I welcome from the Office of the Ombudsman for Children Ms Emily Logan, Ombudsman for Children, Ms Deirdre O'Shea, investigator and Ms Sophie Magennis, head of advocacy and legislation. Is this the ombudsman's first time before this committee?
Child Protection Issues: Discussion with Ombudsman for Children.
Ms Emily Logan
I have appeared before this committee previously but not this configuration.
The witnesses are very welcome. Before we begin, I draw attention to the fact that while members of the committee have absolute privilege, the same privilege does not extend to witnesses. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Members have been provided with Ms Logan's presentation and she will take them through it briefly. Thereafter, I will turn to members for a round of questions and will then wrap up.
Ms Emily Logan
I thank members for the opportunity to meet them formally. While I have to hand a presentation, I will try my best to skip parts of it to make it shorter. As members are aware, we have made several submissions to the joint committee and this is not our first appearance before it. I have been asked to give a brief presentation and while it is not possible to provide members with a comprehensive overview of our work, we have tried to pick out some key issues about which members will be interested in hearing. Members should bear with me as I provide some background details because after five years in the post, I still find myself clarifying my role. Consequently, for the benefit of the joint committee I have included some brief background details regarding the office.
My appointment was on foot of an open competition and I was appointed by President Mary McAleese in December 2003. My accountability in terms of the functions is directly to the Oireachtas and the Committee of Public Accounts.
We have 14 staff members and this allocation was agreed in advance of my appointment dating back to 2003. Unlike the offices of some ombudsmen, we have a mix of staff so we are not made up completely of civil servants. Some 60% of the staff come from outside the Civil Service and by and large are people with service experience. That is important when we consider the complexities of some of the issues presented to the office, as we should bring an understanding to the complexity of those issues. Our budget for 2008 was €2.463 million and that has been reduced in line with obvious recent cuts to €2.316 million, representing a 6.5% drop.
I will outline our three main functions. We have an independent complaints handling function which seems to be well understood by people. In addition, we advise on the development of policy and legislation, so when draft legislation is written it comes primarily from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and we essentially child-proof it by measuring it against international human rights standards for young people. We provide independent comment on that legislation. We also have a promotion and participation role, which fundamentally concerns Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, listening directly to children, hearing their concerns and then representing that voice at the highest level.
The complaints and investigation function is unique and after the Ryan report, the context in which we operate is very different. This function has become even more pertinent in terms of the independent monitoring of services for children. We can investigate complaints made by children or adults about public bodies on their behalf. The key criteria for intervention is that the child has or may have been negatively affected, or that there may have been possible inaction by the public body resulting in what is described in legislation as maladministration or poor administration.
According to primary legislation I am obliged to have the best interests of children when we take a complaint to full investigation. We are obliged to hear the voices of children and young people and that is clearly an age-appropriate function. There are occasions when we would speak directly to the child involved and seek to understand his or her experience of that public service.
It is important for the committee to know that from our first operations back in 2004, we had 95 complaints and at year-end 2008, that is up to 810. That figure has already increased again by 23% in 2009. There are some figures in the circulated document for the committee to consider.
Whereas the volume is important, it is critical to emphasise the complexity of what we are seeing. Five years ago we got complaints where I felt the public perhaps did not fully understand the role of our office but that has changed considerably, particularly since October 2006. We can almost see a direct correlation between any of the significant reports — dealing with Ferns, Cloyne or Roscommon, for example — in the public domain and a concern triggered in the public that they want to bring to our office.
To give an example of the breadth and complexity of the issues we deal with, cases relate to, among others, death of children in the care of the State, the response of a public body to allegations or reports of rape, child protection, children in care of the State who present with complex needs and the lack of existing mechanisms to deal with what are described as inappropriate behaviours towards children. Some 41% of complaints coming to the office relate to education and the main areas are listed in the circulated document.
People often wonder who the complainants to the office are and it is important to say that parents, by and large, and extended family members are those who bring complaints to our office. Parents are the principal advocates for children and their welfare. This brings up the question of children who do not have advocates, which are those whose parents do not have the capacity to challenge the system or the children who do not live with their parents.
