Other Questions

Questions Nos. 6 and 7 replied to with Written Answers.

Preschool Services

Robert Troy

Ceist:

8. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the number of children with special needs accessing mainstream preschool education and the plans in place to provide the additional supports required to facilitate children with additional needs; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35730/14]

The question relates to the scenario in which children with special educational needs access preschool education. What plans has the Department put in place to provide additional supports to children with special educational needs?

I thank the Deputy for his question. My Department implements the early childhood care and education, ECCE, programme, which provides a free preschool year to all eligible children before they commence primary school. The programme is a free and universal provision to which all children have access.

A number of additional provisions have been added to ensure the ECCE programme is more accessible to children with special needs. These include an exemption from the upper age limit for qualification under the programme where a child would benefit from starting primary school at a later age. In addition, children with special needs can apply to have the preschool year split over two years on a pro rata basis, for example, availing of the programme for two days a week in the first year and for three days a week in the second year.

I am aware that the Health Service Executive does, where possible, provide additional supports to children with special needs to enable them to avail of preschool services in mainstream preschool settings. My Department has been working with the Department of Health in the context of building better supports to facilitate children with special needs. The aim is to develop an agreed framework for the provision of resources to support special needs children in mainstream child care settings. However, the issue of supports for children with special needs availing of services in mainstream child care settings remains a matter for the Department of Health and the HSE.

Figures relating to special needs children availing of the ECCE programme are not collated by my Department. However Pobal, which assists my Department in the implementation of child care programmes, conducts an annual survey of the early years sector. According to its 2013 report, of the 2,592 respondents to the survey, 1,254 services reported that they have at least one child with a disability in attendance. A total of 3,899 children with disabilities of varying types were accessing their services.

Who has statutory responsibility? Is it the HSE or the Department of Education and Skills? Neither of them claims responsibility. Currently, the provision of services is disjointed throughout the country. In a number of counties, service provision is positive while in others, it is poor. The Minister alluded to the Pobal survey that was published during the summer which highlighted that 1,254 services reported that they had at least one child with a disability and there were a total of 3,899 children with varying disabilities in services. If one extrapolates those figures based on the 61% response rate, it means that more than 6,000 children with a disability attend these services. When I asked the Minister's predecessor last year the number of children with a disability who were availing of the preschool year over two years, to which he alluded, she replied it was only approximately 260. Given that according to the Pobal survey, approximately 6,000 children with special education needs avail of these services, why are only 260 children availing of the preschool year over two years?

One should be careful about extrapolating the figures based on the survey because that may not be accurate. I do not say that is unreasonable but it may not be accurate. We are reviewing this area because the Government is keen to support a second free preschool year at some point in the future and there is concern among providers that we need to address inconsistencies in quality, inspections and standards before introducing a second year. That work is ongoing. I have had meetings with the representative bodies and I have listened to their concerns. It is well accepted that we need to conduct the review before we move forward.

There are 4,300 child care services and almost all the preschool services in the country participate in the ECCE programme.

I am aware of the major problems with quality and so on. I did not refer to the introduction of a second free preschool year. I asked about how the Department will support children with special educational needs who cannot avail of the current preschool year, which is the primary problem. What does that say about the Government's inclusion policy?

The Minister did not answer the question about who has statutory responsibility for this area. Is it the HSE or the Department of Education and Skills? A national inclusion policy is needed to ensure these children receive the necessary supports and to ensure a uniform approach throughout the country.

The Education for Persons with Special Educational Needs Act must also be implemented in full to provide legislative back-up. Is the Minister aware that service providers are legally entitled to refuse to accept a child with special educational needs seeking to avail of the free preschool year if the necessary supports are not available?

I reiterate that the initial supports for children with special needs availing of services in mainstream child care settings remain a matter for the Department of Health and the Health Service Executive. I hope that clarifies the position for the Deputy.

The Department and HSE have statutory responsibility.

Question No. 9 in the name of Deputy Clare Daly cannot be taken as the Deputy is not present in the Chamber.

Question No. 9 replied to with Written Answers.

Question No. 10 in the name of Deputy Timmins cannot be taken as the Deputy is not present in the Chamber.

Question No. 10 replied to with Written Answers.

Question No. 11 is in the name of Deputy Troy.

Sometimes it goes in our favour and sometimes it goes against us.

That certainly seems to be the case.

Child Protection Services Provision

Robert Troy

Ceist:

11. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the action he proposes to take following the Child and Family Agency reporting that over 9,000 instances of abuse or neglect involving children are awaiting a social worker to be assigned to the case; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35728/14]

This question, which is similar to one of the priority questions I tabled, relates to a report that a social worker has not been assigned to more than 9,000 cases of abuse or neglect involving children. I ask the Minister to make a statement on the matter.

