Strategic Plan 2016-2018: Engagement with Ombudsman for Children

I welcome Dr. Niall Muldoon, Ombudsman for Children, and his colleagues, Ms Nuala Ward, director of investigations, Dr. Karen McAuley, head of education and participation.

I remind members to ensure their mobile telephones are switched off as interference from them affects sound quality and transmission of the meeting’s proceedings.

I advise witnesses that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. If they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. They are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing ruling of the Chair to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I ask Dr. Muldoon to make his opening statement.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I thank the committee for allowing us to present this strategic plan. I congratulate Deputy Jim Daly on his appointment as Chairman. I know the deep-rooted dedication he has for children's issues, particularly around the areas of education and out-of-home care. I wish him well in this new role and look forward to working with him and the entire committee over the next several years to advance children’s rights.

Soon after I became Ombudsman for Children in 2015, I decided to delay the development of a strategic plan to allow me to rebuild the staffing levels of the office which had been hit by several vacancies. With the positive support of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, I am glad to report that I have now returned the office to a sufficient level of staffing and I am confident of being able to set out and build toward a new three-year plan. I am honoured to be able to speak for the first time about it in the committee most directly connected to the work of my office. I am grateful for the committee’s time today.

In 2014, our office handled 1,600 complaints from the public on issues where complainants believed the State had not provided adequately for children. The top three areas of complaints were education, issues around the Child and Family Agency and health. The figures for 2015, which will be published shortly in our annual report, show the number of complaints to the office continues to grow. We also offered workshops and education on children’s rights to 850 children and young people, as well as 130 postgraduates from six institutions studying and working in areas such as social work, child care, social care, teaching and child protection. Last year, the office, as per its statutory obligations, provided advice to the Government on several Bills and policies.

On 14 January 2015, I spoke at the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child to outline our report on the progress of children’s rights in Ireland between 2006 and 2015 and to facilitate the committee’s examination of the State’s performance in children’s rights. I am glad to say many of the recommendations we made to the committee were included in its concluding observations to the Government, which were issued last February. I was also pleased to present to three joint Oireachtas committees last year, namely, those relating to education and social protection, public services oversight and petitions and health and children. This was significant in highlighting the transparency and accountability of the office, which we are eager to continue.

To develop the strategic plan, I enlisted a consultant to interview several people, both in Ireland and abroad, who were aware of our office and had varying connections with the children of Ireland and the issues which affect them. I also invited anyone who wished to contribute to write to us with a 500-word contribution and the consultant received those submissions directly to a separate e-mail address. We received a number of extremely useful and enlightening responses on foot of that invitation. I am especially delighted that several teenagers took the time to write to us with their thoughts on what we should focus on over the next three years.

With a remit that covers all 1.2 million children in Ireland and their interactions with all public bodies from birth to 18 years of age, our biggest problem was narrowing down our focus to a small number of areas. This took time and energy, and was achieved by carrying out a number of internal workshops facilitated by the consultant. We carefully considered all the feedback we received before deciding that three objectives would be the optimum number on which to focus. Accordingly, we could realistically aim to achieve something without losing our capacity to continue working on all the other issues which naturally come to the office.

In the submitted paper, we have set out our vision and values which act as our guidance. We spent a couple of months discussing and debating various wordings before settling on these. I am extremely proud of them because they not only offer a clear sense of the way we want to work and behave, but do so in a simple manner which can be easily understood by all. It was a key criterion for me that this strategy should be written at a level that children and young people can understand. That is what we have presented to the committee today.

There is no so-called adult version. It is our goal that everything we write or produce can be clearly understood by children and young people, and thereafter, by adults too.

The Ombudsman for Children’s Office’s vision is that we want an Ireland where all children and young people are actively heard and respected to ensure they experience safe, fulfilling and happy everyday lives. We will use our independence and powers to the fullest extent to bring this about. If this vision should be the only message I convey today, then I will consider this presentation a success. The Ombudsman for Children’s Office now has a clear message and target for the next three years, one which both challenges and encourages me. If I can live in a country where every child experiences a safe, fulfilled and happy life every day, then I cannot tell the committee how proud I will be. However, we all know such a target will require the efforts of all committee members, and indeed, the whole Dáil. It will also require the support of the greater public service and all the citizens of Ireland to bring it about. It is not impossible, however, and that is what is encouraging.

We have set out three objectives for the lifetime of this plan. The first will increase awareness of children and young people’s rights, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the role of the Ombudsman for Children’s Office. This sets us on a course whereby children and adults grow in their understanding of what children’s rights are and how they can be achieved in everyday life. I hope to explore every avenue of possibility for enhancing the awareness of children’s rights and of this office, so that people know what their children are entitled to and who to come to if those rights are not fully achieved.

The second objective revolves around working to build capacity among public organisations whose work impacts on children and young people to develop and implement a child rights-based approach to their practice. This objective is to help public organisations to become more child conscious, as well as to integrate child-friendly policies across all areas of their organisations. This would mean the specific needs of children would be considered when it comes to education, health, housing and more. We have already initiated work to generate some tools to enhance child-friendly administration and will be engaging with several Departments to move that project on in the near future.

The third objective relates to influencing positive change for and with children and young people in Ireland. It will require us to work across the three elements of our Act, namely, our power to advise the Government around legislation and policy, the onus on us to highlight issues which are important to children themselves and our power to take complaints on behalf of children whose voices are not always heard. Across the time span of this plan, my office will continue to use those powers for all children but most especially for those with mental health issues and those who are homeless or disabled. I will also place a focus on ensuring child protection is at its best and that children who experience the trauma of abuse, in whatever form that might take, can feel safe to report it. They can also be assured that it will be dealt with immediately and they will get the required level of support when they require it.

