Children in Care and Children Leaving Care: Statements

I welcome the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth to the House. He has ten minutes.

I thank Senator Ruane for raising this important matter and for her ongoing work in this really significant area. It is valuable that Members of the Seanad should have the opportunity to express their views on issues concerning vulnerable children and young people in or leaving State care.

We all share an ambition for children in care to thrive. This requires all forms of alternative care in Ireland to support and look after children and young people, and for these individuals to have continuous relationships with those involved in their care. It means that children in care should be supported to express themselves and to be heard, and that a care placement should continue to support the continuity of key relationships in a child's life. Overall it is important to remember that children are unique when they enter care and they are unique when they leave.

All children in care will have different and particular needs necessitating individualised care and care planning. Therefore, I welcome this opportunity to engage with Senators on alternative care services and supports. I also want to reflect on the considerable progress that Ireland has made in this important area over recent years, some of which I will now mention briefly. First, the establishment of Tusla in 2014 represented the most comprehensive reform of child protection, early intervention and family support services ever undertaken in Ireland. Today, Tusla employs over 4,000 staff and budget 2022 will bring the agency's budget to almost €800 million. This significant investment underlines this Government's commitment to ensuring that Tusla has the resources to meet its mission of protecting and supporting our most vulnerable children, young people and families. Undoubtedly, the agency has had challenges but I have real confidence in its senior leadership in implementing reforms across this agency.

Second, Better Outcomes Brighter Futures, which was published and launched in 2014, represented the first overarching national policy framework for children and young people in Ireland. This landmark document sets out a whole-of-government vision for Ireland to be one of the best small countries in the world in which to grow up, including for those children and young persons in the care of the State. The Child Care Act 1991 is the statutory framework for child welfare and protection in Ireland. The legislation places a statutory duty on Tusla to promote the welfare of children who are not receiving adequate care and protection. It sets the legislative provisions on taking children into care and the responsibilities of the State in that regard, which aim to improve outcomes for looked-after children. The legislation is underpinned by regulations and national standards set out by HIQA to support the welfare of the child and the quality of his or her care. New legislative provisions were commenced in 2017, which put on a statutory basis Tusla's responsibilities to provide assistance to eligible individuals over 18 years of age as part of an after-care service.

Finally, in respect of our international commitments, I am glad to say that Ireland has honoured its commitment, under the European Union relief projects, to receive 36 separated children from refugee camps in Greece. This commitment was honoured with a backdrop of the pandemic and the considerable logistical and safety considerations that this entailed. Intense planning preceded the operation in May and was only achievable through the dedicated work of Department officials, members of An Garda Síochána, Tusla's social workers and their counterparts in Europe and Athens. The final 28 young people were brought to Ireland in August and September of this year. They are being cared for through a number of means, including the innovative Fáilte Care programme that Tusla created for the fostering of children who came to Ireland as unaccompanied minors.

While these are considerable milestones, my focus is to continue the positive progress that has been made in alternative care provision through the delivery of a significant reform agenda underpinned by a substantial and high-quality evidence base. This includes ensuring that legislation relating to children in care is child centred and fit for purpose in a modern Ireland. In 2017, my Department commenced a process to revise and update the Child Care Act 1991. This complex work is currently ongoing following a consultation process that began in 2020 and enabled key stakeholders to inform and influence the development of this landmark legislation. I look forward to bringing a comprehensive set of amendments to this legislation to this House next year.

The programme for Government contained a commitment to enact a family court Bill. This would be a key element in the development of a more efficient an user-friendly family court system that puts families at the centre of its activities, provides access to specialist supports, and encourages the use of alternative dispute resolution in family law proceedings.

As Minister for children and young people, I am committed to the principle that young people should be supported to participate in key conversations or decisions that affect their lives. The Constitution has explicitly protected this principle since the introduction of Article 42A in 2015. Therefore, it is imperative that when a child enters a court setting his or her voice or wishes should be heard. Last month, firm progress in this regard was made when the Cabinet approved the drafting of the new child care (amendment) [guardian ad litem] Bill 2021. The revised general scheme of this Bill has been published and will come before pre-legislative scrutiny in the coming weeks. The Bill aims to extend the guardian ad litem or GAL system to benefit the greatest number of children and young people, and to ensure that the best interests of children and young people in childcare proceedings are met. This ambitious programme of work seeks to improve outcomes for some of the most vulnerable children in the State and their families.

To conclude my opening remarks here today, I want to update Senators on some of the key ongoing matters of relevance to alternative care. As the Senators may be aware, the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, is currently developing draft overarching national standards for the care and support of children using health and social care services. I understand that some stakeholders, including foster carers, have expressed concerns regarding these draft standards during the public consultation process.

While I met the IFCA on this issue earlier in the year and have subsequently taken note of its concerns in respect of a number of areas in the draft report, I also recognise need to review the current 2003 foster care standards.

I have also met a number of other stakeholders through the year regarding the aftercare services provided by Tusla. Some of these organisations advocated for the changes to the upper threshold of eligibility for aftercare support. Aftercare remains a relatively new service, being in place on a statutory basis only since 2017. It is, therefore, prudent to first ensure that this service is fully delivered and is providing measurable and improved outcomes for those transitioning from State care before consideration to extending such services to a larger cohort of care leavers is undertaken. I continue to examine equalisation between care leavers who are and are not continuing on in higher further education. My Department is currently progressing an audit of aftercare provision in conjunction with Tusla and this will contribute towards an evidence base for any future decision on aftercare supports.

