I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Barry Andrews, and his officials. 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 House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I call on the Minister of State to make his contribution after which we will have a question and answer session.
Children and Youth Affairs: Discussion with Minister of State.
I thank the Chairman and members for the opportunity to address them. In the time available I would like to concentrate on certain developments in respect of the funding programmes falling within the remit of my office and other issues of particular interest to members.
Under the child care programmes the early child care supplement, which was introduced in 2006, is being abolished with effect from the end of this year. The supplement has been a significant support to families with young children. However, in the current economic climate, difficult decisions were required. It is particularly welcome, therefore, that the need to achieve real savings in Government expenditure is being accompanied by the introduction of a free pre-school year in early years care and education with effect from January 2010.
When the supplement was introduced in April 2006, it was criticised in many quarters because it directed resources away from more beneficial investment in the form of pre-school education, in particular. Many experts in early years care and education argued at the time and since that the funding directed into the ECS as a direct, universal payment to parents was more than twice what would have been needed to implement a free pre-school care and education year targeted at pre-school children.
The recent National Competitiveness Council report noted that "pre-primary education is a key determinant of student performance at all levels of education as it leads to improvements in students' skills levels, motivation and the propensity to learn, which in turn raises the private and social returns from all future investments in their education". These views are also supported by the commitment in the programme for Government which sets out the requirement to ensure that every child has access to a pre-school place by 2012.
In re-evaluating the allocation of resources to the supplement, the opportunity has been taken to establish a new child-centred approach to early years policy and provision and to re-invest an estimated €170 million of the savings into the pre-school year from next January.
The free pre-school year is designed to benefit 70,000 children at the most important developmental stage of their lives. The new scheme, which will be known as the early childhood care and education scheme, ECCE, will provide an annual programme of early learning guided by Siolta, the national framework for early learning, which will be available to children in the year before they start primary school. The scheme will give equal opportunities to all children; in particular the most marginalised who do not at present have access to pre-school and all the benefits it brings for school readiness.
There has been some negative media coverage recently regarding the new scheme and I take this opportunity to clarify several issues. More than 4,200 pre-school services have applied to enter the scheme with the capacity to provide approximately 96,000 pre-school year places which is more than 50% in excess of what is anticipated will be required in January 2010.
Services can participate in the scheme only where they meet the necessary requirements regarding staff qualifications and where they agree to implement an appropriate programme of curriculum-based educational activities. This is the first time specific educational standards will be in place for all pre-school provision and this will undoubtedly raise standards in pre-school care and education.
Not all services are in a position to meet these requirements, but the high application rate of 90% indicates that the great majority of pre-school services already meet high standards. The higher capitation fee for services employing highly-qualified staff signals the Government's intention to support pre-school services in moving to even higher standards.
The vast majority of services, including those in Dublin, are satisfied with the capitation fee that has been set. The scheme is a national one and — in the same way as primary schools and social welfare recipients outside the Dublin area receive the same level of funding as those within the Dublin area, and in the same way that people across the State are levied for taxes on the same basis — all pre-school services will receive the same capitation fee.
Applications from the Dublin area indicate that the number of places will exceed the requirement by 40%, which would hardly be the case if the capitation rate was too low. More than half the costs borne by the child care sector are wage-related and services which have higher costs due to employing more highly-qualified staff will qualify for a higher capitation fee. In addition, most sessional playschool services participating in the scheme will benefit from the exemption from commercial rates, which has been a particular concern for services in Dublin.
When the scheme was announced it was expected that some shortage of places might be experienced in the early stages of the scheme. However, the number of applications has exceeded expectations and every county is expected to have sufficient places to meet demand with any shortfalls being very local in nature.
The introduction of the ECCE scheme is a highly significant step in the development of Ireland's early childhood care and education policy.
As regards child welfare and protection, I would like to refer to the publication of the Ryan report on 20 May, which as members will be aware, gave rise to trauma, grief, shock and abhorrence. The report detailed the failings of the State, religious orders and society as a whole in ignoring the evidence of abuse.
In accepting the 20 recommendations contained in the Ryan report, the Government has shown its commitment to supporting survivors today and tomorrow. The implementation plan, which I was asked to formulate, is a comprehensive response to Mr. Justice Ryan's recommendations. In drawing up the plan, I met with survivor groups and consulted all relevant Departments and public bodies.
A memorial will be erected, in consultation with survivor groups, to act as a constant reminder of the neglect and abuse of the past and as a warning to be vigilant to the threat of child abuse into the future. Consideration will also be given to arrangements for a national day of remembrance and solidarity.
Counselling for survivors is provided in all HSE areas by way of the national counselling service, NCS. The HSE has indicated that there has been a substantial increase in referrals following the publication of the Ryan report. In light of this and in anticipation of the publication of the report of the Dublin archdiocese commission of investigation, I have recommended that the NCS purchases additional counselling and psychotherapy services. Furthermore, the NCS will be exempt from the public service moratorium on recruitment and replacement of staff.
We are intent on recognising the genuine concerns of survivors who believe they possess a criminal record, and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has undertaken that any individual can write to him and that his officials will look at the matter and, if required, will issue a certificate clarifying the position. The Minister will also consider if any additional means, including legislative ones, are required to address this concern.
In writing the commission's report, Mr. Justice Ryan placed considerable emphasis on steps that should be taken to ensure children are listened to, respected as individuals and protected against any type of abuse. While we have good policies and a sound legislative base, implementation is inconsistent across the country and in some cases resources are unevenly distributed.
The publication by my office last year of a review of compliance with Children First: National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children, found that in some cases State organisations did not uniformly apply the guidelines. That is why I have taken the decision to put compliance with Children First on a statutory footing. I plan to bring forward legislation to provide that staff of all publicly-funded bodies will have a duty to comply with and implement these guidelines.
As a society, we place great faith in and responsibility on social workers who must be supported on entering the profession and throughout their career. For the first time, I am proposing that newly-qualified social workers will be allocated a limited caseload with greater supervision and support. It is the responsibility of management to ensure that national policy, legislation, regulations and standards are monitored and implemented.