What I have found in my position as Ombudsman for Children is that the biggest struggles for children and parents are often not the biggest issues. For example, getting into a local school should not be difficult in a well-run, stable democracy that values children’s rights. Gaining support to avoid declaring one's family homeless should not be difficult in a fair and recovering economy. A safe and secure refuge should not be a fantasy for children and parents who flee domestic violence. Being asked to provide financial and social support, as well as a well-designed transition plan to help an 18 year old live an independent life after years in the care of the State, should not come as a shock to Tusla or the State. It should be easy to deliver. Getting access to a high-quality counsellor in a school setting when one feels down or needs someone to confide in should not be a total fantasy for teenagers in a country that sells itself as having one of the best-educated populations in the English-speaking world.

For parents of a child born into this world with a severe disability, physical or intellectual, having to fight for assistance with every aspect of that child’s care and at every new developmental stage, should not become the norm in a country which cherishes all children equally. When one has fostered two severely disabled children, getting financial support to purchase a specially adapted car should be easy, not a never-ending battle, especially when this country is crying out for families to foster children and give them the love, care and support they crave.

It is the small everyday things that matter to our children and that bring about happiness. I will use all my powers to bring equality to all children who seek it. I will conclude by quoting Archbishop Tutu of South Africa who said, "Do your little bit of good where you are; it is those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world."

I thank Dr. Muldoon for setting out his interesting, passionate and admirable objectives.

I have no problem starting. I thank the ombudsman for the presentation this morning. Given that he was representing and speaking on behalf of 1.2 million people, he did very well to condense it down like that. How he summed it up at the end encompassed it all. As he said, it is the small little bits that one forgets that really take away the hardship for the parents and the families. My ideal is that I always hope that I have happy, healthy, educated kids. The Ombudsman has covered one, two and three there in his presentation. It is staggering that 47% of complaints relate to education while 25% relate to the family agency. The third problem, 11%, relates to health. At the end of the presentation, one really sees the issue of access to schools. As a rural Deputy, the biggest access problem for parents that I see is school transport. That is a huge issue for parents living in rural areas.

In general, the ombudsman has stepped matters out very well and, as my party's spokesperson on children and youth affairs, I hope we can work together to bring some of this forward and support the work of the office. My colleagues and I have been harping on about post-care support mechanisms for children who have been in care for a long number of years. It is amazing how much money is invested in them while they are in care yet suddenly when they turn 18, there are no support mechanisms in place. After that, we are into a bigger raft of issues, be it from housing, drugs or whatever else. I would love the ombudsman to expand on that going forward. If we could get that piece right, it could sort out an awful lot of other problems into the future. On access to high quality counsellors and mental health in our schools, what is the ombudsman's vision when he meets with the Department of Education and Skills? What will he be saying to the Department and what will he encourage it to do? As Deputies, we experience the detrimental effect a lack of guidance counsellors has had in schools. There are pockets throughout the country which really need that support and I would love to hear what the ombudsman has to say in that regard. The parents of children with disabilities face a huge issues and I would love to hear what the ombudsman is going to say to the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath.

Children in direct provision are not mentioned. I attended recently the "Inclusive Centenaries" conference in NUIG which was the most amazing conference I have attended in a long time. We listened to children in direct provision speak. Connacht was playing in the Heineken cup final and they could only watch on their phones. They could not have friends over because they are in direct provision and in the hotel room. Things are no different for children in homelessness, but these are children who are well able and articulate and they have never had a home. They have only ever had a bedroom and had it to share with their brothers, sisters and families. Direct provision is a huge issue for those children and their voices need to be heard. They do not feel that they are heard which concerns me. Last Monday, I met with a group from YAP Ireland, which is an absolutely brilliant organisation. It interviewed myself and Joe Canning because he is the ambassador for UNICEF. They do not feel that they have a mechanism for their voices to be heard and they do not feel that their voices count. They feel they need to be able to articulate their views in either a questionnaire or some other form every now and again. For example, if a social worker is not engaged, they are afraid to speak up and to open that line of communication. When they do, things have nearly gone too far. They would like some way to provide feedback and to let their voices be heard, be it on a questionnaire or otherwise. It could be the simplest things, but we need to empower kids as to how to communicate and support them in that whole element of communication. If that could be done through the ombudsman with guidance for the rest of us on how to communicate that back, it would be valuable work.

I appreciate the time the ombudsman has taken here this morning. There was a great deal in the presentation. We will enjoy working with him.

I thank Dr. Muldoon in general for the work he does as well as for his presentation and for making it so user friendly. It was a main aim that it should be so. On the fact that the highest number of complaints the ombudsman dealt with were in the education area, could he elaborate on what those were? He mentioned admissions to schools and counselling, but I wonder if a lot of complaints related to access to services for children with learning difficulties also. What kind of complaints were made in relation to the family agency? I do not know whether the ombudsman has read the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill which was published recently. If so, does he consider that it addresses some of the issues around getting into schools, albeit it does not address the religious issue?

I share Deputy Anne Rabbitte's concern about children in direct provision. I have also visited a family who were all in one room with the children doing their homework sitting on the bed. There was no space. There were recommendations on direct provision, which is an area where children's welfare issues need to be addressed. There is also an issue around children who are in hotels and hostels because their families are homeless. I welcome some of the measures that were announced yesterday with regard to transportation and ensuring that those children have access to school completion programmes as well as to school, preschool and crèches themselves. The measures are designed to remove barriers, but there is still a lot of concern around those children.

I want to go through the ombudsman's three objectives and ask a few questions around those. In the beginning of the ombudsman's report, he refers to the report of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child from February 2016. There are some issues to be addressed in that regard. As such, what is the ombudsman's role in ensuring that those issues are addressed by the various agencies and Departments? In that context, many of the actions set out have to do with public organisations. In his first action, the ombudsman talks about strengthening understanding among public organisations of the importance of respecting and promoting children's rights. In the second, he refers to supporting capacity building among relevant public organisations. A lot of the actions relate to public organisations, including being able to issue apologies, which would make things easier where complaints need to be resolved. Can the ombudsman comment on whether he is getting a positive response from public organisations and whether it is difficult to implement his objectives with them?

