NEW SECTIONS

NEW SECTIONS.

I move amendment No. 27:

In page 7, before section 5, to insert the following new section:

"5.—Where it appears to a health board that a child in its area is homeless, the board shall inquire into the child's circumstances, and if the board is satisfied that—

(i) there is no accommodation available to him which he can reasonably occupy, and

(ii) he is unable to provide or arrange accommodation for himself,

then, unless the child is received into the care of the board under the provisions of this Act, the board shall take such steps as are reasonable to make available accommodation for him.".

The purpose of this amendment is to make specific statutory provision for the problem of homeless children. It places a duty on health boards to respond to genuine cases of children who have no home. When it appears to a health board that a child in its area is homeless, the board will be under a duty to investigate the child's circumstances. If the board is satisfied on the basis of this investigation that the child has no accommodation which he could reasonably occupy and if he cannot arrange other accommodation for himself, then the board must provide assistance for the child. This assistance can take the form of receiving the child into care or taking reasonable steps to make available accommodation for him.

The type of assistance that a health board will give in any case will, of course, depend on the circumstances. In the case of younger children who are not yet ready to live independently, clearly direct care by a health board would be the appropriate response. There may, on the other hand, be older people who do not need or want to be taken into care but who need assistance. In such cases a health board, rather than receiving these children into care, would have the option of making available accommodation for them.

The formula of words I am proposing, that is, "that there is no accommodation available to him which he can reasonably occupy", is wide enough to include children who have a family home but whose circumstances there are intolerable. I am leaving open the type of accommodation which health boards may make available so as to ensure sufficient flexibility to deal with every contingency.

I have no difficulty with this new addition. It provides for a circumstance which has arisen in relation to homeless children and it is appropriate that there would be statutory powers to deal with that situation. I would just like to ask the Minister two questions. First, is this a new section 5 that is being inserted, because the existing section 5 relates purely to child care advisory committes? Is it a new section or how is it being dealt with? Second, would it be appropriate to have some reference to obligations on local authorities, where the health board so desires? Local authorities are in the business of providing housing and accommodation a lot more than health boards and, therefore, there should be some onus or reference to local authorities, county councils and municipal authorities in relation to this section.

In direct response to Deputy Yates' question, this is a new section 5. There is another new section coming up after that. If it is agreed it will become section 6 and the existing section 5 becomes section 7.

Local authorities' responsibilities come under the Housing Act and relate to people who are over 18 years of age. The Child Care Bill deals with single people under 18 years of age.

I want to tease out a little the Minister's intention in this regard. Obviously, we would all be anxious that there would be adequate care and protection available to children who are homeless. It has been suggested to me that there are dangers involved in the form of words being used by the Minister here, in that it is the responsibility of the health board to inquire into the circumstances of a child who is homeless and to take action on it. If "there is no accommodation available to him which he can reasonably occupy" does that mean if the child is in unsuitable accommodation, a shabby hostel or some place of that kind, that the responsibility of the health board is met under this section?

That goes back to my remarks on a previous section when I said that the health board should have primary responsibility to care for children and satisfy themselves that a child is adequately cared for in every aspect. The mere fact that a child has shelter is not fulfilling the obligations of a health board as I would see it. I am a little concerned that over-pressed health boards, when pressed on an issue of a young person, would simply say that they offered them accommodation and the young person, for example, a teenager, did not accept it. That shifts the burden of responsibility away from the health board, where we want it to rest, and on to the child who may, for whatever reasons, decline what may be termed by the health board to be suitable accommodation.

My concern is somewhat related to that. In the context of using the words "reasonable" and "reasonably", I would be concerned that it would be used as a let-out. This is used in subsection (1) and further on it states, "the board shall take such steps as are reasonable to make available accommodation for him". Is that necessary? Surely, the board would take steps to make accommodation available for him. What is the definition of "reasonable"?

What would happen where it appears to a health board that a child in its area is homeless? What would be the sequence of events? Could I have some kind of instance where this would happen? Where would the child be kept? Obviously, the child would be given to a parent who would come to claim the child, who then would no longer be homeless. This is a terrible comparison to make but a stray dog, that appeared to have been neglected or ill-treated and that was taken in, would not be given out to the alleged owner without first making some inquiries. I would like to be satisfied on that point.

