Child Protection Services: Discussion

I welcome the delegates from the ISPCC. By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give to the joint committee. If they are directed by it to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person or persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. 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 studied the paper supplied. We ask the delegates for an introduction, following which members will put a series of questions.

Mr. Ashley Balbirnie

We started the paper with the comment that many words had been spoken since the publication of the Ryan and Murphy reports. We chose some words of the Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Barry Andrews, as our starting point. At the launch of the report of the commission of investigation into the Archdiocese of Dublin, he stated:

... our words will offer little solace to those who were left isolated and abused, if we do not resolve to improve our child protection practices today. That is surely the greatest service we can do for victims and society in general.

In the same paragraph he also said successive Governments had failed in their responsibilities as legislators to put in place a comprehensive child protection legislative framework.

Our objective in meeting the joint committee is to put the spotlight on what we have picked out as the key areas of child protection and welfare practices and to ask whether there is such a comprehensive child protection framework actually in place. With the Chairman's permission, my colleagues, Ms Mary Nicholson, our advocacy manager, and Ms Caroline O'Sullivan, our director of services, will alternate briefly in highlighting four key headings and the major points of the submission made to the committee. I will come back in to bring the submission to a conclusion.


Ms Mary Nicholson

We welcome the opportunity to attend this meeting. I will talk initially about the provision of 24-hour services. Representatives of the ISPCC appeared before the joint committee last year to talk about our campaign, during which we outlined that mental health problems and child protection difficulties did not arise only between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. They arise 24 hours a day, seven days a week. We outlined that services were simply not available and they are still not available. Staff in the statutory child protection services work from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m., Monday to Friday. Throughout the past year we have heard about a huge number of recommendations, implementation plans, promises and acknowledgements that there is a clear need for out-of-hours services to be provided for children and families. We know through our own services that there are a number of children who try to access support out of hours. Last year we received over 800,000 calls, of which 79% were received out of hours. In addition, in terms of child protection and welfare concerns, 80% of our referrals were made out of hours. We have heard through the media in recent weeks and months about the number of children in the care system who required an out-of-hours support service and, depending on where they were living in the country, whose needs could not be met because of the lack of available services. We know that Childline received 800,000 calls last year and the number is increasing year on year. On average, we receive 15,000 calls a week, of which we answer just over 10,000. There is, therefore, a huge demand on our services.

We constantly hear about budgets and that money is not available to do this or that, but the ISPCC runs its Childline service on a figure of between €3 million and €4 million a year. It is a nationwide, 24 hours a day, seven days a week service that is responding to children and young people, but we do so without Government funding. The reality is, given current circumstances, the drain on everybody's financial resources and the difficulties encountered in fund-raising, we will not be in a position to sustain the service.

In terms of what we are looking for, the need for out-of-hours services is obvious. We, therefore, urge the Government not to wait for more reports or implementation plans. We know what needs to be done and are not saying it needs to be done by a particular agency on its own. We must work together and those with statutory responsibility must take the lead. We must ensure agencies which are plugging the gap are adequately funded and that 24-hour services are made available as soon as possible.

We hear many promises being made and it is said there is very good legislation in place. The legislation to provide for vetting is a clear example, yet it has still not been published. Ms O'Sullivan will talk about that issue.

Ms Caroline O’Sullivan

The ISPCC, with numerous other organisations, has looked upon the vetting of individuals who work with children and vulnerable adults — the ISPCC work with children — as a very basic child protection measure. The joint committee which considered a constitutional amendment to incorporate the rights of children in the Constitution in its first interim report published in June 2008 recommended that legislation on this area be introduced. It is now some two years later and that legislation is still not in place. The heads of a Bill are currently being drafted and it should be presented to the Oireachtas in the near future but this process needs to be speeded up. Until such time as employers are mandated to vet their employees who work with children and vulnerable adults, children will continue to be at risk and at risk of individuals who seek to work with children and not for a good reason.

The ISPCC is well aware and cognisant of the fact that legislation is not a cure for everything. Such legislation is required and needs to be put in place but when it is in place we must recognise it will have an impact on those who will be given the task of following through on it. Such legislation will directly impact on the Garda vetting unit in Thurles which is dealing with a huge volume of applications. It has received more than 400 applications from ISPCC alone to date and the current waiting time for the processing of an application is anywhere between 12 and 16 weeks from the time the application is submitted to the time an organisation receives clearance for an individual or information that the person concerned is not suitable.

The delay in the processing of applications is having a very negative impact on organisations working with children across the country. ISPCC relies heavily on volunteers. The 405 applications submitted to the unit are in respect of volunteers we trained who are waiting to provide services to children, but we cannot and we will not put those individuals in contact with children until we know it is safe to do so.

Together with the introduction of such legislation, resources must be put in place to enable the Garda to deal with the number of such applications submitted. In our document we have given comparative analysis between the unit here and Disclosure Scotland, which we consider is a fair comparison when account is taken of population size and the demand being placed on the unit. Disclosure Scotland has a turnaround time of seven working days for the processing of an application but it has a staff of 300, while the vetting unit in Thurles has a staff of approximately 80. Therefore, Disclosure Scotland has three times the level of resources in the unit here. Therefore, legislation is required but, alongside its introduction, the necessary resources must be put in place to ensure such legislation will have an impact in terms of implementing safety measures for children in this country.

Ms Mary Nicholson

I apologise for our speedy pace but we have a good deal to say.

The Children First guidelines is the other key area we are examining today and people here are very aware that they are not yet on a statutory footing. Recommendations in this respect were made in the implementation plan of the Ryan report. The recent ombudsman's report outlined the inconsistent implementation of the guidelines, of which we would all be aware, which have been very much dependent on where a child lives and the service he or she would have received. There is very much a fire-fighting approach to child protection and welfare, which means that only the children at the very highest risk receive a service. It has been long established that preventive services are the way to reduce the high level of child protection and welfare difficulties children may face. The other children for whom a preventive service may work are left on extensive waiting lists because there are not resources in place to meet the needs of these children and young people. We know from our own services, Team Focus and Child Focus, that our waiting lists are increasing year on year — they are at an all-time high. We have a waiting list of more than 300 children and the HSE's waiting lists are more extensive than this. We also know that 38% of the calls that come through to Childline are not answered because the resources are not in place to met that need. The approach is that we respond to children when the risk is at the highest peak and there is the greatest need to do so. We need to examine the adoption of a more preventive approach to child protection and welfare.

New guidelines were established and developed in December, but they are not to be seen. The ISPCC firmly believes that until the Children First guidelines are placed on a statutory footing and that people are made culpable and take responsibility — such responsibility extends to individuals who work with children and young people and not only people who are funded by the State or who are agents of the State — children will remain at risk. We heard last year of the historical abuse of children. It rightly received much media attention but this abuse is ongoing today. Here we are again with reports, implementation plans and recommendations, all of which are very positive, but we firmly believe people know what needs to be done. Action is not being taken quickly enough. The other side of that is that all of this needs to be underpinned by a referendum. Until that happens, we will not be able to strengthen the child protection and welfare systems.

Ms Caroline O’Sullivan

The Joint Committee on the Constitution issued its final report in February this year. Those recommendations are hugely welcome. I believe it was the first time we had all-party consensus, the importance of which cannot be overstated.

Today, the Minister of State with responsibility for children announced that there were some legal stumbling blocks to moving forward towards a referendum. Whatever these stumbling blocks are — we do not have a very clear picture as yet of what exactly the issues are — they need to be overcome. We need to climb these blocks in order that we can put a referendum to the people to include children's rights in the Constitution.

The ISPCC campaigned as far back as 1989 and in our centenary charter, we spoke about the possibility of including children's rights in a referendum and we continue to work on this. More recently, the ISPCC joined forces with seven other national recognised organisations under the banner of Saving Childhood. We are doing a considerable amount of work to continue to put pressure on the Government to act on this information and on the recommended wording from the joint committee and to set a date for a referendum.

From our experience of working with children, the current situation is that children's rights are not being met. There are a number of areas in which children are being ignored. Children are living in poverty, not getting the services they require and not being listened to. The idea of listening to children is not valued in the sense that it should be. In many cases, Childline and its role in listening to children is not valued because why would one listen to children? We need to change that attitude and the Government to look at the importance of listening to children and acting in children's best interests.