The very last point on the page of the report setting out the objectives refers to child protection services. Clearly, there has been concern for a long time about adequate numbers of social workers and so on. While there has been some progress in that regard, the ombudsman might comment on the issue. Added to that is the question of whether the systems in place to ensure that the voices of children are heard in the context of legal services and the courts are working, in particular in family law cases. Can their voices be heard adequately in those kinds of situations? Finally, are there any specific measures in relation to social and digital media of which we should be made aware?

Cuirim fáilte roimh Dr. Muldoon agus Dr. McAuley. Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil as an cur láthair. Táim buíoch freisin go bhfuil an cáipéis ar fáil sa dá theanga chomh maith. It is great to see the document produced bilingually. I am very pleased to see it. I am grateful for the passionate and detailed presentation and for the succinct and to-the-point strategy, which is welcome.

I will ask some general questions on the strategy and the Office of the Ombudsman for Children, and I will then go through the objectives.

It was very welcome that Dr. Muldoon said: "Being asked to provide financial and social support and a well-designed transition plan to help an 18 year old live an independent life, after years in the care of the State, should not come as a shock to Tusla or the State and should be easy to deliver on." Both previous Deputies touched on the point. It is a very important point and the State has been deficient in it over many years. I would be interested to know if Dr. Muldoon believes the State is making adequate progress in its preparation for the end of 2017, when there will be a statutory obligation to provide after-care plans. The question is not only whether there is an after-care plan, but whether the plan is satisfactory.

Dr. Muldoon touched on staffing levels and said 1.2 million children is a lot of people to represent. From what he said previously, I take it there has been some improvement. Is it adequate to carry out the work he does? There is some detail on the number of complaints received. How many of the complaints are received from children directly?

Regarding the first objective, I am very interested in the idea of children's rights to impact assessments. How much work has been done on it? How does Dr. Muldoon see it progressing? On the production of research on thematic issues, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan touched on digital media and protection of and support for young people in their engagement with the online world. It is very important and should be considered a priority. Are there other issues that are anticipated to be priorities?

On the second objective, it is very welcome that there is a desire for an improvement in complaint handling. Although Tusla allegedly provides a 24-7 resource, it is not necessarily a 24-7 service. Some of it involves getting in contact with the Garda after hours, which is inappropriate. This applies to the most serious complaints, and it is very important regarding good practice and handling complaints.

The third objective is probably the most ambitious. Some of the issues, particularly regarding 3.2, relate to homelessness and the conditions of children who are in emergency accommodation. Both Deputies touched on it. This relates to children experiencing mental health issues and direct provision. Does the Ombudsman for Children have any direct influence over the Reception and Integration Agency, RIA, and has Dr. Muldoon had any difficulties accessing direct provision centres where it has been required or considered appropriate?

Given that the Education (Admissions to Schools) Bill is Government policy, it will be difficult for Dr. Muldoon to comment on it.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I will take that on board. We have had complaints about school transport and we are very much aware of the difficulties. We have a focus on it to try to find the best way for us to intervene. While it has an impact on rural children, it also impacts on children with special needs going to the right school. We are very much aware of such scenarios and it is a very difficult area in which to make a difference, given that it has such a long-term impact. I will ask Ms Nuala Ward to let Deputy Anne Rabbitte know how many school transport complaints we have received and how we have dealt with them. It comes across our desk on a regular basis and I will raise it with the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton. I have requested a meeting with him and it will be on the agenda.

Regarding after care, there are certain things we know from the beginning of a child's life.

If a child has a severe physical or intellectual disability, the State will have to intervene throughout his or her lifetime. This can be planned, prepared and budgeted for. After care is like this. A child who has been in care for two or three years and who is approaching his or her 18th birthday will need support when he or she leaves care. However, there seems to be a reluctance to co-operate and make these things happen. A child moving from the child service to the adult service can cross areas such as mental health, children in care and disability. The adult services seem to be slow to take on board that the child is ready to move. It is all about the adults.

We need to move to a child's best interests forum, with the child's best interests being the focus for public servants so it is very clear, when a child is about to graduate into the adult world, that the funding, resources and plans need to be in place. The statutory obligation to make a plan should be followed by the statutory resources. It should be automatic. It is common sense. No child should receive a plan and then be told it may not be followed up. It would be totally contrary to the best interests of the child. It is something we can fix. It must be considered.

There is a very clear answer to many of the problems. We know children are in care and we know what happens when we do not support them when they leave. They end up in mental health services, in homeless situations, occupying beds in psychiatric hospitals and involved in crime. Some also manage alone. There are positive stories. However, we know they could manage much better if support were put in place. It is clear. We can see it coming, we can work towards it and we can fix it. In stressful economic times, there were restraints. However, as we plan for the future, and to have a more balanced economy, we can plan for such issues.

Similarly, when economic stress occurred, our children lost a major valuable resource in high-quality counsellors, and we need to put them back in place. My background is in psychology and I have worked in the mental health area for a long time. Since I started, I have worked closely with the Irish Primary Principals Network, the National Association of Deputy Principals and Principals, and the Teaching Council to work on a well-being culture in schools. We aim to create an atmosphere in which children and teachers from primary through to post-primary have the ability to speak about their emotional lives and feel supported when they feel under stress. We are trying to promote this so the generations to come will not find things as difficult and, while they will not necessarily need a counsellor, will know the safety net is there. We will have created the language that allows them to say they have a problem and know the right thing to do is to tell somebody they trust and fix it. This is opposed to the older generation - I put my hands up here - who were told to stay quiet and not to let anybody see they had a weakness.

