Question No. 103 replied to with Written Answers.

Child Detention Centres

Ceisteanna (104)

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin

Ceist:

104. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if he will provide an update on the Oberstown development, including from a construction, staffing and management perspective; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21038/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Children)

I seek an update from the Minister regarding the Oberstown development and the timeframe by which we will see the transfer of youth detainees at St. Patrick's Institution to the new facilities at Oberstown.

There is a commitment in the programme for Government to end the practice of detaining children in adult prison facilities, which under the Children Act 2001 means all young people up to the age of 18 years. I wish to assure the House that this will be at the top of my agenda, as it was for my predecessor. The transfer of responsibility for 16 year old boys has already taken place and this commitment under the programme for Government will be met in full later this year when the extension of the Oberstown campus results in the transfer of responsibility for 17 year old boys from the adult prison system to the children detention schools.

Following the appointment of the main contractor and a number of sub-contractors, construction on the Oberstown development project started on 23 September 2013. The project will increase the number of children detention places available on the campus to a total of 90 and will enable the extension of the child care model of detention to all under 18 years. The first three units of residential accommodation are scheduled to be delivered by the end of this year in order to facilitate the transfer of responsibility for 17 year old boys from the adult prison system. A further three residential units, to be delivered in 2015, will replace existing detention buildings used by Oberstown boys school which have reached the end of their useful life. The Office of Public Works, OPW, is overseeing the delivery of the project with the contractor involved, BAM Building Limited. I understand there has been some weeks' delay in the construction programme due to weather and other issues but the OPW and the Department continue to emphasise the need to make up any time possible in order to meet the agreed project timeline for delivery of the first three units by the end of this year.

This has been an issue of concern for all of us in the House going back some considerable period of time. I addressed it with the Minister's predecessor on a number of occasions and with the Ombudsman for Children when she attended a meeting of the Joint Committee on Health and Children. There were also statements in the Seanad on this matter. There is universal support for the project under way.

I understand building work on the new units is making good progress and there have been changes at organisation and personnel level. That said, there are reports - I would like the Minister to clarify these if he is in a position to do so - of a number of HR issues. The Minister indicated weather and other issues arose. It is the other issues I would like to explore. Are there HR issues still outstanding? I am not in a position to confirm but there are reports of an injunction against the Irish Youth Justice Service by the director of Trinity House.

Will the Minister please advise on the factual position in respect of same and discount it if this is not the case? Is it the case that because of this and other human resources issues, including the postponement of the recruitment of new staff, the scheduled opening of the new units in September 2013 is in some question?

On the HR issues to which the Deputy referred, a recruitment process carried out in late 2013 has resulted in the appointment of a campus manager for the Oberstown campus. The manager reports to the board of management and is responsible for driving the reforms that are taking place at Oberstown. I advise further that a care staff recruitment programme to meet the needs of the increased capacity in children detention places at Oberstown campus is under way in conjunction with the Public Appointments Service. I am advised that the first interviews are due to take place very soon and it is intended to deploy the new staff to Oberstown for training and orientation on a staged basis in the third quarter of this year. Consequently, construction, staffing and management development, together with overall business planning encompassing all aspects, are well advanced. The Deputy may wish to know I intend to visit the Oberstown site and campus tomorrow. He made some specific reference to issues, including court action. While I do not wish to comment on those at this stage, I undertake to the House to meet all the interested parties on site tomorrow morning with a view towards ensuring this development proceeds at the earliest possible opportunity and is on target for later this year.

At the outset, I welcome the speed of the Minister's intent with regard to a visit to the Oberstown works. I ask that he informs himself through inquiry as to the situation applying to the Irish Youth Justice Service, IYJS, and whether an injunction exists in that regard. Were the Minister to revert to me subsequently, I would welcome clarification on that matter. The Minister should reassure Members that the outstanding human resources issues - that particular matter aside - will be progressed with the necessary speed and that they will be looking forward to the commencement of occupancy and full utilisation of the facilities, as had been signalled, by September of this year. I would welcome the Minister coming back and reporting to Members, certainly directly to me, in the interim.