I remember a couple of years ago coming across a group of traveller children just off O'Connell Street who were glue sniffing. I was very alarmed and tried to get the Gardaí to do something because they were, very visibly, damaging themselves. The response I got was that they were itinerant children and nobody knew where they came from. They were all under 12 or 13 years of age. I am wondering what would happen in that instance. I am not sure if that is still the case but I recollect a newspaper article, which appeared in one of the weekend papers, tracing the destiny of a group of children of the same generation, which stated that of a group of about eight, three were dead and two or three were in hospital. Is that the kind of situation the Deputy is talking about? What would happen in that type of case where apparently the children are homeless and at risk? Would the standard of accommodation in their homes be checked, in the context of this section?

I support this amendment which would insert a new section in the Bill. I can envisage cases, which may have arisen in the past, where the board might be unable to get a hardy young person, who for some reason or other is homeless, into care. Here I am speaking about a chap who may be 15, 16 or 17 years of age. I ask the Minister to tell us if the intention is to allow the health board to provide in some circumstances bed and breakfast accommodation for people? That is, generally, the situation which could arise. I have seen it happen in the past. There appears to be no such provision and the board might not take responsibility. Is it the Minister's intention to consider that kind of case where a young person, be it boy or girl, might not allow themselves to be taken into care, yet who would, in an emergency, require accommodation to be provided for them? For instance, there would be no point in a person, well known in the local area, going to a bed and breakfast or any guesthouse because they would not be listened to, but if the health board were to do so on their behalf, it would be a different matter. That is the kind of situation I see arising and I support the amendment for that reason.

I listened with interest to what has been said. I think there is some doubt about the commitment of the Government, the Department of Health and other Departments to alleviate the problems of young people and I would like to put on the record the facts and to outline what is being done.

The Government have been concerned for some time now with the growing problem of the young homeless, particularly in our large urban areas, and they have taken a number of initiatives in advance of the enactment of the Child Care Bill. In 1988, the Government established a special £4 million fund for disadvantaged youth from the national lottery funds set aside by the Government for youth affairs. The overall objective of the fund is to develop a wide range of community youth projects aimed at meeting the needs of those among our young people who are facing special and complex problems. In particular, the Government decided that the needs of groups considered to be particularly at risk, such as the young homeless, young travellers and young substance abusers, should be given priority consideration in the allocation of the special fund. To advise the Government on the disbursement of the £4 million fund, an interdepartmental committee was established with representatives from the Departments of Education, Health, Justice, Labour, Environment, Social Welfare and the Gaeltacht.

In passing, I might mention this is but another example of the close liaison and integrated approach which exists between Government Departments in addressing the needs of young people, to which I referred at last week's committee meeting. From this special fund, I am pleased to be able to say that the Government allocated a sum of over £1 million to a wide range of new initiatives geared specifically to the needs of the young homeless, young travellers and young substance abusers. These funds have been allocated through the health boards, mainly to a variety of voluntary organisations in different parts of the country. The allocations include increased funding to enable some existing services to be enhanced as well as allocations to enable new services to get off the ground.

The main initiatives being assisted are in the Eastern Health Board area where the problems are greatest and include the following: improvements to existing residential facilities for out-of-home children in the north inner city; new residential projects for homeless adolescents at Ballymun for girls, Tallaght for boys and Clontarf for boys — overall, these should provide up to 25 places in total when fully operational next year; an innovative foster care project by the Eastern Health Board for difficult adolescents, who previously have been placed without success in a variety of other settings — the aim of this new scheme which is called "Cares for Young People" is to place up to ten very difficult children, aged 14 to 16, with suitable families who are at present being specially selected and trained; a new after-care service for young travellers leaving two special residential centres for young travellers in County Wicklow; when fully operational it is hoped to have up to eight places for young travellers aged 16 to 18. Outside of Dublin a number of other initiatives for homeless adolescents, young travellers and young substance abusers are being supported in Cork, Galway, Limerick, Tralee, Tullamore and Sligo.

In addition to these projects which are being funded through the health boards, special allocations have also been made to other voluntary organisations working with the young homeless. For example, the well-known organisation Focus Point has to date received approval for an allocation of over £0.5 million from the special fund towards the running costs of its services. In addition, Focus Point, which, as Deputies are aware, is led by Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, has received approval from the Minister for the Environment for capital funding amounting to £1 million from his Department's voluntary housing scheme towards the costs of their major new flats and housing development at Stanhope Street, Dublin, for young, vulnerable, homeless persons.