We are trying to change the culture. Counsellors are a valuable part of it. In Northern Ireland, every school has an independent counsellor available to it close to the school but off site, which avoids the possible stigma people can associate with an in-school counsellor. It would be a positive step forward if we could make such things happen. We also need to make our mental health services available when a person comes forward, and we will.

I am very much aware that I have narrowed down to three focal points. Within disability, I am engaging with the various sectors to try to finalise the best actions I can take over the next two to three years. I am not the expert. The area is so broad that I am engaging with all. I am having a meeting later with various sectors and NGOs on the disability service and I will highlight exactly what I need to do and listen to them, see what they feel is needed, what legislation is involved, what actions are best suited and where awareness needs to be raised. I am happy to link with them and decide my strategy from there. It will allow me to bring it to the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, when I meet him.

Many areas relate to severe disability. I gave the example of the adaptation of a car or housing. When a child is severely disabled, we know we will have to do these things.

It makes sense to plan for it in the budget. However, it always seems to be totally out of the blue. "Why are you asking for that?" is the question asked. The parents, particularly in foster care situations, should be given extra support, as opposed to less support.

All members have mentioned children in direct provision. That is very strong on our agenda. From the very first interview I did, direct provision was one of the things I was very much highlighting. I am delighted that the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, agreed in principle to allow us to take on the remit of direct provision. We are currently in negotiations to finalise the legal situation to make that happen. Ms Ward and I have visited direct provision centres. We know exactly the difficulties faced by the children in there. For almost 17 years children on our island have not had access to our office, which is a severe point of discrimination. We hope that will end very soon. The plan is for it to end in the next couple of months, once we finalise the legislative mechanism to make that happen. That will allow us then to contribute positively to what RIA can do and to guide the centres. We will not be involved in any of the final decisions on asylum-seekers. We will stay away from that. However, the administration of the services and the rights of the children while they are in direct provision will be a strong piece of work, from our point of view.

I ask Dr. Karen McAuley to speak about children afraid to speak up. Within the objectives we have many plans to work with children as part of the region. To answer one of Deputy Ó Laoghaire's questions, we have reached the staffing complement that we had. We have had the same complement for about ten years. I have now applied for the estimates for an ambitious increase in staffing to follow through on this objective. I believe we need more staff because much of the work we want to do is outreach. We want to get out of the office, get down to the country, meet children and hear their voices in a much more active way, whereas at the moment our intake is through children coming to our office, which obviously limits the long-distance situation.

Dr. Karen McAuley

The committee will be aware that under our legislation, we have an obligation to consult with children and young people and to highlight issues relating to their rights and welfare that have concerned children themselves. It is very helpful that Deputies have raised the issue of children and young people in direct provision. We understand that the Department of Children and Youth Affairs recently undertook a piece of work to hear the views of children and young people in direct provision. We have not seen the outcome of that yet. It will be important to see that and to see whether there is a way in which, in our work, we can build on or complement that work in the future so that we do not duplicate what somebody else has already done. I would be very interested to find out more about what Deputy Rabbitte hears from young people in direct provision regarding mechanisms. One of the points that struck me in what she said is that they are looking for a mechanism that will enable them to regularly raise concerns that they may have on an ongoing basis, as opposed to a once-off initiative. Perhaps after this meeting we could speak a little more about that. That would be very helpful.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

I will let Ms Ward answer Deputy O'Sullivan's question about education complaints and Tusla complaints.

Ms Nuala Ward

Regarding education complaints, I will reference some of the subcategories we have considered regarding the 47% from 2014. The top five categories of education complaints we receive are: handling of allegations of inappropriate professional conduct; handling of bullying; complaints handling decisions and policy; expulsion, suspension and enrolment; and issues of educational policy, schemes or curriculums. As members may know, this year we published an overview report on the State Examinations Commission. We felt that was a very useful way of trying to highlight some of the challenges for children and young people with disabilities, specifically learning disabilities, in getting adequate support when they are doing their leaving certificate. Our education complaints are therefore broad, so we are considering the whole education sector as well as individual schools. One of the key strengths is that we have that mechanism to consider the whole gambit of children's education. For example, school transport, being able to get to school, is an integral part of this.

Regarding family support, care and protection, complaints mainly concern the Child and Family Agency. We totally accept what has been raised regarding child protection and welfare services, which is why we have included them as one of our key objectives. The top five subcategories in this regard concern child protection concerns; alternative care, that is, care placements, foster care and so on; family support, which is hugely important for prevention and therefore a very key area for us; social work services; and child care preschool and early child care education.

Those are the top five categories to consider for what we call family support, care and protection.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

We are still considering the Education (Admission to Schools) Bill but our previous advice, that we feel it is discriminatory in the context of the Equal Status Act, was very clear. We made a recommendation that the Equal Status Act be adjusted to take away the barrier in religious schools. We are also disappointed to see a 25% derogation for past pupils. We also made a recommendation on this, that there should be no derogation for past pupils. We feel that is discriminatory to children who move into an area, particularly Traveller children, whose parents are likely to have no background in second-level school and may not even be in the right area, but also people returning to their area. These are the two points I can make immediately and to which we already referred, but I expect to consider the Bill in more detail in the near future.

In the action plan published yesterday, Rebuilding Ireland, there are many very positive things from our point of view. We met with the Department with responsibility for housing last week and we are pleased to see some of our recommendations, particularly the use of the children and young people's services committees to engage in the area of housing to make sure that children are properly facilitated. I am pleased to see that there is a section on children. It is crucial that we see them as an important part of what we are about because homelessness has affected them so strongly now. I met with a very brave young seven-and-a-half-year-old girl who came into my office after having written a letter saying that she was looking for a new home, having been homeless for four and a half years. She is a fabulous young girl who has moved, I think, 11 times, trying to stay safe. She is very clear that she would thrive under a safe, secure, stable house.

