My Department has actively developed supports for children affected by the Covid-19 restrictions
across a range of service provisions including:
-Child welfare and protection;
-Supports for parents;
-Early learning and Care and School Age Childcare;
-International Protection and Integration;
- Children’s Detention;
- Participation and Consultation.
Child Welfare and Protection
Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, is the statutory body with responsibility to promote the welfare of children who are not receiving adequate care and protection. From the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020, my Department has worked closely with Tusla in order to ensure the prioritisation and continuity of key frontline services to support at-risk children and families.
Tusla prioritised and has maintained a focus throughout the pandemic on three essential services in this regard, namely:
- Child Protection
- Children in Care
- Domestic, Sexual and Gender Based Violence services
My Department has remained engaged with Tusla colleagues to maintain the provision of these services with due regard to all Covid-19 related restrictions, social distancing and other requirements, securing additional funding of €8m in 2020 to meet additional cost pressures arising from the response to Covid-19.
The Deputy may already be aware that the CEO of Tusla has provided detailed updates to the Oireachtas Committee on the actions taken by Tusla to support vulnerable children and families during the pandemic.
Additional Tusla supports
Importantly, Tusla has continued to adapt services and develop innovative practice as the Agency works with partners to sustain, enhance and coordinate the family support that is needed during the pandemic. The Prevention, Partnership and Family Support Service has been working with partners to ensure services are easily accessible and integrated at the front line in the community for children, young people and families. In particular, the Child and Family Support Networks have been working to ensure that there is “no wrong door” for families seeking help, by directing them to appropriate support in their community.
Examples of the supports that have been delivered include:
- Supporting local food provision and coordinating food packs;
- Funding and coordinating local education support responses for vulnerable children and young people;
- Identifying families that may be in need of support that are not previously known to services; and
- Continuing support through online platforms, including Meitheal provision, through phone contact.
Targeted preventative support has been maintained with vulnerable families such as those living in International Protection Accommodation Service accommodation, families experiencing domestic violence and minority communities. Tusla, in conjunction with partner agencies, continues to ensure that supports are available to vulnerable families during this time.
Children and Young People’s Services Committees
Children and Young People’s Services Committees (CYPSC) are co-funded by my Department, Tusla and the Department of Health (Healthy Ireland) to ensure effective inter-agency co-ordination and collaboration in achieving the best outcomes for children and young people in their local area. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the 27 CYPSCs around the country have been very proactive in coordinating supports for children and young people, their families and communities.
CYPSCs have diverted a significant amount of their mainstream funding from my Department and under the Healthy Ireland initiative to coordinate and deliver supports with local partners in their communities.
Covid-19 supports coordinated by CYPSCs and delivered in communities include:
- Signposting/information events for parents on Covid-19;
- Activity/play packs;
- Food pack distribution;
- Youth supports;
- Digital divide supports;
- Mental health supports; and
- Responses for families and children impacted by the rise in domestic violence since the pandemic emerged.
‘Supporting Children’ initiative
As part of the Government response to Covid-19, in April 2020, my Department launched a range of supports for parents and children to support them during a challenging time. This included a new online gov.ie resource for parents, entitled ‘Parents Centre’, which brought together high quality information and online resources for parents into one portal. Parents Centre provided links to a wide variety of material including around learning, parenting and supports that were available online and across Ireland.
In parallel, my Department developed “Supporting Children”, a campaign and online information platform designed to acknowledge the potential harms of the current public health crisis and to draw attention to the robust network of supports which exist for those in need across areas including Parenting and Family Support; Domestic, Sexual and Gender Based Violence; and Child Protection and Welfare. It also encourages all of us to look out for vulnerable children and young people and highlights many significant adaptions of services across Ireland to Covid-19.
Supporting Children was developed following an exercise undertaken in the context of the pandemic to determine the many significant step-up actions being delivered by services across Ireland to meet the needs of vulnerable children, young people and families. It concluded that there was a need for a public information campaign promoting existing services and urging all citizens to be aware of those who may be more vulnerable due to public health restrictions. The Department continued to update Supporting Children and Parents Centre throughout 2020, and the Supporting Children campaign was re-launched in early 2021 in the context of increased restrictions. Finally, the decision was taken recently to merge the Supporting Children and Parents Centre information platforms, to offer a single, permanent, unified public information platform with information on services and supports for children, young people and families: Supporting Children and Parents.
Early Learning and Care and School Age Childcare
Multiple Covid-19 support packages have been developed in response to evolving circumstances to support the early learning and childcare (ELC) sector. The objective of these support packages has been to:
- Support ELC providers’ sustainability to enable services return to normal, once restrictions were lifted;
- Ensure that ELC could reopen after temporary closure periods and remain open, particularly for children of essential workers and vulnerable children, even at very low levels of occupancy;
- Ensure that ELC services could operate safely for children, families and staff;
- Support ELC providers to retain (and upskill) their staff, particularly during periods of closures and restricted access;
- Ensure increased ELC delivery costs associated with public health requirements, and lower demand / occupancy, were not passed on to parents;
- Ensure parents were not charged when not using ELC services during periods of closures and restricted access;
- Ensure continuity of learning experiences to children during periods of closures and restricted access through the provision of remote supports.