I understand that a request from Focus Point for further capital funding of £920,000 is under active consideration by the Department of the Environment at present. Furthermore, Focus Point has received £105,000 to date from the Department of the Environment towards their running costs and a request for further revenue funding is being considered at the moment.

From the details I have outlined, I hope the committee will be assured that the Government are determined to see that the necessary resources are applied and will continue to be applied to meet the complex needs of the young homeless and other groups of young people who are particularly at risk. I feel it necessary to put these facts on the record to correct the mistaken impression that seems to be abroad that the Government are not concerned with and have no plans for dealing with the problems facing our young homeless.

The special fund for disadvantaged youth which has been established by the Government has been widely welcomed as a most significant initiative and the Government are fully committed to ensuring its continuation. The special fund, together with the Department of the Environment voluntary housing scheme, has for the first time enabled a number of flexible and relevant responses to be developed in a most difficult area of social need. I hope these facts help in showing the diversity of services being initiated by the Department of Health, the health boards and the various voluntary organisations with the co-operation of the other Government Departments involved.

I am sorry I was slightly late for the start of the meeting. This point may very well have been touched on before I came in. From reading the section, it appears the primary responsibility in regard to housing lies with local authorities under the Housing Acts. Has the Minister's Department looked at where the responsibility of the health board would stop and the responsibility of the local authority commence? It says "that the board shall enquire into the child's circumstances and if it is satisfied ... the board shall take such steps as are necessary or reasonable to make available accommodation". I take it that the health board, being in communication with the local authorityvis-�-vis possible housing for the child, or if there was not any available — and that might pose a problem at some stage — would then be obliged to, perhaps, rent accommodation or put the child into some house of care, place of safety or whatever? I wonder is there a problem there between the two statutory bodies, the health board and the local authority, vis-�-vis the housing.

First, in relation to the Minister's comments, I do not think that when remarks were made on this side it was envisaged that we would be opening the way for a prepared script but, no doubt, the Minister would have found a mechanism for reading that anyway. It is certainly welcome that some resources are being made available to tackle the problem of young people and homelessness, and God bless the national lottery, we all have to say.

The real point I was trying to focus on in relation to this new section is the creating of a new category of homeless people, homeless children, as distinct from the generality of children who need care. I wonder if that is such a good idea and that is the whole focus of what I want to say. Under section 3 we have decided the health board have an obligation to promote the welfare of children in its area who are not receiving adequate care and protection. That is the main thrust of the Bill, that children who are in need — for whatever reason — should be the responsibility of the health board.

In this section we are creating another category. We are differentiating between children who require care, for whatever reason, and children who are homeless. What is being said in it, in essence, is that the health board shall take such steps as are reasonable to make available accommodation for him, this child who needs shelter. The phrase, as other members have said, "shall take such steps as are reasonable", seems to me to be a very leaky bucket, because a health board may well plead that they would love to provide it but may say "We have no shekels" in the heel of the hunt. Every day we come across cases that we bring to the health board, I can give you instances of children who are walking the streets of my home town and the resources are not there in the health board to look after them. That is a dreadful situation. Why create a separate category of homelessness for children who are to be treated in a different way from other children who require care? That is the essence of the point I want to make.

This section should be hailed for what it is — a milestone for social legislation in this country. It deals with one of the greatest human tragedies we have, the tragedy of homeless children. I would like to welcome warmly the fact that at long last this desperately serious problem, this human tragedy, is being faced. While I can sympathise with Deputy Howlin's point of view, I feel that this is a radical departure which can only do good and that it is statutorily incumbent on a health board under this section to do what is reasonable. What is reasonable is to make available accommodation for a child, who does not have any accommodation available to him which he can reasonably occupy, and for a child who is unable to provide or arrange accommodation for himself.

To conclude, I must say this is a milestone in the history of social legislation in this country. It could be said that for the very first time the great human tragedy of homelessness among children is being tackled and I commend the Minister on this.

I am fascinated by Deputy O'Donoghue's enthusiasm for this section. The first thing I would say is that, listening to the Minister's outline of the services for the homeless, one would not think that there was a very active growth in organisations like Focus Point, that are desperately trying to provide shelter in urban areas for people. In fact, this is a very difficult area.