We recognise that a referendum on the rights of the child, if passed, will not be a panacea for everything. We never suggested it would but it will recognise that we have let children down and that children have been abused in the past. It will also recognise that children are being abused now, including by their families. If we really believe in children, that they matter and that childhood matters, we must hold the referendum. It will not fix everything but it will certainly recognise that we, as a society and as a country, must do better.

We cannot accept that there is a legal stumbling block, that it will cost us more money or that more resources will be required to ensure children are safe. That is just not good enough. We have had hundreds of years of this. The Government and the people now have an opportunity.

An opinion poll commissioned by Saving Childhood showed that 62% of those polled would support the inclusion of children's rights in the Constitution with only 1% saying they would not. I could not see any Government being unhappy with a similar poll about its position. We really want the Government to act on this now.

Mr. Ashley Balbirnie

I will wrap up the formal part of our presentation. As members know, we started the presentation with the words of the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, that successive Governments failed in their responsibilities to put in place a comprehensive child protection legislative framework.

We believe it is only fair to ask the legislators of today some pertinent questions in the key areas we have picked out. Are there genuine 24-hour services available to children? Is there adequate legislation in place, as well as adequate resources, to ensure everybody working with children is suitably vetted? Are the national guidelines, as outlined in Children First, given statutory authority? Are the rights of children given the ultimate respect and authority that goes with a constitutional amendment? It is the opinion of the ISPCC that the four example areas we have used show that a comprehensive child protection legislative framework is still some distance away.

I thank the ISPCC for its presentation.

I welcome back the representatives of the ISPCC. The situation has not changed dramatically since the last time it was here and the story is the same. Has it done any research on the number of calls made?

Ms O'Sullivan's point with regard to listening to children presents a different take on our perception of Childline. If it relates to listening to children, it is both essential and worthwhile. Our assumption in respect of Childline is that it is a last resort used by children who are in danger. God knows we are not great when it comes to children but no matter how bad we are, I do not believe the 817,000 calls to which Ms O'Sullivan referred represent a direct correlation with a similar number of children who are in imminent danger. I accept that children are being abused but I do not believe such a high number are in danger. How many of these 817,000 calls are repeat calls? How many of them relate to children who have no one to whom they can speak and who, therefore, contact Childline? Has research which would provide a breakdown in respect of the total number of calls been carried out? It is important that such research be carried out. Are there some children who consider Childline as the only means by which they can communicate?

I am sure there are children who contact Childline and who have horrendous stories to tell. I am also sure that adults contact Childline to state they are suspicious about particular situations. Do those who work for Childline feel secure in advising these individuals to report their suspicions to local HSE officials, such as social workers? Are our guests aware of the guidelines to which such social workers operate when reports of this nature are made to them? Would a Childline operator feel secure in informing a caller that the issue he or she has raised is extremely serious and that it should be reported to local HSE officials? Do Childline operators inform people that no protection can be afforded to them if they make such reports?

I am conscious of the fact that this is my first time attending a meeting of this committee. I am also conscious of the fact that members of the committee have deferred to a non-member. I join Deputy Kathleen Lynch and others in welcoming our guests. I reiterate Fine Gael's acknowledgement of the great service they provide and the extremely valuable work they do on a round-the-clock basis. The importance of that work is all the more appreciated and apparent when one considers the dearth of activity on the part of the State in the context of providing 24-hour services.

The point I wish to make relates to vetting. I agree that the legislative framework, while absolutely essential, will not provide a complete solution and that a real issue arises in respect of the matter of delay. I recently had the opportunity to meet those involved in this area in Scotland. I was pleased that Ms O'Sullivan drew attention to the Scottish experience during her presentation. It is essential that resource deficiencies be dealt with in almost as urgent a manner as matters relating to the legislative framework.

There is a need to strike a balance between the assessment of risk, on the one hand, and the Constitution and the rights of the individual, on the other. Members of the committee should be optimistic and expect that the legislation relating to this matter which has been promised for some time will be published in the session leading up to Christmas. In that context, will our guests outline their views on the matter of so-called soft information? The agency in Thurles empowered to deal with the issue of vetting is dealing with recorded prosecutions and convictions. However, I wonder what vetting takes place where there may be a suspicion of criminal behaviour but no crime has been recorded or prosecution initiated. What is the view of the ISPCC on how this might be framed in the legislation?

There has been considerable media interest in the child protection laws in other jurisdictions, Britain in particular, and in introducing a so-called Megan's law. Where does the ISPCC stand on the issue?

I thank the ISPCC representatives for coming. We have dealt with the Ryan report and the issue of children in care and know that the system totally failed children. We should support the ISPCC in seeking adequate funding for its proposed 24-hour service. The call has been made time and again for the Government to support an out-of-hours Childline service. How many times must we call for this? The call has been made here for an inter-agency approach. The ISPCC knows how to provide such a service and has a format in place. Therefore, we should try to persuade the HSE to support it, particularly in the light of the Croke Park agreement. The debate we have had on the failure of services highlights the need for a 24-hour service. The first recommendation made in the Monageer report was that a backup service be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The excuse for not providing such a service — we have heard it given in this room — has always been that people are not willing to provide it or to be deployed in that way or union trouble. One of the achievements of the Croke Park agreement is that people can be redeployed more easily within the HSE.

Questions will be asked of our generation on this issue. We know children are being abused. When the abuse of foster children was first mentioned in this room, it was almost taboo to say children in State care were being abused. However, it was happening because of the lack of vetting and such children did not have their own social worker. Therefore, we need to put all of our force behind the call for such a service. This is the Joint Committee on Health and Children and we should be passionate about trying to get the HSE to commit to supporting a 24 hour a day, seven days a week service. I am acutely conscious of the need for such a service because of the work I have done on the issue of suicide. There is an obvious need for an out-of-hours service, to which people could resort and I see no reason we cannot provide it. If the ISPCC can provide a service for €3 million, surely we can allow its service be a template for a national inter-agency service.

I thank the ISPCC delegates for their presentation. It is sad that one third of the calls made each day are not answered. To follow up on some of the questions asked by Deputy Lynch, are there many requests made for face time by children who ring the service? Do they look for more than just a listening ear? Do they look for additional services? If so, what services do they require and to whom are they referred? What is the outcome to their requests?

On the vetting procedure used, it is astonishing that the ISPCC applied to have 405 individuals vetted. I am aware also that the HSE is looking to have vetting carried out, as are many other agencies within the system. Could the core system or a similar one be used as a legitimate vetting process to deal with the backlog? Sixteen weeks is a very long time, particularly when people are genuinely willing to volunteer. All of the boxes must be ticked in making services available to children and their safety is paramount. There needs to be protection for everybody involved in dealing with children. However, because of the resultant time lag allocating 80 staff to engage in vetting does not constitute an efficient use of resources. With that throughput there must be a risk that somebody will be missed by the system. I have concerns in this regard.

I thank the delegates for their presentation. We must all be concerned about the number of children who need services. There are almost 3,000 telephone calls a day, a frightening statistic. I agree with my colleagues and support the recommendations made in respect of the four areas discussed. I am interested in the question of the children who need support. Is there any method for the early identification of children, particularly in the home, who are being neglected? On early intervention and the provision of services, having regard to the constitutional rights of parents and children, has any research been undertaken in this regard?

I welcome the ISPCC delegates and compliment them on the great work done by the society. I refer to the recommendation made that there be a 24-hour service available to children. The vetting system seems to present a major problem, not just with regard to child care but also in other services. What is the current cost of the system and what would it cost to increase the number to 300 which the society believes would resolve the issue? Could other groups, apart from the Garda Síochána, be engaged in this work? Has any of the 200 extra social workers promised for some time been appointed? I realise the delegates may not have the answer to these questions.

The ISPCC provides a service without the benefit of Government funding. What funding has the society sought and what level would allow it to continue the service? It is clear that it is a refuge of last resort. I have no doubt that many of the telephone calls made lead to a resolution or help a child. We would all like to see the national guidelines placed on a statutory basis because otherwise they will never be implemented. Even if they are placed on a statutory basis, there will still be issues to be resolved.

