas. The roll-out of the Government priority initiative I discussed will be most helpful in that regard.
A number of Senators discussed the research on obesity. It is shocking that we have three and three and a half year olds who are obese or overweight but it is important not to blame parents. It is a societal issue. Parents clearly have a role in this regard but it is also a societal matter, for example, our use of local parks and the development of recreational facilities. I recently launched a play and recreation network and brought together, for the first time, all the play and recreation officers from around the country. I asked them to come together in a national programme to ensure that our local authorities are working towards this end. They are doing terrific work with the sports partnerships. This is a very important initiative towards ensuring, for example, local schools can use the local parks, there are proper cycle lanes, walking and running tracks and that we have a very proactive approach to the subject. Much can be done in this area. It needs action by schools too.
I am often struck by hospitals in this regard. One goes in and wishes to buy a healthy snack but the vending machines do not have healthy food, in the main. It is hard to get healthy food in hospital waiting rooms or public areas, which is extraordinary. Senator Quinn will know about this. The food industry is very powerful from a lobbying point of view. Commercial enterprises have a job to do but we must look at the public health issues involved. There is much more awareness now of these issues and action is increasingly taken in schools and in working with parents. The wider debate in the public arena is very useful, in respect of the so-called fat tax or other initiatives that are needed. I heard some experts speak on this subject recently who claimed such mechanisms have been proven to be effective. If it is effective to do some work in this area and reduce the incidence of our children eating very unhealthy foods, I would welcome it. However, I would not underestimate the industry's reaction.
Senator Quinn asked about the hotline, which I believe I have covered, and also about supporting families and how we can best work with them. I made points about early intervention and providing the best supports. Child benefit has been extremely useful to families. I agree with Senator Cullinane that it is used for the basic essentials and for children, generally.
There are great opportunities in working with preschools and families at risk in the area of nutrition. We have county child care committees in every county. In Monaghan recently, I was very interested to see these committees are bringing professionals such as speech and occupational therapists into the preschool services, which goes back to the point made about professionals and disability. Those involved find it is a much more efficient way of getting help to families rather than giving appointments to parents at local clinics and hospitals, which may be missed. We need to do much more of that and bring the services to where the children actually are. The ECCE scheme, with 95% of the three year olds in the country attending, gives a real opportunity to do that. I would like to see that initiative being developed throughout the country.
Senator White mentioned a particular case and I will get the details from her. I acknowledge the work she has done in this area.
Senator Moloney spoke about family resource centres. I am very happy to meet their national forum. I have met many of those involved on an individual basis, have attended some of their events and been to many of the family resource centres. I totally agree with the Senator about the work they are doing at community level. It is really important. In the new child and family agency we want to keep the ethos of the family resource centres which is one of working at community level. The organisation has not been a member of the task force group but we have had a lot of contact with it. As the chief executive officer, Pat Bennett, to whom I pay tribute, has done much work with the task force, we have had a very important link to the work the family resource centres are doing through contact with their CEO. I thank Mr. Bennett for his work with the centres. They have had some funding cutbacks but we have managed to keep these fairly low and they are managing to do most of the work they had been doing. We want to support them.
Senator Zappone spoke about the importance of training. I can only agree with her. This, again, is a question of resources but training is key and there is quite an amount of it going on. When I was in Athlone the other day with Tús Nua I met many of the people from Early Childhood Ireland who are doing training around the country. There is a significant amount of training going on but we want to see Síolta and Aistear being done all over the country, not only as pilot projects. That is the intention and I will work with the Department of Education and Skills to ensure that happens.
Senator Moran mentioned multidisciplinary teams and the need to have them available to children in early intervention. I do not know the answer to her question about the private psychology reports. I understood they were being accepted but I can check that and revert to the Senator on it.
The Senator spoke about the importance of inter-agency work, sharing information and early intervention. I will soon put the Children First guidelines on a statutory basis and part of the legislation will be about the importance of inter-agency work and sharing information, as well as reporting cases people are concerned about to the appropriate authorities. That would put more focus on the multi-disciplinary work and sharing information effectively. An example was given by a Senator earlier of 21 people who were in contact with one particular family. We do not want such situation to arise. We want effective intervention. Proper intervention means proper risk assessment, deciding who the key worker is and working effectively after that.
Much work has been done. I do not have time to go into all the detail of it here but the national director is working on an extensive programme of ensuring that all referrals to social workers are screened, considered and prioritised appropriately by professionally qualified social workers. We are now gathering data in a much more organised way across the country to allow us compare what is happening in one part of the country with another. The national procedures for monitoring and reporting back are being developed, and that should help in terms of that kind of multi-agency involvement with a particular family.
Senator Barrett spoke about the important links to public health nurses and the National Educational Welfare Board. The National Educational Welfare Board is now under my Department which has meant there is more and better integration but the task force I have set up to establish the new child and family support agency will give me three reports shortly. One is on the establishment of the agency, its governance, the reporting arrangements, etc. Another is on the vision of the agency but the third and important one is on the services that should come under the new child and family support agency and how we can have appropriate links, for example, to general practitioners, public health nurses and educational welfare officers. It is a key issue. Those type of linkages are extremely important.
We discussed the issue in regard to violence.
I do not expect that the issue of voting rights for 16 year olds will be dealt with in the children's referendum but Senator Moran might discuss it in the constitutional convention. The children's rights referendum will deal with the issues on which work has been done in the committee.
I hope I have dealt with as many as possible of the questions raised but I am sure we will have another opportunity to discuss the issues. I thank Senators for their interest in this area, with many of them present for the end of the debate. It will be a huge support to me in ensuring we continue to have the resources we need to make a difference to children and families.
I thank the Minister for what I am sure we all agree was a comprehensive response to all the questions raised. I thank the Senators for their contributions.