The area of domestic violence is one that has made a special contribution to the crisis we have at the moment. There are not enough refuges, which leaves children and parents having to declare themselves homeless. That is a very difficult scenario for them because they are not only trying to find a place to live, but are also trying to find a place to live that is safe and perhaps away from an abusive partner. We are very aware of that and it needs to be considered as well.

The action plan allows for the inclusion of safe guidance and boundary codes for emergency accommodation, and we have had complaints in that regard as well. This is where children and parents have been in houses and accommodation that were not designed for families, which is something that the Department with responsibility for housing is now very clear about, that it needs to generate two-bedroom and three-bedroom emergency accommodation so that there is a facility there for families when they need to use it. I hope we will get to the stage where we will use them less and less but they need to be there because the old stock was designed for the single man or woman or couples so it did not need to be suitable to the same degree for families. We need privacy, safety and security dealt with in that context. We need the play areas and the ability to get to school so, again, the school transport option is very positive.

However, I am very clear that the main issue is that those affected can move away from bed and breakfast accommodation and hotels as an option. It will take time to get there but we need to know that in years to come emergency accommodation will involve proper, solid accommodation, as opposed to a temporary bed and breakfast unit, the reservation for which can be moved because of, say, the holding of a concert the following day. That is totally inappropriate. It is therefore a very positive commitment from our point of view. I am sure I am only touching on some of the matters in the action plan, but that is what I have to say from our initial look at it. Deputy O'Sullivan also referred to the UNCRC recommendations within our objectives. I will refer her to Karen for a response to that.

Dr. Karen McAuley

As the Deputy knows, the UN committee's recommendations, published earlier this year, are very wide-ranging. Viewed in broad terms, they cover a number of different matters. First, in the area of legislation, they seek the full integration of children's rights and the principles and provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child into Irish law. That is about initiating legislation, amending existing legislation and addressing gaps and deficits in legislation at present. Regarding our role in this, as we have done on many occasions in the past, we will continue to provide advice and developments in legislation affecting children. The core focus of that advice, as the Deputy knows, is on providing a children's rights perspective on the prospective implications of legislation for children. That advice is forthcoming, and we welcome invitations from the committee and others to provide it, as needed.

We will also, in accordance with our remit under the Act, monitor legislation and developments in terms of implementation and review the operation of legislation relating to children. The focus is to see whether commitments in legislation are met, what impact they have on children and whether they give effect to children's rights. That is in accordance with our existing remit and it comes in under our strategy.

The committee spoke about another area in broad terms which is the importance of continuing to raise awareness of children's rights and the implications for those and what the practice of respecting, protecting and fulfilling children's rights entails for all concerned. As the members know from what Dr. Muldoon has said, a core part of our strategy relates to promoting or increasing awareness of children's rights and the process of rights realisation among members of the public, including children and young people, but also very importantly among public organisations and bodies. The committee also spoke about the importance of capacity building. There is an appreciation that if we are to respect, protect and fulfil children's rights, we need to understand what that means in terms of practice, policy, procedure and day-to-day work with and on behalf of children. As well as the reasons our second objective under the strategy is very squarely focused on capacity building, we know from our complaints and investigations work over the years and our children's rights analysis of that work that there are ongoing deficits in the awareness of children's rights, including in terms of making best interest determinations when making decisions which will impact on children. There are inconsistencies with regard to seeking and hearing the views of children and all of that boils down to deficits in knowledge and understanding. We want to play our part in terms of trying to address that so that people are equipped with the knowledge and skills to be able to apply a children's rights based approach to their own work and decision making. In line with our role as an ombudsman's office which focuses primarily on public bodies, we will be focusing on the public sector and relevant areas there in that respect.

Another area for the committee related to delivering commitments. The committee was very appreciative of the legislative innovation which has taken place in recent years, including the constitutional amendment through Article 42A and also of the policy frameworks and strategies which Ireland has put in place in respect of children. However, it was also very strong in calling for implementation and the need for human resources, financial resources and technical assistance to be given to those who have responsibility for implementing legislation and giving effect to policy frameworks. Perhaps primarily, we will be highlighting through our complaints investigation work where there are deficits in that regard and how they might be addressed. Very often, issues are identified through individual cases. Finally, the committee through its recommendations has identified a strong need to focus on vulnerable groups of children and young people, many of whom the members have referenced in their questions today and who we have referenced in our responses and through the ombudsman's presentation. Our intention is to focus some of our work on some of those most vulnerable groups in the coming years.

Are Traveller children included among those vulnerable groups?

Dr. Karen McAuley

Yes. As the Ombudsman for Children was saying, we have identified three groups but it is not to the absolute exclusion of others. It is important to emphasise that we are conscious that there are many groups of children who, for different reasons, will face barriers to the realisation of their rights and who are in very difficult circumstances. Focusing on these three particular groups is not going to be to the exclusion of others.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

To take Deputy O'Sullivan up on that, she also asked about public organisations. I have engaged with both the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Department of Education and Skills to assist us with the second phase of our work on extending capacity around child-friendly administration in public services. What we have done in our first phase has been to talk to parents and children about how they find public services and what flaws and strengths they have seen. We now want to talk to public servants in the Departments and have received consent to do that. We are about to move that on. From our point of view, it will be a very positive statement if we have a commitment from the Departments to work with us on moving child-friendly administration and children's rights and best interests forward in their work. We will be moving that on as soon as possible as part of our strategic plan. Once we have chatted with the public servants, there will be a third phase where we ask them how best we can help them to roll this out through the Departments.

We will ask if what will help them would be a questionnaire or a set of questions to ask every time a child is involved. We often look at a complaint about a decision and see that the child was never even considered in the process. It makes sense that if one follows the child, one will make a totally different decision. It might be a matter of a set of questions we put up on best interests.

That brings me on to the family law courts where there is a set of eight conditions one looks at regarding what is in the best interests of a child. We might work with the Departments as to how we would do that. It is hard to say what it is going to look like at the end because we want to engage with them and make sure it works for them, but we are pleased that we have had a very good start from their initial agreement to work with us on it. That is very positive.