It is interesting that in 2008 we have seen an increase in the number of professionals coming to our office, with the number rising to 15%. I am encouraged by this. As Ombudsman for Children, sometimes the relationship with a public body is different because I am a watchdog and monitor of the service provided. I would like public bodies to see their role as being advocates for children. We are talking to professional groups to encourage them to understand their role in advocating for children. I am happy with that change.
The groups which cause us most concern are children without parental care, those in the care of the State or any institution where children do not have a parent with them. It is important to understand that, while we respond to individual complaints from a member of the public, we can also investigate cases of our own volition. Something may trigger a concern that we want to explore with a public body or confirm before investigating. In the past year we have initiated a number of investigations of our own volition, most of which relate to child protection issues. Later this year I intend to publish any that raises a concern which needs to be placed in the public domain.
Our second function concerns policy and legislation. We can give advice to a Minister on any matter relating to the rights and welfare of children; this includes advice on legislative proposals to which I referred, most of which come through the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. This independent commenting on legislation is not being used enough by Departments and I would like to see it become commonplace. I have a role in encouraging people to do this.
The Ombudsman for Children is obliged to keep the Act under which the office was established under review. I was cautious about doing this in the early years because it would take a few years to gain an understanding of the depth of the work involved and the task ahead of the organisation, but we are beginning to see some of the deficits of the legislation. While it is very strong and cited as such internationally, we see gaps in respect of dealing with certain children. We will work on this next year and put it to the Oireachtas.
I referred to the participation of children and young people. I am positively obliged to highlight issues relating to the rights and welfare of children which are of concern to them. It is not only what I think as Ombudsman for Children, I must also highlight children's views. We must establish structures to consult them. We spend much time trying to develop a deep understanding of children's issues. The children with whom we consult are those who have direct experience. We do not consult children on the street about youth justice issues, nor do we consult children in schools about separated children living in hostels. We consult children who have that experience.
In our work after publication of the Ryan report I cannot overemphasise the importance of the need to listen to children. I met a group of girls who had been in contact with the youth justice system and can give an incredible insight into the reality and experience of their lives. They perceive disrespect towards them as human beings because of the families they come from, the addresses at which they live or their personal experiences. The single most common violation of children's rights involves a lack of respect for participation by children in decisions that affect them. There are many important decisions that have a profound effect on children, yet there is no obligation on individuals who make important decisions to put the interests of children first. We saw this in the Ryan report, when Mr. Justice Ryan referred to not putting professional, organisational or personal loyalties first. While we do not generally see malicious intent on the part of public servants making decisions, we do not see a policy or guidance for decision makers in making sure the interests of children come first.
With five years' experience we can speak with more confidence about the growing evidence to support our work. As Ombudsman for Children, I do not comment on everything, as it is not possible to delve into every aspect of children's lives. We spend a great deal of time seeking to evidence any comments we might make in respect of services for children. Any of the comments I will make at this meeting relate to work we have done or evidence we possess to support that work.
I referred earlier to separated children. We are currently undertaking an independent consultation with such children. There are 129 separated children living outside the Dublin area and we sought to contact each of them. We ran an open day at our office and 47 of the children attended of their own volition, a matter about which we were extremely happy. A group of 27 of them are working with us over the summer. They come to the office each week and discuss their experiences. I hope the report relating to those experiences will be much richer than previous reports. At this point, I wish to emphasise the significance and independence of the inquiry in this regard.
The options paper relating to the child death review mechanism has been circulated. This is a considerable item of work that our office has undertaken and it represents a particular style or approach the office would take. This is the first matter of public policy in respect of which we are trying to shift the perspective. Rather than simply writing a report and making recommendations we decided we would try to work and collaborate with the statutory bodies throughout the country which would have some role in developing a child death review mechanism. We put in place a high-level group, comprising the Dublin coroner's office — which as been extremely supportive — the DPP's office, the GSO, the CSO and other bodies, which have contributed hugely to the development of the process.
