I welcome the opportunity to discuss the recent publication of the report of the Ombudsman for Children entitled, Investigation into the Implementation of Children First: National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children, which guidelines were first published in September 1999. They are the over-arching national guidelines that apply to all individuals and agencies which come into contact with children. Their aim is to assist in the identification, investigation, assessment, reporting, treatment and management of child abuse. The Ombudsman for Children has acknowledged that Children First is by far the most comprehensive and far-reaching document on child protection and welfare in the history of the State. Since 1999 the guidelines have formed the basis for the many child protection guidelines and practices operated across a wide number of sectors, including education, sports, youth work, leisure, community and voluntary organisations.
The Ombudsman for Children's report identifies many of the implementation difficulties highlighted in previous reviews of the Children First guidelines. They include a comprehensive review conducted by my office and published in 2008. The report acknowledges that planned and substantial steps were taken to implement the Children First guidelines. The investigation finds that insufficient efforts were made by the HSE to drive forward implementation of the guidelines and identifies the failure of the former health boards to solve problems arising with Children First, including variable implementation. The report is also critical of the degree of inter-agency oversight and the role of the Office of the Minister of State with responsibility for Children and Youth Affairs in this regard. The adverse findings focus, in particular. on the period 2003 to 2007. The report recognises the advances made since 2008 and the potential of these initiatives to realise effective change in the area of child protection. This, in itself, should not give rise to complacency, as sustained action is required.
In response to the publication of the Ferns Report in October 2005 a national review of compliance with the Children First guidelines was conducted by my office in partnership with all relevant Departments. The key finding of the review, published in 2008, was that, in general, difficulties and variations in implementation of the guidelines arose as a result of local variation and infrastructural issues, rather than from fundamental difficulties with the guidelines themselves. I stated at the time that the issues of consistency in implementation and the development of standards should be given priority and I am determined to ensure this will be the case in practice.
The Children First guidelines have recently been revised by my office to take into account the findings of previous reviews. The revised guidelines were published on my office's website in December 2009. Some textual amendments have since been made, including a response to issues raised by the Ombudsman for Children in the report being discussed in the House today. Many of the broader recommendations made in the Ombudsman for Children's report align with the Government's implementation plan arising from the Ryan report and the reform efforts under way across the HSE's child protection services. The focus now has to be on sustained implementation, rather than further reviews, in order to ensure the systems for protecting children from harm are strengthened. The newly revised guidelines will be supported by a detailed and comprehensive implementation framework which will apply across all sectors. The framework will include particular emphasis on the need for robust implementation assurance systems, including, as appropriate, data analysis and reporting, spot checks, examination of case files, audit and complaints procedures. I will be bringing proposals to the Government shortly in this regard.
The implementation plan includes a number of specific recommendations relating to Children First, including the development of legislation to provide that all staff employed by the State and staff employed in agencies in receipt of Exchequer funding who work with or are in regular contact with children will have a duty to comply with the Children First guidelines; a duty to share relevant information in the best interests of the child; and a duty to co-operate with other relevant services. The implementation plan also includes commitments to ensure compliance with the Children First guidelines will be linked with all relevant inspection processes across the education, health and justice sectors. In addition, it commits to HIQA developing outcome-based standards for child protection services. I particularly welcome the role HIQA proposes to play in the future framework. The ultimate aim of all these endeavours and initiatives must always be to ensure the protection and well-being of those children who are being abused or are at risk of being abused.
I am aware that the discussions on child protection generate further discussion on the issue of mandatory reporting of abuse. The introduction of mandatory reporting has previously been considered by the Government which is not proposing to introduce any form of mandatory reporting at this time. The 2009 report of the special rapporteur on child protection, Mr. Geoffrey Shannon, advised against the introduction of mandatory reporting of child abuse on a legislative basis, citing international evidence which suggested mandatory reporting only served to overload child protection systems with high volumes of reports which often resulted in no commensurate increase in the number of substantiated cases. I am in agreement with this view.
Recent reviews of the Children First guidelines have found them to be robust and appropriate. I am satisfied that the commitment in the Ryan report implementation plan in relation to the development of legislation to introduce a duty to comply with the guidelines is seen as the most effective way to ensure people will fulfil their obligations to protect children from abuse.
