Other Questions

Child Care Services Provision

Kathleen Funchion

Ceist:

31. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the steps being taken to encourage childminders to register with Tusla further to the implementation of the new single affordable child care scheme, the assistance that is being given to county child care committees to facilitate registration and if she will make a statement on the matter. [39929/16]

Question No. 31 is in the name of Deputy Funchion who has received the approval of the Ceann Comhairle for it to be taken by Deputy Ó Laoghaire.

Baineann sé seo leis an scéim inacmhainne amháin um chúram leanaí nua. The childminding advisory service, which existed for a number of years, has been decimated in recent years. In that context, what services and supports will be available to provide childminders with the assistance and support they need to register for this new scheme?

The new single affordable child-care scheme will make subsidies payable to services that are quality assured. This is in the best interests of children and families. Tusla provides quality assurance for child care services under the statutory registration and inspection regime.

In advance of introducing the scheme in September 2017, my Department will carry out further work in conjunction with city and county child care committees and national child care organisations. This will ensure that all child care providers who are eligible to participate in the scheme, including both centre-based providers and childminders, are aware of any steps they need to take in order to participate in the scheme.

Childminders who mind three or fewer pre-school children in the childminder's own home are exempt from the child care regulations and thus are not subject to inspection by Tusla. In order to meet the needs of parents whose preference is to use a childminder, and to build capacity to cater for increased demand in future years, my Department has established a working group chaired by Childminding Ireland.

The working group, which includes officials from Tusla, my Department and the city and county child care committees, will make recommendations on reforms for the sector, including proposals relating to quality assurance, whether they be on a voluntary non-statutory basis in the short term or on a mandatory statutory basis in the long term. These will include recommendations relating to childminders who are exempt from registration with Tusla - those minding three or fewer pre-school children or those minding school-age children only. The recommendations received are likely to include proposals to be progressed in the short, medium and long term, including the development of national quality standards for childminders and a proportionate system of quality assurance and regulation.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

The working group is expected to report to my Department in May 2017.

Much of what the Minister has said is welcome. Is it envisaged that those childminders who are exempt from Tusla inspection would be entitled to be part of the single affordable child-care scheme? To some extent, the question related to support and advocacy offered by the childminding advisory service and the link between the county child care committees and childminders. Many childminders operate on an informal level and many individuals, largely women, might be fearful about any registration process and fear that they might be penalised for working outside the tax system for a number of years. This needs to be handled sensibly and carefully to bring as many people as possible into a quality, child-centred service. That link, service and support will be essential so I ask the Minister to consider either advancing or re-establishing something along the lines of the childminding advisory service.

That is a very helpful suggestion that I will certainly consider in respect of the Deputy's last point. My Department and I, along with the county and city child care committees, are very keen to provide support, particularly to childminders, because we are aware that for many parents, this is their preference for the minding of their children and they hope and wish that they could have access to the child care scheme that will be rolled out.

There are 219 registered childminders who will be eligible to participate in the single affordable child-care scheme announced in the recent budget. Since the announcement, two more childminders have joined and are in the process of registering with Tusla. Clearly, we have concerns about the lower numbers here. We are aware that the current eligibility criteria rule out a high percentage of childminders who are minding fewer than four children and a lot of work is ongoing in that regard.

Deputy Ó Laoghaire has an opportunity for a supplementary.

I confused myself with the Standing Orders and did not think I would get in again. That latter point is vitally important because it is essential that this be a very central part of the single affordable child-care scheme and child care more generally because for many parents who do shift work, childminders will be essential. It offers these parents the flexibility they require. Is it possible for the Minister to give a timeline for when she expects this working group led by Childminding Ireland to produce its report containing these short, medium and long-term recommendations?

It might be helpful to identify some of the issues that have been uncovered relating to the meetings of the working group that have taken place. The low level of registration is often explained by the fact that most childminders mind fewer than four children and that registration and compliance with the regulations are perceived by the sector to be very complicated. There is definitely a need to simplify the regulatory standards so that they are proportionate and fit the model of care that childminders offer, including providing a home-away-from-home environment for children. The current regulations are more relevant to centre-based centres and disproportionate in respect of childminding services, although current practice is to consider this during the inspections.

It appears evident, however, that the sector needs its own separate fit-for-purpose regulations and this is emerging in the context of the discussions. The next meeting is scheduled for 20 December and I expect to receive a report from them in May 2017.