We have reached the stage of having an options paper. This is a matter about which I feel very strongly. We have heard about a number of cases, particularly those relating to children in the care of the State, that have not been independently monitored. I am not referring to a report or to an internal investigation which would be carried out by an independent person on anad hoc basis. Rather, I am referring to establishing an interdisciplinary team. I would be happy to speak at greater length about that matter. I would like the committee to indicate its interest or to play an active role in supporting such a mechanism. I am not referring to establishing a new body, I am interested in the possibility of sharing information and protocols.
During the five years I have been in office, little public interest has been expressed in the group of children at St. Patrick's Institution. I accept that it is difficult for politicians to deal with this matter. However, when one meets the young people in question, sees where they are being detained and how their are being deprived of their liberty, realises how we speak about mental health and when one stands in a cell occupied by a 16 year old and considers what the State is doing to certain children and the proactive role we are playing in respect of their mental health, it is obvious that there are still major deficits in the youth justice sector.
There are ongoing cases in my work which involve children with intellectual disabilities. Unfortunately, we are not at liberty to discuss these cases in detail because our complaints happen otherwise than in public. However, we will be placing in the public domain information relating to cases that are pivotal in illustrating some of the difficulties that arise.
As an independent office with accountability to the Oireachtas, we have a unique role and we also have a unique contribution to make. On a macro level, the key recommendations we would make revolve around the need to consider legislative changes. We have met many of the committees, four of which have some function relating to constitutional change or the debate relating thereto in respect of children's interests.
There are two key issues that continually arise, the first of which relates to people not putting the best interests of children first and the fact that children are not being given the right to have their opinions heard or to be involved in decisions which really affect them. The second involves strengthening public accountability mechanisms. We regularly provide public bodies with recommendations and we repeatedly advise people with regard to the need to keep written records. It is extremely difficult to indicate whether a service has been improved if a written record has not been kept.
On transparency, decisions are made that are not transparent and it is difficult to hold a system to account without transparency. With regard to independent oversight, institutions such as HIQA provide a very important role in terms of day-to-day inspection. My office, because it maintains a distance, can comment on a macro level about independent structures and systems.
What requires a very long-term commitment from everybody is cultural change, which is about our attitudes, questioning ourselves and our attitudes to children. We have seen the result of patriarchy, of people believing that children are second class citizens and only require certain services. We have seen the results of having expectations that are so low that we can possibly destroy lives.
We have a job ahead of us. We are a small office but we seek to play a unique role and make a contribution to improving things for children and to create a demand from our culture that children are treated with dignity and respect.
I thank the Office of the Ombudsman for Children for coming before the committee and presenting its report. There is such a depth of content that it is difficult to know where to start. I will begin where Ms Logan ended on the issue of public accountability and the protection of children.
This report raises very disturbing and serious questions about how children are still being treated in the State, some children more than others. It raises the question of whether children are still being dealt with as second class citizens. I will address several areas highlighted in the report.
A couple of weeks ago, the Office of the Ombudsman for Children suspended one of the inspections into the handling of the child protection audit of the Catholic Church diocese by the HSE because it felt that the HSE was not genuinely co-operating with the office. Will Ms Logan update the committee on what has happened in respect of that investigation, whether she is satisfied that the HSE is co-operating and the stage the investigation is at now?
The ombudsman did not want to go down the legal route as suggested by the HSE. Is Ms Logan in receipt of all the documents that she requested from the HSE? It is disturbing that Ms Logan is conducting two investigations into the HSE and the Department of Health and Children.
The budget of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children has been reduced, the number of complaints has gone up and the complexity of the cases has increased. In terms of the workload, has Ms Logan the resources to manage it? Several areas have been highlighted in the report. Those who have discussed the Ryan report might have thought that cases of child protection were historic. It is very clear from Ms Logan's report that there are very serious issues that have still not been addressed.
Ms Logan has some mechanism in place and some investigations are on-going but I want to raise the issue of the lack of a review mechanism to deal with child deaths. It is disgraceful that we still do not have that. A number of deaths of children in care have not been independently examined so far. I assume none has been independently monitored.
I suggest that the committee works with Ms Logan on this issue. What are the barriers to changing that: who needs to take action and where? I am aware of the existence of a working group, but do we need legislation? What response is Ms Logan getting from the Minister to that request? What needs to happen to put that place?