In tightening economic circumstances, resources must be deployed on the basis of need and not simply because of geographical location. The HSE will be tasked with carrying out a national audit of resources and need in order to direct resources effectively. The appointment of a senior manager in the HSE, with sole responsibility for children and family social services, will provide leadership and focus around the delivery of services. I view this as a positive step. Some 270 social work posts within the HSE will be filled, which will enable all children in care to have access to a designated social worker.
There has been criticism that some facilities in which children in the care of the State reside are not independently inspected. Recognising this gap, it is the Government's intention that, by 2010, all children's residential centres, including those for children with a disability and separated children seeking asylum, will be independently inspected by the Health Information and Quality Authority. The requirement that all care centres be registered will ensure that recommendations are followed up, otherwise services will not be allowed to operate.
There has, to date, been no systematic follow-up of young people who have left care, so it is difficult to estimate the number who experience difficulties such as homelessness, mental health issues, addiction problems, educational deficits and loneliness in the transition to independent living. In recognition of this failing, the HSE will conduct a longitudinal study to follow young people who leave care to map their transition to adulthood. Critically, provision of aftercare services will be delivered to all children leaving care in all instances where the professional judgment of the allocated social worker determines it is required.
In recognition of the need for an out-of-hours social work crisis intervention service, the HSE will build on its existing service and put such an out-of-hours service in place with GPs, acute hospitals and mental health services. I announced at the time of the publication of the Monageer report that the HSE was commencing from early June an out-of-hours place of safety service for children deemed to be at risk by gardaí under section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991. That system has been working well and is being constantly monitored. The HSE will pilot the out-of-hours social work crisis intervention service in two areas. Both the demand for the place of safety service and the results from the out-of-hours social work crisis intervention pilots will provide us with an accurate picture of what is needed and will help us shape the service to cater for that need.
In my role as Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs, I have a particular responsibility to ensure the welfare and protection of vulnerable children. Where care and safety cannot be provided within the family home, the State has to assume the role of corporate parent and deliver care services that nurture and support children in the absence of this being provided by their parents.
As we have learned from the past, implementation of policy is the key to good results. I am committed to the full implementation of the 99 actions contained in the implementation plan. I am taking personal responsibility for overseeing its implementation. I am determined that we will give effect to the worthy aspirations of the 1916 Proclamation of the Republic, to cherish all the children of the nation equally.
Following from the publication of the Ryan report in May this year, the Government anticipates publication of the report of the Dublin archdiocese commission in the near future. The commission was tasked with investigating the handling of allegations or complaints of child sexual abuse made against clergy operating under the aegis of the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin. The report may be released in full or with certain restrictions, in recognition of the fact that some of those mentioned in the report have charges pending against them. The High Court will rule on this matter, referred to it by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
The commission's report is expected to detail disturbing facts of neglect and abuse of the vulnerable by those who held positions of trust in the Dublin archdiocese. From a present day perspective, it is my belief that the current legislative environment, combined with the statutory powers of the HSE and other authorities, afford greater protections to children than previously existed. In addition, the implementation plan I launched in response to the Ryan report will strengthen the levels of protection for children and other vulnerable people. There is also a heightened public awareness of the issue of child abuse and much greater public vigilance as a result.
I wish to refer briefly to the issue of intercountry adoption, which has been given considerable priority over the last year. I have advised the House and parent and prospective adoptive parent representative groups on many occasions regarding the developments on these discussions. The Government's objective is to ensure the operation of a system for intercountry adoption in which the child is at the centre of the adoption process, whether it is an intercountry or domestic adoption, and that adoptions are effected in a manner which is legal, safe and secure.
The Adoption Bill is designed to provide an assurance for individual children, their families and the State that appropriate procedures have been followed and that the adoption was effected in the best interests of the child. The Hague Convention, which is given the force of law in this Bill, effectively puts in place an agreement between states to regulate the standards that will apply in each jurisdiction. It is to put in place safeguards that acceptable standards are being applied in other countries, over which we have no jurisdiction.
In recent weeks two significant reports have been received regarding child welfare, protection and adoption in Vietnam. These are the MoLISA report published in August 2009, and the draft report of an examination of intercountry adoption in Vietnam carried out by the International Social Services, ISS. These two reports, both prepared in co-operation with the Vietnamese Government and UNICEF, go to the heart of the matter regarding concerns about intercountry adoption in Vietnam.
I would be failing in my duty to protect children if I did not acknowledge and consider the content of these reports extremely carefully before deciding on the next steps. In saying that, these reports also serve to highlight the commitment of the Vietnamese Government to ensuring that the adoption process in Vietnam is in line with best international standards and its willingness to address issues at the core of that commitment. I am currently awaiting finalisation of the ISS report, which is expected in mid to late October.
I will be delighted to take any questions that members of the committee might have. I have not gone into the issues on the other side of my brief concerning youth affairs and youth justice, which are significant. I will be happy to take any questions on those areas as well.
I thank the Minister of State for the broad overview and members will have questions.
I do not wish to over-indulge the time of this committee. Is there a specific time limit on questions or on raising issues?
I will raise issues in the reverse order to which they were referred to by the Minister of State and I will expand on one or two other areas which I hope the Minister of State can deal with.
I wish to deal first with the issue of inter-country adoptions. I refer to the Minister of State's reference to the two reports on his desk, one of which I have had an opportunity to read. These are the UNESCO report produced with the Vietnamese authorities and the ISS report which is in draft form and which has not been released and therefore I am unaware of its contents.
The Minister of State will be aware there are hundreds of prospective adopters here who have completed what is an unduly lengthy process to asses their suitability and who hope to adopt in Vietnam. Others who have completed the process hope to adopt elsewhere. I wish to raise a number of questions on the adoption issue. There is widespread concern that if a couple or an individual wishes to adopt, it can take up to four years for their suitability to be determined. In circumstances where people marry in later years and after some time are unsuccessful in having their own family and then seek to adopt, the length of time it takes to go through the process can militate against a HSE recommendation that they are suitable people because the HSE and some social workers in particular in the HSE, have a view of age that results in them regarding persons over 50 years, either a husband or a wife, as being unsuitable to adopt,simpliciter, without taking it any further. The process is unduly lengthy and second, it discriminates against some individuals who, somewhat later in married life or having married late in their 40s, decide they would like to adopt, and the process can in fact prevent them either successfully being given a declaration of suitability or after they have done so, act as an obstacle to their adopting abroad. Less than a week ago, the Minister of State and I were on a television programme and he expressed concern that this process and procedure is too long. I have heard his predecessors say the same thing. Will the Minister of State say what specific actions he is taking to change it? It is absolutely essential that people’s suitability is properly assessed. Adoption has to be centrally concerned with the welfare of children but taking two, three or four years to assess suitability is quite outrageous and unacceptable and is unfair to prospective adopters.