I thank the ISPCC delegates for their presentation. In listening to it and reading the report prepared by Barnardos I am struck by a sense ofdéjà vu. Anybody who is familiar with child protection legislation and child care services can only ask how many more times will we have to hear all of this information before action is taken and priority given to child protection. It is clear there have been initiatives taken. The report on the implementation of the Ryan report is a very good document and was prepared by the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews. The problem is that resources are needed to implement it, as the time for analysis has passed.

I wish to ask the ISPCC and Barnardos the same question about the response they are receiving. Are child protection issues being prioritised by the HSE, the Department of Health and Children and the Minister of State in a way that allows the groups involved to do their jobs? Do the delegates believe such matters are being given greater priority? Is this evident in the funding and responses they are receiving? Are appropriate actions being taken? One of the best ways to show we are serious about this issue is to arrange for the holding of the referendum as soon as possible. I am worried about excuses and hope a date will be announced before too long. I am worried that the matter will be put on the long finger again.

From their experience, do the delegates believe the HSE, as constructed, can prioritise child care? It is clear from the analysis before us that such priority is needed. I would like the committee to support the call for greater priority to be given to the provision of resources. I strongly believe child protection issues are not at the top of the agenda within the HSE structure and the reasons for this might not seem so obvious when one reads about what has happened to children.

I have asked my questions on the basis of the analysis contained in the reports prepared by the ISPCC, Barnardos and the Ombudsman for Children. This matter has been analysed well, but a decision needs to be made on when political priority will be given to it. Who is going to do so? How will it happen? What role will this committee have in that regard in the light of the analysis presented today?

I also welcome the ISPCC presentation. As a voluntary body, I compliment the ISPCC on the work it has done to protect children. It has been to the fore and on the front line when other bodies have failed. It is frightening to think it receives 3,000 telephone calls from children each day. This unbelievable statistic highlights the concern and trouble encountered in a small country like Ireland. I wonder what happens to the children who take the time to ring the ISPCC but whose calls are not answered. Where do they go? What is the problem in that regard? Do their problems go away? Do these circumstances create more problems? I would like to ask about the ISPCC's analysis of the statistics. Can the delegates give us any information on the average age at which children start to ring the ISPCC? At what age do they tend to start opening their hearts to the society and explain their problems? It is important that we analyse these important statistics.

I wish to comment on the four ambitions outlined in the ISPCC presentation. It is essential that a 24-hour service is provided. As the ISPCC is operating in a voluntary capacity, it has to try to raise funds. There is an onus on the State to provide some funding. What costs would be entailed if the society's services were to be provided on a statutory basis? If the necessary finances and manpower were provided, would the ISPCC be able to handle such a statutory role? Although vetting is very important, we have to be careful when we fast-track anything in current circumstances. We have encountered problems with people who were not vetted. I would be worried about fast-tracking, but it needs to be done on a better or more professional basis. I suggest the national guidelines, Children First, should be accepted as a given.

I hope the constitutional amendment for which we are waiting will be taken when we come back in the fall. An Oireachtas committee has spent a great deal of time working on the proposed wording and a lot of expertise has been availed of. I have spoken to the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, who agrees that we have to get it right in order that we will not have to come back again. I hope the Constitution will be amended and that everything will be in place sooner rather than later.

The delegates are receiving strong support for what they are doing. I assure them that they are not just platitudes, that the committee wants to support the initiative in any way it can.

Following on from the scenario outlined by Senator Fitzgerald, to what extent has society moved ahead of the Legislature? Are the delegates experiencing the type of societal change that is necessary to give children a hearing and ensure they have the pre-eminent position to which they are entitled? I come from an era where the philosophy was that children should be seen and not heard. The same is true of many of my colleagues who are present. Is the liberation of children evident in the sense of having a priority they were not previously given?

Mr. Ashley Balbirnie

There were a lot of questions. We will try to get through them as best we can. I will start with one or two of the broader issues and the specifics of Childline such as the type of calls to it. I will then pause for breath and kick some of the other questions elsewhere.

To start with the Chairman's broad point, there are definite changes taking place. We are aware of two changes primarily, first, that children are much more conscious of their right to communicate in some shape or form. That is certainly an issue. Second, there are many more means for them to communicate. We have spoken a lot about the telephone service within Childline but the fastest growing area within the service we offer is our on-line service, namely, children contacting us by means of computers or texting. For whatever reason such children do not wish to talk or meet a person but are happy to deal with the service in such a way. Thousands of children contact us in that way. The situation is changing every day.

Senator Fitzgerald inquired whether the existing set up and the relationship with the HSE as the major service provider is adequate and correct in this area. There is no question but that massive issues arise. All of us who deal with the Health Service Executive on a daily basis say consistently that the individuals working in the HSE are fantastic but the structure within which they labour and the emphasis given to child protection issues is not right in terms of allowing them to do the job. My associate, Ms Norah Gibbons who is present and will speak shortly made some pertinent remarks in that regard over the weekend. Barnardos and the ISPCC take a similar view. We have all tried to work with the system but it is clear that it is not working and is not protecting children in the way it should.

In terms of more specific answers on Childline and the number of calls we take, the two questions we are probably asked most often is how many are repeat calls, how many are prank calls and how many calls are of a life-threatening or dangerous nature. I cannot say how many calls are repeat calls because there is absolute confidentiality in terms of the telephone numbers. We never see the number and we never know exactly where the callers are from. I cannot give a definitive answer. We produce annual statistics which break down clearly the exact number of calls we receive, the type of calls and what issues are dealt with. We would be delighted to make the information available to anyone on the committee.

The main point that was probably being made is that the single biggest number of calls still relate to what we nicely call "everyday issues", that is, not life threatening issues. They are not to do with anything really terrible or frightening happening within a child's home. When one says that people immediately relax and think that is not so bad, that it is a case of children ringing up to chat. It is worse in some respects in that for whatever reason the children in question have no one to talk to about the everyday issues. The best statistic I use to get the point across is the 600 calls Childline took on Christmas Day. We received 1,000 calls. We could not answer 1,000 calls, we could only answer 600. I do not know what happened to the 400 calls we could not answer but we spoke to 600 children on Christmas Day. These were children who thought Christmas Day would be better and that things would change. Is it good that these are not life threatening? I suppose it is in one context, but in a way, it is even more scary that there are so many children out there who have nobody to whom they can talk and believe Childline is their only refuge.

Deputy Reilly asked if we had sought funding. We certainly have done so and made a presentation last year to the Minister of State with responsibility for children to help us answer the 40% of calls we were not answering. We believed this could be achieved for around €1 million to €2 million per annum and were willing to raise half of that funding ourselves if the Department would match it, but there was a resounding "No" to this. It surprises many that Childline effectively receives no statutory funding whatsoever for a service for which there is massive demand. Do not start me on that one.

Ms Caroline O’Sullivan

Mr. Balbirnie is correct to state the majority of calls are related to everyday life issues. However, around 13% of calls come from children who are in distress about abuse and violence. Some 13% per cent of 500,000 calls is a hell of a lot of children. We do not offer these children advice. Childline is not an advice providing service but rather a listening service. That is what we set ourselves up to be and that is exactly what we do. We do not give advice because when a child has an issue, the immediate responses from an adult are, "What you should do is..." or "When I was your age, I had other things to be worried about," "Why are you bothering me with that?", "Have you not got other issues to think about?" and so on. That advice automatically minimises the child's concern.

Childline listens to the child, values him or her and respects that the child's concern is a real concern and should not be minimised. All too often, children are very aware of what is going in their family homes. They are not blind to the concerns facing their parents such as the fact that their parents are drinking too much or fighting too much. Children are very aware of this and need somebody to listen and believe this is having an impact on them. The biggest thing that Childline does is that it believes children. We often get asked how many children are messing. No child calls in to mess. Children can call us to chat. They could tell us about their day at school. Some children will ring us the day after their communion to tell us how they got on, because nobody else seemed to care. Some children will tell us about the dress that they really wanted to get for their birthday, but even though they had been promised it for the previous 12 months, it did not show up and they are upset about it; therefore, they need to talk to someone. People might think that is not important as it is only a dress and it is only a birthday, but it is very important to children and they need to be valued. It can go from that to the very difficult situation where children are being sexually, physically and emotionally abused by their parents. All we can do in such instances is listen.