School Transport Provision

Jan O'Sullivan

Ceist:

32. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the progress that has been made on the actions in pillar 1 of Rebuilding Ireland in which her Department has a role, particularly actions 1.5, 1.6 and 1.7; if free public transport has been provided for children to go to school, after school and community activities; if the safety guidance and voluntary code for child safety in emergency accommodation is in place; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [39942/16]

Earlier Deputy Rabbitte raised the issue of children who live in homeless accommodation. My question relates to that but is specific to pillar 1 of Rebuilding Ireland where a number of measures are actioned and it describes the owners of the actions. Tusla and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs are included as owners in these three actions, including around transportation to school and other community activities and around a code of child safety in emergency accommodation.

Along with my Government colleagues and all Members of this House, I am committed to supporting children and families who are living in emergency accommodation because they are homeless. We are making progress on the actions in Rebuilding Ireland: Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness. I wish our progress could be quicker and this is particularly the case as we approach Christmas, which will be stressful and challenging for families living in emergency accommodation. Deputy O’Sullivan’s question covers many different initiatives. I will attempt to answer as much as possible now and I will cover any additional questions in the supplementary answers. The Deputy has specifically asked about the free public transport for children to go to school, after school and community activities. In October, families received five 24 hour family Leap cards. These are valid for use on all Dublin transport systems, allowing for family days out at weekends or during holiday periods.

Arrangements are being finalised to provide Leap cards for children who need to use public transport to attend school. We expect these to be available in the new year and ideally as soon as possible after children return to school. There have been some challenges in designing these cards and I am happy to give the Deputy further details if she needs them.

In respect of the safety guidance voluntary code, the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive, DRHE, developed draft national quality standards for homeless services. Tusla was included in the membership of the advisory group which provided the feedback on the development of these standards. In addition, there is a joint protocol between Tusla and the DRHE governing child welfare and protection matters which is fully operational. It is planned to roll out a similar protocol in Limerick, Cork and Galway in 2017. It will need to be tailored to each area due to the different structures in place.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

On the various other actions under points 1.5, 1.6 and 1.7 we are also making progress. Tomorrow, I will be announcing details of a new programme to ease the burden of child care costs for homeless families. We have reached agreement on prioritising young people leaving care for the capital assistance scheme. Tusla is meeting tomorrow with a front-line provider to start work on a service level agreement to support pregnant women who are homeless. Research into the food and nutrition needs of families in emergency accommodation will be completed early in the New Year. I am happy to give more details on any of these initiatives to the Deputy.

While I welcome the Leap cards for family outings, it is disappointing that the transport to school has not yet been actually arranged. From the timeframe given to us by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, the cards should have been available by now. Clearly, children must go to school so it is particularly urgent. Perhaps the Minister could explain some of the reasons that it has not happened by this stage. It has been quite a long time since that commitment was given. I ask also that the Minister gives a little more information about progress on the voluntary code of child safety, which is also an urgent element.

I share Deputy Sullivan's concern about how long the free transport measure is taking. At my request, my officials have spoken with the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive, DRHE, to get more information on why it is taking so long to implement the scheme. They are anxious, I understand, to implement it as soon as possible. There are serious practical and logistical issues that must be worked out in conjunction with the National Transport Authority so the scheme can be rolled out fairly and safely. They hope to pilot the scheme from mid to late January for about four weeks and then implement it in full. This is to ensure that all concerns around identity, danger of fraud and misuse, and user friendliness for those eligible can be addressed. I can share a bit more information in that regard, as well as a reply to the Deputy's second question, the next time I take to my feet.

Will the Minister indicate if the pilot scheme, to be rolled out after the four weeks, is for all the children or is it just for a group of the children? We have school transport for children in rural areas so I do not understand why it is such a difficulty to get this scheme put in place. Presumably we know who the children are and where they go to school.

It is not about who and where are the children. I will go into a little more detail on some of the issues, as explained to me by the DRHE. With regard to identity and fraud, or misuse of cards, the cards must be used only by those who are eligible and each user must, therefore, be registered and the cards not transferred to someone else. There are some data protection concerns. The DRHE needs consent to have homeless families' details of individual children so as to estimate age, location, likely usage and the distance from hotel accommodation to school. Much of this can be addressed through information contained with consent as when the five Leap cards were issued. The system must also be user friendly. A system for topping up cards, including the amounts, which is normally done at source by card buyers, means that from an administrative point of view a judgment needs to be made. Some 90% of homeless families reside in the Dublin area. This is about helping as many people as possible and as quickly as possible so it will be rolled out through Dublin initially. In the Deputy's area of the mid-west, I understand there are 22 homeless families and I suggest that if children of families need to use public transport to get to school, an application should be made to the community welfare officer. I would be happy to lend my support to that application.