On the issue of the Vietnamese adoptions and the bilateral agreement expiring on 1 May 2009, I, along with every Deputy have received communications from individuals who are affected by this. I am also conscious that in putting in place a new bilateral agreement we must ensure at all times that the welfare of children is properly protected. What mystifies me somewhat is that under the terms of the bilateral agreement which terminated on 1 May 2009, there was express provision in that agreement to ensure at all times during the five years in which it was in place that the welfare of children was being adequately protected and that our adoption standards were being complied with.
I refer the Minister of State to Article 24 in the bilateral agreement which made provision for the establishment of a joint working group representing this State and Vietnam. It was to hold such meetings as were required under the agreement as concluded and which expired on 1 May 2009. It states that the joint working group shall be responsible for reviewing and evaluating the implementation of this agreement and agreeing on technical assistance as stipulated earlier in the treaty on humanitarian financial supports of the authorised organisations and child care centres and discussing solutions to difficulties that arise.
How many meetings of this working group took place? In so far as they made reports of these meetings, will the Minister of State publish the reports? Did these meetings identify any particular difficulties with regard to children adopted by Irish couples in Vietnam following the Adoption Board making a declaration of suitability? Was the purpose of the working groups or part of their purpose or one of their major purposes to ensure that the standards to which both Ireland and Vietnam agreed to comply, as detailed in the bilateral agreement, were actually met? The UNESCO report is a very large report dealing with child care issues in Vietnam across a broad range of areas but only five pages of which deal with the area of adoption. That report has been published; what does it say differently to what the Minister of State would have been told as a consequence of the meeting of the working groups? My concern is that the delay in entering into discussions with the Vietnamese — which made substantive progress — and the hiatus now occurring, is causing a great deal of concern to many couples who wish to adopt and who are of the view that they have surmounted the barrier of a four-year assessment and did not expect other obstacles in their way. The Minister of State has said the first meeting took place between members of his Department and the Vietnamese in February 2008. It is something of a mystery to me why it was not until March 2009, some seven weeks prior to the treaty terminating, that we sent a new draft agreement to the Vietnamese. On that issue, where now stands that draft agreement in light of the two reports he has seen and of which only one has been made public? Does the Minister of State envisage that this agreement will need to be amended in draft form? When does he anticipate further discussions taking place directly between his Department or between him, as Minister of State, with the relevant minister or government department in Vietnam?
I hope to raise some other issues. It is a coincidence that this meeting is happening today because this morning both the Minister of State and I met people from a newly formed organisation called the Future Organisation holding a very small demonstration outside this House. The small numbers involved in the demonstration did not take away from the importance of the issue. We know that at least 20 young people who were taken into care and for whom either health boards or the HSE had responsibility, have died over the past ten years. It is possible the numbers are greater. We know that at least 11 of them died from a drug overdose. They include persons whose names have been in the public arena. I refer to Danny Talbot, one of the young people to die more recently. He died at the age of 19, having been in the care of the HSE but once he reached 18 years the HSE ceased to have a legal responsibility for him. It is important to know what went wrong in his case. We know of other young people who have died in circumstances in which the HSE had responsibility for them. They include Kim Donovan, who died at 15 years of age, David Foley, 17 years of age, and Tracey Fay, 18 years of age. The HSE and in some cases, the original former health boards, have had some sort of internal inquiries conducted into the deaths of some of these children. In the case of David Foley, who died in 2002, it took six years for whatever internal review was being conducted to be completed. None of these reports have been published. There is no transparency as to what occurred. If we are to learn why these young people died at a time when the State had responsibility for them, we need to know what went wrong and we need to know what action needs to be taken to avoid similar mistakes — if mistakes were made — being made in the future. We also need accountability.
I raised this issue in February 2009 by way of a parliamentary question to the Minister of State asking for details of these young people who had died and all the Minister of State could tell me was it was a matter for the HSE, that he would ask the HSE to revert to me but that it would take some time. The deaths of these young people were of so little concern that there was no central registry of information about them to facilitate the HSE in furnishing the Minister with the full details of the care provided to them and how they came into the care of that organisation. There was, for example, David Foley, who very tragically at the age of 14 sought help from the health board because of his difficult family circumstances and home background and asked to be taken into care. He died aged 17.
It is absolutely unacceptable in a Western democracy that such events should result in an internal examination by the body responsible for the children whose deaths occurred, that no report is published, that there is no transparency and that nothing ever happens.
The Deputy has about 30 seconds remaining.
Regarding these issues, may I ask the Minister of State the following questions? First, will he publish these reports? Second, why, after I raised this issue in February, have I heard nothing from the HSE other than it telling me it will have the matter examined? The next I heard was a report inThe Irish Times in July which stated that a committee had been formed to look into the deaths. That is entirely unacceptable.
The Ombudsman for Children has made recommendations that we should have in place proper and special arrangements to ensure that if a child is in care, and therefore the responsibility of the State or the HSE, there should be an independent mechanism in place to investigate what occurs. Will the Minister implement the recommendation of the Ombudsman for Children?
In fairness to other members, I shall conclude on this matter. Perhaps the Chairman will allow me two further sentences. The Minister of State has addressed the issue of child protection.
That is one sentence.
The action the Minister of State promises to take on foot of the Ryan report is laudable. The timeframe is appalling and in some areas there is no timeframe of any kind. In his address to the committee, the Minister of State did not refer to the fact that he still does not have available to him any real-time information as to what is happening within our child protection services. When I last asked this question of the Minister of State he said a new computerised system was being tested so that finally there would be some co-ordinated information about children who are reported to be at risk. Where does that now stand?
I call Deputy Jan O'Sullivan.