Ms Logan will do an options paper, but in terms of the urgency of the issue, what are the steps and how can members help? Where is the legislation needed?
Another area that Ms Logan highlights is children with intellectual disabilities — again I refer to the Ryan report — still having no independent inspection of their facilities. How concerned is Ms Logan about that? Does she get many reports of problems within residential services where there is no independent inspection? Clearly this is an issue. What are the barriers to it happening? How can the committee work with the Ombudsman for Children's office on this? It should be dealt with immediately.
The committee would like more information from the office on the issue of separated children. If separated children coming to this country are taken into care and put into hostels that are not inspected or monitored, we are falling far behind the standards of care one would expect should be given to these children and making them potentially vulnerable to prostitution and all sorts of other risks. I did a study on this issue some years ago. These children are extremely vulnerable. What does the office want to see happening in regard to them? How has the Department reacted in regard to putting better mechanisms in place and looking after the safety of these children? It is very serious that a completely different standard of care is given to these children than is given to Irish children. If there is no monitoring, no assessment and, very often, no social worker assigned these children are more vulnerable to trafficking. They are being put in danger if this continues. I am not saying that every hostel where these children are staying is dangerous but that there are no mechanisms in place to take care of them properly. The Ombudsman for Children's office has raised very serious current issues about children. It is a question of asking how can urgent action be taken in each of these areas. We should look at time lines and targets from the office that we can monitor as a committee. The committee should work with the office to ensure that change is brought about in the areas highlighted by it today.
Is the office getting many reports under the EPSON Act? I come across many parents who are having difficulty in accessing early intervention services. Is that an area that is being highlighted to the office at the moment?
I concur with Senator Frances Fitzgerald who has raised many of the issues I would have brought up. I thank the Ombudsman for Children's office for the assistance my office had in regard to representations it made. The EPSON Act is on my mind too because, given the proposals to reduce the number of SNAs, children with autism spectrum disorders will again be greatly disadvantaged. Children suffering intellectual disability often fall between two stools, given the involvement of the Department of Education and Science, the Department of Health and Children and the HSE. The reduced funding will obviously affect the work of the office. It will be at a major disadvantage given the increase in cases and more complex cases coming its way. What percentage of the office's services is being affected by the fall-off in funding?
In dealing with children with special needs, has the office found that services vary greatly between geographical or HSE regions, that services in Waterford may be better than those in Tipperary or services in Dublin better than those in Sligo?
I too welcome the representatives from the Ombudsman for Children's office and thank them for their presentation. One of the most important statements in the presentation was the one about the importance of listening to children and young people and making them feel they will be taken seriously. Having been involved in education of many years, I once met a parent who assumed her child was bullying another child. I pointed out to her that that was not the case and told her she should always believe her child. When a child says something he or she feels is important, it is not right for a parent to form a judgment that it is not true. It is right to investigate the matter, but one must not jump to the wrong conclusion. If we have learned something from all the reports on abuse, it is that when children made complaints in the past, they were not treated seriously and did not receive the attention they deserved. While attitudes and society have changed in recent years, some children continue to be treated differently, whether because of their background, where they come from, the schools they attend or the people with whom they play. They can be treated as being different for many reasons and we have a long way to go to ensure they are treated equally.
What percentage of children who go to the ombudsman for help are without parental care? As I told the ISPCC earlier, when I was teaching, if a child became ill, I was not in a position to bring him or her to a GP without parental consent. Is a difficulty created for the ombudsman when a child does not have parental care or support?
I draw members' attention to the fact that a vote has been called in the Dáil; therefore, Members of the Lower House will have to leave. Will a Member of the Seanad volunteer to take the Chair?
Senator Frances Fitzgerald took the Chair.
Did Senator White wish to ask some questions?
There are many questions to be asked. With the publication of the Ryan report Irish people are deeply shocked and in disbelief at the savagery inflicted on children in State care. Is the ombudsman sure that similar incidents do not happen at this time? We have learned the degree to which human nature can be brutal and savage. Our reputation around the world has been sullied by our treatment of children. We had an image abroad of being friendly and hospitable, but now we have been seen to treat children in the care of the State in a savage manner and in a similar way to that in which the Nazis treated the Jews.