Measuring the Pressure, a report prepared by the Child and Family Agency, indicates that at the end of June 2014, the agency was providing 19,766 children with a social work service. The report also highlights the increasing service challenge facing the agency, with 9,548 cases waiting to be allocated to a dedicated social worker. Approximately one third of these were deemed to be high priority. These cases represent a mix of new referrals that need further assessment and social work input and children known to the agency who need a continuing social work service. It is important to note that a duty social worker has been involved in these cases.

I am assured by the Child and Family Agency that emergency cases are dealt with immediately and high priority cases are kept under review. We must ensure the most vulnerable children in our society receive a timely and appropriate response. The data and analysis contained in the Measuring the Pressure report provide critical management information to assist the agency in service planning and resource allocation.

This year, the Child and Family Agency is in receipt of funding of €6.7 million to alleviate identified service pressures and support the continuing implementation of the reform programme across children and family services. This funding is being targeted at a number of areas, including the replacement of staff on maternity leave by way of a 12 month temporary contract. The most recent figures indicate that at the end of August, 164 staff were on maternity leave, 82 of whom were social workers.

The Child and Family Agency is also finalising proposals for the introduction of a guaranteed and protected one year induction programme for newly qualified social workers. These initiatives are designed to assist the agency in responding to identified service pressures and to provide for a targeted response to such pressures, taking account of identified need and available resources.

There is no doubt that the shortage of social workers is leaving children in a vulnerable position and placing them at risk. Social workers on the front line inform me that they are at their wits' end and do not see any light at the end of the tunnel. They have spoken of leaving their offices on Friday evenings with bundles of case files. Their role has become one of fighting fires rather than taking preventative measures, which is what they should be doing.

The Minister referred to the number of social workers on maternity leave. What is the total number of social workers employed by the Child and Family Agency? Has the agency reached the full complement of social workers promised when it was established?

As I indicated in response to previous questions, additional posts have been filled and recruitment is under way for additional posts. To be specific, 106 social work posts were filled by the Child and Family Agency in the first eight months of 2014 and a further 148 posts are at various stages of recruitment. The Deputy asked how many social workers are employed in total. The Child and Family Agency employed 1,388 whole-time equivalent social workers as at the end of August 2014.

A rigorous system of risk analysis has been established in each area to ensure that staffing numbers do not fall to an unsafe level. Gaps identified through this process are addressed with the additional resources of temporary staff, as required. All identified vacancies are the subject of a recruitment process to ensure they are filled at the earliest opportunity.

May I assume from the Minister's reply that there are no vacant social work posts in the Child and Family Agency and the agency has achieved its full staff complement in the area of social work?

It would be extremely devious of the Deputy to so do.

I asked the question because I am seeking certainty about this issue. How many positions are vacant? Has a panel been established from which social workers taking maternity leave can be replaced? I understand that professionals are not replaced when they take a career break or maternity leave, as they are entitled to do, or are absent from work due to long-term illness. As a result, the number of staff working on the ground does not correlate with the number of posts in the Child and Family Agency. What action will be taken to ensure the full complement of social workers is reached? When will the recruitment process for hiring social workers transfer from the Health Service Executive to the new Child and Family Agency?

I reiterate that a further 148 posts are at various stages of recruitment. Vacancies are, therefore, awaiting filling while the recruitment process proceeds. As I indicated in previous replies, it is difficult to recruit social workers in some areas for various reasons, just as it is difficult to recruit doctors in some areas. The bottom line is that 106 social work posts were filled by the Child and Family Agency in the first eight months of this year and a further 148 are at various stages of the recruitment process.

Deputy Troy asked about other initiatives in areas such as maternity leave. The Child and Family Agency is finalising proposals, at my request, arising from the provision of additional funding for the targeted recruitment of graduate social workers. This initiative will involve the introduction of a guaranteed and protected one year induction programme for newly qualified social workers. Discussions with IMPACT and other parties are ongoing and the merits of the scheme will be clear when the details are finalised.

Child Poverty

Tom Fleming

Ceist:

12. Deputy Tom Fleming asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs his strategy for addressing child poverty in the short term; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35760/14]

I ask the Minister to set out his strategy for addressing the growing problems of child poverty and food poverty.

Support for families who require income support to meet basic needs is provided through the social welfare system, which is the responsibility of my colleague, the Minister for Social Protection. A range of income supports is available to parents who are unemployed or on low incomes. The Department of Social Protection also has lead responsibility for the national action plan for social inclusion.

