The Government is fully committed to protecting frontline services, including services for children with disabilities, to the greatest extent possible, notwithstanding the financial constraints which the health sector must operate within. Significant resources have been invested by the health sector in recent years in services for children with disabilities. In particular, there is now an increased awareness of the importance of early intervention for these children in terms of ensuring they get the best start in life and are supported as much as possible to reach their full potential.
As the Deputy will be aware, the Health Service Executive has operational responsibility for the provision of health and personal social services, including disability services for children. Within this context and subject to the financial resources available, it has a responsibility to ensure that the health-related needs of children with disabilities are addressed and that these children are appropriately supported in pre-school and school settings. This is done in a number of ways such as by providing grant-aid to support pre-school provision in community pre-schools and by funding special pre-schools that cater specifically for children with disabilities. It has also facilitated children with disabilities to attend mainstream pre-schools by providing assistant supports where these supports may be necessary. The HSE’s role in supporting children with disabilities involves it working in close co-operation with the disability service providers that it funds, with the education sector, with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and with the parents and families of the children in question. The HSE's reorganisation of existing therapy resources to geographic based teams for children and young people with disabilities under the Progressing Disabilities Programme for Children and Young People (0-18) is also significant in this context. This aims to increase the level of consistency and standardisation in the way both early intervention services and services for school-aged children with disabilities are delivered and to have one clear pathway for all children with disabilities according to need.
While the health, children and youth affairs and education sectors co-operate on a regular basis with a view to integrating their services for children with a disability as much as possible there is a need to strengthen these arrangements. The Children, Adolescents and Young People with Complex Disabilities Unit led by a Principal Officer has been established in my Department. This important development aims to foster greater collaboration between my Department, the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs on children’s disability issues and to build on the cross-sectoral working arrangements that are already in place. A dedicated Cross-Sectoral Team, comprising representatives of my Department, the HSE, the Department of Education and Skills and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs plays a key role in this regard.
A sub group of this Cross-Sectoral Team has been set up to examine the issues around the integration of children with disabilities into mainstream Pre-School Settings, building on previous analysis in this area. Representatives of the Departments of Health, Children and Youth Affairs, Education and Skills, the Health Service Executive and of the City and County Childcare Committees are members of this group and it is chaired by the Department of Health. It is envisaged that the work of this Sub-Group will be completed later this year, at which point it will report to the Cross Sectoral Team.