I am shocked at what has been revealed and do not believe it is not happening now. We have learned that human beings who were supposed to behave in the image of Christ behaved very badly. How can we know it does not continue to happen? There are 3,000 children in care, 90% of them in foster homes. One dare not even suggest that children who are in State care are possibly being abused. To be honest, it frightens me. I am afraid to even articulate it. Children in foster homes are in a helpless situation. How can we be sure they are not being physically or sexually abused? How can we deal with the situation? How can we look after children who are in State care? I do not like mentioning it, but I worry about the issue. What are we doing to protect those children?
I turn to a separate issue, namely, the mechanism for the review of child deaths. I am dealing with the grandmother of a child who was put into foster care, who died from cancer four years ago. The grandmother and mother of the child have been totally destroyed by the system and the lack of supervision of the relationship between the foster family, the birth family and the grandmother. I am dealing with a broken family. I do not know what to do with them or how to help them. Nobody seems to care that the grandmother is mourning for her grandchild who died in foster care. The grandchild was brought home in a taxi as she was dying, wrapped in a sheet. That woman is broken because of what happened to her grandchild. She is poor and she has nobody to stand up for her. It is a tragic situation.
I invite Ms Logan and her colleagues to answer some of the questions posed.
Ms Emily Logan
The first question related to an investigation into the HSE audit that commenced in January this year. Having received no information from the HSE four months later I was of the view that constituted a lack of co-operation from the HSE. I made a public statement on the matter, which did not rest easily with me. The reason I did that was that we had made a public statement to initiate the investigation. I felt that was important in terms of our public accountability that people did not believe we were carrying out an investigation if we were not. I did that on the Wednesday of that week. I cannot remember the date. On the Friday of that week the HSE issued a public apology saying that it had been an error on the part of its legal firm not to hand over that information.
Any comment I might have made in terms of appointing legal teams was based on the original principles that established the ombudsman's office, which is about creating a space between civil society and the courts where people who might not normally have an opportunity for redress could come. Our office is free of charge. It is more accessible and is non-adversarial. The principles of an ombudsman's office were being called into question if two State bodies were being asked in the first instance to communicate through two legal firms. That matter has been resolved. We have files and we have resumed the investigation. We made that information public and the investigation is ongoing.
In reply to the question on the ability of my office to deal with the workload, we are at a fairly critical stage, and in the context of the current fiscal difficulties it seems extraordinary for me to have conversations about needing more staff. It is a decision for the public. It is a political decision about whether the significant role my office plays in terms of independent monitoring is one that is even more pertinent following the publication of the Ryan report.
I have begun a process with the Department of Health and Children. This is the normal process. My office is grant aided through that Department despite the fact that we account financially to the Oireachtas. However, progress there is slow and I am concerned. What is happening is that our complaints and investigations are taking longer. Especially when many of the recommendations we make are about expediency and timeliness for children, we cannot find ourselves in a position of taking far too long to investigate something. To be perfectly honest, we are struggling. I am concerned about it. The process I have begun with the Department of Health and Children is slower than I would like. If I am concerned at all, I will make some kind of public comment in that regard or certainly get back to this committee.
I will let Ms Sophie Magennis, head of advocacy legislation, speak about child death because she has done a considerable amount of work on this.
Ms Sophie Magennis
I will give some background to the child death review mechanism proposal. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child reviewed the progress of Ireland under compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child in September 2006 and the lack of a child death review mechanism in Ireland was raised by the committee in its questioning of the Government at that time as a matter of concern.
In April 2007, after the tragic Dunne deaths in Monageer, our office contacted the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, to raise the suggestion that perhaps thought be given to the establishment of a standing child death review mechanism. From that point on we tried to identify what is best international practice and national practice on review of child death.
Separately, our office had been informed of a number of instances of child death where there had not been an independent review of that death. There may or may not have been a coronial process on the death, depending on the timescale, but there were many cases of which we knew where there had not been an independent review of child death or there was a possibility that a review was taking place but it had not been published or not completed, but the terms of reference of those reviews were not known.
