I am pleased to have this opportunity to introduce the Bill to the House and I look forward to engaging in a constructive debate as the Bill proceeds through the various Stages. The Bill proposes to amend the Child Care Act 1991 and the provisions have three distinct elements relating to aftercare, early years services and technical amendments on foot of the Child and Family Agency Act 2013.
The Bill provides for an explicit requirement to prepare an aftercare plan in respect of a specified cohort of children and young people as they transition from State care. The Bill places an absolute obligation on the Child and Family Agency to implement national standardised structured aftercare planning provision. Although operationally the agency has been moving significantly in that direction, the Bill clarifies and copper-fastens the requirement for an aftercare plan. It puts such planning on the same footing as other statutory obligations on the agency. It guarantees that the progress made to date will continue. The Bill also provides for amendments to the Child Care Act 1991 to enable the Child and Family Agency to visit premises where it is proposed that an early years service will be provided, before such a service has been registered with the agency, to ensure they are fit for purpose. In addition, the Bill provides for technical amendments to a number of Acts on foot of the commencement of the Child and Family Agency Act 2013.
Aftercare is the term used to describe the planning and support put in place to meet the needs of a young person who is leaving statutory care at 18 years of age and to assist in making the transition to independent living. It is essential that all young people leaving care are provided with the type of transitional support that their individual situation requires. The most important requirements for young people leaving care include continuity of relationships and secure suitable accommodation as well as further education, employment or training. Current aftercare provision incorporates advice, guidance and practical support. Other crucial elements of an aftercare service include advocating on behalf of young people to support their development as fulfilled adults in their community and, when necessary, linking them to targeted adult services. The aftercare planning process is a natural extension of the care planning process. It is a necessary step in supporting and enabling the transition to independent adulthood, a change which can be challenging for many young people.
Between 450 and 500 young people leave care annually upon turning 18 years of age. Overall, of approximately 6,400 children in State care, some 93% are in a foster care family placement. On reaching 18 years of age in foster care, a sizeable number of young people remain living with their foster carers either full-time or part-time, if they leave home to continue in third level education. The Child and Family Agency supports these aftercare placements by way of an aftercare plan, in addition to a support worker and financial assistance.
Young people who do not have family support from a foster carer or family base are assisted in finding accommodation in supported lodgings, sheltered housing or independent accommodation and encouraged and supported financially in furthering their training and education. The Child and Family Agency has advised that, as of the end of March 2015, there were 1,720 young people aged between 18 to 22 years, inclusive, in receipt of aftercare service. Of those, some 1,012 or 59% were in full-time education.
Under existing operational policy arrangements an aftercare plan is prepared, in partnership with the young person, to identify supports that the young person requires. In preparing the aftercare plan, some of the supports required will fall to be delivered by the Child and Family Agency and some by other Departments and agencies, for example, income support, health services, education and local authorities, in respect of accommodation. The voluntary youth sector has an important role in supporting young people while in and leaving care by working with local statutory providers in creating a supportive network for young people. By proactively including young people in their programmes and activities, further benefits for these young people may be gained. One of the key objectives of the national youth strategy 2015-20, which I recently launched, is to support young people at critical transition points in their lives. The strategy commits to promoting a stronger role for youth services in supporting young people as they transition from statutory support services, including care arrangements and residential services, to independent living.
The legislative provisions relating to aftercare are being strengthened in response to concerns that there was insufficient focus in this area and that such planning was not taking place on a properly structured and consistent basis. We all remember well some years back some of the terrible tragedies that occurred to children or young adults leaving care. The approach adopted is to impose a statutory duty on the Child and Family Agency to prepare an aftercare plan for an eligible child or eligible young person. This will create an explicit statement of the agency's duty to be satisfied as to the need of the child or young person for assistance by preparing a plan, in consultation with the young person, which identifies their need for aftercare supports.
The Bill builds on the existing provisions of section 45 of the Child Care Act 1991 and provides for a statutory entitlement to an aftercare plan. I am keen to be clear on one point. The Bill does not, nor was it intended to, provide for any change in statutory entitlement to services. The provision of services to which those leaving State care may be entitled is governed by the existing statutory and administrative criteria of the relevant schemes and programmes. As Senators will be aware, all State bodies are obliged to have regard to the resources made available to them in the provision of such services. In this regard, my Department has held meetings with other key Departments in respect of the supports those Departments offer to young people leaving State care. There has been widespread recognition that such young people carry a particular vulnerability.
Discussions are ongoing on how to best support these young people to transition to independent living, and I am glad to say the response from our partner Departments has been positive. The heads of the Bill were considered by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children last year, and representatives from my Department, the Children's Rights Alliance, Focus Ireland and Empowering People in Care, EPIC, attended the hearing. The Bill I am bringing forward today has benefitted from the recommendations in the committee's report, and I thank all those involved.