School Completion Programme

John Curran

Ceist:

33. Deputy John Curran asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs when she will publish a new school completion strategy to further improve school completion rates particularly in disadvantaged areas; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [35149/16]

My question to the Minister follows from a commitment in the programme for Government to publish a new school completion strategy to further improve school completion rates and especially in areas of disadvantage. Perhaps the Minister would be in a position to tell me when the new strategy will be worked on and what the consultation process might involve.

I thank Deputy Curran. Improving attendance and participation in education is a key priority for me, particularly regarding vulnerable children. The programme for Government, as the Deputy said, commits to publishing a new school completion strategy to further improve school completion rates, especially in disadvantaged areas. My Department will work closely with the Minister for Education and Skills in developing the new strategy. We will prepare it in the context of the Government programme commitment to a new action plan for educational inclusion to secure good educational outcomes for all children, especially those at risk of educational disadvantage.

The ongoing review of the DEIS programme, which targets supports to schools and students in the most disadvantaged areas, will inform the development of this strategy. I hope to progress the school completion strategy in the latter half of 2017. In the meantime, Tusla is working on improvements to the governance and operation of the school completion programme. I believe the programme is a vital response in securing improved educational outcomes for those who are at risk of early school leaving. The ESRI's report on the programme in October 2015 pointed to the effectiveness of the service but emphasised the need for organisational reforms. Tusla has been working on these in order to strengthen its operation. For example, an unemployment audit was carried out and its findings are currently under consideration. These improvements will form a valuable backdrop to a new school completion strategy. I want the strategy to recognise possible alternative provisions where students are not suited to mainstream education and we will also need to respond to the needs of children from ethnic and minority groups with low school completion rates, including the Traveller and Roma communities.

I thank the Minister. I appreciate the fact that she has given a timeframe for the strategy. I encourage her to engage in as broad a consultation process as possible. The school completion programme to date has been successful but it does not mean we can be complacent and that there are no new challenges. It is worth noting that the most recent figures available indicate that about nine out of ten students complete second level education. Unfortunately, particular problems arise in the DEIS schools where one in five students do not complete school. I hope that the focus of the new programme will look specifically at DEIS schools. It is interesting, when one looks at the DEIS schools, that the gap between DEIS and non-DEIS schools in getting to students to junior certificate is only 3%. Some 94% complete their junior certificate in DEIS schools and 97% get to junior certificate in non-DEIS schools. When they get to the leaving certificate, however, there is a 10% gap. The review needs to focus very strongly on that period from junior certificate to leaving certificate. Those students who do transition year are also more likely to complete their schooling compared with those who do not do transition year.

The Deputy's suggestion that the consultation process should be as wide as possible is helpful. That is something we need to do and that we will do.

As I mentioned in my initial response, a number of reviews of the school completion programme were undertaken, many of which would point to some of the issues the Deputy identified. Those reviews are with Tusla and my Department and they will need careful consideration. The funding implications are also critical and need to be examined based on the evidence and the recommendations of the reviews, the differences in percentages, as the Deputy identified, the transition from junior to senior level and the evidence that it is clearly a very good programme that needs to be supported, but that should be done in light of careful consideration of the reviews that have taken place.

I specifically ask the Minister to ensure we would go a little further with the new programme. It is not sufficient that students complete their schooling at leaving certificate. We need to review where they go after that and how they are equipped to take up work or to go on to third level. That is important. We all know that fewer students going to UCD and the other universities come from disadvantaged areas and DEIS schools than come from more affluent areas. The challenge is for us to address that in conjunction with school completion. The issue is not only the rate of completion but that we raise the standard right through that level to give students equal opportunities. If a child is coming from a DEIS school or a disadvantaged area, their expectations starting out should be equal to a child coming from an advantaged area in terms of access to third level being an opportunity. Unfortunately, that does not always seem to be the case. They get to leaving certificate but do not seem to transition in the same way, and that needs to be the next step of school completion.

I completely agree with the Deputy.

I thank the Minister for that.