Will the Minister undertake to publish the McIlfatrick report? It may not be across the detail of this and the history in respect of same but were the Minister to inform himself and to consider so doing, it would be an appropriate step to take.

I undertake to have a look at the report to which the Deputy referred and, if appropriate, to take matters further. As Members will be aware and I am sure will agree, the ultimate goal is the creation of a single cohesive national detention facility on the Oberstown campus through the integration of the three children detention schools, CDS. As I stated earlier, I intend to visit the site tomorrow morning and will communicate the results of my visit to the Deputy and the House in early course.

Child Detention Centres

Ceisteanna (105)

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

105. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the extent to which adequate accommodation remains available for juvenile offenders with particular reference to ensuring adequate facilities for education and rehabilitation and segregation from the more serious offenders; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21006/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Children)

This question relates to the extent to which corrective training and rehabilitative facilities are available for juvenile offenders, with particular reference to ensuring the most modern facilities are made available and that segregation can take place to the extent of eliminating encouragement towards re-offending as a result.

I thank the Deputy for his question. He will be aware there is a commitment in the programme for Government to end the practice of detaining children, which under the Children Act means all young people up to the age of 18 years, in adult facilities. This will be met later this year when the extension of the Oberstown campus results in the transfer of responsibility for 17 year old boys from the adult prison system to the child detention schools.

I congratulate the Minister on his first parliamentary questions session and I wish to acknowledge the good work of his predecessor in the same Department.

Arising from the Minister's reply, I ask the extent to which it will be possible to perfect the quality of services available to young juvenile offenders, with particular reference to ensuring that the more serious of those offenders do not have general access to and influence over first-time offenders. Can we be assured that the best possible standards will apply as in European best practice? To what extent can comparisons be made with the facilities available in other jurisdictions?

I thank the Deputy for raising those very important points. I wish to assure him that the delivery of child detention services is very much focused on education and rehabilitation of those involved and those in detention. This is in order to minimise re-offending and to support the early re-integration into the community.

A number of criteria have been taken into account in assessing the level of management risk with each child in detention, including their age, the medical and mental health background, the availability of family supports, the level of educational attainment and the history of criminal offending. These factors are recorded when a child is admitted to the campus and they are factored into an individualised management plan in each case.

Only yesterday I attended an event organised by Business in the Community, a group which seeks sponsorship from industry in order to ensure an element of re-integration, employment opportunities, education and training. I wish to acknowledge the contribution of Business in the Community in partnership with other agencies. I assure the Deputy of the importance of the issues raised by him and he can be assured that these factors will be fully taken into account in the context of the individualised file or management plan for each child detainee.

I thank the Minister. What is the basis for the initial assessment when a juvenile is referred to juvenile custody? For example, different reasons may be at the root of the problem in the first place. There may have been neglect or abuse, there may be behavioural problems or a combination of factors. It could be a variety of reasons.

The extent to which a particular juvenile is approached by the system may well determine the outcome of rehabilitation and training. To what extent will the proposed institutions provide this type of support in lieu of parental guidance?

The answer is in the affirmative. From a medical, education and training, psychological and psychiatric point of view, all of these factors are recorded on a child detainee's admission to the facility and a care plan will be conducted and monitored in that context.

Child Abuse Prevention

Ceisteanna (106)

Bernard Durkan

Ceist:

106. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the extent to which he remains satisfied regarding the adequacy of the budget for his Department to meet the ongoing and increasing demands of children and youth with particular reference to adequate protection measures including counselling, reporting and generally dealing with issues of child abuse including sexual abuse; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21005/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Children)

I am pleased to note this is the second question in sequence in my name. It is said that lightning never strikes twice but sometimes it does.

The question asks the extent to which children outside of school are subject to abuse and bullying and the extent to which such abuse can be detected at an earlier stage, with a view to implementing supportive measures.

As incoming Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, I am in the process of familiarising myself with the composition of the budget for my Department and the different services falling within its remit.