Finally, I am pleased to announce that tomorrow I will participate in the launch of the ripe for reform report. This report presents key findings by the Child Care Law Reporting Project, CCLRP, following its analysis of childcare proceedings over the past three years, as commissioned by my Department. I welcome this valuable report which is timely, considering our ongoing work to ensure that alternative care in Ireland works for the benefit of our most vulnerable children. We all recognise that the CCLRP is a particularly unique and beneficial way of gathering real-time and long-lasting data on what is happening in child proceedings, in particular as they take place in camera and, therefore, without that, we would not be able to understand trends, patterns and degrees of consistency, or lack thereof, in terms of the approach to child law.

To conclude, I hope today's proceedings in the House will contribute to furthering the goal of a better understanding of the needs of children in care and children leaving care. I look forward to hearing my Oireachtas colleagues' contributions on this issue. As I notified Senators earlier, I have to attend a debate in the Dáil this evening. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Anne Rabbitte, will replace me and represent the Government on the conclusion of the debate. I again thank the House for the opportunity to speak on this issue. As Senators will be aware, I am happy to engage with all of them on this issue. I again thank Senator Ruane for seeking this debate and championing this issue.

I do not envy the Minister his job. He seems to be grasping a lot of nettles these days. It is important that the he be brought before the House. I thank Senator Ruane for discussing this because children are probably the most vulnerable in society and it is good to get an update from the Minister.

I thank him for some work he did on extra funding for support for the victims of domestic violence and their children. Of course, it is never enough and there are issues with accommodation, but the extra funding has definitely helped. I know from people who work in the voluntary sector providing protection for women who, along with their children, unfortunately, have to deal with domestic violence, that it has been a big help. It is also great that we have secured funding to help unaccompanied minors access full wraparound services, something that did not exist in the past. I welcome those initiatives.

The waiting time for young people in foster services is something the Minister and Green Party worked hard on to get it into the programme for Government. It is great that we got it in there and to see it being implemented. Rather than having children in care leapfrogging a general list, providing services on-site within Tusla will mean that children in urgent need can be catered for immediately. A cross section of services can be provided to the same child and a more economical service can be provided by the State. This all makes very good sense. Could the Minister update the House on progress in this area? I know it is being done in Dublin North Central and has proved to be very successful. Given that it is proving to be successful, are there move towards rolling it out nationwide? This is what we need everywhere in Ireland. What is the next phase of that great plan?

In terms of homelessness, there are issues around Tusla tracking young people. Children who grew up in State care are vulnerable to becoming homeless as adults. No one seems to know how common that is because Tusla does not track the figures. Does the Minister hope to do some work on that? Can Tusla track the levels of homelessness in young people who leave care? We need facts if we want to try to solve problems. It is not good that people who have grown up in care are not tracked in order to determine how they are coping once they have left.

The Brothers of Charity often deal with houses for people with special needs, including some minors. It was brought to my attention by the head of the Brothers of Charity that the organisation is not eligible for any retrofitting or warmer housing scheme grants. For some reason, the HSE has not included such houses in any scheme. We need to examine that issue because people who are cared for by the Brothers of Charity also need to be in warm homes. The Minister might raise that issue with the HSE. Those houses need to be retrofitted. I have been to visit a few of them. I thank him for his great work to date.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House. Last week, I spoke about some of the horrors in our State care system and the fact that there were 30 deaths last year, seven of which were through suicide. It makes me very sad to see our young people dying in State care.

This is an area with which I am familiar. I would love to think that everything was all rosy in the garden, but I hate to tell Senators that it is far from it. There are some excellent social care workers and foster care parents, but we need more. We need probably twice the number that we have now. Last year, and probably this year as well, due to Covid, the system was limited in trying to get people to become foster parents and trained in fostering. Many parents who were on foster care teams were reluctant to take children into care because of Covid. These children probably ended up with in residential care, possibly in the private sector. That is a difficulty.

We need to find ways to encourage more parents, single people and those from any demographic to foster a child. If someone has a home, a bed, is Garda vetted and can provide love and support for a child, that is all a child needs. I deal with teenagers in particular. They are probably the most difficult cohort to house because people run a mile from them. I do not know why, because I find they are probably the most engaging children that people can get inside their door. They come with challenges, but once they are put on the right path they can bring people great joy.

One third of children in Dublin are placed outside their area. It is a concern that children cannot get a foster care placement in their own areas and continue with their school and the things that feel normal, such as playing in local clubs and so on. If we could get children placed in their own areas, that would help.

I will read a testament from a young person whom I know. She is 21 and is a full-time student in aftercare services. She would like to first say that aftercare services have been crucial to her in transitioning to adulthood and she is forever grateful for the support, funding and care that aftercare has provided to her in the past three years. She said she could not have achieved what she has today without their help. However, there are in her opinion a number of deficits in the way that aftercare services currently operate. She said it is important to note she is a full-time student. It is for that reason that at 21 years of age she is still supported by services. Remaining in full-time education is a requirement of such services, as Senators may be aware. She understands the principle is to keep young people in education but, however, this is often to the detriment of those who choose not to pursue education. Whatever the reason may be, they still need support. It is also a big fear she has.

She has a degree in law and is currently studying to receive her masters degree. She is worried about what will have to her when she finishes her masters? It is a worry for many of her friends who are also in aftercare. There are many opportunities she wants to pursue after this year but cannot as she does not meet the criteria of full-time education required by these services. As a result, she is financially constrained. She cannot pursue opportunities such as internships, volunteering abroad and more. She understands this may not seem like a serious issue, but she believes this requirement stops young people reaching their full potential and, in the most serious cases, leaves young people homeless and without financial stability in a matter of weeks after turning 18.