If children are ready for such information to be passed on — we will never push them — we let them know that if they tell us who they are or where they live and we will feel that they are at risk, then we will pass that on to the HSE. We have no option but to pass the information on to the HSE because that is the route it needs to go and the HSE has powers to intervene. The reality is that there is no consistency across the country; therefore, a referral to the HSE in the mid-west can be completely different from the outcome from a referral to the HSE in the east, the south east or the south. What is accepted as a referral in one HSE area is not accepted in another region. That is why the Children First guidelines must be put in place.

We need consistency and the guidelines to be followed. The new guidelines published on the Minister of State's website are very good and have been expanded to include more areas of responsibility, while clearly outlining the levels of that responsibility. They are very good guidelines, but unless they are placed on a statutory footing, we will end up again in the same place in another five or six years.

Is there a model that works well and that could be adapted and implemented across the country by the HSE? While I acknowledge there also are variations within regions, there must be a good model that works.

Ms Caroline O’Sullivan

The model is to follow what the Children First guidelines tell us. They are very good in respect of recognising, responding to and dealing with children who are at risk. In addition, the same is true in respect of those who have welfare issues and may not be at crisis level but who need support and action in this regard. The model we must adopt is that of preventive services. What is invested in such services now will save the Exchequer millions in years to come. There is a lack of acknowledgement about the importance of such preventive services, the work being done by charities and organisations nationwide and of the role of volunteers. A volunteer may work with a child for six months by meeting him or her once a week for one hour. The impact of so doing and what it can do for that child in his or her future life is immeasurable and can offer a great deal.

We do refer to the HSE and other agencies. Some children call us for four or five years before they identify themselves because they are so worried and concerned. Some children will identify themselves to us immediately but it all depends on the individual child's case. However, if we consider a child to be at risk, we always have followed the Children First guidelines. We have found that so doing has not had a major impact on our resources. We simply do what is right for children and, therefore, believe it must be put on this footing.

Mr. Ashley Balbirnie

Before turning to Ms Nicholson to address some of the issues pertaining to vetting, soft information and Megan's law, I will make one point on the vetting unit. Nothing we say today should be taken as a criticism of the Garda vetting unit which does a superb job given the resources available to it. In response to Deputy Reilly, I do not know exactly what would be required to bring up the level of resources there. One should bear in mind that most people working in the Garda vetting unit which I visited only a couple of weeks ago are not gardaí. Obviously, they provide a much more administrative function and, consequently, the costs associated with tripling the unit in size, which we consider to be necessary, may not be prohibitive from that point of view. However, I reiterate it is doing an excellent job given the resources available to it.

Ms Mary Nicholson

To reiterate, the ISPCC echoes Senator Fitzgerald's thoughts that we have a massive sense ofdéjà vu. We appeared before the joint committee last year and have been campaigning for the referendum since 1989. Although we have talked about Children First, Garda vetting and legislative and resourcing changes, matters still seem to be static. The question was asked as to what has changed because there appears to be a greater awareness of child protection and welfare issues. What has changed is that we have learned what can happen unless we listen to children. The horrific Murphy and Ryan reports outlined clearly that we were not listening to children and also showed the consequences of not so doing. We do not want to be obliged to carry out another Murphy or Ryan report in 20 years’ time because we did not listen to the children of the present.

As for vetting and the issue of soft information, the ISPCC considers soft information to be absolutely and unquestionably imperative in respect of protecting children, young people and vulnerable adults. Obviously, there are constitutional challenges in this regard and the ISPCC always has maintained that while legislation may be one thing, constitutional change would be needed to be able to share soft information adequately. We frequently encounter people who have concerns about soft information. These pertain to the ability of Joe Bloggs down the road to make a false allegation about someone, leading to such information being shared and that person's reputation being tarnished. This is somewhat misleading because obviously that is not the type of system for which we advocate. However, I refer to the example of Ian Huntley in the horrific Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman story. At the time a huge amount of soft information was known by various different boroughs but there was no ability to share such information and members are aware of the tragic consequences.

Our point is that, undoubtedly, soft information is required to better protect children. However, it must be backed up by a robust system that is careful about how it shares information and what it is doing. There must be clear guidelines on how this is done. Unfortunately, when one has something like this, the primary aim of which is protecting the welfare of children, people who may not have committed a particular crime will sometimes be at the receiving end of an allegation. However, for the greater good, in the majority of cases we must ensure children are better protected. That must be the priority.

In terms of addressing the constitutional element and ensuring individuals are not wrongly accused, we need robust, clear systems. We were asked whether gardaí should be the people responsible, given the backlog. Disclosure Scotland, an independent agency, is the group responsible in Scotland, not the police force. That system, which is on a legislative basis, seems to work well. As Mr. Balbirnie stated, the Garda does a fine job. If adequately resourced, there is nothing to say it could not be the group responsible.

Megan's Law on the making of the sex offenders register publicly available is surrounded by a significant level of controversy. This question evokes much emotion. In the ISPCC's opinion, the system as a whole, including the sharing of soft information, vetting and the management and treatment of sex offenders, must be addressed. We need comprehensive systems. For example, the current notification system is not adequate. People released from prison are on the sex offenders register for the period determined by the courts rather than with regard to the level of risk they pose. Issues like risk assessment must be addressed. We appreciate that offenders must live somewhere, but if they are living in a community, we must ensure they are adequately managed. Sometimes, this may mean that certain individuals need to know. For example, a mother may need to know if her new partner is a sex offender. However, the system needs to be controlled. The publicly available sex offenders register in America has been shown not to work, as it has not reduced the number of children who have become victims of such crimes. One reason is that the majority of sex abuse, as we all know, occurs within the family home; therefore, the system of publicly identifying sex offenders does not necessarily work. A publicly available list, something to which one could log on to find out who is a sex offender, is probably not the way to go. We need a more comprehensive system of managing and treating sex offenders.

We have covered matters comprehensively and I thank our guests for their presentation. I suspect we will continue to engage with them. The committee will discuss the presentation at a later stage and make a number of recommendations to the Department of Health and Children. Before our guests arrived, as part of our housekeeping the committee decided to establish a sub-committee on children's welfare to try to give the matter additional focus in the Houses. We will probably be in consultation with the ISPCC and Barnardos in this regard. I again thank our guests for their presentation and the committee will be in touch with them quickly.

Sitting suspended at 4.13 p.m. and resumed at 4.14 p.m.

I welcome Mr. Fergus Finlay, Ms Norah Gibbons and Ms Catherine Joyce. I will dispense with the notification of privilege, as our guests were present in the Visitors Gallery while I was outlining it to the previous group. We will proceed with their presentation as the submission has been circulated and members have had an opportunity to study it. Perhaps our guests will outline the executive summary, after which we will go to members for a series of questions.

Mr. Fergus Finlay

My colleague, Ms Gibbons, will go into the detail of some of the points we wish to make. I will give the introduction. We do not disagree with anything presented to the committee by the ISPCC. We fully support everything the ISPCC has stated and the calls it has made. Part of what we want to do is to amplify the message.

When the Taoiseach spoke in the Dáil after the publication of the Ryan report, he said the only appropriate response to it was to make Ireland a model of best practice where children are concerned. In the period since he spoke in the Dáil, Daniel McAnaspie has been killed and Danny Talbot has died. We have had reports into other tragic deaths and the discovery that 183 children died either in the direct care of the State or while the State was intimately involved in concerns about them. We are not an awful lot closer to being a model of best practice than we were in the aftermath of the Ryan report. None of the 183 children who died and none of the children who have been abused since then was the subject of the Ryan report. They may be the subject of another Ryan report in ten years' time and that would be a real tragedy because it would establish that we have learned not a lot and that we have not moved on.

I entirely agree with the point made by Ms Norah Gibbons in a speech last weekend. The time has come to examine whether the HSE is fit for purpose in terms of child protection. Issues have come to light recently suggesting it is not. I echo the comments of Mr. Ashley Balbirnie when he said there are great people in the area but the leadership has been given no authority to do the job. As a result, there is a complete lack of clear national standards, the lack of a clear assessment model and no national agreement on the thresholds we as a nation want to set in terms of protecting our children. The rest of our submission makes clear there is a major gap between the lip-service paid to policy and to implementation where it really matters. Statutory and non-statutory front-line services continue to struggle with inadequate resources, guidance and direction. It remains unclear, even at this stage, who carries ultimate political responsibility and accountability for vulnerable children and families. I was horrified to discover that at a recent meeting of the board of the HSE, the subject of vulnerable children and families was an agenda item for the first time in the five-year history of the board. While that is going on, organisations such as Barnardos, the ISPCC and many other voluntary organisations working in the field encounter more children at risk, more families under stress and more communities coping with disadvantage. We encounter fear, hunger, lice and dirt in children and children at significant risk of neglect.