In addition, there was an extensive range of resources provided:
- Public health resources to assist services to reopen and operate safely;
- Continuing Professional Development resources for practitioners to upskill;
- Resources to prepare children for the transition back to services following periods of closures/restricted access and to ensure children's continued access to learning opportunities at home during these times.
International Protection Accommodation and the Irish Refugee Protection Programme
The Department developed a Strategic Framework for Engagement on Child and Family Issues in the context of school closures and social distancing requirements put in place during the Covid-19 crisis. The International Protection Accommodation Service (IPAS) and Child and Family Welfare Team has developed this framework to support families living in our centres. In preparing the framework, outreach has taken place with key stakeholders including centre managers, Tusla, the Department of Education and Skills, the Department of Rural and Community Development, the HSE, the Children’s Rights Alliance, One Family and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. We continue to work closely with these and other partners. The framework encompasses three broad themes under which actions were rolled out:
- Child and family welfare;
- Identifying education requirements; and
- The general provision of activities for children.
Additionally, the Irish Refugee Protection Programme has worked with Emergency Reception and Orientation Centres (EROCs) and Resettlement Officers to ensure that children continued to have access to learning during school closures. Resettlement Officers liaised with newly settled families to ensure that families were supported while schools were closed. Home visits took place. EROCs were supported with additional IT equipment where required to enable online learning.
Oberstown Children Detention Campus
My Department has maintained close contact with the authorities at the Oberstown Children Detention Campus since the outbreak of Covid-19. The Campus has in place a series of measures designed to ensure the health and wellbeing of all children in detention. This includes a vaccination programme and a range of safety protocols aimed at minimising the risk of transmission of the virus on the Campus.
In September 2020, I used my powers under the Civil Law and Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2020 to designate the Adoption Authority of Ireland for the purposes of holding remote meetings and holding remote hearings. This helped to ensure that the adoption process could proceed, where it was in the best interests of the child to do so.
In recognition of the vital role played by youth work in providing support to young people, funding levels were maintained throughout the Covid-19 period. My Department has also engaged with the sector to develop sector specific guidance which was updated at each point there was a change to the Covid-19 measures at Government and NPHET level.
A sum in excess of €1.3m was allocated to youth services to mitigate Covid-19 and its impact in 2020.
- An ICT investment grant of €1m was made available to support the improvement of ICT infrastructure within youth services and youth clubs to facilitate the remote provision of youth programmes and youth services.
- Early in my tenure, my Department made available a fund of €338,000 for a small capital grant scheme. The scheme allowed over 1,500 funded youth services and clubs to meet minor costs incurred as a result of Covid-19 response measures.
Additionally, a Covid-19 Minor Grant Scheme for Youth Services and Youth Clubs was announced in June 2021 making €1.4 million in funding available to frontline youth services and clubs nationally to support them as Covid-19 restrictions were relaxed in line with Government guidelines. The re-engagement and support of volunteers who are the backbone of youth services nationally was a key focus in providing these additional funds in 2021. The one-off grants were aimed at supporting services to open as fully as is possible in line with the easing of the Covid-19 restrictions.
In September 2021, funding of up to €1m was made available for distribution between the national youth organisations to defray additional Covid-19 costs, the costs of re-engaging volunteers in universal services, and a contribution towards funding gaps emerging as services re-open in line with Government guidelines. For those national youth organisations that work with youth services and clubs (e.g. Foroige, Youth Work Ireland) the funding could also be used in their drive to re-open local universal services fully.
Participation and consultation
In the summer of 2020, my Department, working with the Department of Health and the youth sector, collaborated with SpunOut.ie to undertake an online survey of young people’s experiences of Covid-19.
The consultation asked young people about what has been working well for them and the challenges in maintaining their wellbeing during Covid-19. Young people were given a chance to provide feedback on what could be useful in improving their mental health and wellbeing over the coming months.
58% of reported feelings about the future were negative, including anxiety, pessimism, fear and sadness; a figure that was higher amongst marginalised groups. 37% of young people expressed optimism, this was higher for those who engaged with youth groups/clubs/services. Young people reported missing friends, health problems, isolation, loss of social life and work among the impacts of Covid-19.
The publication of the report was a commitment in the Government Roadmap, Resilience and Recovery 2020-2021, Plan for Living with Covid-19. A youth friendly version has also been developed in video format.
The findings of the report were shared with relevant Government officials in order to inform the Government’s response.