Leading on to her second point, she believes that the cut-off age of 23 is too young and could be extended to meet circumstances in each individual case. This requirement again means lost opportunity for many young people who are still in need of these vital supports after the age of 23. She writes that she has struggled badly with her mental health at times but aftercare has provided vital support to her. She refers to the fear this can be cut off in as little as a year and a half. Many young people come into care and indeed aftercare with a lot of baggage. Many have mental health conditions and physical conditions and need continued support. This need does not go away just because they turn a certain age. The age of support needs to be reviewed so that the assessment can be made on an individual case basis.

On the topic of the precarious state of many young people's mental health, another issue that should be flagged is the availability and quality of psychiatric and counselling services that aftercare is in a position to offer a young person. Aftercare provided this young person with a set of ten sessions of counselling and she is forever grateful for this. However, it took for her to reach a very dangerous place mentally before she was offered this service. Now the only support she receives is from a university counsellor. Many in aftercare cannot afford prices such as €60 or €70 an hour to speak to a counsellor when this is almost half the allowance they receive weekly to support themselves for food, transport and otherwise. This is the average price of counselling from her own personal experience and may not be accurate in all cases. She believes the mental health services within aftercare services need to be improved. Mental health conditions are an unfortunate reality that many young people from care face every day.

Finally, she says so many times that she is so grateful for the aftercare service and how compassionate those involved have been to her over the years. She states that many of the issues she has flagged are not something individual aftercare workers have control of or can fix themselves. She thanks everybody again.

They are just the issues I would face with a lot of children who are in aftercare who come back to me. I was in a meeting today with Children in Poverty with a number of colleagues. They spoke about Tusla. I asked if any of the parents ever contact the family support services that are available through Tusla. They said no way, they would run a mile before they picked up the phone and talked to Tusla. That has to be our go-to for families when they are in trouble. It really should be. If families are in trouble, it should be that they pick up the phone and there is somebody there. That is the Tusla I want, the service I want for the children of this nation. If children or families are in trouble and can see breakdowns happening, the family support service in Tusla should be there. Parents are afraid even to touch the agency and are running a mile from it. That is a red flag and I want the Minister to do something about it.

The foster care service for the 36 children who are coming in is the right thing to do. I am always mindful of all those who are suffering in the world and the refugees who need our support. Is that service long term or short term for those children who are coming into care? If those kids are in short-term care, we do not want them to be moved around two or three years later. I would hope they would be in long-term care.

I am probably taking too long. On the issue of suitable residential placements, I was talking to Senator Ruane earlier about what they call Lefroy House. If a child cannot get into emergency services, if I am minding a child through emergency services myself and I cannot take another child, he or she is then put on to Lefroy House. It is a mix of young teenagers and adults. Those young teenagers have to be out of there at nine o'clock in the morning. We need to have suitable emergency places for children. The Cathaoirleach is looking at me; I am over time.

Because the Senator has such vast personal experience in this area, I am not cutting her off. The Minister would benefit and I know he knows a great amount in this area. It is important people like the Senator, who have great knowledge, are able to bring those stories to the Minister and say what is working and what is not working. I call the next speaker, Senator McGreehan.

The Minister is very welcome. It is a very important issue and Senator Keogan really highlights it. I always enjoy listening to her on this issue because she teaches us all an awful lot. I was struck by her commentary last week on the Order of Business in respect of the lives we are losing under State care. The Minister has a great responsibility. It is almost relentless. There are constant issues and for me they almost seem greater than any of us because there are so many barriers and pitfalls to creating a State full of adults and children as we want them to be. It is all our responsibility to look after the children in the State like they were all our own flesh and blood. We all have to fight for them. Senator Keogan is relentless on that. She is constantly speaking about children in care. These are our future adults, leaders, business people, and parents. It is so important we give them every single opportunity to be their best selves.

We see time and again, unfortunately, that the State fails very vulnerable children. The most high-profile recent case was the Grace case. The system itself was guilty of serious criminal negligence, in my opinion. Nothing was done, repeatedly. The poor wee child, whom we call Grace, was systematically abused in foster care. It is absolutely disgusting that we allowed this to happen. We are not personally responsible but we are, because this is our country and these are people we pay to look after little children like Grace. We fail them. The system itself is necessary for so many reasons but it is so important we put in every single procedure and step along the way. The Minister rightly said in his speech that the child's voice is the most important. We all know there is excellent work going on with our foster families. I know many foster families and they are incredible. As Senator Keogan said, we just do not have enough of them. We just do not have enough places.

I had to read the Minister's speech a few times as there is an awful lot of information in it. There is a lot of work going on in the Department. We have very important targets in our programme for Government, including the commitment to aftercare and transition. We all know aftercare and transition follow on not only for children in care but also for our disability services. That transition is very important to highlight. One thing as sure as God is that we are all going to get older. All children are going to hit 18, we would hope, and are going to want to reach those milestones. I see the Department is putting an awful lot of work into aftercare. There is no limit to the resources that should be put in. Senator Keogan mentioned that girl who is so grateful for everything. She should not have to be so grateful because it is our responsibility to look after her. She has proved herself and has worked so hard, yet she is afraid to leave because she does not have the support. I am nearly 40 years of age and I cannot manage without the support of my family. As a country we need to treat ourselves as the family support unit.