We looked at international best practice. It is important to note that there has been much development in neighbouring jurisdictions. There has been much development in England, Wales and Scotland, on the Continent, in Australia, New Zealand and in every state in the United States. In addition, in Northern Ireland there is a discussion going on between relevant statutory bodies about developing a protocol where information can be shared. Ireland is really quite far behind compared with neighbouring jurisdictions which have been developing child death review mechanisms.
In terms of national mapping, we have looked at existing agencies, bodies and mandates to see what is currently in place. There are many relevant mandates already involved in child death review in one way or another. There is the coroner service, the Central Statistics Office which gathers much information, the Health Research Board and the sudden infant death register. There are a number of overlapping mandates that do work on child death and we are attempting to pull those agencies together to agree what needs to be done to set up a child death review mechanism. The paper has been circulated to the committee and we hope to hold the next stage of this process in the autumn to see how we can move forward.
A key issue is accountability and transparency and the expectation of people involved in services. I would also note that Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights sets out the right to life and the European court has stated that there is a procedural obligation coming from Article 2 which states that it is the state's obligation to put in place mechanisms for the independent review of death where the state may have been involved, either by act or omission, in a death. The obligation on states is that they must set up independent mechanisms which are open and transparent, which involve families and which are capable of coming to a finding. The criteria set out by the court are in this paper. There is an existing obligation which the State must meet and that is really one of the impetuses behind the child death review paper.
I should also state that we are working with all of the other agencies to see how this may be brought about. Indeed, the role of our office is unclear in it. It is not something we are seeking to lead necessarily, but we are trying to see what we can come to an agreement on in order to establish such a mechanism. We do not know at this stage whether legislation is required. There are mandates such as our own through which investigations can be conducted. We will have to see what is required.
Surprisingly, it sounds like it is at an early stage. How many children have died? Are we talking about all deaths or, given the remit of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children, are there particular concerns about children in care?
Ms Emily Logan
In other countries all deaths of children are included, but in this country the annual figure is 450, most of which are easily explained through infant mortality. There is a specific role for the State relating to children in care outside the coronial process. However, there is no consistent mechanism; this is the area we would prioritise. We are conscious that any recommendation we make in this fiscal context should not involve the setting up of a new body or not be an aspirational recommendation that could not be implemented. We are being pragmatic about incremental changes relating to child deaths; children in care should at least be prioritised.
Perhaps the delegates could revert to the committee when more progress has been made in this regard. In the meantime they can outline to us what we can do to help because it seems we are far behind international best practice.
Ms Emily Logan
We do not have many cases relating to children with intellectual disabilities, but I caution against using quantitative information as a reason to be concerned. Some of the cases are enough to cause me concern, but it is difficult to give details in the absence of independent inspections and unannounced visits. The children involved are vulnerable and cannot communicate. We spoke earlier about the need to listen to children who can verbalise, but these children cannot do so. Of equal concern to me was the case of the father of a child with a profound intellectual disability; he came to our office to complain about something that had happened to the child but was unwilling to progress the matter with us if it meant he and the child would be identified. This represents an underlying concern and the office aims to seek out such difficulties, rather than merely respond to public concerns.
On separated children, the comment made was absolutely correct; there is a second tier of standards of care provided for such children. I would like to conclude our inquiry in order that we can give the committee factual information. It will be finished in early September and the report published and put in the public domain. In general terms, there are concerns about the substandard care such children receive, but we would like to wait to provide a more comprehensive and evidential report in September or October.
Deputy Seán Ó Fearghaíl took the Chair.
I will intervene at this stage to ask Deputies O'Hanlon and O'Connor to make their points. We will then conclude.
I thank Ms Logan for her brief and succinct overview of the functions of her office. I have been very impressed by the work the office has done since it was established. We will take on board the issues Ms Logan has raised and bring them to the attention of the Minister. I do not wish to repeat what my colleagues said. It would be useful for some of the members of the committee to attend the seminar on the child death review in September.