I welcome the Minister of State and his officials. Across the Minister of State's brief there are large groups of vulnerable children. I hope he will be able to protect those children and the range of areas concerned from the proposals of an bord snip nua. That is of concern to all of us because many of the areas outlined by the Minister of State are those that need increased spending rather than cuts.
I shall begin with an area related to the last point made by Deputy Shatter, namely, the issue of children in care and, especially, issues concerning social workers. I concur fully with what Deputy Shatter said in respect of those children who, very sadly, died in care. We must learn from what happened to them and we need full public disclosure regarding any information that relates to the deaths of the individual children.
I received an answer to a parliamentary question concerning social workers and children in care which indicated that on 30 June 2009 there were 5,646 children in the care of the HSE, of whom 84.3% had an allocated social worker. If one does the sums this indicates that 886 children in the care of the HSE do not have an allocated social worker. There has been some public information previously regarding various categories of vulnerable children who do not have an allocated social worker. There is an enormous case load for social workers in the country, in respect of both children in care and vulnerable children who are not in care but in vulnerable situations in their own family homes. When does the Minister of State expect that all children in care will have an allocated social worker?
The Minister of State proposed that newly qualified social workers will be allocated a limited case load with greater supervision and support. That is very welcome, as is his suggestion that 270 social work posts within the HSE will be filled. As he said, this will enable all children in care to have access to a designated social worker. My concern is whether that will now happen because of the forthcoming budget and the kinds of cuts we can expect. I wish to state strongly for the record that it should happen, that these social workers should be appointed and that no obstacle should be put in the way of their appointment. We are talking about the most vulnerable children in our society and we must ensure that they are given the full protection to which they are entitled.
I do not wish to go back over anything Deputy Shatter said because we have a limited amount of time so I shall move on to the area of adoption. Again, I agree with Deputy Shatter regarding the length of time this process can take. Of course, we all agree there must be an absolutely thorough assessment and the interests of the children must be paramount, but the process appears to take a very long time in some cases and seems longer in certain parts of the country. Does the Minister of State expect any improvement in that regard? Being thorough should not mean that people should have to wait for such a number of years.
I refer specifically to the Adoption Bill and the Hague Convention. Does the Minister of State know when time will be allocated in the Dáil for the Bill, which must come from the Seanad? When does he expect to have the Hague Convention fully and statutorally implemented?
In respect of Vietnamese adoptions, the question we are asked is whether the Minister of State has ceased, as I believe he has, to have discussions with the Vietnamese authorities, or are there ongoing discussions with these authorities to address the issues raised in the two reports to which the Minister of State referred? The families who are waiting want to know, realistically, what is happening. Of course, they want addressed whatever concerns there are about the process in Vietnam and we, as members of the committee, want them addressed. However, they want to know if there will be an outcome, whether the Minister of State expects an outcome, and whether everything is being done to address the issue. Does the Minister of State expect that it will be in the context of the ratification of the Hague Convention? Is it in that context we can expect this issue to be addressed or does the Minister of State expect further bilateral progress will be made with the authorities in Vietnam?
I welcome the Minister of State and his officials. I also welcome the announcement in respect of the preschool year. Credit should be given where it is due. When it was realised that there was a discrepancy regarding the age of the children, it was rectified quickly to ensure that more children could avail of the scheme. It is very important that children should have access to preschooling. My children did not have such access because there was no preschooling in the local area and the distance was too great to travel. If I had put my children into preschool they would have ended up going to a different national school and having the social problems that would have resulted from their integration into a different school away from their friends. It is very important to have the scheme localised and that the natural progression be into the local primary school. We talked about cherishing children equally and it is very important that there be equality of opportunity for all and that every child has access to preschooling. It is to be commended.
My questions relate, in the first place, to the Ryan report. The Minister of State spoke of the shock and horror we all felt and probably there will be more to come when the Dublin diocesan report is published. Regarding the recommendations of the report, will the Minister of State indicate the time line? When does he expect some of these recommendations to be in place? People who are looking at what has happened would be reassured to see times and dates for when things will be put in place. It would enable them to begin to move on with the rest of their lives.
The Minister of State spoke about putting the Children First guidelines on a statutory footing. When will that legislation be brought forward? It is very important.
I welcome his comments regarding HIQA inspections of children's residential centres. Huge concern has been expressed about the conditions in which some of the most vulnerable children are placed and the experiences to which they are exposed. The Minister says the inspections will be in place by 2010. Can he give a more precise date for when they will begin? Public awareness is heightened following the horrors which have been visited on the country. People must see that these measures are being put in place, rather than read about when they might happen.
I welcome the Minister of State and his officials. We are all extremely worried about the issue of adoptions of children from Vietnam. Have we anyone in Vietnam who is dealing with this issue on an ongoing basis? I understand the difficulty centres on how children are offered for adoption in Vietnam. Have we anyone in that country who can reassure us that children being offered for adoption are being offered freely and without coercion? We need someone in Vietnam acting on our behalf to ensure that is the case.
How much was spent on the early childhood supplement in the past four years? I see that the first preschool places will be offered to children in 2012. How many places will be available then and how many are we providing this year? The Central Statistics Office tells us that this year's birth rate is the highest ever. Those children will be ready for preschool in 2012.
The scheme starts next January.
We will need more places in 2012 because of this year's higher birth rate. Will those places be available? I know that is not how the Department of Education and Science does its planning. I do not think it ever looks at the birth rate. I do not understand how we cannot figure out that a child born today will need to go to school in five years time and that a place should be made available. The Department never seems to look at that.
When will we see all of the recommendations of the Ryan report? Like most people, I am flabbergasted to learn that when so much taxpayers' money was spent investigating horrendous crimes perpetrated against children, a group of people have enough influence to stop all of the recommendations being published. There is an injustice in that. When will we see all of the recommendations? It is not good enough to say that the published recommendations are being acted upon if we do not know what the others are.
What is preventing an out-of-hours social worker service? The Minister of State referred to an out-of-hours GP and hospital service. What about social workers? Have they bought into this service and will we have an out-of-hours service? Will we simply have a skeleton staff on duty until 9 p.m. or maybe midnight? What is the difficulty? Why is this service not in place?