The apology legislation is something we have been hoping to bring forward over the last couple of years. We have decided to commit to it now through the objectives. It ties in very clearly with the statement of the previous Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, last year on open disclosure. The idea here is that we find a way, as is done in Canada and a number of other countries, to apologise to the individual involved as public servants without the threat of that being used against one in court. It is about finding the right way to do that. From our point of view, we have so many parents where such an approach would cut it off at the pass. An apology by its very nature acknowledges the harm or the hurt. Those concerned do not necessarily need to go to court to get that. The old-fashioned idea of deny and defend has to go. It applies across many issues and it involves leadership and may require somebody taking it on. I was pleased to see it on the agenda last year. I do not know if it is still in play within the Department of Health but it is something we will be working on to get the best measure for it in the future.

We are starting to look at child protection and children in court and are now 12 months down the line from the point where the constitutional amendment took force. I think it was April last year. We are starting to look to see whether children's voices are being heard properly within court and whether it is working the way it should. The question is whether resources are in place and how this is being done within the courts system. It is something I have on my radar to look at. I will hold back on saying whether it is working at this stage. I need to look into it a little more. It is certainly a matter we will not let slip. It is a very important step and if we get it right, we can roll it out into other public service areas. If we can find a way to hear children's voices properly in court and realise their best interests, it will make it easier to do that in other areas.

Both Deputies who spoke referred to digital media. Dr. McAuley might deal with that.

Dr. Karen McAuley

The plan is newly published. This is an area where we are looking to the future over the next two to three years. We are still working out our plans in regard to it. As a first step, we are seeking to commission research on the challenges and opportunities associated with mobilising social and digital media to strengthen or advance the scope for children and young people to express their views and to have those taken into account, in particular by public decision makers and public policy makers. Social and digital media are an integral part of children's and young people's lives. A lot of the structures that are there for children and young people to express their views are representative structures and mechanisms. Social and digital media potentially offer an opportunity to complement that and, in doing so, provide for a more inclusive approach where children and young people can, in an agile way, contribute individually. We want to undertake research to understand more fully, given our appreciation that there are challenges, what are the opportunities. We want to look at both sides of that and perhaps identify examples of good practice in other jurisdictions where this has been tried and, ideally, evaluated. That is the first step.

The other area at which we are looking is where we can appropriately and effectively contribute to digital citizenship among children and young people. That covers the broad range of children's rights, from protection rights through to their participation rights. It is an area that many different actors are working on nationally and internationally. Again, it is about taking the time to scope out what is the most appropriate intervention we can make in that respect.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

For my office, the digital world is a very important area to become involved in because we want to ensure it is viewed as a positive. As a predominately positive world, we need to find the best way to promote it and we have engaged with the Law Reform Commission on its plans for legislation to ensure children are protected in the digital world. It is something which we will evolve as we scope it out properly in order that we can make the best possible contribution in that area.

I hope we have covered the issues of aftercare and staffing levels. Deputy Ó Laoghaire also asked a question on the number of complaints from children. I will ask Ms Ward to respond.

Ms Nuala Ward

The most recently published figures, which are from 2014, are expressed in percentages, as they always are in annual reports. We receive direct contact from children in 2% of cases. We would like to increase this figure because we find it incredibly useful to hear directly from children. When we ask the children who contact us what would be the fix for their problem, we find that they want to be assured that other children will not have the experience they had. We hear a very powerful voice when we hear directly from children about their experience of public services.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

It is an obligation on our part in any case to consider hearing the voice of the child in every complaint we have. Even though approximately 75% of all complaints come from parents, we will always consider whether it is appropriate to ask the child. If the child is aged under two or three years, it probably would not be appropriate to do so but after that age, we will probably link in with the parents and ask whether it would be appropriate to speak to the child. We have consistently done this with many teenagers and even younger children. Where it is appropriate, we will speak to the child and obtain his or her point of view on a matter.

A figure of between 2% and 4% is the norm internationally. We are the complainant of last resort so in theory one is asking a great deal of a child to come forward. We may be the fourth instance to be contacted for making a complaint. The children who contact us tend to be articulate and well-informed young people who are in care. Their colleagues will have told them that this is the approach to take or EPIC - Empowering People in Care - who are the key workers who support people in care will have told them this is how to do it. They tend to be aged 15, 16 or 17 years and they telephone us directly. Thinking of my own children, I would be delighted if they had the strength to come forward, having made two complaints previously, and make a further complaint to the Ombudsman for Children. It is a big ask, however. As I stated, the percentage of the contacts we receive that are made by children is not far from the norm internationally.

The Deputy referred to child rights impact assessments and digital media. I will return to that issue.

I was also asked about Tusla's 24-7 resource. While the service Tusla is offering is inadequate, it is a start and I will engage with the agency and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to ensure a real service is available for people who have reached a certain stage. As the Deputy stated, what is often needed is access to a garda who can telephone a social worker who will then try to work something out. This is not exactly what a child needs on a Saturday night when his or her mental health is poor, he or she is feeling low, his or her parents are fighting or he or she needs somewhere safe and secure to go. This issue has been on the cards for ten years and we can predict that we will need it. We will not need very large numbers of staff but it is an issue we need to work on and we will certainly push it forward.

I hope my answers on direct provision were satisfactory. Dr. McAuley will address the issue of child rights impacts.

Dr. Karen McAuley

Again, this is an evolving area of work for us. As I indicated and Deputies will be aware in any case, we will continue to provide advice in terms of developments in legislation and public policy that offer a child rights analysis. This is a core part of the work of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. One of the issues we are examining is whether we can act appropriately and effectively, that is to say, in a way that is useful to other people in terms of their understanding of children's rights and the capacity to apply child rights-based approaches, and integrate a child rights analysis or impact assessment into some of our publications. For example, in the context of complaints and investigations, the office is looking at administrative decision making and in that respect we are guided by the Act.