Section 7 of the Act gives the office certain powers relating to children with special needs. It appears the process for early diagnosis and intervention is not well organised at this point. Does the ombudsman have any input in this regard? Early intervention not only benefits children but also parents as it allows them to make an informed decision on education and other matters. Early intervention and diagnosis is a more integrated multidisciplinary service particularly in the area of psychology. For example, a child at school may not be performing well due to deafness. It would be better if a multidisciplinary team were to look at the issue at that time rather than, perhaps, the educational psychologist alone.
On the issue of mental health services and a more co-ordinated approach between childhood and adolescence, there is a lacuna that should be addressed. There is a need for close integration with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in terms of children who are at risk to themselves. On the question of a forensic assessment there seems to be difficulties in referring children through the courts to Oberstown. In addition, if the judge decides that they should not go through the courts there are difficulties getting a speedy assessment for them. I wonder whether the delegation has any role in that area.
The other issue I wish to raise is that of pilot projects to investigate how some of the more critical issues might be addressed. The first is to ensure that parents in disadvantaged areas are aware of the benefits of education and are motivated to ensure their children get an opportunity to participate in a pilot project to look at an area of disadvantage with a view to all 18 year olds, or a large percentage thereof, receiving a third level education. This has to start from the day the child is born. Even when children start school at four years of age there is a lack of equity. Some children develop social skills and are well motivated to read and write while others do not have that advantage and it is hard to catch up. The other issue is similar but related to children who might become involved in criminal activity. A pilot project could ascertain whether it is possible to identify those children at, say, the age of three or four and provide social workers and psychologists with a view to keeping them away from crime.
I also wish to be associated with the welcome extended to the Ombudsman for Children and her staff. As Ms Logan said in her presentation it is important that we have the opportunity for a formal meeting. I welcomed her appointment and said at the time that she would be a huge loss to Tallaght. I was excited by the manner in which she was appointed. I was always intrigued by the fact that she was uniquely appointed following an interview process which included 15 children which I thought was amazing at the time. Has Ms Logan had any further contact with those 15 young people and, if so, how did they react?
All of us have spoken of the need to protect children. I often recall as a child growing up in Crumlin, that I was always aware of the talk that if one did something bad one would end up in Artane. Even as a small child, it was in my head that society was accepting what was going on because that was what one understood.
I have said at different meetings while a member of the health board that I worry that in 20 or 30 years people will look back at this generation and wonder why certain things were not done. That is a fair point to make to the ombudsman who has an interest in and a commitment to ensuring these matters are dealt with. In regard to the work of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children, it is important that it responds to calls. Does it receive many spurious calls?
This issue arose last week at a meeting with officials from the Department of Social and Family Affairs. Over the past five years, that Department has experienced a huge increase in the number of calls it receives, some of which certainly involve people winding neighbours up and so on. Does the Office of the Ombudsman for Children receive such mischievous calls? Does the office react to matters of which it hears without waiting for a complaint? Does it react to newspaper or television reports and decide that the matters raised fall within the remit of the office and should be examined?
It was important to hold this meeting and members should congratulate the Ombudsman for Children and her staff on the manner in which the issues are being dealt with. It is important to get the message out to the public that this office is up and running and is prepared to take on issues that might not have been tackled in a different era. The ombudsman is welcome and I congratulate her on her efforts.
The ombudsman should answer my question concerning the 5,300 children in care. This relates to Deputy O'Connor's point that one does not wish to be looking back in 20 or 30 years.
I am sure Ms Logan will deal with that issue now.
No, I asked a question while the Cathaoirleach was absent.
Ms Emily Logan
The Senators asked whether it is possible that cases are going on at present. While I am not trying to be impertinent, the answer is that without inspection being in place, we do not know and there are areas in which no standard exists against which to measure practice. I would not be satisfied that I could answer that question and state I did not believe there is any concern for separated children, children in St. Patrick's Institution or children in centres for intellectual disabilities. The answer to that question is unknown and we should seek to find it out. The basic stepping stone to so doing is to introduce independent inspection, which only constitutes a starting point.
I note that 90% of the children in State care are in foster homes.
Ms Emily Logan
Yes, that is a good point because the Ryan report revealed an assumption that if one placed a child in the trust of a publicly-trusted institution, everything would be okay. I often hear people compliment foster parents on taking such children. While I do not underestimate the gravity of that responsibility, one can never make the assumption that because one has put children in foster care, they are safe and well. As for the kind of inspection that takes place, the social services inspectorate, which is a sub-unit of the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, is beginning to conduct random inspections of children in foster care and that is really important. One cannot exclude this group of children simply because they are in foster care.