I welcome the extension of the inspection regime to institutions where children are cared for. What about standards? HIQA is an incredible organisation. It has combined huge expertise with simplicity of reporting and with regard to what we need to put in place so that institutions where people are cared for can live with a degree of normality. Most HIQA recommendations are cost-neutral. They relate to menu choice, privacy and making decisions for oneself. When will standards be introduced? Allowing HIQA in to inspect is a very good thing. I am sure if its inspectors find something outrageous they will highlight it. However, it is very difficult to highlight failings when no standards have been set. HIQA knows what the standards are but they have not been put in place. We should do that before we allow HIQA the inspection regime.
Do we have a representative in Vietnam, are we looking at the issue from that side and when will that happen? Even if the draft proposal is agreed by both countries and it becomes a standard proposal we still need to be reassured that what we expect from an adoption process is in place, in Vietnam and in other countries.
The members of the committee recognise the improvements which have been made and of which the Minister of State has spoken. They are very much appreciated.
I welcome the new preschool year measure. Is any work being done to motivate parents of younger children as to the value of education and to close the gap among children at four and five years of age? Children of parents who are motivated tend to get better opportunities.
My second question relates to the mental health services. There appears to be a gap affecting young teenagers who are too old for the paediatric service and not old enough for the adult service. What work is being done there? Also, there seems to be a lack of co-ordination and integration between the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Health Service Executive regarding services to children who get into difficulty. There are often longer delays than there should be in, for example, having a child assessed for one of the forensic psychiatric units.
My final question relates to Vietnam. How long will it be before Irish people are in a position to complete adoptions of children in Vietnam?
I was asked by a number of potential adoptive parents to ask the Minister of State when he thinks the arrangements with Vietnam will become a reality. This is a simplistic question but for them it is a very important one. I appreciate that it is not possible to answer this question at this stage. This is not a criticism of the Minister of State, who is doing all he can about the matter, but my question is the same as Deputy O'Hanlon's. The Minister of State will appreciate that many people have been waiting for three or four years. Like those in my constituency who I have met, they would love to have their children tomorrow, but they are afraid that this might never become a reality, which would be a disaster. If they were required to wait another year, they would have no alternative but to put up with it.
Which way does the Minister of State believe the wind is blowing? I have listened to many radio debates on the matter and understand the implications. Will the agreement become a reality in 2010 or 2011? I do not want to go over all of the same ground because the Minister of State, who has often met representatives of the potential adoptive parents, fully appreciates the anxiety with which they are living.
Regarding the out of hours service for young people experiencing family problems and so on, I hope that, when all of this settles down, there will be someone other than a garda on the ground late at night who will be able to help families. The Garda is the only organisation doing that now, but this was never its brief and it was never written into the script. The Garda does not have the resources for this. I assume that the Minister of State knows well that, in vast areas, the last line of defence if intervention is required is the Garda. It is not unknown for children to be brought to local Garda stations for a few hours before accommodation can be sourced because there is nowhere else to put them. In this day and age, surely that is out of order. I assume that the Minister of State is working towards bringing that system to a quick end.
I welcome the Minister of State's report on the relevant issues. I also welcome the early child care and education programme that is to start in January. It will be a good initiative for children and a relief for parents in the current climate. Being a young parent himself, the Minister of State understands these issues.
I welcome the appointment of the new manager in the HSE with responsibility for social work. This is a positive move because, year on year, managers in different areas of the HSE, despite being responsible for community care, had much more on their minds and social work was not given the time and effort required. I hope this move goes down the line and is extended, since community care is important for all elements of society.
I am unsure about the rest of the country, but County Donegal has a scheme called Live Start. A community-based initiative, it receives a little support from the HSE. It is intended to support mothers and children from birth to the age of six years. Some members mentioned children's progress, but this scheme takes steps to educate mothers on their children's progress up to the age of six years. It is a great scheme and gives mothers an understanding. Parents are not given a handbook when they have their first child. This scheme is that handbook, in that someone visits a mother and gives her step-by-step care and advice at little expense.
Like all schemes, this one is under pressure and has only been rolled out to part of the county. Will the Minister of State examine the scheme with a view to implementing it nationwide and will he safeguard it in the current financial circumstances?
I welcome the opportunity to address the Minister of State. The last time he met the children's referendum committee, he dropped what I could only describe as a bombshell in terms of his apparent decision to set aside all of the committee's long deliberations and to revert to a formula that was the starting point of the committee's consideration on enshrining children's rights in the Constitution.
I was taken by the presence outside the Dáil today of a significant body of young people protesting the continuing loss of life of young people in State care. They reflected on the tragedy of some 21 child deaths in HSE-funded homes during the past decade. It would be remiss of any of us not to reflect on this matter today.
Hostels continue to be used for young people in care, but this is an inappropriate arrangement. The hostel system was intended to be a short-term measure for homeless children. Why have some children spent years in some of those facilities? What measures has the Minister of State taken to address the regular occurrence of children going missing from State care? Given the statistics on loss of life and children going missing, his Department is not giving the issue the attention it deserves. Some 486 children in care have gone missing since 2000, 425 of whom remain missing. Some 21 children have died in practically the same period. These figures are shocking. Many crises and major matters of concern are presenting across a range of Departments, but nothing could match the enormity of the seriousness of these statistics.
The Minister of State and his Department have repeatedly ignored the calls of the Immigrant Council of Ireland to establish a national register of unaccompanied minors. Joined up thinking is necessary to ensure that we know the exact number of children — not only those from indigenous families, but also those who are brought into the country — and their location. Since I am sure that the statistics are available, given the breakdown of the figures that I have cited, what number of those children were unaccompanied minors brought into the country over the years in question?
Regarding the Ryan report and the last comment in respect of same, while the Minister of State will point to the implementation of the recommendations with which he is prepared to proceed, does he not accept that, until we see a real and substantive change in the provision of services for children arising from the Ryan report, we will not be able to appraise his and the Department's intent?
An earlier speaker asked when we will see all of the recommendations on the Ryan report. It is impossible to gauge, when we are only given access to certain information arising from the document. Is there any prospect of a change of heart regarding the obliterated sections of that report and allowing elected representatives of the people the opportunity to properly inform themselves of the report's content and all its recommendations?
I do not like being the last speaker. I apologise to the Minister for having to follow some of the proceedings on my monitor but I am under some political pressure and I had to do some work in my office.
