The establishment of the Child and Family Agency is at the heart of the Government's reform of child and family services. The Government decided that it was essential and appropriate that child welfare and protection services transfer from the Health Service Executive to a new, dedicated Agency. From its establishment the Agency will have service responsibility for:
- Child welfare and protection services currently operated by the HSE including family support and alternative care services;
- Child and family-related services for which the HSE currently has responsibility including pre-school inspections and domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services;
- The Family Support Agency which currently operates as a separate body under the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and will be merged into the new Agency;
- The National Educational Welfare Board which also currently operates as a separate body under the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and will be merged into the new Agency;
- Community-based psychology services (this does not encompass psychologists operating within acute, disability, mental health or other specialist settings).
The Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Department of Health are working jointly on an impact analysis of proposed future arrangements for this service as they relate to children and family services covered by the Child and Family Agency and to services provided by the HSE.
The establishment of a single agency incorporating key children's services will provide a focus for the major reforms already underway within Children and Family Services. These reforms include:
- the continued and urgent implementation of a comprehensive change programme to improve the quality and consistency of child welfare and protection services. This change programme is addressing the quality and consistency of child welfare and protection services, and is being led by the Chief Executive designate of the Child and Family Agency. This change process will continue into the new Agency;
- the separation of children and family services within the HSE from other health and personal social services, with discrete management responsibilities and budgets, providing transparency and accountability for the use of resources to meet national priorities;
- the development of dedicated children and families responsibility and accountability at area, regional and national management team levels;
- commencement of external inspection by HIQA of the child welfare and protection services.
Extensive work is ongoing in the Departments of Children and Youth Affairs and Health, and in the HSE to prepare for the establishment of the Child and Family Agency. The preparations are designed to allow for the Agency to assume full statutory responsibility for services for children and families upon establishment.
Drafting of the Child and Family Agency Bill is at an advanced stage. This legislation will be published and debated by the Oireachtas at the earliest opportunity. A precise target date will be set when consideration of the legislation is advanced.
In addition to this large scale structural reform programme, the HSE Child and Family Directorate is also implementing a significant programme of ongoing reforms. These reforms at operational level respond in detail to many identified gaps and changes needed to ensure a more consistent, effective and quality service delivery. They include, for example:
- Development of a National Child Care Information System to comprehensively address issues of record keeping and data management;
- Improvements in respect of social worker assignment and care planning;
- The preparation of a business case for a National Out of Hours Social Work Service;
- The recruitment of 260 additional social workers proposed in the Ryan Report Implementation Plan.
Over 1,400 social workers are employed in Children and Family Support Services and the introduction of 260 additional social workers represents a significant strengthening of the work force. Arrangements for the induction, training and supervision of these staff have been put in place. Support for all staff includes the introduction of national guidance, such as Child Protection and Welfare Practice Handbook, and supervision of the implementation of this guidance.
The development of the legislation to establish the Child and Family Agency is part of a suite of legislative developments to strengthen child protection in accordance with the Programme for Government. Another significant piece of legislation relates to the Children First guidance. Following publication of the Draft Heads and General Scheme for the Children First Bill, 2012, consideration by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children of the Bill and related submissions, my Department has further considered a range of policy and operational issues, and the preparation of revised policy proposals is currently under way.
My Department has a range of other legislation also in train in the area of adoption and is also reviewing scoping further legislative requirements as may arise from the Children's Referendum. Together with the programme of reform of structural governance and the operational change programme, I believe this represents one of the most challenging agendas of reform of any sector across the public services.