That is a very progressive recommendation or insight. I have spent much time in my constituency, particularly in sections of Tallaght west as we call it, most recently with a group of principals and educational welfare officers or staff who came together around a big table to examine the issues with which they are dealing, much of which are around ensuring their students move successfully from junior to senior level and that this level is completed successfully. I and they would share the Deputy's deep commitment to working together in the communities with all the schools coming together, as has been demonstrated in Killinarden from my recent experience there, not only to ensure the students complete second level successfully but, as part of that process, that they have the ambition to go beyond that level to third level.

Questions Nos. 34 and 41, in the names of Deputies Boyd Barrett and Bríd Smith, respectively, which are being taken together cannot be taken now as the Deputies are not present in the Chamber.

Question No. 34 replied to with Written Answers.

Child Detention Centres

Jan O'Sullivan

Ceist:

35. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if progress has been made in addressing the problems at the Oberstown centre; the involvement she and her Department have had in seeking to resolve them; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [39941/16]

I and the other two members of the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, who are in the Chamber, visited Oberstown. I know the Minister is well aware of the difficulties there and we all want to see progress on this. There seems to be some threat of further industrial action. Will the Minister clarify what is happening?

I am anxious to see an early resolution to all the issues in the Oberstown centre. The safety and well-being of young people and staff is my primary concern.

I have taken an active involvement in understanding the challenges that are facing Oberstown and in trying to identify the best way forward. I have visited the campus on a number of occasions since my appointment. In June of this year the emphasis of my visit was on the education facility where I had the opportunity of meeting the young people and their teachers.

In October 2016, I visited Oberstown to meet Professor Barry Goldson and Professor Nicholas Hardwick as part of their work in their independent review of operations and best practice on the campus. Most recently, on 21 November 2016, I visited Oberstown and met the young people, staff and management of the campus as well as the chairperson of the board of management. I made a number of suggestions to the director about activities for young people and other matters. Following my invitation, Deputy O’Sullivan and the other members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs visited Oberstown on 9 November 2016.

I have also met the local residents from Oberstown accompanied by local representatives. From these meetings a community safety plan has been developed.

A range of reviews are under way in Oberstown, including an independent review of operations, an independent expert review of security, of health and safety, and of the behaviour management programme currently in use. Oberstown is also looking at all policies, including care, safeguarding and professional standards on the campus.

Given the many initiatives now under way, which are known to all parties in the context of the process in the Workplace Relations Commission, I am very disappointed that there is still a danger of further industrial action in early January. I have asked my Department and Oberstown management to engage with the unions and the Workplace Relations Commission to resolve matters.

I thank the Minister for her response and I welcome it. She has visited Oberstown a number of times and I and my two colleagues have visited it as well. There is deep concern about the situation there. We would all agree that the school is running well. There has been a positive experience there from what we saw when we visited it. However, there seems to be a difficulty around relationships between the staff and management. I note the Minister said that there is a range of reviews. She might give us some information on when those reviews are likely to be completed in order that we can have a sense of some direction with this. The Minister might clarify if a date has been set for the process at the Workplace Relations Commission and whether everybody has agreed to attend.

Before calling the Minister, Standing Orders permit me with respect to Other Questions to give other Deputies an opportunity to ask a brief supplementary question in order that the Minister might answer all the questions. I call Deputy Rabbitte first to be followed by Deputy Ó Laoghaire.

I thank Deputy O'Sullivan for posing this question. My question is about a timeframe for the reviews, as has been asked by Deputy O'Sullivan. Also, with regard to the Workplace Relations Commission, what is the Department doing to avert the possible industrial action? My understanding is that all-out industrial action is proposed this time.

I recognise that the priority must be the children, the interests of the child are at the heart of everything the staff and management do and that is their primary concern, but I do not believe staff would take the decision to take industrial action lightly.

What progress has been made on the works, for which the Office of Public Works is responsible, which are central to many of the concerns of the staff?

I thank the Deputies for the questions. A meeting with IMPACT, Department officials and Oberstown management took place last week and the parties are in discussion to move forward matters of particular concern regarding the safety and well-being of staff as well as of children. Matters are progressing in this regard and I am hopeful that I will hear further on that in the coming days. I believe I can say that. There is communication back and forth to move towards some process to ensure a resolution of those safety concerns in the context of some of the wider reviews that are ongoing.

In terms of the timeframe for some of the other reviews, the independent review will be delivered on 20 December.

The Minister has given us a good deal of information but the real concern is if there is a strike, serious issues arise about the safety of the young people and how they will be looked after. I do not know if there is a plan or if the Minister has genuine hope that this process will address the issues. I agree with Deputy Ó Laoghaire that some of them are quite practical in terms of issues that can be addressed.