What came up, and comes up time and time again, was resources, staff, foster care homes, suitable emergency care and the need to transition away from private providers. That was necessary throughout Covid-19 when a great deal of resources were put into private care. It was important and necessary then. We need to get to a point where we do not have to use this. The inflexibility of the system also came up, and the need to look at the individual's care needs and see what is best, as what is best for Erin might not be best for Mary. We need to look at the person. We had an excellent engagement with the Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth when that exact same point came up around the lack of individualisation, the lack of looking at the person and the family unit as a whole and considering how best to support that child and support the mother or father to make sure they are not falling into child poverty or fuel poverty. It is an endless circle where a person steps up and gets a job, and then starts to lose his or her benefits or support package. There is an endless amount of "do this, but you will be punished over here". We need to starting looking at the person and stop this siloing of benefits or supports to the family. Regardless of the structure of the family, be it a foster family, a single-parent family or a grandparent looking after a child, there is a family to be supported with whatever it needs.

I welcome the Minister's comment that we can make this country one of the best small countries in which to grow up. We have to make sure we do not fail any more children. We must support them. We should look at their little faces and say each of them will be a bloody great adult when he or she grows up, because he or she is worth it. Another thing that came up at the committee, exactly as Senator Keogan said, is that people do not trust Tusla. The families that potentially are in need and could do with extra supports or a bit of advice do not go to Tusla. They feel Tusla is an agency that will take away the child or make the parents look bad. We need to transform that. We need to change that attitude. We need to make that Tusla is there for the person and not for the system.

I was hoping Senator Ruane would be before me. I thank the Minister for coming here today to take these statements. I thank Senator Ruane for raising this matter and giving us this opportunity. There is no doubt that there are exceptional foster families, individuals, couples and family situations that are fantastic. There are many people who would probably like to be foster carers. Because I am involved in IVF, surrogacy, fertility and other such groups, fostering comes up in discussions of alternative pathways. One of the repeated statements I hear - I am probably guilty of holding this myself - is from people who believe they could never be a foster parent because the idea of the child not being theirs would be scary. This suggests to me that we probably need an information campaign. It is a repeatedly statement. I am not alone in that. It is difficult for people to imagine loving a child, only to see him or her going back to his or her family. Obviously, a particular mindset is needed, and a particular form of care and love happens, to be able to do that. We need education programmes to assist people in all the emotional requirements as well as the practical requirements when it comes to fostering. That would be a big discussion.

There is no doubt there are exceptional social workers. A recent report from Empowering People in Care, EPIC, contained quotes on how amazing social workers were, and the voices of children on how incredible they were. However, there is a massive turnover in social workers and a lack of consistency and stability when it comes to relationships. A child who is already vulnerable has an advocate from Tusla and his or her social worker. When the relationship works, it works really well. If that advocate changes on a regular basis, it reiterates that undermining of trust and relationships. I worry about the long-term effects on attachment and stability of relationships in adulthood. If there is no modelling of consistency, what will flow from that? Questions such as career pathways come up when we look at the causes of the high rate of turnover. Are some of the social workers inexperienced? Should we be doing a greater in-house apprenticeship-type model? Should we look at how many places there are? Are there sufficient places? Where are social workers being poached to or moving to? Is social work with children a transitional route to better or more secure roles? We need a review of why people leave and why there is a big turnover in staff. Is it just that they are overworked, or that there are not enough of them? If so, do we need to work with the Minister, Deputy Harris, to ensure we have enough places in schools? Perhaps it goes back to creating an intentional interest at post-primary level to ensure this is a career of choice for those who have an interest and an aptitude. There is no doubt that we need more social workers.

I would like to speak about the process of a child becoming the subject of a care order and going into care. Family law is not something I ever aspired to work in. Those who have the patience for it are incredible people. At an early stage, I found myself wanting to shout at a parent who was really appalling and was allegedly my client. I decided then that I should never do family law. I was too opinionated in regard to my clients. Those who practise family law work in an extraordinarily adversarial environment where people come in to give opinions about a vulnerable mother - in the main - and how she is managing as a parent. One instance cited to me was a case in which a decision was to be made on whether a child should be taken into care and be made the subject of a care order. The evidence that was brought before the court was that the mother in the case required too much support. Fortunately, the solicitor cross-examining had the wit to ask how much support she was provided with. How much is too much? The answer was one hour a week, which seems shockingly low. It seems to me that anyone who considers that to be a lot, and believes that the mother in this case was particularly needy, is working in a sphere very different from the rest of us and how the rest of us would think.

When I canvassed for a couple of comments in advance of this evening's debate, one solicitor said to me that there needs to be additional support and that these mothers would not be in the position they are in if they had adequate support. I think that is a little bit too much, because some of them probably have adequate support. I think we would all be of the view that the best place for a child is with his or her mother. At the same time, sometimes mothers need breaks. It is not always about support, but clearly there is a trend of a lack of support or of inadequate support. The solicitor to whom I spoke suggested that if the money spent on placements and assessments was spent on supporting families, everybody would be much better off. Maybe a balance can be struck by making sure more than one hour a week is provided. In some of the examples, the criteria used when deciding whether parenting is good enough seem to be quite harsh. There are judgments around floors being sticky. If they walked into our house at certain times, God bless us, I am not sure I would pass judgment. It comes back to consistency and stability. This is the mantra of the Child and Family Agency, which is always concerned with mothers failing to provide consistency and stability. When we, as a State, adjudicate that it is not in the best interests of children to leave them with their parents and instead put them into a system where they move between different foster families and different social workers, we are failing to provide consistency and stability.

There is a definitely something there we need to address. Strangers are caring for a child and can terminate that placement within 28 days.