Our annual review, published recently, gives an indication of the issues facing children who come into our targeted services. Barnardos runs targeted services in approximately 40 projects throughout the country. Some 450 people work at that in Barnardos and the needs of the children range from inadequate education and training to significant problems in behaviour and social participation. One third of the cases we encounter feature damage to physical and psychological health and in nearly half of the cases, family and social relationships are under considerable pressure. That is a sample of approximately 2,000 children from which we took the breakdown. I am not saying this is a representative sample of children throughout Ireland but it is a sample of children living in disadvantage. We know that being born into poverty is not a recipe for an unhappy life but a child born into poverty in difficult family circumstances has a hill to climb and if those circumstances are compounded by disadvantage in the community, that hill becomes Mount Everest. If one of our project leaders addresses a child protection concern to the statutory body based on a child coming to the project consistently hungry, dirty and lice ridden and expresses great concern about the neglect suffered by the child and the stress and vulnerability in the family, it is a recipe for disaster if the statutory body tells the project leader to come back when it gets serious because it does not have the resources to deal with it at the time. It is an absolute guarantee that things will get worse for that child and in that family. This has happened. I would not state it happens consistently but it has happened. It happens because the system is extraordinarily overstretched.

An earlier question was on whether the 200 promised social workers have been appointed. The first part of the answer to that question is that the number of social workers promised is 270. We have been told they have been recruited but we have not seen any on the ground. There is a growing suspicion throughout the sector that when they come on stream it will be to fill existing vacancies and for what is called "backfilling". We do not believe there will be 200 additional social workers. Even if there were, it would bring us to only approximately half the level per head of population in the United Kingdom. The system is under tremendous strain and if anything it has got worse rather than better. The need is growing while the capacity of the system to respond to it is diminishing and the stresses, strains and crises the system has to deal with every day have become more acute. Ms Gibbons will speak about the specifics we want to recommend.

Ms Norah Gibbons

I thank the committee members for having us here today. I listened very carefully to what the ISPCC told the committee and will try not to repeat anything. I am also aware of the questions asked and the answers given. I will deal with one or two issues that did not arise. When we speak about children aged from birth to 18 years we are speaking about one quarter of our population, which is a huge number of our citizens, and the question was posed as to what the system would look like if it was working.

We are very slow to change our legislation. A Deputy asked whether legislation keeps up with what happens and the answer is that it does not. Our Act dates from 1908. In 1990, when I returned from the United Kingdom where I was a statutory social worker, I was horrified to find we were still working with the 1908 Act while the UK had had five or six significant shifts and changes in legislation. The Child Care Act 1991 did not come into being until 1994 and we are still there. That was many years ago; it is 20 years since we have had any legislative change but society has seen much change.

We need constitutional change which requires leadership and we want to see the committee and the political parties playing a real role in this. We need proper legislation that takes into account the issues that arise and about which we did not know previously. We need a vision of what the country will offer children and families. We had one from 2000 to 2010 in our children's strategy. We are more than halfway through 2010 but we have not yet looked at what our strategy will be for the next two to three years, much less ten. We have not been invited to any meeting to discuss what we need to do now and where we will go in the next ten years. We need leadership at all levels which is transparent and accountable in order that when questions are asked, someone can answer them and provide data in a way that makes sense to the public and in order that someone is accountable for what is being done. Beneath this we need services.

Mr. Finlay spoke about the services we provide which are in the area of prevention and early intervention. This is what most voluntary organisations do. We work very closely with our colleagues in the HSE to provide these services. We need services that are universal for all children and also need services that are very clearly targeted at children in difficulty. When any research on Irish children is carried out, they state they are very happy and enjoy their relationships with parents and friends; therefore, there are good luck stories. The difficulty arises for children who need help and support. We need prevention and early intervention services.

Someone asked what model we might use. There are a number of very good models but, in particular, there is what is described as the differential response model. That is the technical term for it but it is very simple. All it means is that when the ISPCC, Barnardos, a child or a parent makes a concern known to the HSE, we are not in the situation described by Mr. Finlay in which we are all waiting for it to get worse, but that we consider the needs of the child or family at that point and ask what we can do to prevent its becoming worse. That is where the voluntary and community organisations come into play. Sometimes all that is required is a little support for families, parents or single parents in trouble. Sometimes what is needed is a good preschool for a child. When I came back to Ireland, I wondered how I could do social work in this country because if I was concerned about a two year old, I would not have a nursery place or another such place to help with that child. A social worker on his or her own is limited in what he or she can do. We need the statutory and voluntary sectors to work together.

There must be some basic understanding. What standards do we want for children in this country? What is good enough for them in terms of care and protection? We need to work on this. I emphasise that we need to assess what is happening for families and intervene early.

More than 5,500 children are in the care system. People ask whether we can set a standard in this regard. Is that too many children or too few? The correct question is whether the right children are in care. Are there children in care who should not be? Some children might have been able to go home had they had social workers or people to work with their families or had their care plans been followed through. When Mr. Finlay spoke of the lack of social workers, that is what he meant. Children come into care and are moved from placement to placement because there are no social workers to support their families. A child may not see its family regularly enough or there may be no one to work with the mother or father to help rehabilitate the child, if that is what is in the child's best interests.

I wanted to put this in the broadest terms to give an overall picture of the system. Whether one looks from the top down or the bottom up, one comes up with the same requirements: leadership, management and services. We need the services at all levels, including the ones we run, to be regulated and inspected. The work of HIQA has made clear what is going wrong for children in services. When we see a report from HIQA saying a child in foster care who complained of abuse was put back into that foster home without a proper investigation, we really must query what we are doing for our children.

We need to put Children First on a statutory basis. This has been reviewed since 2004. The ISPCC told the committee that the updated version of the Children First guidelines looked good. They were up on the website of the Office of the Minister for Children for about three weeks, but they were taken down and no one is sure of their status now. We are still working with the old guidelines, although we know from the Ombudsman that these were not consistently implemented and were ignored. Putting them on a proper basis is one aspect of the legislative framework that is required.

With regard to the voice of the child, we know about the silence of the past. The decisions that we adults make about children affect their lives, now and in the future. If the HSE tries to place a child in care and the parents say "No," that is fine, but when it goes to court, few such children have an independent guardian to tell the court what is in the child's best interests and what the child would say if he or she were there. We have a guardianad litem service, provided for by Members of the Dáil in the 1991 Act — it was our solicitors who had it put in — but again, it is not consistently implemented throughout the country. On paper, all our policies look good. I can only agree with members that the issue is implementation.

I agree that vetting needs to be on a statutory basis and that we need soft information, but this must be established properly under the remit of the Garda unit run by Superintendent Pat Burke. That would be excellent for us. There must be confidence in the system. A person must believe that if the system is notified of something about him or her that is not a conviction, it will be properly dealt with and due process will be followed. As members are probably aware, there is no statutory basis at all for the vetting that is done now.

We need therapeutic services. The discovery that children have been abused is not enough. There must be services available for those children, both those offended against and those who offend, of which there are a large number. There are a significant number who in their adolescent years offend with regard to child sexual abuse and there must be services for them. Members will remember the Ferns Report. Five committees were set up as a result, each of which made a report. Nothing happened. I was pleased to hear today that two of these, one dealing with services for children as victims, the other with services for children who were offenders or alleged perpetrators, have finally been pulled back up after two years. Some finance is due to go into that area, which we welcome.

I spoke about front-line services which must be of the 24-7 kind. We need to listen to children at all times of the day and night. We need statutory services to be in place at night for children who get into difficulties because such services are the only ones that can take children into care. I reiterate that gardaí do not want to be out-of-hours social workers. That is not their qualification. One needs gardaí with one if, as a social worker, one has to go into a very difficult situation to remove a child but, as gardaí will very quickly point out, they, too, need social workers with them.