Some of the others may be a bit more intractable. We all want to ensure that the concerns the staff expressed to us are addressed.

As I indicated, I also met the staff and have listened to their concerns. There are contingency plans in place if there is a strike. Conversations are taking place, along with efforts to get the parties back around the table to resolve the issues, particularly those relating to safety. Works by the Office of Public Works are moving forward. I do not have the exact details for Deputy Ó Laoghaire but I can provide them later.

I am hoping that there is another process which will allow the staff to engage and avert the strike. There will be an independent review to identify some of the problems. I will meet the staff and management and a roadmap will be provided to help us move forward.

Question No. 36 replied to with Written Answers.

Domestic Violence Policy

Jan O'Sullivan

Ceist:

37. Deputy Jan O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she has had discussions with the Minister for Justice and Equality on the drafting of the domestic violence Bill, which is due to be published soon, to address the dangers to children of domestic violence and the way in which they might be protected through this legislation; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [39975/16]

This question relates to the proposed domestic violence Bill and how it will address the dangers to children in such cases. The concern is that the drafting of this legislation should proceed as quickly as possible.

I am in the process of providing observations on the domestic violence Bill, which was recently circulated to Departments by the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality for comment. I welcome the expansion of the existing provisions of domestic violence legislation. The Bill will have legal, operational and potential resource implications for Tusla, which is committed to all measures which protect children from abuse.

As Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, I am acutely aware of the prevalence of domestic violence and its impact on children and young people. The need for updated legislation in the area of domestic violence was highlighted most recently in the Barnardos report entitled, What’s the Harm? - A child centred response to domestic violence, published this month. The report notes that children are often the unseen but common victims of domestic violence.

It is crucial that we take all necessary measures to ensure that we have appropriate safeguards in place to protect our children from such abuse. A prevention and early intervention approach, rather than a crisis intervention approach, to child protection is at the core of our efforts.

Also, the Children First Act 2015 represents an important addition to the child welfare and protection system, as it will help to ensure that child protection concerns are brought to the attention of Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, without delay.

The Act, when fully commenced at the end of 2017, will impose a statutory obligation on mandated persons to report concerns of harm over a defined threshold to Tusla without delay, and in a specified format.

The Act also places obligations on providers of relevant services to children, including domestic violence shelters, to keep children safe from harm while availing of their services. It will also oblige them to carry out risk assessments and prepare publicly-available child safeguarding statements, which set out the policies and procedures which the organisation has in place to mitigate the risks identified.

Tusla has statutory responsibility for the provision of care and protection for victims of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence under the Child and Family Agency Act 2013. I have provided Tusla with additional resources to fulfil this.

I also commend Barnardos on the work it has done in this area. Unfortunately, in cases of domestic violence, the child often witnesses, even experiences, horrific situations with the very people the child loves and expects to be loved by. The damage to a child in such cases can be serious. We all want to see the legislation introduced as soon as possible.

The Minister said she expects the legislation to be enacted by the end of 2017. Will she clarify the timelines involved?

The Children First Act 2015 will be fully commenced by 2017. Like the Deputy, I have spent time over the years in the shelters and centres dealing with domestic abuse for which Tusla is responsible. I am aware of the trauma experienced in such cases.

This matter is a high priority for me. Each year, I provide a performance statement to Tusla to identify my priorities. One of these is domestic, sexual and gender-based violence. Existing research published by Tusla indicates that only one in ten of those who need access to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services is accessing them. These services have an important role in protecting those subjected to family and intimate violence, as well as providing resources for those impacted by sexual violence, to vindicate their right to health and advance their social inclusion. Tusla takes this role seriously. The decision to establish a national unit for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence was forward looking. It brings together services for forms of violence that are often interlinked and inclusive of, as the Deputy pointed out, the child and the adults.

We want to see the Bill published and enacted as soon as possible because of the vulnerability of children in this situation.

The heads of the Bill have been circulated and observations on them have been requested. I am keen to see the Bill provide for a court to hear the views of children in cases where orders are sought on their behalf and to appoint an expert to ascertain and convey the views of the child in appropriate cases, as well as the creation of a new criminal offence of forced marriage. I agree with the Deputy on the necessity to move the legislation along as quickly as possible.