When we review, and clearly we are in a review phase, we must also review what happened before, what leads to that point where a child comes into care. Twenty-three years ago a group of us who were new people working in the City of Dublin YMCA came together and had the idea of building supported social housing, a foyer type project where accommodation was provided together with all the support services required for young people coming out of care because they were at a high risk of homelessness. I find it hard to believe that, 23 years on, nothing has changed very much. Anytime one is out with the homeless or speaks to people in this area, there is a definite pattern of people having grown up in care. On 9 November, Ms Kelly Anne Byrne, an ambassador for Focus Ireland, spoke at the Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. She was fantastic and spoke of having stability in her home with the help of Focus Ireland but she spoke of having come through care and of not having had that sense of stability or security. There is certainly a lifelong correlation there and we need to focus on that. It strikes me that we need a cross-departmental group working on this or perhaps we should reignite the idea of foyer projects and ensure we have all those support services for people coming out of care beyond those who are just in full-time education. I thank the Acting Chairperson for indulging me.

I welcome the Minister to the House. I thank the Leader of the House for scheduling this debate. As was mentioned, Senator Ruane requested this debate on the Order of Business.

I want to focus my comments in my short contribution on aftercare services. I do not need to tell anyone in the House that it is a support provided to young people who have been in care for a period of time before their 18th birthday and it is governed by the Child Care (Amendment) Act 2015. According to a discussion document published in June of this year by Empowering People in Care, EPIC, 2,943 young people were in receipt of aftercare services in quarter 4 of 2020. For many of those young people, aftercare supports are falling below what is required. That has been the case for those who have come through aftercare services, and unless the State makes a range of reforms and changes to have a more holistic and person-centred approach, this will continue to be the case for young people who have yet to come through aftercare services. Whether it is the Department, the Houses of the Oireachtas, Tusla or organisations like EPIC, we should be looking to other jurisdictions and learning from them about how we can improve situations for young people.

Here at home we also need better data, which was mentioned by Senator Garvey. We should know how young people in care are doing when compared with their peers who are not in care or in aftercare services, for example, how young people in care are performing in education. EPIC has called for better data gathering of children in care, aftercare and beyond. We need that data and longitudinal studies.

I do not need to remind anyone in the House that the State has an incredibly important role in supporting children in care. We must ensure young people are equipped to prepare to leave care and the structures are in place for them to live life independently. Housing is a major issue for young people leaving care. The National Youth Council of Ireland has noted in its pre-budget submissions time and again that there are many reasons young people can experience homelessness. Issues such as reduced social welfare support, young people being a lower priority on housing waiting lists, unsuitable emergency accommodation and, in this case, inadequate support services, especially for those leaving care, are major contributory factors. Many young people have difficulty accessing affordable and quality housing in the private rental market or in the social housing sector.

I want to cite some of the recommendations for aftercare provision in the EPIC report and I invite the Minister to respond to them. The report recommends aftercare services should be placed on a statutory footing as a right for every child leaving State care. The provision of an aftercare plan and, importantly, the implementation of such plans should be enshrined in legislation. Aftercare supports on a needs assessed basis should be provided up to the age of 26 years. There should be consistency in the detail of aftercare provision regardless of geography or where somebody lives.

Those are some of the issues I would like the Minister to respond to in his concluding remarks. I apologise for being late in arriving but I read the Minister's opening statement which was provided by his officials. I thank Senator Ruane for requesting this debate.

I call Senator Ruane. I also thank her for pressing for this important debate.

I thank the Minister for being here today. I will preface my contribution by saying that although we need to focus on aftercare provision and foster care, we must not lose sight of the reasons people end up in care in the first place and we should always focus on prevention as well as the aftermath of children who have been in care. Senator Seery Kearney hit the nail on the head in what she said. If we are going to judge and make assessments of how people parent or what they can or cannot give their children, we want to be 100% sure that when the State steps in to be that other parent, we will increase that child’s ability to flourish and have a positive outcome and not decrease his or her capacity.

That is something that has always rung through for me. I have been involved in many cases of advocacy as a community worker, including working with women who had addiction issues, where we sat down and looked at care plans. Tusla’s intervention at the time would have been very heavily focused on a parenting course. In those situations it was not that the mother needed a parenting course. It was very much that she was living beyond her means due to the conditions she had, her environment and having perhaps experienced trauma throughout her life. There were all these other conditions that were a factor. Obviously, there are cases of neglect or abuse where care intervention will be needed, but there are many cases where judgments are made often on foot of an unconscious bias by social workers who have good intentions but who do not have the lived experience of being in a community or a certain cultural environment that they do not understand. They make harsh decisions based on an experience they had growing up that they are now not experiencing but which might be quite normal to the rest of us living in those communities in terms of who we are, how we speak or how loudly we do or do not shout. We should always ensure prevention in those cases is very much to the fore of these conversations as well.

I wish to deal specifically with the policy issue. Coming into care presents many challenges for children, young people and their families. The lived reality for these families is something many of us cannot understand because it is so foreign from the lived experiences we know ourselves. We need to acknowledge this while also working hard to ensure there is greater parity between the lived experiences of all children in Ireland. While early intervention and family support are critical in this way, sadly, there will always be circumstances where children will need to be cared for out of home. Therefore, we have a collective responsibility to ensure the State provides the best alternative care possible to these children.

The first area is the importance of data collection, which was mentioned, and analysis in respect of children in care and young adults in aftercare services. We simply do not have access to enough data regarding the unique experiences and outcomes of individuals who are care-experienced. How can we improve services, policy and legislation if we do not know the full extent of the problems we are trying to solve? In 2009, the Ryan report called for a longitudinal study to be undertaken on the experiences of young people in care and aftercare. While data collection has improved in the meantime, we have been waiting too long for action on this recommendation. I know the Minister is awaiting a report from a working group established to investigate the best way to collect, follow and analyse those data. I look forward to real progress being made in this area in the new year.