As provided for in Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures: the National Policy Framework for Children and Young People 2014 - 2020, the Department of Social Protection, under commitment 4.2, has lead responsibility for a national child-specific social target to lift 70,000 children out of consistent poverty by 2020, a reduction of at least two thirds on the 2011 level. This target will include reducing the poverty rate for households with children, which is consistently higher when compared with households without children and for children as compared with adults. It is expected that this commitment will be addressed on a cross-departmental basis.

My Department is working on a number of initiatives which are relevant in addressing issues related to children poverty. It is, for example, leading the implementation of the area based childhood programme, better known as the ABC programme. The programme is being co-funded by Atlantic Philanthropies and will have a total funding allocation of up to €29.7 million. The programme draws on best international practice to break the cycle of child poverty where it is most deeply entrenched and improve the outcomes for children and young people and existing services.

In terms of other provision, my Department is spending €260 million annually on three child care support programmes which provide child care to 100,000 children. A number of these programmes are targeted at those on lowest incomes. My Department also provides funding for targeted support for disadvantaged, marginalised and at-risk young people through three schemes. The three programmes are the special projects for youth scheme, the Young People's Facilities and Services Fund and the local drugs task forces. In addition, national and regional youth work organisations are supported under my Department's youth service grant scheme. In 2014, current funding of €49.78 million has been provided to my Department for these schemes.

A recent research report states that almost one in five teachers stated that they have seen an increase in the number of children arriving at school hungry over the past year. The study polled more than 500 primary and secondary schoolteachers. Some 40% stated that they had taken food into the school for a child who was regularly hungry. That is a serious indictment of society. Some 19% of teachers stated that they saw children arrive hungry for lessons every day, while one in three teachers stated that they had children falling asleep in the classroom due to a lack of food and to neglect. Another survey also confirmed that one in five children goes to bed hungry because of the lack of food in the house.

The Minister quite correctly stated that the Department of Social Protection has a responsibility and that there are services provided by that Department, but perhaps there is a need for an awareness campaign as well. I would ask the Minister to liaise with the Department of Social Protection and endeavour in the forthcoming budget to get more relevant funding to address the issue that is growing by the week.

Through the implementation of the Department's document, Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, and its supporting strategies, the Government aims to achieve the following transformational goals to support the achievement of better outcomes for all children and to address the concerns that Deputy Tom Fleming raised. One of the most important aspects to address in this context is support for the parents. Parents will experience improved support in the important task of parenting and feel more confident, informed and able. These are the goals. As I mentioned, a key target for earlier intervention and prevention is to lift more than 70,000 children out of consistent poverty. The programme also focuses on issues such as improving access to affordable early years education and addressing childhood obesity and youth mental health issues. It seeks to shift the emphasis from crisis intervention to prevention and early intervention.

We want to promote a culture that listens to and involves children and young people. The Government will promote a culture which not only recognises, protects and fulfils the rights of children and young people, but also encourages them to become actively involved in public life. Last week there was a good event run by UNICEF at which more than 150 children expressed their will and desires and what they felt were the priorities, not only on national issues but also global ones.

Much of this is generated by difficulties faced by what is called the squeezed middle. I would refer to these as being the new poor. In many cases, they are good members of society who have played their part down through the years in being model members of their communities. At present, they are faced with considerable difficulties and problems. I refer to all their overheads, not only mortgages but charges for various services, increasing taxes and crèche costs. Preschool costs are also on the up. Many of these parents are perhaps a little embarrassed to come forward and seek help from social services and the Department of Social Protection. We need to identify the root of the problem. Something must be done. The children are victims. I ask the Minister to use his good offices to correct matters in this regard.

I thank Deputy Fleming for his comments. It is a serious matter, from the Government's perspective, to help the parents of whom he speaks who have worked so hard and sacrificed so much in helping the economy recover. That is why it is so important in the budget that our focus will be on continuing reform of the tax system in order that more unemployed people are encouraged to go back to work, because every person who comes off the live register saves the taxpayer €20,000 per annum and that funding then becomes available for the services the Deputy mentioned. The Government's aim is to continue the recovery of the economy to the benefit of the people and not only for the benefit of the economy itself.

Question No. 13 is in the name of Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan. Deputy O'Sullivan is not present and we will go on to Question No. 14.

Question No. 13 replied to with Written Answers.

Departmental Expenditure

Robert Troy

Ceist:

14. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if he will provide a Supplementary Estimate for Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, in 2014; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [35727/14]

This is somewhat similar to the question I asked earlier. It relates to the provision of a Supplementary Estimate for Tusla, the new Child and Family Agency, in 2014. If the Minister was not able an hour ago to give me a definitive answer on whether a Supplementary Estimate brought would be forward at the end of this year, I doubt he will have his mind made up. All the same, maybe we can hear what he has to say.

