Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Questions (19)

Anne Rabbitte


19. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the steps she has taken to address the fact that many children in foster care are placed under a voluntary care order; and the issues arising from same. [25898/18]

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Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Children)

What steps has the Minister taken to address the fact that many children in foster care are placed under a voluntary care order and the issues arising from same?

When Tusla takes a child into care it may do so either by way of a court order under the Child Care Act 1991, or by way of a voluntary care arrangement whereby there is consent from the child's parent or guardian. Every case is unique. There will be some cases where voluntary care is the most appropriate response and others where it will be necessary to have a more formal arrangement using a court order under the Child Care Act 1991.

Voluntary care is an important option open to Tusla and may be used to help struggling parents and protect vulnerable children. Voluntary care is also utilised where parents require some form of short-term respite, or where a parent may be ill or seeking treatment for a particular condition. Its application in these circumstances is particularly useful. Approximately one third of children in care at any one time are cared for under a voluntary arrangement.

It is important to emphasise that voluntary care is based on parental consent. The child's parent or guardian is entitled to have an input into the care that their child receives and they have the power to withdraw their consent if they are not satisfied with the care their child is receiving. Important, it also makes it easier for struggling parents to entrust the care of their children to Tusla when they need help. Voluntary care can facilitate a co-operative relationship between parents, Tusla, and caregivers, and this can be positive for the child and their family.

Tusla introduced new practice guidance last year on the use of voluntary consent for admission to care. This provides social workers with clear definitions of voluntary consent and the process for determining capacity to give consent. Timely and understandable informed consent sets the stage for social work services and assists with providing all involved with an understanding of the process and associated realistic expectations. The guidance also stresses that consent to a voluntary arrangement should only be sought if it is fair and proportionate in all circumstances, which is important.

As of January 2018, 32% of all children in care were placed under a voluntary care order. That equates to 2,026 children. As the Minister explained, the parents agreed to have their children taken into care for various reasons. In these cases, Tusla must consider the parents' wishes on aspects of how the care is provided. The reason I tabled this question is that some of the caregivers have a number of issues where voluntary care orders are used.

Such issues include getting birthday cakes for the children in their care or having the children's hair cut. Caregivers feel that they have little engagement in the decision-making process. Empowering People in Care, EPIC, has made a number of representations, including to the Minister, regarding voluntary care orders. It believes that little or no progress is being made. What steps is the Minister taking to address the types of simple, minor issue that I have mentioned? Is the Department taking steps to ensure appropriate court orders are sought for children in care?

The agreement on voluntary care is made between parents, Tusla and caregivers and can be positive for the child and the family. There is a new practice guidance to assist with the issues the Deputy identified. Voluntary care provides that the best interests of the child should be the determining factor. Voluntary consent should not be used indefinitely if that is not in the child's best interests. It should only be sought if it is clear that reunification with the child's parents or guardians is possible.

Under Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, we made a commitment to review and reform the Child Care Act 1991. My Department has initiated that work and engaged with Tusla and other State agencies. The work will address a broader and higher level than some of the issues the Deputy raised, but I am aware that, in a family or home situation, questions on whether parental consent is needed for such matters can sometimes arise. I hope the new practice guidance will assist in that regard.

The guidance would be welcome. It is regrettable that 45% of children in care have been the subject of voluntary care orders that have lasted for longer than five years. The Minister mentioned that orders were meant to be temporary, but no one can say that "temporary" means "five years". We need to discuss the negative impact of placing children under voluntary care orders for longer than 12 months.

Everyone will agree that reunification should always be the goal, but there must be a measurable goal. This is not just about the children's best interests; we must also consider the caregivers. There must be a clear pathway in order that caregivers and Tusla can know where they are going. The fact that 45% of children in care have been under voluntary care orders for longer than five years means they are not successful.

I appreciate the issues the Deputy raised, particularly about the length of time and the number of children in care. She stated that they have not been successful. While I appreciate the sentiment she is expressing, circumstances change and family units are different. We do not necessarily know when a child will require support in the form of a voluntary care order, under which parents give their consent and work with carers.

From what I can tell, the issues the Deputy is raising are coming from the carers, in particular. Under voluntary care orders, they require support in terms of training, contact with Tusla, etc. I appreciate those issues. In the reforms that it is in initiating, Tusla will meet those concerns.