The second issue I wish to address is the provision of therapeutic support for children in care. The reality is that most young people who come into care are likely to require therapeutic intervention, but young people often do not receive the interventions they require in a timely manner and at other times they do not receive them at all. Social workers, foster carers and parents regularly have to battle to ensure their child can get access to therapeutic support. That needs to change.

The social work sector should have access to these supports in-house and every young person in the care of the social work area should have the opportunity to avail of them. Having in-house teams of specialists would ensure continuity of care for children while also allowing social work teams to garner therapeutic insights to inform their work with individual children and families. A model exists for this in the Dublin north-central social work area where there is an in-house therapeutic hub. This model should be replicated around the country as a priority. However, if it is the case that we cannot provide these services in-house in the short to medium term, we should ensure that children in care have designated pathways to access specialist services in their respective local health areas.

The third issue I wish to bring to the Minister's attention is the need for independent advocacy for parents who are engaged with Tusla. This is very close to my heart. I proposed an amendment to the adoption legislation in 2016 in respect of the lack of a dedicated social worker for a parent who has seen his or her child go into care. That amendment also required Tusla to have to signpost parents in the direction of supports, especially if later in life Tusla is going to seek a High Court judgment to remove the parental right of a parent without consent. I know that social workers try their best to step into this role, but the dynamic between parents and social workers does not really allow for it. The system that parents must interact with is very complex, the language they need to decipher is often inaccessible and the relationships they must maintain are atypical and often fraught with tension. Parents need and deserve access to their own support that can help them to navigate these complexities. We also must take account of the individual circumstances that contributed to each family coming to the attention of Tusla. Supporting parents in this way can assist them in making the positive changes required to resume care of their children. It can also help them to maintain healthy relationships with their children. We must ensure that in supporting children we do not lose sight of the importance of supporting their families.

The last issue I wish to address is aftercare, which could be a topic of discussion in its own right. We all can agree that early adulthood poses many challenges, but consider trying to navigate this critical life stage while unpacking the baggage that comes with being care-experienced. Aftercare workers provide critical support to young people as they navigate this transitional life stage but, unfortunately, not all care leavers have an individual allocated worker. While drop-in services are provided for those without an allocated aftercare worker, this cannot replicate the benefits offered by the continuity of a relationship with a supportive adult. Moreover, the quality of services being provided around the country is inconsistent due to the varying capacities of aftercare teams in different regions. Advocacy groups for children in care and care leavers, such as Empowering People in Care, EPIC, have called for the age of eligibility for aftercare to increase to 26 years. In the event that this is not achievable in the short or medium term, I call on the Department at least to consider expanding the age of eligibility to 23 years, irrespective of whether a young person is enrolled in education. At present, we have a system where young people who are not enrolled in education lose access to their aftercare support at the age of 23 when, in many cases, it is these young people who require the most support.

As with all forms of housing at present, there is a significant undersupply in aftercare accommodation. The issue is so pronounced that many care leavers have no choice but to engage with homelessness services to identify suitable accommodation. While the capital assistance scheme has been a welcome development in recent years, the demand for accommodation in this scheme far exceeds the supply. A strategy must be developed to address this issue, specifically to ensure that no care leaver finds himself or herself without a stable and secure home.

Before concluding I wish to express my solidarity with all care-experienced individuals, their families and foster families, and to acknowledge the work of all those dedicated to ensuring that children and young people with experience in care achieve their full potential and lead happy and healthy lives. Finally, I acknowledge the work of the Department and the work the Minister is already undertaking to address the issues and concerns I have raised. I know that making improvements for children in care and care leavers is a priority for the Minister and I look forward to working with him to achieve progress in this area.

I must leave as I have to speak on a Private Members' motion in the Dáil. The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, will take over for me. I thank the Senators for their contributions and I am sorry I cannot respond directly. However, many of the issues raised are issues we are engaging with, as Senator Ruane and I discussed yesterday. We will continue to engage on those issues and I am available for Commencement matters or further statements at any stage.

Thank you. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health, Deputy Rabbitte. The next speaker is Senator O'Loughlin.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte. After listening to the Minister's earlier statement, I wish to highlight two matters. I am glad he put an emphasis on the uniqueness of every child. Every child going into the care system is unique, and is unique when he or she leaves. That must be celebrated and supported. The Minister also acknowledged that children in care have different and varying needs, necessitating individualised care. That is massively important in terms of care planning.

There were almost 6,000 children in care at the end of 2020, and I assume it is around the same number now. When talking about children in care it is important to acknowledge and recognise the extra vulnerability they have in their lives and to ensure they are protected and have an equal and fair chance in life. Some 91% of these children were in foster care and the rest were in residential care or special care placements. Indeed, I had a young man who is in a special care placement doing work experience with me for a week about two weeks ago. He is living in Newbridge but going to school in Portumna, travelling up and down every day. I will not refer to the part of the country but it was an experience to spend a little time with him.

What I know about children in care and care leavers is what I learned from somebody I introduced to the Minister of State a number of years ago, Shane Griffin. I met him in 2014 when I knocked on his door when canvassing in the local elections. We started a conversation that we continued until his death on New Year's Eve in 2019. When I knocked on his door that day he spoke to me about having been a child in care and having been in 19 different care placements. He was very conscious that there was no problem with the homes in which he was placed, but he really needed to be with his mother. He was taken from his mother when he was seven years old. We know that every child who goes into care suffers trauma from their earlier years. There was trauma in his home and he was taken away, as were his siblings, but he needed to be with his mum. He always felt that if his mum had been given the supports she needed, he could have stayed with her. Having said that, he also acknowledged that his siblings thrived in foster care homes. For him, however, he felt that it was very important to talk about that.

