In the first instance I should like to reiterate that the development of robust, responsive and appropriate child welfare and protection services is a priority for both myself, as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, and the Government. Recent statements, such as that made by the Ombudsman for Children, along with significant media coverage of this area has facilitated a valuable public debate around these important issues during which voice has been given to a number of legitimate concerns, particularly in the area of service provision. I would, however also highlight the many instances of positive outcomes in relation to child welfare and protection issues.
Following my appointment as Minister for Children I initiated and chair regular meetings with senior officials from the HSE so as to drive reform and modernisation of services for children and families. The HSE has assured me that in all cases where there is a serious and immediate risk to the health or welfare of a child, the HSE responds immediately and takes appropriate action. All child abuse reports to social work departments are subject to a phased process of initial screening and assessment, aimed at providing appropriate interventions. In addition, there are legislative mechanisms in place which also allow for responses from Gardai (for example to take a child to safety in emergency situations relating to welfare and protection).
In relation to the provision of out of hours care to vulnerable children and families I have now got agreement from the HSE to put in place an out of hours service to include existing GP, acute hospital and mental health out of hours services. The HSE is currently finalising plans for this development. It is anticipated that significant progress will be made in this regard over the coming weeks. The aim is to ensure that persons seeking personal social services outside normal working hours can be provided with appropriate advice, information, support and, in emergency situations, access to specialist staff, such as staff working in the areas of mental health and suicide prevention. I have come to the conclusion that given the nature of the cases likely to present as emergencies after hours that such an integrated approach is essential. The planned development will also include the provision of a service whereby Gardaí can access appropriate care options as places of safety for children taken into care out of hours under Section 12 of the Child Care Act. In so doing, the HSE hopes to provide a standardised response across the country. This approach promises a more integrated model of service provision which acknowledges the linkages between HSE services while endeavouring to utilise the overall resources already in place to appropriately address incidents occurring outside usual working hours.
Recent years have seen a period of major investment in child care and family support services to enable an appropriate response to child welfare concerns with over €240 million of Government funds added to the annual investment in child care services since 1997. The core principle underpinning all of these reforms and additional funding is to provide children and young people with the appropriate care and to provide services to protect them, as far as possible, from all forms of harm. The HSE have informed me that, at the end of 2007, 90% of children in care do have an allocated social worker and that social work services are available to all children in HSE care. Increases in resources for child care and family support services have continued in recent years.
The focus for development in the coming years is on preventive, community-based services which provide early intervention within a Community/Primary Care context. The development of alternative community care services will, over time, impact on the numbers of children in residential and foster care. International and Irish research indicates that in many situations cases can best be dealt with by way of welfare and care services rather than protection services.
The Agenda for Children's Services is the new overarching policy document of the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs for these areas and was launched in December 2007. The Agenda, with its clear renewed emphasis on family support coupled with reflective questions to enable service provider self evaluation, represents the fundamental change now underway on how Government policy in relation to children is formulated and delivered. It has been developed drawing on research and best practice at home and internationally. It requires an outcomes focus and integrated service delivery in line with the recommendations of the OECD review of the Irish public service. To help implement the policy and principles in the Agenda, at the instigation of my office, the HSE is well advanced in the process of specifying a child and family support services operational policy. This is vital to effective reform and rebalancing of children's services. The OMCYA is involved in the development of this policy working in partnership with the HSE.
International experience of social work reform has shown how important communication and timely flows of commonly understood shared information are to success. Within the HSE the Child Care Information Project is initially implementing standard assessment and referral methods leading on to standardisation of national child protection procedures. This project, in tandem with other major initiatives such as the review of the Children First child protection guidelines and the publication by HSE of their Child Protection Framework, will work in synergy with the Knowledge Management Strategy under development for child welfare and protection. This Strategy aims to ensure availability of better information, improved communication and application of research findings to service provision, management evaluation and policy analysis. As the above initiatives illustrate, the HSE is working towards defined information and evidence-based practice.
All of these initiatives are aimed at producing better integrated interagency service provision. They also seek to provide for earlier intervention through more comprehensive interlocking service provision for children, based on clear planning and agreed outcomes in line with the move to family support initiatives as well as child protection services.
I am confident that my Office and the HSE will bring about significantly improved and integrated child welfare and protection services for all children who need such services. The programme I have described illustrates how much is being done to realise this objective.