The general outline of the aftercare provisions of the Bill allow for: the preparation of an aftercare plan for an eligible child before he or she reaches the age of 18; preparation of an aftercare plan, on request, for an eligible adult age 18, 19 or 20; and review of the operation of an aftercare plan where there has been a change in the adult’s circumstances or additional needs have arisen. A key factor in achieving success is ensuring assessment, preparation and planning for leaving care begins in the years prior to leaving care and continues as part of the care planning process. This work is based on collaboration with the young person, his or her carers and partner agencies to generate an aftercare plan that is specific to the individual young person’s needs. The language used will be suitable for the individual concerned.
I will outline the provisions of the Bill. Section 1 of the Bill provides for the definitions required in this Bill, defining the principal Act as the Child Care Act 1991 and the Act of 2011 as the Child Care (Amendment) Act 2011. Section 2 amends section 2 of the Child Care Act 1991 to provide for additional definitions within that Act of those eligible for an aftercare plan. A child who has spent 12 months in the care of the State, with either the Child and Family Agency or the HSE, in the five years between the ages of 13 and 18 years, will be eligible for a statutory aftercare plan. The criteria employed to determine the eligibility of an adult - a person aged 18, 19 or 20 - for the purposes of an aftercare plan requires such a person to have spent 12 months in the care of the State, with the Child and Family Agency or the HSE, between the ages of 13 and 18. Where a child or adult has been in care for any period of time between the ages of 13 and 18 and has also been accommodated under section 5 of the Child Care Act 1991, any periods of time spent in such accommodation and that spent in care can be combined to meet the 12-month threshold stipulated.
Section 3 provides for the removal of a reference to section 45 in section 23J of the Child Care Act 1991. This reference is no longer valid on foot of the new aftercare provisions. Section 4 provides for an amendment to section 23 of the Child Care Act 1991. The Child and Family Agency will be obliged to produce guidance on the assistance that may be provided in accordance with an aftercare plan in instances where the person to whom the plan relates has been the subject of an interim special care order or a special care order and is an eligible child or eligible adult.
Section 5 provides that the agency shall prepare an aftercare plan for the eligible cohorts of children and adults, detailing the assistance that may be provided, once such a person has reached 18 years of age. The core age range for such support is 18 to 21, other than in the case of education where the agency may continue to provide assistance until the completion of the course in which the young persons are engaged or until the end of the academic year in which they reach the age of 23, whichever is the earlier. This section incorporates elements of the current section 45 of the Child Care Act 1991 and provides that implementation is subject to resources. Section 6 provides that an assessment of need will be carried out in order to identify the supports and services appropriate to an aftercare plan and sets out the domains to be considered in such an assessment.
Section 7 provides for an aftercare plan for an eligible child who is in the care of the agency or an eligible child who is no longer in the care of the agency and sets out what an aftercare plan will contain. Regarding a child who is in the care of the agency, following an assessment of need, the agency shall prepare an aftercare plan setting out the assistance required to meet the needs identified in the assessment, upon the child turning 18. An aftercare plan will be prepared at least six months in advance of the child attaining the age of 18 years or within three months of that child having become an eligible child, whichever is the later. An eligible child no longer in the care of the agency or a person acting on that child’s behalf – a parent, guardian or person acting in loco parentis - may request an aftercare plan from the agency. Upon receipt of such a request, and following an assessment of need, the agency shall prepare an aftercare plan setting out the assistance required to meet the needs identified in the assessment, upon the child turning 18. In the case of an eligible child who is no longer in the care of the agency, an aftercare plan will be prepared within three months of receiving a request, or at least six months in advance of the child attaining the age of 18 years, whichever is the later.
The child or young person will have a central role in the development of the aftercare plan. This is very important and appropriate. The agency shall also consult, in preparing an aftercare plan, with all relevant bodies playing a role in the provision of services and supports required for the aftercare plan. As part of this process, the agency must have regard to resources available to it in implementing an aftercare plan. Where the agency cannot ascertain the views of the eligible child, an aftercare plan shall still be prepared by the agency. The agency shall consult with specific people, mainly those in loco parentis, in preparing an aftercare plan, other than in such circumstances as the agency deems it not in the best interest of the child to do so.
Section 8 provides that the agency shall prepare an aftercare plan for an eligible adult where none had been previously prepared and sets out what an aftercare plan will contain. The agency shall, following a request from an eligible adult or a person authorised by that adult, carry out an assessment of need for the eligible adult and prepare an aftercare plan setting out the assistance required to meet the needs identified in the assessment. The aftercare plan for an eligible adult will be prepared within three months of a request for such a plan and the agency shall consult, in preparing an aftercare plan, with all relevant bodies playing a role in the provision of services and supports required for the aftercare plan. In preparing the aftercare plan, the agency must also have regard to resources available to implement the aftercare plan. The agency may consult with all people who, in the view of the agency, would be of assistance in preparing an aftercare plan for the eligible adult. Such consultation can only take place with the consent of the adult concerned.