We are all under political pressure as the hours go by.
I was not going to mention Tallaght but I will briefly. Having listened to the Minister of State's contribution and from reading the notes it is clear to me that he is dealing with issues cropping up on the doorsteps. Adoption is an issue in my community no more than anywhere else, and the Minister should be aware of that.
The Minister might disagree but there is need for clarification on the question of the free pre-school year. People continue to make inquiries. Any politician in the Dáil will tell him that. I mention it by way of being helpful, and the Department might examine how to continue to get that message across.
As in other constituencies, individual issues will always arise. The report of the Dublin Archdiocese commission is an issue about which questions are being asked, certainly in the general Dublin region. I was glad the Minister made the point at the outset of his contribution that the Government intends to publish that report. There is an expectation, not only in Church circles but among parish communities, that this would be dealt with. All churches are making efforts to get a positive message across. Notices are in every church porch, and I hope the Department has taken account of that.
I do not wish to ambush the Minister but he said earlier that he had not dealt with the youth affairs remit in his report. He will recall that my last real job was in the youth service and therefore I have a particular interest in that area. At a time of recession where possible, even if there are few resources, we must continue to pour resources into looking after our young people. That is not only an issue in Tallaght but in other areas including Dún Laoghaire. I make that plea to the Minister who might come before the committee at some future date to deal with issues relating to youth services.
I was involved in a youth services initiative with the then Minister, Deputy Fahey, almost 20 years ago in trying to encourage recruitment. A down side of the Celtic tiger years was that volunteerism suffered. We have an opportunity now to take advantage of volunteerism in a positive way. I hope the Minister's office might do that.
On the pre-school year — I represent a rural area in Kilkenny — how does the Minister intend those facilities will be provided in rural areas in particular? Are there criteria in terms of population? Will there be one pre-school in every parish or will they be amalgamated? I would like some insight into the way the Minister intends to provide the service in rural areas.
I forgot to ask a question of the Minister. I will be brief. On the seven blacked out recommendations contained in the Monageer report, there was an indication that arrangements were being examined to brief members of this committee as to what they contained and whether other aspects of the report that were blacked out could be revealed. Could the Minister clarify where that now stands?
That concludes the questioning. I thank the Minister of State for his presentation. Listening to his contribution I was struck by the success of the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme in terms of the number of places now available to participate in the early childhood care and education scheme. He made the point that pre-primary education is a key determinant of student performance. That is nowhere more significant than in the case of children from disadvantaged areas. The Minister might outline how he will guarantee full uptake in those areas.
He also mentioned in his presentation that in terms of any shortfalls being local in nature, one suspects those shortfalls could be in very rural areas or in very disadvantaged areas. Regarding the disadvantaged areas, if there is reluctance to participate and a shortfall in the number of places available in a location that is readily accessible, some difficulties may arise. The Minister might reply to the committee on that.
In the course of presentations to this committee earlier in the year on child welfare services, the various groups talked about the variety of social work services that are available from both the statutory and the voluntary sector. The idea was put forward that it might be possible to provide an on-call out of hours service in local areas by networking the statutory and the voluntary sectors to provide the emergency back-up that might be needed in areas. Did the Minister have an opportunity to examine that or does he intend to examine it? Does he see some potential in those areas? I ask the Minister to reply to those brief comments and the many other questions put by members.
I thank the Chairman and the members for their questions. I will deal with them in the order they were put. I wrote them down but if I missed anything and a member wants to put a supplementary question I will be happy to deal with that, subject to the Chairman's advice.
Deputy Shatter asked about the lengthy process involved in the assessment of eligibility and suitability in respect of adoption. Deputy O'Sullivan referred to that also. As Deputy Shatter said, there is a terribly long process even prior to the point where an individual or a family decides to adopt and by the time they finish that assessment process, which some people report is invasive — they find it an unpleasant process in any case — there is a great deal of frustration when they find that countries are closed for adoption from time to time. Vietnam closed for adoption in the early part of this decade. Other countries, including Honduras and Guatemala, closed at different times. Perhaps we need to be clearer with prospective adoptive parents in the early part of the process and tell them that can happen and that issues can arise from time to time. Vietnam is now closed to adoption for Ireland, America and Sweden. Other countries also close from time to time. We are having a problem with Ethiopia and Russia. That is in common with many other countries.
Regarding the Vietnam problem, we will be able to give more details as soon as the International Social Services report is published in the coming weeks but that problem is one that occurs with countries over which we have no jurisdiction from time to time. Prospective adoptive parents should probably be made clearly aware of that issue earlier than is currently the case. I might make that point when I attend the International Adoption Association's annual conference on Saturday.
In terms of trying to address this problem, as Deputy Shatter said, and it has been mentioned on a few occasions in recent years, under the new Adoption Bill an accredited agency will have the capacity to carry out the assessment process. The supervision will still have to be in place for the Health Service Executive. We do not want to create a privatised assessment process either but the Irish Adoption Board has put forward proposals to be considered for the setting up under the new Adoption Bill of some kind of accredited agency that would have a capacity to do the assessment.
There is no age limit, as Deputy Shatter said. Some sending countries and some receiving countries have an age limit. We simply have regard to the health of the applicant, which is correct and appropriate.
In regard to Vietnam specifically, there is a joint working group but I am told it worked on an informalad hoc basis. It only met twice a year. Members will be aware that we have the draft bilateral agreement which we sent to the Vietnamese for their consideration and it contained far more formal procedures for a working group that would review the operation of the agreement from time to time.
Did the group's report signpost any particular difficulties? Is there a publishable report?
I do not have to hand any of that information. I will have to revert to the Deputy. I am not at liberty to discuss the content of the ISS report and the draft agreement; suffice it to say much of the information is already in the public domain. While the MoLISA report, which is already published, deals with child care and child protection in general in Vietnam, the report in question is specifically about inter-country adoption from Vietnam and deals with every aspect thereof. It contains guidelines and recommendations for receiving countries, for Vietnam itself and mediation agencies. It will be in the public domain in the next few weeks. It is important that we have a proper national discussion on its content when it is published.