The Revised Estimates for Public Services 2014 allocated gross funding to my Department of some €997 million, which includes more than €955 million in current funding and €42 million in capital funding. On 27 March 2014, my predecessor informed the Deputy that she considered that the Estimate provision for the Department is facilitating the delivery of a significant level of public services as well as a number of new policy measures. These include the establishment of the new Child and Family Agency which took effect on 1 January 2014 and for which the level of funding allocated was more than €600 million in current funding and €6.8 million in capital spending; an additional €4 million to support implementation of the pre-school quality agenda; an increase of €1.5 million in funding to address child poverty through the new area based childhood programme as part of a total budget allocation for this programme over the period from 2013 to 2016 of almost €30 million; and €31 million in capital funding to facilitate the continuation of construction work on the new children detention school facilities at Oberstown, Lusk, an issue we discussed a few moments ago.

Some of the issues mentioned by the Deputy, particularly the reporting of child abuse, consequent protection measures and the issues of child abuse generally, including sexual abuse, are now the responsibility of Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, which was established on 1 January last. The overall level of funding available to the agency, which is significant by any measurement, is designed to ensure it can provide a comprehensive and integrated service to children and families who require support. In budget 2014, an additional sum of €6.7 million was made available to support the agency's reform of child welfare and protection services. This allocation will increase to €15 million in 2015.

I thank the Minister for his reply. To what extent will it be possible to identify bullying, Internet grooming and similar issues of a predatory nature that affect children and teenagers, with a view to intervening in a supportive manner at an early stage, rather than responding in the aftermath, as has frequently been the case in the past?

The Deputy raises an important issue. Notwithstanding the additional resources to which I referred, the prioritisation of current services and the provision of additional services, as proposed by all Deputies, we must acknowledge the demand pressures being experienced in children and youth services as a result of social factors and demographics.

The Deputy raised two specific issues, namely, bullying and physical abuse. I intend to give ongoing consideration to other areas of priority spending, while ensuring that operational reforms continue to be implemented to achieve the most effective utilisation of existing resources.

Again, the new stimulus package, as outlined by the Government will, the Deputy will be pleased to hear, involve extra spending in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, the announcement of which will be made shortly.

Does the Minister anticipate he will be in a position to offer state-of-the-art child services facilities that will compare with those in other European jurisdictions? To what extent have comparisons have been made on the positive intervention by State institutions on behalf of children who may be the subject of physical, mental, psychological or sexual abuse, including through bullying on the Internet?

That will be the objective, subject to the availability of capital and current finances. It is my intention, as well as that of everyone involved, to ensure this new Department of Children and Youth Affairs and child services will be on a par with their counterparts across the EU and, indeed, beyond. The Deputy will be aware of the financial constraints involved, however.

Preschool Services

Ceisteanna (107)

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin

Ceist:

107. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs his plans to extend the free preschool year to a second year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21036/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Children)

I seek to establish if the new Minister for Children and Youth Affairs will prioritise the roll-out of a universal free second preschool year during the remainder of the Dáil term.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue, which not for the first time is being discussed in the House.

The Early Childhood Care and Education programme was introduced in January 2010 and provides a free preschool year to all eligible children before commencing primary school. Approximately 68,000 children are availing of the provision in the current academic year. In spite of the challenging budgetary situation, the preschool year has been maintained as a universal and free programme, ensuring a significant number of children can avail of quality preschool services who would not otherwise be in a position to do so.

There is an increasing body of Irish and international evidence quantifying the benefits of early years interventions in improving outcomes for children and in delivering significant economic and societal return to the State. In this context, I believe the introduction of a second year would benefit children’s educational and developmental outcomes. A second free preschool year would represent €2,500 to €3,000 worth of free child care to parents and would be likely to generate 4,000 to 5,000 new jobs, albeit mostly part-time.