Child Protection

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

38. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the categories of children most likely to be at risk at any given time from past experience; the extent to which adequate safeguards are now in place to facilitate early detection and remedial action; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40076/16]

This question relates to the identification of various categories of children who might be at risk by virtue of family circumstances, institutional or other care. It also relates to the degree to which it is possible to rapidly react to such situations and follow up to ensure their protection.

The most vulnerable children are those living with families experiencing difficulties. These include families where parents have drug or alcohol problems, or suffer mental ill-health. Children who live in homes where they are exposed to domestic violence are also at risk. Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, deals immediately with emergency cases, where, for example, a child has been abandoned or is in immediate physical danger or at immediate risk of sexual abuse.

The Children First national guidance gives advice for notifying Tusla of situations where abuse is suspected. A range of professionals, including teachers, nurses, early years educators, gardaí and other health professionals who see children regularly, are in a good position to identify children at risk. Where someone has reasonable grounds for suspecting a child is being, or has been, abused, they are expected to immediately contact Tusla. The Children First Act 2015, once it is fully commenced, will place a statutory obligation on key professionals, or mandated persons, to report concerns of harm above a defined threshold to Tusla without delay. It is my intention that these provisions will be commenced by the end of 2017.

Each referral received by Tusla is assessed and dealt with on an individual basis by the relevant social work team. Preliminary screening and initial assessments of concerns are undertaken to decide the best course of action for the child and his or her family. Over half of all referrals received by Tusla relate to welfare concerns and its policy is to refer these to the relevant family and community support services. If it seems that the problem relates to abuse of the child, the child protection pathway is followed.

At the end of June 2016, a total of 13,983 child welfare concerns and 9,587 child protection concerns had been received by Tusla since the beginning of the year.

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive reply. In the absence of the full implementation of the legislation and in light of the fact that some provisions will not be enforced until the end of 2017, is she satisfied that, in the interim, adequate provision is in place to ensure that nobody will fall between the cracks and that situations which may not be in a child’s interests will be capable of being addressed?

A couple of weeks ago, I chaired the first interdepartmental group whose responsibility it is to ensure and oversee the commencement of the Children First Act in 2017. Many of them had been around that table before with regard to the development and implementation of the Children First guidelines. They are familiar with it from an interdepartmental perspective in terms of the responsibilities they have and the ways in which they move those through their own Departments and out to the various agencies and organisations that are responsible to them and that provide the protection of children. The work is going on and I am satisfied it is the case that we are on a pathway to ensuring all mandated persons are trained and know their responsibility in order to report to Tusla.

Given the information in the public arena to date, the number of incidents that have occurred over recent years, some over a long period, and the information that is available now, is the Minister satisfied there will not be a recurrence of some of the issues we have regretted over recent years? Is she satisfied that children will be adequately protected at the first sign or hint of a risk and will be put in a safe place and out of the reach of perpetrators in those kinds of circumstances?

It is my greatest hope and ambition. Am I satisfied it absolutely will not happen? It would be dishonest to say "yes". I am satisfied that under my responsibility, the people I work with are pulling together, in particular in the interdepartmental group, and they are all working earnestly together to ensure they understand all the people they are responsible for, the guidelines and the task ahead of them.

Mother and Baby Homes Inquiries

Maureen O'Sullivan

Ceist:

39. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she will consider a request by a group (details supplied) to remove the word "home" from the commission of investigation and replace it with the word "institution"; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [40178/16]

My question relates to a request from a group of survivors from the mother and baby homes because they find it offensive that the word "home" is used to describe something that was an institution. They were hoping there might be some move on removing that word "home" in whatever way that could happen.

I am aware of the request by the group in question to remove the word "home" from the arrangements for the commission of investigation into mother and baby homes and certain related matters and to replace it with the word "institution". When the term "home" is used to describe institutions such as mother and baby homes, it may not sit easily with some given the general perception and understanding that this word generates in the minds of the majority of people. For this reason, I appreciate the emotional impact of using this word instead of more a generic term such as "institution", which I understand the group may consider more acceptable.

It is important to emphasise the commission is a statutory entity legally established by Government order. The language used must be viewed in the context of the requirements of the Commissions of Investigation Act 2004. The Act is the backdrop for the commission’s work. Its general functions, powers, procedures and protections are laid down in this enabling legislation. If the language used in the order were too vague or did not use the terminology in use at the time these institutions were in being, it could delay or potentially undermine the work of the commission. Changing the commission's name would require an amendment to the Government order and I have no plans to make such an amendment at this time. Making such a change when the commission is more than halfway through its work would risk creating confusion among those who have already contributed to the investigation or who may plan to do so in the future.