I think it has been put forward very reasonably here that there is not a sufficiently tight obligation on the health board to do what this section sets out to do. That is because, in most cases of homeless children, we would be dealing with a situation where they have a home, where they were born and reared in a family setting but, for one reason or another, they do not find it possible to remain living in that environment. Maybe the father or mother has alcohol problems, maybe there is violence or abuse and maybe they are streetwise enough at 14 or 15 years to be able to hustle for survival on the streets. In those circumstances the health board could well argue under the new section 5, it is reasonable for them to go home but that might not be reasonable — it might be very debatable what is reasonable. I ask the Minister to look at this again; this is the first draft.

I come back to a point I made earlier — and Deputy Ahern referred to this — about local authorities. In relation to the last paragraph of this new section I suggest that the Minister consider adding after the second last line of the section where it says "under the provisions of this Act the board shall", the words "the board, in conjunction with the relevant local authorities, shall take such steps as are reasonable to make available accommodation for him". Not only are we dealing with the only statutory body in the house building business, but in my own local authority — of which Deputy Howlin is a member — there are now applications under the grants' scheme for voluntary housing which is administered by local authorities. These applications could go to organisations providing shelter.

This scheme is administered by the local authority. The money is allocated through the Department of the Environment and it will not be allocated unless it is approved by the local authority. So you could well have an organisation, which the health board find totally desirable, providing local shelter, but they would have to go to the local authority for grant aid under the voluntary grant aid programme for that particular scheme for the homeless. It strikes me as only prudent to include at least the reference "in conjunction with the relevant local authorities". The Minister, in reply to my earlier point, said it was a straightforward matter if you were over 18 years of age, you were the responsibility of the local authority and if you were under 18 you were the responsibility of the health board. I submit that it is not as clearcut as that, in relation to temporary shelter, because you are not necessarily talking about a permanent home for these younger people. They will grow up, they may get a job somewhere else and they may develop a different pattern to their life. I would think that, because of the number of schemes that are now available to help voluntary organisations involved in the accommodation and shelter sector, it would only be reasonable to consult with local authorities and involve them.

We are including this section to give the health boards an option to deal with adolescents as distinct from infants or younger children. We are talking about the strong 15 year olds and children up to 18 years of age. Flexibility is vital in this area for the health boards because young individuals react in different ways, have different attitudes, different aspirations and require different standards of accommodation for various reasons. It is important that we give responsibility to the health boards but we must give them the flexibility to deal with any individual case in the best way possible.

Deputies Howlin and Fennell at the outset questioned the words "reasonably occupy". The phrase, "reasonably occupy" is the same as is used in the Housing Act, 1988, where a homeless person over 18 years of age is defined as one who has no accommodation or no accommodation he can reasonably occupy. I expect that, as Deputy Sherlock has suggested, this provision will in the main be used to cater for older children, perhaps for 15 year-olds and upwards, who need bed and breakfast or a particular type of accommodation as distinct from a more permanent type of accommodation.

Obviously, the first efforts of the health board will be directed towards returning the homeless child to its family, if that is possible. Where that is not possible the health board would have a choice. They could take the child into care either on a voluntary basis or through the courts, or provide the child with accommodation under the terms of this new section. I would remind Deputies that under this Bill the term "child" includes persons up to 18 years of age. Health boards cannot deal with older age groups as they would with infants.

Deputy Ahern, with other Deputies, asked where was the dividing line between the responsibilities of health boards and local authorities. These have been agreed between the Department of Health and the Department of the Environment. Local authorities are responsible for persons over 18 years of age or persons under 18 years of age who are married. Under this provision health boards will be given responsibility for persons under 18 years, other than those who are married. Thus we do not anticipate any confusion or duplication between the responsibilities of either the relevant agencies or the relevant Departments.

I welcome the Minister's clarification and I see that this section is focused in particular at the older teenager who would not require an institutional permanent care order. It seeks to take him off the streets. The problem as I see it — I agree this is not only a landmark section but a landmark Bill, a milestone in legislation people have been fighting for for 80 years — is that we are devolving a lot of new responsibilities and functions to health boards. Our experience in the past has been that we were very slow to match this extra responsibility with money. Often the health boards are unable, as I and Deputy Yates have instanced in the past, to fulfil the obligations they currently have under statute. I would drink the water before me if it was not so poisonous.

I would caution the Deputy against taking anything which may damage his health.

The Department of Health can check it out.

