The emphasis of the Child Care Act 1991 is on supporting children and families in their own communities having regard to the principle that it is generally in the best interests of the child to be brought up in his or her own family. However, children are taken into the care of the health boards or placed voluntarily in care due to a range of family circumstances and health boards have a statutory responsibility to provide appropriate services for these children.
Since 1997, additional revenue funding of approximately €185 million has been invested through the health boards in the development of child welfare and protection services.
The Department of Health and Children collects annual figures in relation to children in care through the interim minimum dataset. Figures for 2001 indicate that there were 3,656 children in foster care, some with extra supports as required, and 569 children in residential care including high support and special care.
As the figures show foster care is the main form of alternative care for children who cannot be looked after in their own home. The essential role of foster carers in providing a home for children and young people whose parents are unable to care for them is well recognised by Government. The working group report on foster care published in 2001 contains a wide range of recommendations designed to ensure that the structures and services necessary to meet the needs of children in foster care, their families and foster carers are strengthened and further developed. The Government is committed to implementing the recommendations of the report on a phased basis. Among the recommendations implemented to date are a substantial increase in the foster care allowance and development and publication of national standards for foster care. Pilot inspections by the social services inspectorate of the implementation of the standards are due to commence shortly. These initiatives together with initiatives undertaken by health boards on an ongoing basis will improve the quality of foster care services and encourage new foster care applicants.
Residential care best meets the needs of some children at a particular time in their lives or is sometimes appropriate as a means of keeping a larger sibling group together. As the Deputy may be aware the number of high support and special care places has increased to over 120 to cater for a small group of children who cannot be catered for in mainstream residential care or in foster care. While this has been necessary, I am committed to developing alternative community based services for this group, for example, the youth advocacy pilot projects in the Northern Area Health Board and Western Health Board which commenced in 2002. In addition, extern, a voluntary organisation has agreements with a number of health boards to provide intensive community based services for at risk children. These programmes provide an added dimension to the health boards provision of community based services to meet the needs of at risk children.
All types of residential care are inspected either by the social services inspectorate or the registration and inspection units of the health boards, as appropriate, to ensure and promote a quality standard of care in line with legislation and national standards.
With the shift in policy in recent years to a more preventive approach to child welfare involving support for families and individual children, increased funding has been provided for a wide range of family support projects, preventative services and intensive community based services. These include the springboard initiative and teen parent support programme and a range of programmes developed or supported by health boards ranging from the community mothers scheme to lifestart and homestart and support for pre-school services for at risk children. These projects provide support and practical help to families in a non-stigmatising way. A review of family support services has also been established by my Department which will map out a national policy and plan for the future development of family support services by health boards. This review is expected to report at the end of 2004.
I want to assure the Deputy that I will continue to ensure that the supports are in place to allow children to be cared for by their own family where possible and that care services and in particular residential care services are for as short a period as possible and of a standard which best meets the needs of children in care.