It is my hope that this commission's work will help us all come to a better understanding of how society treated mothers and children in these homes and how attitudes, policy and legislation have changed over the period.

I appreciate the Minister's answer. I understand the legality of it. Nobody would want the process of the investigation to be slowed in any way because it has been such a long time coming. At least we have the opportunity today to draw attention to the fact that the word "home" has certain connotations. It is a place where one feels safe and belongs. It is a place of laughter and joy and a place where there is a great sense of supportive and loving relationships. These institutions were anything but those safe, supportive places we associate with the word "home". There were mothers and children who did not feel welcome, safe or respected in those places and whose lives were destroyed. For many the trauma still lives today. I appreciate where the Minister is coming from and her empathy and understanding of the situation. Even addressing it today has been a positive engagement.

I thank the Deputy for drawing attention to this. I share her empathy and commitment. I will say a little bit more about the use of the word "home" because it is important that we put a spotlight on this now. In light of the issues raised by this group, what I have been trying to say is that, by definition, legal instruments are technical in nature and the language used must be precise. I understand the sensitivity of using the word "home" when the social values we normally associate with home may not fully reflect the experiences of former residents in these institutions. Former residents who are in a position to share their experiences with the commission will greatly assist to ensure society has a clear understanding of the reality of life in these institutions. I encourage former residents and others with relevant information to contact the commission in this regard.

The naming issue might seem like a small matter but it is important to the group that brought it to our attention. Coming up to Christmas, we are very conscious of home and the various Christmas songs such as "Driving home for Christmas". It is important that we make the point today. I will refer to a group which met the Minister's predecessor, the former Deputy and now Senator James Reilly. They are the mixed race group, some of whom were in these mother and baby homes. Their suffering was even more extreme because they were mixed race. They had additional layers of suffering, abuse, name-calling and undermining when compared to children who were not of mixed race. If there are opportunities when the reports are coming in, we should constantly keep in mind that these were not homes as we understand homes. They were institutions.

I remember well the evidence provided by the mixed race group when I was a member of the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality. Their evidence was very powerful and impactful. I hope some of them were in the position to offer testimony and to bear witness to the commission. It is important and, as the Deputy has said, it demonstrates the different ways in which the experience of being in that home is impacted by the different identities and historical backgrounds that people bring into the context of that institution. I acknowledge their work and advocacy.

Child Protection

Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire

Ceist:

40. Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she has considered a review of legal protections in place for children who are victims of domestic abuse; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [39932/16]

My question is quite closely related to Deputy O'Sullivan's question. Has the Minister considered a review of legal protections in place for children who are victims of domestic abuse?

As Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, I am greatly saddened by the levels of domestic violence in our country and the impact this has on our children.

Many cases are covered by the media but many others remain hidden, as the Deputy will be aware. While overall policy responsibility for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence rests with the Department of Justice and Equality, it is an issue which impacts severely on children’s lives and is of great concern to me.

In 2014, Tusla assumed statutory responsibility for the care and protection of victims of domestic violence. It funds some 60 services throughout the country. These include emergency refuge and support services, community-based domestic violence support services and rape crisis centres.

It is time to update the legislation and I am in the process of providing observations on the Domestic Violence Bill.

The Children First Act 2015 falls under the remit of my Department. It places elements of the Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children, published in 2011, on a statutory basis and is being commenced on a phased basis.

The Act will be fully commenced by the end of next year. It will impose a statutory obligation on mandated persons to report concerns of harm over a defined threshold to Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. This will be required to be done without delay and in a specified format. It will also place obligations on providers of relevant services to children, including domestic violence shelters, to keep children safe from harm while availing of their services.

Both the Minister and Deputy Jan O'Sullivan referred to the Barnardos campaign, What's the Harm? It was a very powerful campaign. The following are quotes from the document, "I know it’s my fault when Mammy and Daddy fight. I can be naughty sometimes.", "No one told me it was a secret but I knew I was not supposed to tell." and "Daddy bit Mummy’s face. I was scared. I told him to stop."

The campaign contains some harrowing stories and Barnardos deserves to be commended on highlighting them. In 2015, more than 16,300 incidents of domestic violence against women were disclosed during contacts with Women's Aid direct services. In the same year, 616 incidents of sexual abuse were disclosed to the services, including 212 rapes. As the Minister is aware, children are victims in all this. A €4 million EU fund is available to each member state to raise awareness of domestic violence and the State has not drawn this money down. I ask that the Minister call on her colleagues to avail of the funding and ring-fence it to highlight the plight of children as victims of domestic violence.