I consider that there is a danger involved in the amendment and, while I accept that the health boards should have flexibility, I am afraid they might have the flexibility to evade their responsibility. That is what I am concerned about. The Minister has created a separate category for homeless young people, separate and above the normal category of young children who require care and protection under section 3. After the enactment of this Bill every child who is not receiving adequate care and protection will be the responsibility of the health board but we have created a separate category for homeless young people and the comprehensiveness of the Bill does not seem to apply to them. For this category uniquely all the health board are required to do is to take such steps as are reasonable to make accommodation available for them. There might be instances when health boards might use this section as a way of avoiding responsibility because they just have not the resources, the man-power or the accommodation available to look after children properly. I am not sure how it could be tightened up but I would like the Minister to reflect on it.

On a point of order, I do not want to be accused of being a kill-joy but are people allowed to smoke cigarettes at a meeting of committees such as this? With no disrespect to the members, we are debating something which is vital for children and some members are smoking cigarettes. I do not intend staying here if people are smoking cigarettes.

This committee, more or less, sets its own rules and I am in the hands of committee members on this.

I propose that we do not allow smoking at committee meetings.

I second that.

Any dissenters?

Deputy Howlin had difficulty talking; he started to cough and was looking for a glass of water.

Before Deputy Lee arrived Deputy Howlin had a difficulty with the water.

Rather than wasting the time of the committee with a vote, we will canvass amongst ourselves for next week.

Are we having a vote?

I was not going to put this to a vote but will try to reach an agreement.

It is agreed.

I welcome the introduction by the Minister of this provision. In relation to the suggestion by Deputy Yates on the last sentence — that the board in conjunction with relevant local authorities should take such steps as are reasonable to make available accommodation — if I understood the Deputy's proposal correctly I would have a difficulty with it. I have a feeling that this section which deals with homeless children specifically places an onus firmly on health boards. If we introduced an amendment as proposed by Deputy Yates we could end up wih a lot of buck passing, with the health board saying it is not their responsibility, that the local authority should provide the house here orvice versa, or a lot of forms and letters being sent from health boards to local authorities and back again. At the end of it all we would be defeating the whole purpose of this section. I am inclined to think that at least the section here places the obligation on the health boards and everybody knows where the obligation lies. If we introduce another authority we will end up, as we usually do in these matters, with buck passing. I would prefer to see the health board alone named because of that danger.

I have read section 3 again and I note that we are not talking about taking children into care; we are talking about getting accommodation for them. Lack of accommodation is a symptom and I wonder if we should be looking at the position of the child. If a child under the age of 18 years is homeless and needs accomodation, is it enough to put the child into care? My view is that it will be very unlikely that there will be accommodation available. The last part of the section refers to "steps as are reasonable" and that may be very, very little. The section should be meaningful. Like other Deputies, I would welcome it if we were going to address the problems of the homeless child or young person. What about other needs if they do not come under section 3 because we are not talking about taking the child into care? At some stage will the health board have to inquire into the child's family life? What will happen to the child from there on if the child needs training, education or counselling? It is not enough to take the child and find it a bed.

This section, even though it makes it mandatory, gives the health board the flexibility to be able to provide this accommodation. The fact that it is a health board which has other functions, services and resources available, the child would have to be looked at in totality. The totality of the services available in the health board and the totality of resources available through those services would have to be made available in the interests of the child. Under section 3 the interest of the child is of paramount importance. Any decisions taken by the health board have to be taken with the primacy of the interests of the child.

Deputy Howlin talked about the health boards evading their responsibilities. The reason I put the other information on the record was to show that already, before the Bill is enacted, we have made resources available to all the health boards. There is a major effort being made to educate, condition, facilitate and put a structure in place for children who need support, resources, help, shelter and accommodation. When the Bill is enacted it will be easier to provide more resources and create the conditions of providing more resources and better facilities and services for them. We have already started. We believe we are on the right road. We also believe this Bill is of vital importance so that we can provide an even greater service for these children.

Deputy Howlin also suggested that health boards might pay less attention to the needs of homeless children than to other children under the Bill. This will not happen. The health boards will not be allowed to do this. The health boards are committed and there are good people in various health boards throughout the country. We have no doubt about their commitment to ensuring that, once the Bill is passed, they will adhere to it and to the functions given to them under the Bill.

Firstly, one of the reasons for inserting this new section is to draw the attention of health boards specifically to the needs of homeless children. Secondly, in performing its functions under this section, health boards would be bound by the provisions of section 3, as we have amended it, in other words, the board would have to have regard to the welfare of the child as a first and paramount consideration. I hope this helps to clarify the situation.