Deputy Shatter asked about the deaths of children in care. The two reports on Tracey Fay and David Foley will be published later this month. The dates for the publication of the findings and recommendations of the reports are 19 October and 21 October. I agree absolutely with the Deputy in saying the publication of these reports comprises a crucial part of securing public trust in the child protection service in Ireland, in addition to boosting the morale of those who work in the service. It is the window through which people see whether the system is working. If there is anything opaque or any suggestion of a veil of secrecy, it undermines public trust. In many cases, it compounds the perception that social workers exist to interfere unnecessarily with one's family rather than trying to provide State supports to children at risk among families who need help with regard to developmental problems at an early stage.
The HSE has undertaken to set up a child death review panel, which is part of what the Ombudsman for Children talked about. HIQA has provided guidance to the HSE in this regard. HIQA will reserve to itself the right to investigate child deaths where it believes it appropriate. Some of the deaths of children in care occur in normal circumstances that would arise among the rest of the population. Approximately 50% are in that category. The rest of the deaths would give rise to serious concerns, be they suicides or deaths from an overdose.
Deputy Shatter asked about the knowledge management strategy. This is part of the standardisation of the business process in the HSE and part of the effort to ensure social workers count initial assessments and referrals in the same way. It is a question of providing the technology to social workers at the front line so they can do an X-ray of what is occurring at any given time in our social work service.
On the knowledge management strategy, a proposal has been submitted to a unit in the Department of Finance, CMOD, which is to peer review it and make recommendations. In the HSE service plan this year there is a specific funding line and therefore the strategy is progressing very well. I am satisfied we are keeping to the anticipated time line.
Deputy O'Sullivan asked about the McCarthy report. That report recommends that the children and families budget, €0.5 billion, not be touched, which is very interesting. It is recommended that it not be reduced because of the points Deputies and Senators made today.
An issue has arisen with regard to cases not allocated to social workers. I have met social workers throughout the country who find it extremely frustrating given their caseloads. They find it very difficult to manage. Some of the cases concern children in foster care with relatives, which is at the very low end of risk. When one says such children are in State care, one should remember they are with relatives in some cases or in long-term foster care. Clearly, the most high-risk cases have social workers allocated to them in the normal way. We are trying to ensure the 270 social worker places are filled. This will clearly work towards reaching the target of ensuring all children in care have an allocated social worker.
With regard to the timeframe for considering the Adoption Bill, as mentioned by Deputy Jan O'Sullivan, one should note it has been through the Seanad already and needs to be discussed in the Dáil this term. I hope it can be dealt with by the Select Committee on Health and Children on Committee Stage. It should certainly be enacted by the first quarter of next year.
We are continuing to examine the bilateral agreement with Vietnam, about which Deputy Jan O'Sullivan asked. What emerges from the ISS report in the coming weeks will clearly have an impact and this may cause us to change course or reverse engines. This remains to be seen.
Deputy Conlon asked about the time line for implementing the recommendations of the Ryan report. Each of the 99 implementation plan proposals refers to a specific timeframe for completion. The Deputy asked about legislation on children. This process is to be completed by December 2010. There are similar time lines in respect of all the other targets.
Deputy Kathleen Lynch asked about the ECS. It cost €1.4 billion over the four years. The first place available will be in January. Although there was a higher birth rate last year, there are 96,000 or 98,000 places available this year. Something very dramatic would have to happen for there to be a problem in this regard.
On the questions asked by Deputy Aylward and the Chairman, there will be local problems and shortfalls. In disadvantaged areas there is already very well developed community provision, funded through the community child care subvention scheme. The rural issue is one that may well cause us some difficulty. Once there is demand, there is guaranteed capitation from the Government. There is a very good business opportunity where there is a lack of demand.
The first period will be from January to July and the full-year period will be begin in September 2010. Where there is demand in rural areas, operators with a basic FETAC qualification will move into the market to provide the service. They will be guaranteed an income. The market will correct the problem in due course and the Government should not be involved in influencing it other than by drawing attention to the scheme.
Is the Minister of State confident there will be an uptake of 100% in the disadvantaged areas? Has he any strategy to encourage those who might be reluctant to participate, particularly those who most need the intervention?
Absolutely. Deputy O'Hanlon asked how parents can be motivated to appreciate the value of education. Primary school education will be guaranteed. The county child care committees have less to do now because there is no capital grant available any more. In fairness to them, they are very responsive to trying to circulate the information, particularly in disadvantaged areas. That is how we will try to deal with the issue.
Deputies Kathleen Lynch and Connaughton referred to the out-of-hours service. We set up a place-of-safety system in June 2009. Under section 12 of the Child Care Act, a garda can take a child into custody for his or her own protection. It is a power that only the Garda has so it must be involved in the process; it has no choice. What is unacceptable is that children might end up staying in Garda stations. Under the scheme we set up in June, children go to a place of safety, an overnight foster care arrangement, until social workers can intervene during normal office hours.
Is that widespread?
It operates nationally. The scheme, although it only started in June, is working reasonably well. Since the service began in June, gardaí contacted it on 63 occasions, resulting in 26 placements. This shows there is clearly a demand for an out-of-hours service but it is quite low. We must ask whether we want to employ two staff members full-time in each local head office to run the service. Would this really be using resources in a worthwhile way? We should consider the other models referred to by members, whereby a duty officer could be employed or one could try to use existing out-of-hours medical services. They could be Caredoc, out-of-hours mental health services or accident and emergency services. These could be used to allow a platform to provide the service. Under the implementation plan in the Ryan report we will pilot two areas for an out-of-hours service.
I should also mention that many social workers provide out-of-hours services anyway in many areas, such as Galway. There is a great dedication to duty and vocation in that respect. Some members will have read in the papers that in the case relating to Ronnie Dunbar, the social worker looking after the child was with her in the hospital in the early hours of the morning. The media, politicians and other health professionals may be critical of social workers much of the time here, in the UK or in other places, but we must remember that the work is extremely challenging. The truth of what they do is perhaps not as widely known.
Deputy O'Hanlon commented on motivation. Middle class parents are able to provide their children with grinds, piano lessons and enable them to go to language or summer schools, whereas disadvantaged children do not get any of that. The teacher in a fee-paying school is trained the same way as a teacher dealing with disadvantaged students, but the difference is a pupil's background and family and whether they are truly motivated. It is very difficult to provide such motivation. I taught in both fee-paying schools and those dealing with disadvantaged children and the real difference is behind the hall door.