As I mentioned already, the financial allocation for Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, in 2014, its first year of operation, was set at €609 million. This comprised €602 million in current funding and €7 million in capital funding. It is acknowledged that delivering the range of services required of the agency within this budget is challenging. Notwithstanding the significant level of resources provided, certain areas of expenditure, such as legal costs, which we covered already, have in the past proven difficult to manage within the allocated budget. It is also noted that other areas of expenditure, such as private residential and foster care, have experienced strong demand in 2014.

The agency is implementing significant reform to seek to achieve greater value for money and efficiencies in such areas and the progress in this regard is subject to ongoing monitoring and review with my Department. This is an issue about which Mr. Gordon Jeyes is extremely concerned and is working hard to address. Officials in my Department continue to monitor closely the cash position of the agency and are working with the agency to determine an evidence-based full year cash requirement. No final determination has yet been reached in this regard.

In the event that supplementary funding is required to meet the running costs of the agency in 2014, the matter will be discussed with Department of Public Expenditure and Reform as part of the ongoing budgetary discussions.

The Minister was the Minister for Health at the time the new agency was set up and its remit transferred from that Department to Tusla. Is he satisfied the new agency was left to carry over a deficit? Surely, the new agency should have started off afresh with a blank sheet. That would have sent a clear signal that we want this agency to work.

I accept the issue of legal costs has been ongoing for several years but that does not mean it should not be tackled. In fact, it has not been tackled over the past four years. Two years ago, an article in The Sunday Business Post pointed out the legal fees came to €35 million in 2011 alone, much of which was made up in payments to guardians ad litem. What has been done to tackle these exorbitant legal fees? What were the legal fees for 2011 to 2014, inclusive? Is this issue being tackled and have they been reduced year on year for the past several years?

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue as it concerns us all. The legal fees issue is being addressed with steps taken including the negotiation of reduced fees and stricter controls on accessing legal advice. Sometimes one has to question the necessity of the use of a legal team in certain matters. It is often a case of if you are lawyered up, then I have to be lawyered up too, a scenario that is being addressed.

I will do my best to get the breakdown of the amounts of moneys spent on legal fees. There will have to be a breakdown in previous Health Service Executive bills that relate to child care issues. The Deputy knows my view that moneys spent on medical-legal compensation should be going to victims, not to the legal profession with no disrespect to it. That issue is being actively addressed by Mr. Gordon Jeyes and is one of the top items on his agenda.

A commissioning strategy is being developed for the issuing of grants to ensure the most effective use of available resources. Much work has to be done to bring about measurable evidence-based outcomes. While we can have a sense that these services are delivering in a great way, some elements may not be achieving the outcomes we want and others could be promoted more if we had measured outcomes. Much work will be done with these services, particularly youth services.

It is extremely important to tackle the waste through exorbitant legal fees. I do not accept the Minister will try his best to ascertain the figures involved. They should be readily available and we should know what is being spent by the Department in any given year in any particular area on legal fees. I got them before and I hope the Minister’s office will make them available again. I also hope they will show a downward trajectory and that the issue is being tackled. It is not right or proper to see that level of funding being spent at any time but particularly at a time when our budgets are under so much pressure and when the numbers of children in care have increased from 5,247 in 2005 to 6,460 in 2013. This is also a time when there has been a 91% increase in reported child protection issues while the number of social workers remains static. The workload has doubled for the same workforce but this cannot continue.

If the figures are readily available, the Deputy will have them. If not, he will not. Given what I said earlier, it is not reasonable to expect we would have completeness in this when some people do not submit their bills for four years.

The Minister should know what was spent, however.

Yes, we can tell the Deputy what was paid. However, if X million euro is spent this year for bills for services incurred three years ago, how will that inform the Deputy what were the actual legal costs incurred in this year alone? I hope he accepts this point.

On the 91% increase in reported cases, much has changed since 2005 with the Ryan report and other issues leading to a greater awareness of the issue of child abuse and neglect. There is a much greater willingness to report than before. There has also been an increase in the child population with the welcome increase in the birth rate. This presents difficulties in the workload for child care social workers. That is why we need to ensure social workers are freed up to do the work they are specifically trained to do and not get side-tracked by administrative duties that others could be doing. Traditionally because they have not had that support, they might be spending some time on that area. That is not a criticism of social workers. It is the situation in which they find themselves. It is our job to support them and allow them do the work they alone can do.

Written Answers follow Adjournment.