Would the Minister accept that the fact of homelessness is probably an examplepar excellance of a myriad of social problems? Deputy Fennell asked if it is enough simply to provide shelter for this category of young person rather than dealing with the problems that are manifested by homelessness.

I can accept a lot of what Deputy Howlin says, that a homeless child, for many reasons, finds himself or herself in that situation. Nowadays children are homeless for many reasons. Individual cases are very different. This is why we want to ensure the health board will have a role. This is why we want to give them the necessary flexibility to be able to deal with any given situation. We want them to be able to take reasonable action as quickly as possible, to examine the situation in great detail, to put all the information together and to try to provide the best service possible for those children. The primary function is the interest of the child at all times and if at all possible to restore the child to his or her family.

Amendment agreed to.

I move amendment No. 28:

In page 7, before section 5, to insert the following new section:

"5.—(1) Each health board shall provide or ensure the provision in its area of a service for the adoption of children in accordance with the Adoption Acts, 1952 to 1988.

(2) For the purposes of this section, a health board may enter into arrangements with any adoption society for the time being registered in the Adoption Societies Register maintained by An Bord Uchtála under Part IV of the Adoption Act, 1952.

(3) Without prejudice to section 4, a health board may take a child into its care with a view to his adoption and may maintain him in such care in accordance with the provisions of this Act until he is placed for adoption.

(4) The provisions of section 8 shall apply with any necessary modifications in relation to any arrangement made under subsection (2).".

The purpose of this amendment is to impose an explicit statutory duty on each health board to ensure the provision of an adoption service in its area. Each health board will have the option of providing a service itself through its own social work staff or, alternatively, entering into arrangements with any of the registered adoption societies to provide a service on its behalf. For many years the adoption services and the adoption societies existed in isolation from other child care services.

In more recent times there has been an aceptance of the need to integrate adoption into the mainstream of the child care services. This process was set in train in January 1983 when ministerial and departmental responsibility for adoption was transferred from the Minister for Justice and his Department to the Minister for Health and my Department. It was given added impetus last year when health boards were given certain functions in relation to the processing of applications for adoption under the new Adoption Act, 1988.

This amendment now creates for the first time a statutory linkage between health boards and the adoption societies. This is an important development and will help to streamline and improve adoption services. To give practical expression to the statutory link subsection (4) will enable a health board to grant aid or otherwise assist an adoption society that is providing services on its behalf. I am aware that some of the societies are experiencing financial problems at present and I hope that this provision will help to alleviate these difficulties. Finally, I would like to explain the purpose of subsection (3). This enables a health board to take into its care and maintain children who are awaiting adoption. This is being included in view of certain doubts which have been expressed that such children might not be covered by the terms of section 4 of the Bill. This will put the matter beyond doubt for the future.

I welcome the fact that this provision is being included in the Bill. Including it in the Bill only highlights the fragmentation of our child care services in the sense that, while this legislation is dealing with children in care and adoption, we still do not have a codified Adoption Act bringing together all of the Acts that have been passed between 1952 and 1988. We are still not implementing most of the recommendations of the report of the committee that reported in 1985 reviewing the adoption services. I would like the Minister to clarify when it is likely we will see legislation to implement many of the recommendations contained in that report because when Fine Gael put a Private Members' Bill into the Dáil to provide for the adoption of abandoned children and, in effect, to provide for the adoption in specific circumstances of children born to married couples, it was indicated that the Government had in preparation a comprehensive Adoption Bill. There is no sign of that.

I would also like to raise another matter of concern. The Minister, rightly, in his opening remarks, refers to the fact that adoption is now applying as a result of the 1988 legislation to circumstances which previously do not exist. I have had contacts with various health boards around the country since that legislation was passed. That legislation effectively allows a child who has been in foster care for a year or more and where there is no reasonable prospect of the child returning to the care of the natural parents, be they a married couple or otherwise, be adopted subject to a number of circumstances. It is my experience that a number of health boards are not utilising that legislation.

It appears there is an inbuilt resistance on the part of some social workers within the community care areas to even advise foster parents of the possibility of adoption under the Adoption Act, 1988. The difficulties being experienced in this area particularly clarify the need for some direct guidelines to issue, by way of instructions from the Department of Health, to the health boards as to the application of the 1988 Act. It is my belief that many situations exist whereby adoption would provide a degree of security for a child and people who are fostering the child and where it would be in the interest of the child's welfare that adoption be provided for.