For the avoidance of doubt, where the agency is providing assistance to a person under the original section 45, it will continue to do so as if the section had not been amended. In addition, if the person satisfies the eligibility criteria for an “eligible adult”, he or she may make a request for an aftercare plan. In all cases, for an eligible child in care, an eligible child no longer in care or an eligible adult, in preparing an aftercare plan, the assistance identified will comprise supports and services that may be provided directly by the agency in addition to assistance in accessing other supports and services for which the person may be eligible.
Section 9 provides that the agency shall conduct a review of the operation of an aftercare plan on request by a young person or someone acting on his or her behalf if any of the following conditions are met: there has been a significant change in the circumstances of the young person; the assistance being provided under the aftercare plan does not meet the need identified; or additional support requirements for the young person have arisen. Such reviews are to be conducted within three months of receipt of a request. The agency will, in conducting any reviews, have regard to those service providers for whom any such review would have relevance, and consult accordingly. The agency may also, with the consent of the young person, consult with individuals who the agency considers may be of assistance in reviewing the plan. Aftercare plans may be updated following a review. Any such updating shall have due regard to the resources available to the agency to implement the updated plan.
Regulation of early years services is provided for under Part VII A of the Child Care Act 1991. In particular, this new Part of the Act introduced new powers for the Early Years Inspectorate regarding registering providers of early years services, removing providers from the register, or attaching conditions to a registration. Revised preschool regulations are being finalised. In the meantime, I am taking the opportunity in this Bill to give early years inspectors the power to visit preschool services premises before they open, in order to advise the provider on layout, and generally to check the premises are suitable for running the service.
While it is likely that providers would welcome such a visit, there is no compulsory provision for it currently and the inspector would have to rely on the consent of the provider.
I am satisfied that these provisions will form an additional safeguard to ensure that preschool premises are fit for purpose and will support the care and education of the young children in the service. The provisions will also facilitate preschool providers in understanding what is required of them in terms of the provision of appropriate facilities.
Section 10 amends the Child Care Act 1991 to allow the Child and Family Agency to refuse to register a proposed provider who refuses permission to an authorised person to enter a premises for a pre-registration visit. Section 11 amends the 1991 Act to allow the agency to cause to be visited premises where it is proposed to carry on an early years service to ascertain if the premises comply with Part VIIA of that Act. Section 12 amends the Act to permit an authorised person to visit premises where it is proposed to carry on an early years service in order to ascertain if the premises comply with Part VIIA of that Act.
A number of amendments of a technical nature are required by the enactment of the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 to a number of Acts that were amended by it. Section 13 and Part 1 of Schedule 1 provide for technical amendments to the Child Care Act 1991. Section 14 and Part 2 of Schedule 1 provide for technical amendments to other Acts. Section 15 and Schedule 2 provide for a small number of repeals.
This Bill underpins significant initiatives and reforms that have taken place in recent years, which have been developed with the goal of improving aftercare services so as to deliver better outcomes for young people leaving the care of the State. A key focus of the Child and Family Agency service reform and improvement is the continued enhancement of leaving and aftercare services, which began with the development of a national leaving and aftercare policy in 2011 in co-operation with the key stakeholders, including the voluntary sector agencies representing children in care and those services involved in aftercare provision. There have been significant improvements in the delivery of aftercare services since the introduction of that policy. In implementing it, the agency has prioritised the development of dedicated aftercare services in each area, the standardisation of a range of financial packages, the introduction of interagency aftercare steering committees at local level and the further development of the provision of information on aftercare services. The Child and Family Agency continues to review its current policy to reflect legislative changes. In so doing, it will continue to work in partnership with those that represent the views of children in care and foster carers.
In examining our care and social services, we all too often focus on the negative, a deficit reporting model, as it were. It is this form of negative outlook that, while in many cases based on fact, is transmitted for public consumption. However, it is fair to say that progress is being made in the provision of aftercare services. As one example of good practice, the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, recently found the aftercare service provided to young people in the Galway-Roscommon area to be excellent. In its inspection report on the foster care service in that area, HIQA found that the outcomes for children leaving care were excellent, with some remaining with foster carers and others placed in supported lodgings. Every young adult in aftercare had an aftercare worker and a written aftercare plan that was of good quality. Almost all of those in aftercare were attending third level education or training of some kind. This is the standard to which we aspire for all young people leaving the care of the State and tangible proof that the changes made to date are progressing as we would wish. I remind the House that, one decade ago, the delivery of aftercare services was unstructured and inconsistent. We have made significant progress in the interim. This Bill builds on that success.
Overall, the Bill attempts to take account of the need for a degree of nuance in planning for leaving care for young people at a time that is appropriate and sensitive to the young person's particular needs. The intention is to ensure that these preparations take place in good time to allow a young person to participate in the preparations, which is critical, ensure that the young person can prepare himself or herself for changes that may be occurring and ensure that the necessary supports can be identified and, subject to availability, put in place.
I thank Senators for their support for and engagement with the Bill. I look forward to our debate and I commend the Bill to the House.