Yes but society believes that once children are in foster care, they are safe.
Ms Emily Logan
The Senator is right. We have seen the danger of society making assumptions about certain environments and we must stop making such assumptions. We must introduce mechanisms or structures to ensure that independent monitoring is happening.
I apologise for interrupting, but what is happening in respect of children in foster homes? If a child enters a foster home, what independent inspection takes place to ensure he or she is not being physically or sexually abused, exploited or whatever?
Ms Emily Logan
Such independent inspection is taking place through the Government statutory authorities, namely, the social services inspectorate of HIQA.
Is every child——
Ms Emily Logan
No, not every child. The inspectorate only began this process recently.
Members should keep track of it. I must leave the meeting and I thank Ms Magennis for her assistance on all the related issues.
The ombudsman should deal with the outstanding questions.
Ms Emily Logan
A comment was made in respect of mental health and a problem arises in this regard for adolescents, particularly those who are between the ages of 16 and 18. I refer members to comments made in the Mental Health Commission's last report to the effect that this environment was counter-therapeutic for children and is analogous to a custodial environment. While a child might be put in a place, no therapeutic intervention is provided because he or she is in an adult environment where the staff do not have the skills or training to be able to respond to him or her. That is an outstanding concern.
Deputy O'Hanlon referred to assessment, which is not really our remit. It is the remit of the Children Act's advisory board to make assessments in respect of children who require special care. There was also reference to children involved in criminal activity and the possibility of a pilot. I may have said earlier that we have begun a consultation process with children in the criminal justice system and that information will be put into the public domain.
In response to some of Deputy O'Connor's comments, the young people who interviewed me went on to interview the staff with me today. When I explained Ms Magennis's job, they responded that it was the job from hell. They have fantastic intuition and are good decision makers. I would sit on a panel with three young people quicker than I would with a group of adults because they are much faster at making decisions. We stayed in touch with them and they volunteered for three years after that. We now have a new group of 25 working with us.
An important question regarding spurious calls was also asked. It is very unusual for us to get spurious calls and I could count on my hand how many of them we have received in the past five years. In terms of complaints, we are legislatively guided not to entertain any trivial or vexatious calls. If people come to us with problems with individuals, we do not entertain such complaints. The figures I referred to are legitimate complaints coming to our office. The Deputy commented on acting on our own volition and reacting as an office. I refer the Deputy to a comment I made earlier but we can react to any concern raised.
I thank Ms Logan for dealing so comprehensively with the questions. I apologise as we had hoped to have the Minister of State with responsibility for children here today because of the significance of the meeting but unfortunately his schedule changed at the last moment and he is currently out of the country. There is a need for this committee to engage on an ongoing basis with the Ombudsman for Children and we would find it useful. We need to set up a system whereby we can communicate more readily and frequently.
Ms Emily Logan
That is important because I am conscious that Oireachtas committees, like most services, deal with matters in a fragmented way. The committees responsible for health matters, for example, deal with certain issues, as does the education committee, etc. Our office has the opportunity to look across the spectrum so we would be very happy to offer any support or information that would be useful to the committee.
I expect the committee to take up the issues raised today. There are budgetary issues for the office and there is the action related to the death review mechanism. There is a HSE working group on inspections of residential care settings, as has been noted. I would like to find out what is happening in that regard and when those inspections will start. Perhaps we could take up those issues.
We will certainly do so. We can ask the clerk to write to the Minister and the HSE and, in addition, we will have Professor Drumm and the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Mary Harney, before us towards the end of July for a quarterly meeting. We can list such matters on the agenda for discussion with them. The invitation is open to Ms Logan to keep in touch.
Ms Emily Logan
I thank the committee.
We should find a system.
Ms Emily Logan
We can have a more systematic review.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. We will meet with Professor Drumm from the Health Service Executive at our next meeting to discuss paediatric services at the children's hospital in Crumlin in particular.