There is protection for people who report to the HSE provided they make that report in good faith. That legislation was introduced in the late 1990s in response to the concerns people have. We have always believed in reporting concerns to the HSE. We agree they do not all get assessed in the way we would like to see happen but that is not a good reason not to make a report. It is very important the system is made aware of how difficult life can be for children.

As a member of the Ryan commission and having listened to more than 800 adults who were raised in care, there is another point I would make about children who come into care. Every child in care needs to have an independent person present for him or her, a social worker or some other person. When children leave care, they need to get statutory after care from the State for at least a number of years. We all provide this for our own children without any questions, and so we should. We might argue they do not grow up now until they are 92 or some such figure. However, how is it that we can take children into care and then turn them out aged 16 or 18 years, saying to them to go fend for themselves? We have spoken to members of this committee and others about the need for after care to be put on a statutory basis so that there can be no question about young people's entitlements when they leave care. Sadly, many of the children who have died did so in after care. Some died very quickly after having turned 18 years of age. It is not good enough. We know now we cannot say we did not know. That can never again be our defence.

Another group of children about whom we are concerned are separated children who come into the State without a parent or guardian. There was a great deal of confusion about what should happen to them. They are children aged under 18 years and we have a 1991 Child Care Act. We need to take them into care and give them what we give to all children, without discriminating against them in any shape or form. We must make them subject to our after care help and provide for them. The numbers in question are quite small but we still move these children around the country as soon as they become 18, perhaps completely disrupting the education they are undertaking, and ask them to go off in their last year of the leaving certificate, pick up and do the exam somewhere else.

Where children are concerned there is no place for light touch regulation. HIQA must do its job and inspect all the services offered. We support this and the resourcing of that system in order that everyone — the members as elected representatives and all of us in the public domain — will know that the children for whom we are providing will have care that is of a sufficient standard, that has been laid down and is being followed.

I thank the representatives from Barnardos for attending. As always and just like their last presentation, this was very enlightening and different. I have come from listening to four days of debate on local radio about a young lad in the care of the HSE in Cork. He was placed in a bedsit and left there for five days. The bill was paid in advance. However, there was disruption and he was removed from the accommodation. The money paid to keep him there for five days was returned to him. He was later found dead as the result of a drug overdose. Naturally, his parents were extraordinarily upset and the incident unleashed a debate about whose fault it was, if parental responsibility was an issue, if the HSE was responsible and whether a bedsit was the place in which to accommodate a young troubled person. What is the opinion of Barnardos? The provision of resources presents a difficulty.

I asked the ISPCC a question about reporting. I am surprised to hear Ms Gibbons say there is protection for those who report cases, as that is not my experience. I know of someone who, in good faith, made a report to the then Southern Health Board, only to find the father of the children concerned at their door that night. The social worker had told him who had made the report. As often happens, the social worker concerned was promoted. If there is protection available, people should be made aware of it, as, in general, neighbours have a very good feel for what is happening to children in their community.

I have dealt with three cases recently and the impression I have is that when a member of a family wants to become involved with a child who needs protection or care, is determined to ensure the child will stay within the family complex and is a good person who can provide the necessary care that we expect our children to receive, it seems those who are officially responsible become very defensive of the system. The person concerned has an opinion on how the child in question should be cared for and as a result those who run the system become defensive and decide that it will not happen at all costs. I am not certain from where that attitude comes. They may consider it an attack on them or the system instead of seeking co-operation between the family, the community and the social care provider. I would like to know what is the opinion of the delegates on children being kept in bedsits and defending the system when there is no need to be defensive.

What has been the effect of the latest round of cuts on the organisation or others with which it is familiar? I am trying to ask questions I did not ask of the ISPCC.

I join colleagues in extending a welcome to the representatives of Barnardos. I admire the organisation's campaigning zeal and the leadership positions it has taken in recent times. In essence, it casts a reflection on what we are doing as legislators in the Houses. I hope the committee could see its way to leading the charge for change, in terms of the position of children, in the area of resources, services, legislative change and constitutional change. It is our duty to do this. We have the power, as elected representatives, to change; not only is it our entitlement but it is our duty.

I am very concerned about what I heard this afternoon and was very concerned about what I heard the Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Barry Andrews, say this morning in that I perceive a setback on the matter of the forthcoming referendum. In February of this year this committee's sister committee agreed the publication of a wording to change Article 42 of the Constitution to the effect that children and their welfare be regarded as the primary consideration over a wide range of circumstances. It is my belief we need that referendum as a matter of urgency. That was highlighted by the comments of Ms Gibbons.

It appears that there is more than the date of the referendum at issue. It appears, not only from reading between the lines but reading the lines from Government sources, that there does not appear to be agreement on the matter of the wording. That is a source of serious concern to me.

As we are in the last week of July it is unlikely there will be committee meetings or hearings during August or early September but I ask the Chairman, as cathaoirleach of this important health committee, to represent the members of this committee by calling on the Government this evening to clarify urgently the matter of the wording of the referendum because it appears there is some equivocation, which did not appear to be the case on the publication of the wording last February. It is incumbent on us as a health committee to ensure we have a public information campaign on the wording and what is at issue, and that that campaign would get under way with a view to having a date for the referendum in the early autumn.

I have one question for the Barnardos representatives. We read recently with sadness and despair the contents of HIQA's foster care report. We have seen also the frustration expressed in the most recent report of the Ombudsman, Emily O'Reilly, when dealing with Health Service Executive matters pertaining to children and, perhaps more sharply, the frustration of the Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan, in her latest report.

We have a lack of accountability in the area of vulnerable children. I hope that we, as legislators, would pledge our assistance to groups like Barnardos in the area of resources, services and legislative change. Barnardos is an advocacy group. We are not. We have the power, and it is because we have the power that we have invited advocacy groups to engage with us. I hope that engagement could be positive and that we could set a date upon which we can revert back to Barnardos, and the ISPCC, with what we have done in response to the submissions made this afternoon.

I read Ms Gibbons's comments at the weekend in which she posed the question — is the HSE fit for purpose? I assume her answer is "No", and on the basis of that assumption I ask her to outline what she sees as the replacement framework that might respond in a positive way to the vulnerable position and neglect of children in society during the years.

I was pleased to hear the recent comment of Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, that he would appoint an outside expert to become the national director of the child care services but I am not sure if that is still on the agenda. As a legislator, my concern is that ground in the area of children's rights and their position appears to be shifting on a regular basis. The most alarming aspect is in the context of the doubt over a referendum on children's rights. I repeat my call to the Chairman that he, on behalf of members of this committee, would write to the Taoiseach, before the close of business this evening, stating that we wish this matter to be clarified as one of urgency.

I thank the delegates for their presentation. Matters of grave concern have been raised. I read an article on an interview with Professor Drumm last week during which he said that many thousands of people were operating at an administrative level within the HSE who had no role. I have been fairly consistent in raising the issue concerning the 120 public health nurse positions that are currently vacant and cannot be filled because of the embargo on staff recruitment. I know that the position of social workers is slightly different. Would there be any benefit to be gained from arranging for a social worker to oversee a group of professionals or people with competencies and skills who would be able to deal with the child care issues? There are two aspects in my approach to this matter. I read through the Children First guidelines. I note they state:

The health board has overall responsibility for the assessment and management of child protection concerns...

A joint protocol has been agreed between the health boards and An Garda Síochána, whereby each organisation will notify the other of all reports of suspected child abuse which are made to them, and both are obliged to conduct a preliminary assessment/investigation in consultation with each other.

From my experience of having worked in the health service, I was impressed by the manner in which the Garda dealt with a case a number of years ago. Difficulties arose concerning a woman's child. The women had come here from another country and she was on an at-risk register, but the appropriate steps were taken and everything fell into place. The incident occurred on a Friday night. My colleagues in the maternity unit concerned had not seen a social worker being made available in such circumstances, but such was the profile of this case that the child social worker was available on that night.