He became a passionate critic of a childcare system whose social workers were overburdened, placements were frequently breaking down and which lacked aftercare. He felt the children and their needs and wishes were often ignored, and that traumatised children were further traumatised. He became a strong advocate for children in care and for those leaving care. As we know, in the current system young people leave foster parents at 18 years of age. That is such a young age. I know many foster parents who would love to be able to give that extra care and support afterwards.

I got to know Wayne Dignam of the Care Leavers' Network through Shane. I organised a briefing one day in the audiovisual room, which was attended by the Minister of State. That was when we could have briefings. I am thinking of Wayne today, of Shane's daughter, Hayley Ann, and all the wonderful people I have met who continue to be great advocates, as is the Chair. I compliment my colleague, Senator Ruane, for ensuring we held this debate. There is so much more we need to do and say, but I was strongly touched by Shane's story and I wanted to bring it to the House.

I now call Senator Conway. You are an amazing timekeeper; you are spot on. I do not know how you do it.

I do not know about that. My wife would not agree.

Anyway, you have four minutes.

It is appropriate that you are chairing this debate, Acting Chairperson, given your history and advocacy work.

The Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is very welcome to the House. I listened to the contribution of the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman. I believe that the whole-of-government response is very important. While the children brief is a senior Ministry the issue of children transcend all Departments. The thinking needs to be that each Department takes its responsibilities for children in its area seriously.

I commend my colleague Senator Mary Seery Kearney on the phenomenal work she had done over the past 12 to 18 months in this area. Her own story published in the Irish Examiner over the weekend was just brilliant. We are very lucky to have strong women such as the Minister of State, Senator Seery Kearney and others across the political divide. These are people who are committed to ensuring that the place of the child is enshrined not just as it is now in our Constitution, but to also ensure that it percolates down through every Department.

We had the referendum where the people decided to enshrine in our Constitution the importance of the child, which was an important expression. The people voted at that time and made a clear statement that they were enshrining the rights of the child in our Constitution. They expected their leaders to do what they have to do to ensure every child in the State is protected, supported, nourished and given every opportunity by the State to ensure that they can perform on a level playing pitch and that no child is in any way inferior, and every child is equal and has the opportunity to reach his or her potential. This is critical.

When we consider the Minister of State's predecessors, the first Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in the State was Frances Fitzgerald when she was appointed by former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny ten years ago. It was not easy at that time because a Cabinet Minister for children was something new in this country. The work Frances Fitzgerald did in the early days of her Ministry paved the way for significant change. It would be remiss of us tonight not to recognise the work that she did

The establishment of Tusla was critical. The issue of children needed its own Department, somewhat distinct from the Department of Health. While there are many good people in the Department of Health who do great work, it needed its own agency. For all its faults - and there are many - Tusla certainly is the right model for developing policies to create the type of equal society we all want to see.

However, there are many vulnerable children and many who do not have the opportunities they deserve and should have. It is a blight on all of our houses in the Oireachtas that children are still vulnerable and in dangerous and difficult situations and that children do not have the types of opportunity they deserve and that our society wants for them. We hear horror stories, particularly when dealing with children with disabilities who may be non-verbal. It is a challenging environment, and while 99.9% of the people who care for those children do so in a loving way and ensure they are protected and minded, but, unfortunately, there is another small percentage who do not. As a society, we need the ambition whereby 100% of our children are safe, and that we as a society know that 100% of our children are safe.

It is nice to see Senator Boyhan as the Acting Chairman for this debate. As many speakers have done, I pay tribute to a number of people in this House who have been very vocal and have worked very hard on the issue of protecting our children properly. I include our Minister of State, Deputy Anne Rabbitte, who is very strong in her role with regard to children, and the Minister, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman.

As other speakers said, we must ensure all children who are in care are properly looked after. As stated earlier, 94% of children in general foster care had an allocated social worker, and 91% of children who went to foster care were also looked after. The figures are pretty high but that is not to deny that children can fall through the system. Many of them have challenges, no matter how well they are being looked after. Very few people want to talk about the fact that 49 children and young people died while in care or aftercare between 2010 and 2020. Seventeen of those deaths were the result of natural causes, but the sadness for me is that the other 32 include 15 young people who died from suicide while in care or aftercare. These situations can be very challenging.

Of the service areas inspected, six areas - Sligo-Leitrim-West Cavan, Cavan-Monaghan, Donegal, Mayo, Cork, and Galway-Roscommon - had ensured that each child in foster care had an allocated social worker, which is very important. Other counties are a little behind, and I will not go through them now, but it is important that where we are lagging behind in other counties, we ensure that those children have a social worker. The Childcare (Amendment Act) 2015 placed aftercare services on a strengthened legislative basis, which was important.

It is important that we are having this debate. I believe that everyone is very sincere in what they do, but there is always a challenge for those kids, particularly at Christmas time, which is not far away. From engaging with some of those children, I am aware that they find Christmas very tough. I will remember them in a special way and I wish them all well as we approach Christmas.

I thank Senator Murphy. I now call the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, who is no stranger to the House at this stage. She is very welcome.

I thank Senator Lynn Ruane ran for bringing forward these statements today. I also acknowledge Shane Griffin, and I thank Senator Fiona O'Loughlin for mentioning Shane. It was Shane who informed me the first day ever about what it was like to be a child in care. He helped me in my previous role as spokesperson on the children's committee. I would not have come with all of the knowledge and, therefore, I had to reach out to have a better understanding. I thank many people who informed me but Shane in particular played a huge role. I thank Senator O'Loughlin for that.