We are commenting on administrative processes both in the context of investigating and subsequently writing up reports and statements arising from the investigation of complaints. We are seeking to establish how we can provide more of a children's rights analysis of the issues in a way that also respects our role as a complaints handling body and an ombudsman's office in terms of the nature of the issues we investigate. As the Deputy knows, these are administrative practices and the issue is whether they may have had an adverse effect on a child. We are seeking to establish how we can complement this style of analysis with a children's rights analysis. This is one of the areas we will address in the next couple of months.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

As Deputies will appreciate, this is a tricky area to try to get right. Given that we are asking Departments to try to think in this way, we are putting ourselves on the front line by asking how the office can manage this and ensure we walk the walk as well as talk the talk. To the best of my knowledge, we have covered most of the angles. Has any of the issues raised by Deputies not been covered?

I have a couple of questions. Dr. Muldoon and I have discussed in previous conversations the Ombudsman for Children's role and remit in the education sector. I will leave that issue for another time because the Committee on Education and Skills will probably have hearings on education at some point.

Could legislators assist the Ombudsman for Children by extending the powers or remit of the office in legislation? I am particularly interested in protocols. How does Dr. Muldoon find dealing with State agencies such as Tusla? Is this difficult? Are the State agencies helpful and co-operative? Does the office have a good understanding with these agencies or is the relationship characterised by challenges?

I am interested in Dr. Muldoon's thoughts on whether people should stay in State care until the age of 21 years. Is that a practical solution or would it give rise to constitutional issues? What are the facts surrounding this issue and what is Dr. Muldoon's opinion on it?

Has the outcome of the referendum on children's rights resulted in any tangible and marked improvements? While I appreciate the legislation contingent on the referendum result was passed only recently, I am interested in finding out if there have been any tangible improvements for children.

Has the Ombudsman for Children done research on the number of children in the care of the State with a care plan? Are figures available on the number of children with a care plan or how many have had a social worker assigned to them? Has the office done much research on this area and does it have information in this regard?

When one speaks about children accessing information and administrative practices, including children with disabilities, it is necessary try to join up some dots. One must also try to work with appropriate persons, for example, special needs assistants because what is acceptable in one setting may not be acceptable in an educational setting. It is fantastic that a child with a disability is able to access a school but if he or she uses a wheelchair, he or she will need toilet assistance, for example, the use of a hoist. The duty of care and child protection guidelines indicate that two people are required for this purpose. However, there is a shortage of special needs assistants. Does the Ombudsman for Children have an input in directing the Department of Education and Skills towards best practice? This is an issue for parents and teachers and, most important, involves the rights of the child in question. However, when children are young parents will be grateful to have a special needs assistant or a certain number of resource hours allocated to their child. As a result, we are not going far enough in certain cases.

Overcrowding is not often discussed in the media but the problem has a serious detrimental effect on children. The issue is related to the housing strategy. I know of one family of two adults, three teenagers and two younger children who live in a small, old two-bedroom flat. There are probably numerous similar cases. The lack of social housing is having a major impact because children do not have space and must often share rooms that are much too small. Delays in extending local authority houses feed into the problem, although many of those affected are living in rented accommodation or with parents in local authority accommodation. This is a significant issue that is not widely discussed.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

As the Deputy will be aware, we are consistently looking at our Act as regards where we might need a greater remit. Obviously, the issue on which we have focused for the past year or two is direct provision. We have been pushing very hard on this point and it is an issue we are trying to finalise. I will get the legislation unit, which is approaching its full staffing complement, to examine the issue the Deputy raises.

We have a very positive interaction with Departments and public bodies, which are clear that we have a role and that they understand it.

We must say we have had difficulty at times with the speed of response by the various agencies. Tusla is an example. On the complaint-handling side, we have told both the Minister and Tusla that we will be highlighting this more regularly. We will possibly be producing a quarterly publication that will highlight the various elements of the work we do on an ongoing basis. Not every case is investigated and we do not get to publish everything so we might determine how we can highlight areas of work that we do on a more regular basis so it is known that we are working on the various elements, be they in respect of child and family services, education, housing or homelessness. One of the points I will highlight is the length of delays between responses. Up to now, such delays have made us look as if we have been slow. If a parent is seeking a quick resolution at the end of a long series of complaints, it is not appropriate that we should be delayed because of the inaction of other organisations. Generally, the organisations are very much aware of our remit and very much work with us, but some of them do have difficulty in responding quickly enough.

With regard to children staying in the care of the State until they reach 21 years, the arrangement in question is certainly one that has worked in other areas. I cannot say we have examined it specifically ourselves but, from my point of view, the crucial point concerns how one transitions out of the care of the State. Irrespective of the age at which one does so, the key is to get proper support when needed after the transition. If we end up moving to an age of 21 and still end up with the same faults we now have, we will not be getting anywhere. The key is to involve the child in the transition plan and to ensure it is produced in sufficient time, is appropriate and is fully resourced. I cannot say I have looked at the research properly in regard to the age of 21 but I do know the key is to ensure the State supports the child properly in the transition. I can revert to the committee with regard to research in such areas.

On the children referendum, it is quite early, as was said. The very notion of including a reference to the best interest of the child in the Constitution is very important to us. It means we can start to acknowledge the concept. It is something we need to push into all other areas, as far as I am concerned. I will be engaging with the Courts Service to ascertain what sorts of numbers have gone through but I know a number of judges have felt comfortable hearing the voices of children. That, by its very nature, is a positive step forward. There may be more we need to do in that regard. We may need to upskill judges, and the courts probably need to be redesigned in certain ways to allow children’s voices to be heard more. We have to find out how best we can listen to children and allow families to engage. We must also allow children the right not to speak if they do not want to do so; that is their right also. However, the key is to ask them.