Is there a role to be played by social workers in overseeing the care of children? Furthermore, do we have a sufficient number of social workers? Reference has been made to the provision of an additional 270 social workers, but I question if an additional 270 social workers have been provided. Those 270 social workers include social workers who are replacing colleagues on maternity leave, sick leave, those who have retired, been promoted or who have moved on. Is the allocation of 270 social workers a realistic number to deal with the potential 5,500 children in care? If there are children in care who do not need care and children who need care who are not getting care, should there be more streamlining or face to face interaction in how a needs assessment is carried out, on who carries it out, in ensuring there is a follow through on it and in regard to how the system works because we do not seem to have a streamlined one? With regard to those whose are tasked to ensure that a child gets the protection he or she needs, the bottom line is that there seems to be a disconnect in the system. I know of excellent people working in the HSE and I would not want a negative view to be taken of those people who work hard, often in frustrating circumstances, and do a good and proper job. I am aware of the effect the embargo on recruitment is having throughout the health service. I am not trying to be all things to all people. When Professor Drumm, the outgoing chairman of the HSE, can say he has thousands of administrative staff who are being paid who have no role in the system, I have to question this. Is there potential to retrain or to stream those people in another direction which could have responsibility? Surely we have the skills mix within that cohort that could meet the needs of children.

I thank Barnardos for the presentation which was very disturbing and upsetting. It was a damning presentation on the state of play of the services for children. A Government which presides over services so described should hang its head in shame, especially given the resources available during the Celtic tiger years.

Barnardos put the evidence before us. For example, Mr. Finlay said that the first time the item of child protection had been on the agenda of the board of the HSE was only recently. He said what is happening is a recipe for disaster and he quoted individual cases, the response to which, was potentially a recipe for disaster. He said the system was under tremendous strain and he gave us evidence of same and called for a whole range of actions.

Having listened to the debate on the Ryan report more than a year ago, one would not believe that would be the situation one year on. Instead of bemoaning it, we have a duty to act. As Deputy Flanagan said, the referendum is key. That is one issue but I would make a number of suggestions in regard to this committee. For example, I suggest the Minister be invited in to respond to today's two presentations. As he has not been here to talk about child care since October 2009, we need to invite him in to get a response. The HSE should also be invited in to respond to the very serious points made today. The committee probably needs a monthly report on action being taken on the implementati of the Ryan report because, in part, that is where the agenda is set out. It is a fairly comprehensive agenda of what needs to be done. Those are the issues we can address immediately.

We could ask for consultations on the new children's strategy to begin in order that some of the actions needed can be brought forward within that strategy. We would then have a new agenda of what needs to happen.

We had a debate on fostering in the Seanad a couple of months ago. There must be some reality between what Ministers tell us in the Dáil and Seanad and what is happening on the ground because the disparity between what I hear is being done and the reality on the ground is too great. We just received the fostering report. Ministers must call it like it is and tell us about the challenges they face, why some of this work is not being done and about the barriers they face, whether financial, which I assume many of them are, or otherwise.

The debates we have must get more real. That is why I would like the Minister to come in to respond to what has been said today. Let us have a real discussion about the services, the challenges the Government faces and what it can realistically do. Let us get a little bit more real about what will actually make a difference, what can be done and what the realistic timeframes are for the different issues.

We have been talking about some the legislation for a number of months, including the vetting legislation. What is the delay? Why has it not been brought forward? What is the delay in holding the referendum? Endless hours of legal work were done by the committee and a considerable amount of legal advice was received. How much more legal advice is necessary in order for it to be brought forward as a real option? If we could get the answers to some of those questions, we might see some action.

I welcome the representatives of Barnardos. It is very depressing to hear that nothing is changing and that what we have are reports coming out of ears telling us what needs to be done and reports about reports. Things are not being done. The question I asked on how many of the new 200 social workers had been appointed and were on the ground was kindly answered. Clearly, none has been.

Ms Gibbons more or less concurred with Fine Gael's position which has been outlined by me and Deputy Shatter who was the party's spokesperson on children prior to Deputy Flanagan, namely, that the HSE is not fit for purpose when it comes to the care of children. The record speaks for itself in that regard. If its previous record was not bad enough, its record since certain issues were highlighted speaks volumes. Very little has happened. There is a lack of inpatient facilities for children with psychiatric or psychological problems and outpatient services. Owing to the fact that previous legislation defined a child as being someone of 16 years or under and that the new Act defines a child as being someone up to the age of 18, children between the ages of 16 and 18 are in no man's land and cannot access services. Adult psychiatrists do not feel capable of dealing with these individuals, while child psychiatrists state they do not come within their remit. I am in full agreement that after-care services must be placed on a statutory footing. Action will not be taken unless this comes to pass.

Have our guests been involved in discussions regarding the type of agency they would like to see replace the HSE in the provision of care for children? Are there models they would like to see being incorporated in this regard? How would such an agency operate?

Ms Gibbons inquired about political responsibility. It must and should lie with the relevant Minister. If the Minister is answerable to a more senior Minister, the latter must also be held responsible. In this regard, I refer to the Minister of State with responsibility for children and the Minister for Health and Children.

I echo what Senator Fitzgerald stated. At each of our quarterly meetings with them the Minister for Health and Children and the HSE paint a picture that is at variance with reality. I have visited many hospitals and I am particularly aware of what happens at Beaumont Hospital, the Mater Hospital, Connolly Hospital Blanchardstown and Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. The reality in these hospitals does not reflect the picture painted by the Minister and the HSE. When one refers to specific problems in specific hospitals, one is read a list of the results relating to various other hospitals. Unless one is in possession of all the relevant facts, one cannot dispute what one is bieng told. I do not even know if bringing the Minister before the committee would have the desired effect. We could at least repeat the questions we posed in the past. However, so much money and time is spent on spin that I doubt whether we would receive straight answers. We have yet to be given such answers, about which I know the Chairman is also exasperated. However, that is the reality of what occurs at our quarterly meetings. If we needed someone to outline the reality in objective terms, our guests from Barnardos and the ISPCC have obliged us today.

My main concern is the make-up of an agency which might achieve what we all want to see achieved. It is clear the HSE is not capable of operating in this area, particularly as it has a culture of secrecy and defensiveness which seems to subsume every new appointee. Within six to eight months of joining the organisation people seem to be swallowed up by the culture to which I refer. I do not believe the HSE is capable of changing and I am of the view a new body to deal with child care must be established.

I am sure our guests will be happy that Deputy Reilly has bestowed sainthood upon their organisation.

Mr. Fergus Finlay

Canonisation would have done.

That could be dangerous.

Mr. Fergus Finlay

Perhaps beatification then.

The representatives of the ISPCC and Barnardos have returned to the committee as a result of the crisis in the provision of care for children. They have presented us with excellent recommendations and instead of waiting for the Minister or the HSE to take action, we must take such action ourselves. The committee should exert pressure by suggesting a timeline for the production of its recommendations which, of course, will be based on those made by the ISPCC and Barnardos. The committee should adopt a crisis approach to the matter and meet on a weekly basis to discuss it. We are as much to blame if we cannot deliver. We cannot just give out about the HSE and the Minister. We have a legal responsibility and must take action. We must make demands and criticise publicly if our demands are not met. Otherwise, it is a waste of time for us to come and sit here and a waste of time for those making presentations to us. We must be proactive on the issue of children. We can deliver if we put our minds together and adopt a crisis approach to the issue. Just like the Opposition, I am sick listening to the same thing all the time and nothing happening. With regard to calling for the Minister to attend the committee, we have had the Minister for Health and Children here and have only got perfunctory responses with which we are not happy. We cannot just leave the issue to the Department. This committee must raise the ante and we have the opportunity to do that now. These are my honest feelings as we sit here today.

I thank Senator White. Before I return to the delegates for a response to some of the matters raised, I would like to say I would be happy to convene a meeting next week to follow up on some of the issues raised here today because they require detailed consideration by the committee. The clerk suggests we could meet on Wednesday. I would be happy to facilitate that, given the crisis outlined by Members. I am sure we all want to respond speedily.

On the question of the referendum, we will write immediately to the Taoiseach and seek clarification on the matter. I am quite happy the Minister of State with responsibility for children will be happy to come before us at an early stage and we will check on his availability. If he is available for next week, we will extend an invitation to him to join us to follow up on the issues that have been raised here. I am conscious he is not here to put his case, but I am sure he would be able to list a number of significant achievements in the area of child welfare. It is certainly important to hear from him directly. Next week, we could also conclude the proposal made earlier to establish a sub-committee on children's welfare so that we can do as suggested by Senator White, Deputy Flanagan and others and play a more active role in this process.