Last year the Government accepted in full the recommendations made in the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse which revealed harrowing details of abuses perpetrated on children who had been placed by the State in residential institutions run by religious orders. I was asked by the Taoiseach to prepare an implementation plan, drawing on experience from all relevant Departments and public bodies. The plan is a very comprehensive response to Mr. Justice Ryan's recommendations. It contains a total of 99 action points to address each of the commission's 20 recommendations. I am chairing a high level group to monitor implementation of the plan. The group includes representatives from my office, the HSE, HIQA, the Irish youth justice service, the Department of Education and Science and the Garda Síochána. It meets twice a year and a progress report will be presented to the Government each year. The lifetime of the group will be a minimum of four years.
Many of the actions outlined in the Government's implementation plan will have a direct impact on the operation of the child welfare and protection service, including implementation of Children First. The Government is committed to implementation of the plan and €15 million is being made available this year for the implementation of these actions.
Successive Ministers have taken a series of initiatives since publication of Children First in 1999 to improve the quality of children's lives and protect children at risk. The legislative and policy framework has been significantly strengthened through the passage of major pieces of legislation such as the Children Act 2001, the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002, the Child Care (Amendment) Act 2007 and the continuing passage of new legislation through the Oireachtas, including the Adoption Bill 2009 and the Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2009. Key policy initiatives include the agenda for children's services, the Irish youth justice service strategy, the youth homelessness strategy and the report of the working group on foster care. Major developments have also taken place at service level including the establishment and expansion of the social services inspectorate under the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, the development of national standards for children in the care of the State, the continued development of special care units for vulnerable children, the expansion of the Garda vetting services; the establishment of the children's services committees, the development of standardised service delivery and business processes in the HSE, the development of a knowledge management strategy for child welfare and protection services, including reform of the child protection notification system, and the development of a sustainable and cost-effective solution for the provision of out-of-hours services for gardaí who remove children under section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991.
The Government is committed to building on the existing legislative and policy framework and to taking any additional actions deemed necessary to ensure greater protection for children at risk. One key commitment of the Ryan report implementation plan is to ensure all children in care have an allocated social worker and care plan. To this end the HSE has been given approval to recruit an additional 265 child welfare and protection staff, including 200 social workers, in 2010. The recruitment process is under way and will continue until the additional posts are filled. I have previously placed on the record of this House my appreciation for the work carried out by social work teams. Any person who has followed any recent child welfare cases through the courts appreciates the often trying circumstances in which social workers operate.
Approximately 5,700 children are in the care of the State. Between relative and general foster care, in excess of 5,100 children are accommodated. This reflects the Government's commitment to ensuring children are placed in a stable and loving family environment, allowing them to develop close bonds that nurture their emotional and physical needs. It is a very positive development that of the children placed by the HSE with foster carers, approximately one third are placed with relative carers.
While I recognise this is an important development for the benefit of children, I am aware of the challenges which face us in this area. One area of concern to me is that 16% of these children do not have an allocated social worker. The many actions set out in the Ryan report implementation plan were developed to assist me and the HSE in resolving problems such as this.
Since 2003, funding for family support services has increased by 80%, with funding for foster care up by 34% and residential care by 7%. The smaller increase in residential care reflects the positive steps taken to prioritise providing care in a family setting rather than in a residential setting. The HSE budget for 2010 for children and families is €53.6 million. This covers a wide range of services which includes family support services, child protection services, youth homelessness services, children's residential centres, fostering and relative care services.
Recent days, weeks and months have seen much adverse reporting of various aspects of services provided to the most vulnerable members of society. It may often seem as if the responses to the harrowing stories of abuse and neglect highlight only deficiencies and inadequacies in the services tasked with meeting such a range of challenges. The initiatives which we are taking will result in better outcomes for children. The problems we face are not insurmountable but we should be under no illusions about the environment in which we operate. It is extremely challenging and we must recognise that there are no quick fixes in this area. The problems will not be solved overnight. To suggest otherwise is politically naive and foolhardy.
Society must recognise it is the responsibility of each and every individual in Ireland to play their part in protecting children from harm. Without such vigilance we risk placing all responsibility on our child welfare and protection services. Like all public services, child welfare and protection operates with many resource constraints. It is a continuing challenge to have both a proactive and responsive service.
The Government is committed to addressing the crucial challenge of protecting the most vulnerable members of society. When children are failed for whatever reason, they must be protected by society and the State must live up to its statutory responsibilities and more in this regard. As every parent knows, this is a complex and difficult task. It requires an ongoing commitment, imagination and hard work.