Senator Conway used the word "percolates", which is a great word. The Senator is correct that the voice of the child should percolate through all Departments, regardless of their area of responsibility.

I thank Senators for their contributions and my colleague, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, for his opening statement. I also acknowledge the work of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, which always keeps the voices and rights of children front and centre through many different mediums, which is greatly appreciated. A number of years ago I attended an Empowering People in Care, EPIC, function In Dublin Castle. I always remember a performance piece at the end were a girl came in and performed a rap. I cannot remember the name of the lady but she performed a piece around the number 6,144, which was the number of children in care that year. It was quite an emotional piece to sit through because in her mind, she was a number. She was one of the number of children who were held in the care of the State. On that day, that is what outlined for me my role and responsibility as spokesperson for children. As a collective we are all responsible for children in care and it is our role and responsibility to advocate for the rights of those children in care because we are their voice, throughout our roles, be it in the Seanad, the Dáil or on a committee. At all times we need to hold everybody to account to ensure that what is in Constitution is protected, and that their voices are protected and heard, and action is taken at all times. I believe every Senator and Deputy works collectively to ensure that voice and that piece is protected.

I listened carefully to what was said and am pleased to note the high level of cross-party interest in this important matter. I will respond to a few of the Senators on the some of the key issues. On the issue of aftercare services within Tusla, I recognise that a consistent and comprehensive aftercare service will support successful outcomes for young people leaving care who are beginning to embark on independent life from the age of 18. As such, it is essential the aftercare service reach as many eligible young persons as possible. The current statutory framework has been in place since 2017 and a review of its operation is timely. The Department and Tusla are engaging on a gap analysis of the aftercare service, which will give the Government information and evidence relating to the reach of the service and identify any areas of improvement.

I echo the remarks made earlier by the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, when he noted the statutory framework for the aftercare service is relatively new. It is essential a review of the current service be undertaken prior to any consideration of changes to the core eligibility threshold. The priority must be that the most vulnerable will have access to the services they need. The Childcare (Amendment) Act 2015 places a statutory obligation on Tusla to assess the needs of young people who are eligible for aftercare. In some instances, young people leaving care may wish to engage in full-time education and training. Research in this area has shown doing so can improve outcomes in later life. Tusla seeks, therefore, to reduce any financial barriers these young people may face in embarking on further education or training by assisting with maintenance payments, with supports for education continuing up to the age of 23.

As the Minister noted, however, care leavers are just as diverse in their requirements as they were when entering State care. It is not the case that all young persons will want to enter full-time education or training once they have left State care or that they will feel ready to do so at the age of 18. This is why Tusla allows for a degree of flexibility with regard to the aftercare allowance, which may be paid to eligible care leavers who embark on qualifying education and training at any time before the age of 21. Like me, Senator Warfield was a member of the previous children's committee and one of main issues that came across at that committee related to the choice young people face at the age of 18. Not all of them might want to go on to education but those who do need a second chance. It took my son two terms to decide what course he wanted. We should not say people have only one chance in the education system. We should allow everybody the right to fail or make a mistake and have a second chance, and that applies to children in aftercare too. I believe passionately that when we are examining the review, that should be taken into consideration. When I talk to foster parents, that is often their fear. They fear that if the child they care for did not participate in education and wants to change their mind, he or she will not have that option. That is something we should be very mindful of.

The aftercare service also supports young adults who are not in education and training in accessing any relevant financial allowances and supports to which they may be entitled. Access to an aftercare worker is available to those individuals up to 21 years of age as required and there is no age limit on access to Tusla's aftercare drop-in centre. If the young adult is not progressing to education and there is not the safety net of extending his or her experience with the foster family, it is incumbent on Tusla to ensure there will be access to housing and to wrap-around support. In some cases young people feel they left home with all their belongings in two black bags, as has been noted at children's committee meetings. The wrap-around service must, therefore, also mean protection to ensure that when a young person leaves one place of accommodation, the right of access to another place will be looked after and secured. It is mind-boggling enough for an adult to have to have it all worked out, with all the supports of a family environment, when transitioning into seeking accommodation. Imagine what it is like and how tormenting it must be for a young person who has been supported by the hands of the State to have to access accommodation with little or no family support. It must be very challenging and I remind Tusla that this very significant piece has not worked well in the past.

Aftercare drop-in centres provide essential day-to-day supports to young people leaving care, such as assistance in completing the relevant grant applications and advice on housing entitlements. Care leavers who are not in education or employment may also be eligible for full jobseeker's allowance instead of the reduced rate of €112 per week ordinarily paid to those under the age of 25. Securing accommodation can be a concern for young people as they leave care and transition into independent living. The vast majority leave care at 18 with stable accommodation in place and remain there, living with their former foster carers. A small cohort, however, of vulnerable care leavers may face an increased risk of homelessness. Currently, those care leavers who are at risk of homelessness are assisted by Tusla in partnership with various Departments and other State agencies. This includes finding accommodation in supported lodgings, sheltered housing or facilitated independent living. Since 2017, care leavers have been included as a separate category for funding under the capital assistance scheme. It must have been two years ago that on "The Late Late Show", there was a young man who was trying to complete his leaving certificate but his placement had fallen through, and he had to try to access accommodation at the same time as his studies. He was successful in finding accommodation but it was testing in his leaving certificate year. Even so, he achieved a very successful leaving certificate.

Finally, I acknowledge the work of social workers during Covid in supporting young people in care and in providing an agile approach to ensuring everyone got that support during the pandemic. Our social workers play a phenomenal role and, in many cases, are very challenged and restricted because their caseloads are so high.

Sitting suspended at 6.17 p.m. and resumed at 6.46 p.m.