I found all that Mr. Finlay said significant. In paragraph four of his presentation he said something that has also been alluded to by others:

The time has come to examine whether the HSE is fit for purpose in terms of child protection. Issues have come to light recently suggesting it is not ... The leadership in this area has been given no authority to do the job. As a result, there is a complete lack of clear national standards, the lack of a clear assessment model and no national agreement on the thresholds we as a nation want to set in terms of protecting our children.

Will Mr. Finlay elaborate on the issue of the leadership being given no authority? Perhaps he will also deal with the other issues raised or ask his colleagues to do so.

Mr. Fergus Finlay

I do not wish to personalise this. A very good assistant national director, Phil Garland, was appointed recently in the HSE with responsibility for child protection. He was appointed without a budget and without executive authority and has been plunged into a situation where, in a HSE that is structured on a basis where individual authority depends on the region in which one works and which one manages, he is expected to use some kind of moral guidance or authority to change the world overnight. He has never spoken to me about it, but I suspect he is finding it almost impossible to get his leadership job done without having any executive authority.

There is an even deeper issue which has been highlighted time and again. I was struck by the suggestion made by Senator Fitzgerald that the Minister be asked to appear in front of this committee, whom she then referred to as "he". In my respectful submission, the Minister is the Minister for Health and Children. There is a fundamental problem in that the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, who has worked really hard and carries the respect of a great many people in the sector in developing policy and plans cannot secure implementation of any of the measures he wants to take because visibly he has no authorityvis-à-vis the HSE. For example, when he asked the HSE to give him the number of children who had died in care, he was told it would take three months to produce it — this is a matter of public record. It took the intervention of the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health and Children to reduce this to a week — it may have been three weeks; I cannot remember. There is a huge structural problem of authority which has never been addressed. A Minister of State is responsible for policy and doing extremely hard work, but responsibility for implementation is vested elsewhere. Within the body vested with that responsibility there are people at the top who are working on a moral basis because they do not have executive authority. That is what we mean by leadership lacking authority.

It is lucky that Mr. Garland reports to somebody who has executive authority. Presumably, there is some organisational structure in place, that he is simply not floating in the ether within the HSE, with no clear lines of communication to those who can make definitive decisions.

Mr. Fergus Finlay

I would challenge anybody within or without the HSE to draw a line of authority from the HSE to a damaged child. I would challenge anybody to show——

That is not what we are talking about. On the point made by Mr. Finlay, we are talking about whether Mr. Garland has authority or whether he reports to somebody who has authority. I am here on a voyage of discovery with the delegation. I am assuming Mr. Garland reports to somebody who has executive authority.

Mr. Fergus Finlay

I understand he reports to a national director and that he has to implement measures through regional directors of operations who do not report to him, who do not necessarily always report to the person to whom he reports——

There is no integrated system in place under his direction.

Mr. Fergus Finlay

I think there are seven integrated systems in place within the HSE. That is part of the problem.

Equally, Mr. Finlay seems to be saying there is almost no point in having a Minister of State with responsibility for children if, as he suggests, he cannot have anything implemented. He has taken me up on my point that we ask the Minister of State to attend the committee. He is the person with responsibility for children, but Mr. Finlay has said he cannot have anything implemented. He is questioning theraison d’être of having a Minister of State with responsibility for children if nothing can be implemented.

Mr. Fergus Finlay

It is a matter of fact that the Minister of State with responsibility for children has done Trojan work in developing policy, but the gap between policy and implementation is getting wider by the day.

What we want is implementation.

Mr. Fergus Finlay

At this stage, yes.

The difficulty is we have had report after report. Everybody knows what needs to be done, but it is not happening.

Perhaps we can focus on some of the questions and then come to conclusions.

Will we have a private meeting after this session because we need to talk about the next meeting? I will be unable to attend next week, as I will be in another jurisdiction.

Let us not indulge in housekeeping matters now, rather let us address the broader issues before us. We will try to deal with questions and then have a private meeting.

Ms Norah Gibbons

I will deal with a number of the broader issues raised. I have spoken about the broad framework I would like to see in place which would include the showing of leadership by elected representatives and both Houses, strategy and management. The Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, has taken a very good decision on a framework by having a national director. This answers the questions about having an assistant national director. We ask the statutory services to intervene in families, in the attachment of children to their parents, and communities. That is a huge request. They deserve leadership to guide them by good principles set out in a good Act, albeit one that now needs to be overhauled. We need a national director for children.

I have said the Health Service Executive is not fit for purpose. If one were to ask, if I was starting again, whether I would start from here, I would say no, I would not. However, there would be some hope for the Health Service Executive if it had a national director reporting directly to the CEO and the board, who was not a general manager or a catch-all but who was experienced and qualified in the area he or she was being asked to manage, which is important. One cannot manage an ambulance service in the same way that one manages child and family services. I, therefore, urge the committee to ensure child welfare and protection services stay together, as they are not separate. They are like a wave coming onto the shore and it is a question of intervening early to make a difference.

There have not been discussions about what kind of an agency might work, but I know Mr. Eddie Molloy who might be known to some of those present and is an excellent management consultant is working again with the HSE on how it might organise child and family services. I am delighted to hear he is back.

As always, we are happy to be part of the debate and to engage in it. We do not often come with worked-out solutions, unless have had time to research an issue. The discussion is just starting on whether we keep on trying to fix a broken system or whether we should look at putting a new system in place knowing that all of the professionals would have to work together if we are to protect as many children as possible.

In response to a question asked by Deputy Lynch, it is a principle of the 1991 Act that we look first to keep children at risk at home, but we must put services in place to do this. The second principle is that we look at the extended family to offer care, provided there is protection for the child. We do not have to look for new models; there is a very good model in place, namely, family welfare conferences, at which one gets the family as a whole to sit down and work out what protection they are prepared to provide for the child, rather than looking outside. As Deputy Lynch said, the bottom line is that the child must be safe. There is no getting away from this. It is just not safe for some children to be with their families, including their extended families. We all recognise that there are no easy solutions. Children are in severe difficulty and some just cannot be together. What we must ensure is that when we seek to intervene, we do the right thing and not make things worse by our intervention.

We must have a discussion about whether having a national director reporting to the CEO would make a difference or if he or she would be burdened with many other tasks that they would not get around to discussing children in families for five years. A system that promotes and protects children's rights and welfare would seek to have this discussed at every meeting, not just once every five years. It has to be real. There are enough good people within the system.

I do not know what I would do with all of the people who do not have any jobs to do. This is one of the consequences of a lack of leadership in management that when we changed from the health board structure to the HSE that, as a nation and a Legislature, we did not deal with the issues that arose. It was a time of plenty and we compounded the issue. We have perhaps too many chiefs and not the right kind. We do not have enough people on the ground — public health nurses, social workers and child care workers, all important front-line staff. We need them and the voluntary and community sectors to work together to make the country work for children to keep as many of them as possible safe.

I do not know whether there is a specific question I have not answered, but I hope I have covered everything.

Mr. Fergus Finlay

There was a general question about how the cuts had affected the sector. While it is difficult to talk for the entire sector, every organisation about which we know has been affected. Approximately 60% of our funding comes from statutory sources, mostly from the HSE. This was cut by 4% to 5% last year and by a further 4% to 5% this year. Staff of Barnardos have agreed on two separate occasions to take voluntary pay cuts which has enabled us to keep our services going. To be perfectly honest, we would not be able to sustain a third round of cuts. I know of no other organisation in the sector that would be able to do so. There are many in the voluntary and community sector who are dreading the next budget. If there are to be further cuts, the work of prevention and early intervention will suffer even more. If that happens, the work of crisis intervention will become even more burdensome.

As I do not want to leave on a negative note, I would like to make one small suggestion. Deputy Flanagan spoke about the committee leading the charge. When the Dáil returns after the recess, I hope the referendum will be on the agenda and that those beginning to talk about unintended consequences will be developing solutions to the problems they are discovering. Apart from this agenda, the Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2009 is due to be discussed in the Dáil when it resumes. It represents a once in a lifetime opportunity to place aftercare services on a statutory basis. I ask the committee, when making recommendations, not to overlook this issue.

I thank the delegates for their presentation and congratulate them for the outstanding work they are doing. We look forward to engaging with them again in the future.

The joint committee went into private session at 5.15 p.m. and adjourned at 5.20 p.m. sine die.