I will follow up by obtaining the numbers heard in court and the information on how the system is working. However, the real principle is in place. That is crucial and we need to make it work. If it works in the court system, it can work elsewhere. We need to show that, within the public service, we can hear the voice of the children and follow through on our obligations accordingly.

On the question on children in care with care plans, does Ms Ward have an understanding of it?

Ms Nuala Ward

This office published a meta-analysis a few years ago and highlighted some of the key issues regarding care planning for children in care and the allocation of social workers. I am aware it has been an issue in the Child and Family Agency in recent years. It publishes the figures regularly.

Needless to say, when a child is taken into care, it is very important that he or she has a dedicated social worker as his or her advocate, voice and protector. It is a key issue for us. Good early-care planning results in good after-care planning. It is very important that children in care not be part of an homogenous group. There are particularly vulnerable children in already-vulnerable situations, and there are children with disability in care. Therefore, there has to be a child-centred, individualised approach to care planning. This is an issue we have dealt with regularly.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

We presented that meta-analysis to the Joint Committee on Health and Children two years ago. The research highlighted seven issues we examined over the past ten years and that arose consistently. I refer to issues such as poor record-keeping, the duplication of records, poor supervision of social workers, the lack of access to appropriate residential centres in a geographical area, and moving children out of their areas. These issues arise consistently but we still see them featuring as we look back. We are examining the recommendations we made and are wondering whether they have been fully implemented yet. We are going to examine this again in the very near future. We will be discussing that with Tusla. We are very much aware of this. I hope that covers the Chairman's elements.

Deputy Rabbitte referred to children with a disability. We are very proud that we published recently the results of an investigation into the case of a young girl in Meath with a disability who could not gain access to preschool or the early school education service. This was one of the drivers that allowed for the new systems now coming into place. One of the new aims is to recognise that the child has the right to education and has to be supported in this regard. Until the case in question, there was haphazard availability of special needs assistants. It was sometimes a matter for the HSE and sometimes a matter for another organisation. Different HSE areas would not do what I describe. We are delighted we now see a much more secure system in place for that sort of service.

On the example the Deputy gave, we should be able to answer the question of how the best interests of a child should be resourced. If a child needs two assistants, we need to examine whether it is required and possible and also the stages at which it can be achieved. It is a question of focusing on the individual increasingly. That is what we are getting to.

I have always said the system works for 80% to 85% of all people. We need to figure out in respect of the 15% who have slightly different issues, problems, concerns and idiosyncrasies how to the support the public services to do the right thing for them. That is what we are about. We are not trying to beat the public services; we are trying to support them in doing what is in the best interest of the child. The last thing we want is for somebody in a service to do the right thing only to be hammered because his or her boss says he or she has gone outside the box. We need to create a service that allows the child to be at the centre and allows this to be the rationale for making a decision. If in response to our asking an organisation how it accounted for the best interest of the child as part of our investigation of a complaint, that organisation states it did not provide a service to a child on having considered six criteria, it is in a much better space than it otherwise would be.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

That is the sort of consideration to be borne in mind. It requires flexibility and supporting somebody who will take a different decision. We need to create that ethos in the system. We need to support people from the highest level to do that. It involves an element of risk for everybody concerned. I hope we will get there. We are starting to move in that direction. Including a reference to the best interests of the child in the Constitution is a huge start in this regard. It supports us in some way. Within education, that is the most obvious place for that to work. We see it all the time in schools. It is great to see adjustments being made and flexible approaches. Many schools are fantastic in this regard. Others are not because they are a little less flexible. It is the same with the decisions in all public services. Obviously, the majority of children are in education. There are 900,000 in the education system. That is where the highlights are. That is our response.

The system works for 85% but, in respect of the 15% remaining, we may need to have the flexibility to support the principals and parents, with nobody getting a slap on the wrist.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

Correct.

It is important that the Departments be able to support the person on the ground making the decisions that are best for the child.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

That is correct.

If all such decisions put the child first, and if at all times it is asked whether the child’s needs are catered for first, one is making the right choice.

That is a really important point. We all deal with cases – for example, in respect of social welfare and health and across Departments – in which the individual at the front line dealing with the family wants to do something and knows what should be done but is afraid somebody further up the line will say it cannot be done. If we could have the appropriate culture across all Departments, it would be useful.

Dr. Niall Muldoon

Yes, that is part of the reason we are opting for the aforementioned child and family administration and why we are linking with Departments, as opposed to us saying how one should proceed. We need to figure out how those concerned are doing at present, how they can be supported, what is best in that regard and what is practical in an effort to make it a joint venture so we can get some sort of traction on it.

With regard to overcrowding, we are very much aware of the invisible homeless. There is no doubt but that there is a sense that many families are couch surfing and trying to survive from day to day by living off the friendship and goodwill of family members. This has probably remained hidden. I hope the action plan will allow for the freeing up of new beds and new social housing builds. That is the key to it.

One of the things I am really delighted about is the move to mixed housing estates, so that we can create a new community style housing area where the children can grow up in an estate, whether their parents bought a house or are local authority tenants. When people live in the same space together, one is creating a strong message for children and families that society needs to operate as all one together. That is one of the positive things that can come through that system. We need to create the conditions for integration as opposed to previously when we would build an estate of social housing. Integration is key. Where integration does not happen, there is more scope for difficulties.

I hope the increase in house building will allow overcrowding to diminish. It will never cease completely but I hope we will build a new system.

I thank Dr. Muldoon for taking the time to come before the committee. Dr. Muldoon was anxious to share his plan with the committee. I regret that he had to wait before he could appear before the committee. I am very pleased that we were able to facilitate him before the committee adjourned.

I thank the members for their engagement and attendance. I look forward to future engagements with Dr. Muldoon and his team.

The select committee adjourned at 10. 20 a.m. sine die.