I hope that through the free preschool year, each child will come to junior infants in primary school with the same level of motivation, development and language skills, and this will be a contributing factor to levelling the playing field.
The integration of justice and health is something we are working very hard on. Since the youth justice service came under the auspices of my office, it has been part of the ministerial management committee. We watch that integration on a regular basis.
Deputy Blaney asked about management in the HSE and we are working very hard to get an assistant national director with responsibility for children and family services only. There has been a very good assistant national director, although he has had many other regional responsibilities. For the first time we will have a national lead who will parallel what my office does in terms of policy and implementation. That is a fairly straightforward line of responsibility.
There are 11 teen parent projects around the country, which are similar enough to Lifestart. We will look at that in due course. Deputy Ó Caoláin asked about rights in the Constitution and hostels. We are committed to closing the hostels used for separated children seeking asylum. Two will be closed at the end of this month, with two more closed early in 2010 and four others that must be closed in due course. There will be a working group set up with my office, the HSE and the NGOs working in this area to ensure that the work is done appropriately. In any case any separated children under 12 are in foster care. HIQA will make inspections in the future, as that is part of the implementation plan.
With regard to the Dublin archdiocese commission report, judgment has been reserved until 8 December. That was reported in the newspapers this morning and it will determine the extent of publication. Members asked about youth affairs and I am sorry I did not reach that in my opening comments, as it is a major part of my brief and I take it very seriously. There has been an organic growth in youth facilities for years and we now have youth cafés, youth clubs, youth work and Garda youth diversion programmes.
Very often there is no proper mapping of it and these initiatives do not feed into children's services or there is no proper sharing of information. By bringing youth affairs into my office, the opportunity exists to integrate and have similar services provided for children and young people up to the age of 25 in order to provide a continuum. That is at a very early stage and we are interested in people's views on the matter.
On the Monageer issue, one of the seven recommendations was blacked out on the advice of the Attorney General and I undertook at the time to seek legal advice which would allow me to publish the redacted parts of the report for this committee.
There were seven recommendations in all blacked out. Is the Minister of State indicating that this redaction was based on the advice of the Attorney General?
One was blacked out and six were published.
Seven recommendations were blacked out in the report.
They were all linked. I sought legal advice from the Attorney General on the extent to which I could publish the blacked out parts to allow this committee, at the very least, to assess whether the Attorney General was correct. The point was made earlier that people must rely on these reports in order to establish public trust in our child protection services.
The report was done with the co-operation of every witness that appeared before the inquiry team. None came with legal representation and the process was completed very quickly without the intervention of great legal teams. That is what people want us to do but it can only be done if the privacy of the individual is protected and there is no star chamber where findings of guilt will result or reputations will be damaged. We must strike the right balance between privacy and the rights of the public.
It is important that we know what the recommendations are.
Absolutely. Advice is being sought in that regard.
The EOCP and its follow-on, the NCIP, dealt with the issue of supply and I have been told that we have too much supply in some cases. That issue has been dealt with and there is competition in the area, which is good. I dealt with the question of uptake. On the out-of-hours provision, the pilot scheme we will look at is to draw on voluntary and statutory groups. We are open to ideas in that respect. An assessment was done by the HSE in 2007 into costs but the place of safety initiative is giving us information about the real demand out there. That is everything for the moment.
I welcome the fact that the reports on the deaths of Tracey Fay and David Foley are to be published. The family of Danny Talbot demonstrated outside the House today and there is also the case of Kim Donovan. It is scandalous that the relations of deceased young people taken into care should be put in a position where they feel they must demonstrate outside this House to know what went wrong. Will reports on the deaths of those two young people be published and when will we get reports on the others who died in care which I referenced earlier?
I congratulate the Minister of State and officials in the Department on the introduction of the new free child care scheme. In my document, A New Approach to Childcare, the most outstanding issue that I felt should be delivered was universal child care.
I have commented to the Minister of State on his taking responsibility for everything to do with children. There is an issue regarding child psychiatric services and the availability of counselling for children. I spoke last night in Athboy to members of the ICA on the issue of suicide. The bottom line in trying to prevent people dying from suicide is the early provision of adequate medical help. We have the fifth highest suicide rate in young men in the EU. In doing my own research, parents told me how doctors had said young people would be all right or would pull themselves together. This Government must work to bring down the level of suicide, particularly among young men.
Suicide rates for men are high around the world but our rate is very high and comes about because of a lack of services and access to good doctors. It is almost impossible to obtain access to a doctor who can identify the symptoms of depression or who is aware of the most modern way to treat this condition. I would like the Minister of State's office to be responsible for all matters involving children, including those relating to children incarcerated at St. Patrick's Institution.
A vote has just been called in the Dáil. Will the Minister of State respond briefly in respect of those important points.
I agree with Deputy Shatter's first point. One of the things that emerged from the Baby P case in the UK was that Lord Laming had the same difficulty in trying to find people who were adequately qualified to elicit information and ensure that it could be included, in publishable form, in a report. The HSE is trying to put in place a child death review panel in order that matters of this nature can be dealt with quickly.
Such a panel should be independent of the HSE.
Under our implementation plan, HIQA will have the right to review this if it deems such a course to be appropriate.
Senator Mary White's document was extremely valuable in the context of feeding into our response to this matter. I have been involved with the DETECT project in Dún Laoghaire, which is dedicated to the detection of early psychosis. That project is training GPs to recognise symptoms. DETECT has done extremely valuable and useful work and has produced documents to try to help teachers, and so on, to recognise symptoms. Another of the Ministers of State, Deputy Moloney, at the Department and I are working on the child in trying to push forward the work of the adolescent mental health teams. There is a synergy between the two areas for which Deputy Moloney and I are responsible.
I thank the Minister of State for his presentation and for the comprehensive replies he supplied in respect of the questions posed. I suspect history will show that his initiative in the areas of pre-school education is on a par with that of Donogh O'Malley. I wish the Minister of State well with that initiative. The joint committee will reconvene at 10.30 a.m. tomorrow for its quarterly meeting with the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, and the chief executive of the HSE.