I have reviewed the Barnardos report and its recommendations, many of which we anticipate having in train. For example, one of the recommendations is the ratification of the Istanbul convention. In the 2017 budget, some of the moneys I am providing to Tusla for the unit on domestic, sexual and gender-based violence is to provide it with the resources to prepare us for the ratification of the convention. In my direction to Tusla regarding prioritising this matter, we can move forward together in a more progressive manner in terms of our ways of responding to and working out these issues. I will refer the Deputy's identification of a potential fund to my officials and see if there is a possibility of accessing it.

Question No. 41 is in the name of Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett who is as láthair. Question No. 42 is in the name of Deputy Bríd Smith who is as láthair. Question No. 43 is in the name of Deputy Anne Rabbitte.

The Minister already covered the issue under Priority Questions.

Question No. 44 is in the name of Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire.

This issue was covered.

Question No. 45 is in the name of Deputy Paul Murphy who is as láthair. Questions Nos. 46 and 47 are in the name of Deputy Gino Kenny who is as láthair. Question No. 48 is in the name of Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin who is as láthair. Question No. 49 is in the name of Deputy Clare Daly who is as láthair. Question No. 50 is in the name of Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan who was here up to a few minutes ago and did not think we would reach this juncture. Question No. 51 is in the name of Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett who is still láthair. Question No. 52 is in the name of Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire.

It has been covered. I was not expecting us to reach this point.

Questions Nos. 53 and 54 are in the name of Deputy Ruth Coppinger. Tá sí as láthair freisin.

Questions Nos. 41 to 54, inclusive, replied to with Written Answers.

Question No. 55 is in the name of Deputy Anne Rabbitte. I knew her number would come up eventually.

Preschool Services

Anne Rabbitte

Ceist:

55. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the arrangements in place for the support of children with disabilities who are in preschool facilities; her views on whether there are barriers for children with disabilities to accessing preschool; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [39924/16]

That is the lucky dip. The question is on the arrangements in place to support children with disabilities who are in preschool facilities and the Minister's view on whether there are barriers to children with disabilities accessing preschool. The matter relates to the access and inclusion model.

As the Deputy knows, we launched the access and inclusion model in 2016 and are in the process of rolling it out. There are seven levels of support. During the initial months, we got huge uptake and response to the model. The objective of the programme is to ensure children with any form of disability are able to participate in our free preschool settings and to change the culture in those centres. I launched the scheme several months ago in a centre in Tallaght where it was evident that the culture was already present. This has much to do with the values behind the private as well as community-based providers in the work they do. This is the first level of support and it goes all the way up to the higher levels of support where there are resources that can be applied for to provide direct and more intensive support to the child while he or she is in the provider's care.

There were some initial teething problems as are there are with the roll-out of any programme. Very significant resources have been provided for the support of parents, providers and practitioners, particularly in learning, training and providing on-site mentoring. The Deputy is aware of all those levels of support and there are what we hope are sufficient funds - it was a significant amount of money - for its full roll-out in 2017.

I thank the Minister for her response. Her office and mine have had many communications regarding the access and inclusion model. My question was on levels six and seven of the model, where I have encountered problems. Constituents have brought to my attention the problems children with Down's syndrome have had accessing level six and level seven given that the supports at those levels had not been rolled out yet. The model is a step in the right direction. It should be all-inclusive. I welcomed it completely and I can understand why it would take so long to reach this stage.

My concern is that we are nearing Christmas and the child I would have thought about several weeks ago is still awaiting the support. It has not been delivered. We are waiting for another child in the crèche to be assessed and, hopefully, we will receive support for both children under the access and inclusion model. When does the Minister think it will be fully rolled out? Where are we looking at for complete delivery? Have we a timeframe based on which I can assure the parents that in a certain number of days or weeks it will be rolled out?

Those are excellent questions and I will refer to my officials regarding the particular cases the Deputy identified and with which we are already in communication. It is always important, as a Minister, to respond to what is in front of me, individually, whether it is a person or an issue, as well as the overall policy and programme.

This provides me with the best ways of understanding how to be successful as we move to spread out what we are offering. Furthermore, I hope that by the end of the first quarter, many of these teething problems will be resolved and that we will ask for a review in this regard.

We have exceeded the time for questions by about two minutes.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.