Health boards are not advising the foster parents of the possibilities in this area. Wearing my hat as a Member of the Dáil and also my lawyer's hat since 1988 I had a number of people writing to me from different parts of the country saying to me that they were too old to adopt through an adoption society because adoption societies have, in some instances arbitrarily imposed an age limit of 30 for adoption in the case of wives and 32-35 for husbands. This is totally arbitrary and is not, I believe, permitted by statute but they are doing this in practice.

There are couples where the husband and the wife are slightly above those age limits who want to adopt and provide a home for children and who are interested in fostering with a view to adoption and who contact health boards to find out if there are children available with a view to adoption. These may be children who are not babies, they may be in the five to ten age group. They may be in some form of children's home for whom this possibility would be very welcome.

The feedback that couples wishing to adopt in these circumstances are getting from some health boards is that they do not do fosterage with a view to adoption. It would seem to me that the Adoption Act, 1988 was designed to do two things, where a child was in long-term foster care with no prospect of returning to its natural parents and where in particular, had ceased to have contact with natural parents it provides a means for a child to be adopted. But, equally, it provides for the situation that where children may be in a children's home, to use a general term, also cut off from natural parents that it would create the possibility of fostering with a view to adoption. I think that the health boards need a direction from the Department of Health as to how they should apply this legislation.

Too few adoption orders are being made under this legislation when viewed against the number of children we have in long-term residential care or long-term foster care. There is something very wrong in the manner in which the legislation is being dealt with. I think it is being ignored. I think some social workers have an ideological objection to applying it because they take the view that once the child is in foster care it should remain, in effect, in foster care and they do not like the idea of converting into an adoption situation. There should be an obligation imposed on health boards, be it by ministerial directive or otherwise, to ensure that where a long-term foster care situation exists that the foster parents are at least advised of their rights under the Adoption Act, 1988, and to ensure that where it is in the interests of the child's welfare the health board, as I believe is required to do under that Act, facilitates the adoption process getting under way.

I give this amendment a reserved welcome. It is recognising for the first time in our statute law the very clear interaction between our children's services but we need something a great deal more comprehensive to implement many of the recommendations of the review committee on adoption services. I hope the Minister might give us some indication when we will see that legislation.

I welcome Deputy Shatter's acceptance of the importance of this section, albeit it is a reserved welcome. He has raised a number of important issues. I accept the need for changes and improvement in the Adoption Acts. The question of new adoption legislation would, of necessity, have to await the passage of the Child Care Bill. I am sure that the members of the committee will agree that the enactment and implementation of this Bill must be our first priority in reforming our child care legislation and that we should not allow any other issue, however deserving, to deflect us from that task. In any event, the efforts of the relevant staff of my Department are fully committed to this Bill and it would not be possible for them to undertake work on new adoption legislation without adversely affecting the processing of this very important Bill.

When this Bill has been enacted the question of new adoption legislation will be vigorously pursued. In particular, the recommendations of the review committee on adoption services which Deputy Shatter has referred to will be carefully considered, together with the recent report of the Law Reform Commission on the recognition of foreign adoption decrees.

With regard to the specific points raised by Deputy Shatter about the Adoption Act, 1988, let me say first of all that as with any new piece of legislation it has taken some time for health boards and their staffs to fully familiarise themselves with the very complex provisions of the 1988 Act. My understanding, however, is that the Act is now fully operational in all health board areas. I am not aware of any ideological or other objections by social workers. As regards the number of orders which have been made, I agree that it is low. However, we on this side of the House never believed that it would be otherwise. It was also our view that the number of children who could be adopted would be small. I want to say to Deputy Shatter that if he has any particular cases which he feels are not getting full objective consideration and if he brings them to our attention, I will only be too happy, along with my officials, to pursue it with the relevant health boards.

Is there not a danger that if you bring in this that parents who allow their children to be fostered but who believe that all the time they will have access to their children, that you are going to create a division there by introducing that. Very definitely parents who allow the children to be fostered because they understand that it is for the benefit of children may find themselves cut off if they now realise that the children could be adopted. I would like to see that debated a little further.

I agree with what Deputy Sherlock says. There is a slight danger there and the danger exists since the 1988 Act was passed. This is why we must be very careful in the type of legislation that we pass and the attitude that we adopt and the guidelines that we give to health boards.

Amendment agreed to.
Progress reported; Committee to sit again.
The Committee adjourned until 11.30 a.m. in Wednesday, 10 January 1990.