However, the introduction of a second preschool year would require considerable additional funding, broadly in line with the cost of the current one-year provision which is €175 million per annum. This additional funding is not currently available due to the financial constraints under which the Government is operating. In addition, all the available evidence indicates the quality of preschool provision is key to good outcomes for children. The preschool quality agenda being progressed by my Department, which involves a range of actions in key areas aimed at improving quality within early years services and enhancing the regulatory regime, is a key building block for any further extension of universal child care provision.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, the national policy framework for children and young people 2014-20, recognises the value of early childhood care and education in supporting children's early cognitive, social and emotional development. The Government is committed to the introduction of a second free preschool year within the lifetime of the framework, once the required quality standards are achieved and subject to the availability of resources. My Department and I will be keeping this commitment under review in the context of the progress of the preschool quality agenda.

There can be no question that the provision of the free preschool year was a positive move. It was, as was understood at the time of its introduction, a step on the road. It is well-documented that many parents want to keep their child in preschool for a second year but the reality is that they cannot afford to do so. There are consequences, accordingly, not just for the child but for the parent or parents. We also know that children with special needs would greatly benefit from a second year of support from a special needs assistant.

The Minister may not be familiar with the Donegal County Childcare Committee's Indecon research report entitled, Supporting Working Families - Releasing a Brake on Economic Growth, but I refer to it. The report highlighted that such a move would have a significant economic benefit. I emphasise that because it is critically important. While the Minister's initial response is in terms of what would be the outlay on its introduction, we must also look at the significant return on this proposition. In real terms, the return would be a multiple of that investment over time. Will the Minister consider prioritising the roll-out of a universal second free preschool year over the remaining time of this Dáil?

I do not disagree with anything the Deputy has said. In fact, I agree fully with his sentiment and comments. The Deputy will be aware that Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, the national policy framework for children and young people over the years 2014-2020, recognises the value of early childhood care and education in supporting children's early cognitive social and emotional development. The Government is committed to the introduction of a second free preschool year within the lifetime of the framework once the required quality standards are achieved and subject to the availability of resources. The Deputy has asked me specifically, in order of priority, to list objectives, aims and targets, and this is one. I agree with what the Deputy has said in terms of outcomes regarding the importance and the benefits.

The one area where perhaps we disagree is the availability of funding. The Deputy seems to suggest that funds are readily available. Notwithstanding that, I assure the Deputy that both my Department and I will be keeping this commitment under review in the context of the progress of the preschool quality agenda.

I readily accept that funding is not available as simply as that and I am willing to acknowledge it. If the prospects of extending the free preschool year to a second year are impeded by budgetary constraints, as the Minister states, and I would argue that such is penny wise and pound foolish because there is never bad time to invest in preschool care for children as the return will unquestionably justify all the investment made, will the Minister at least give some commitment to extend the current single year scheme to 48 weeks as proposed by Early Childhood Ireland in its recently launched pre-budget 2015 submission? Early Childhood Ireland advocates for a system which allows for services to mirror the timeframe of primary schools operating for 38 weeks of the year and for staff to have contracts of employment covering an initial 48 weeks. This development, Early Childhood Ireland states, is essential to create viable careers in early childhood which is what we want to see, not part-time low-paid jobs. We want to see careers from childhood provision to retain qualified staff and to build on existing investment in training.

I will have a look at the commitment sought by the Deputy, but I reiterate the commitment is to the introduction of the second free preschool year within a period of six years provided the required quality standards are achieved. We will be keeping that commitment under review in the context of resources. I will specifically check out the issue of 48 week contracts as raised by the Deputy and I will revert to him at an early date.

Inter-Country Adoptions

Ceisteanna (108)

Maureen O'Sullivan

Ceist:

108. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if he will provide an update on a Russian bilateral agreement in relation to adoption, an update he indicated would likely be due at the end of April; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21009/14]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Children)

My question concerns the bilateral adoption agreement with Russia. I am seeking an update on this and wish to know when the agreement will be realised.

Efforts are ongoing within my Department in relation to a bilateral agreement on inter-country adoption between Ireland and the Russian Federation. A delegation of Russian officials travelled to Ireland in October 2013 for further discussions on a bilateral agreement on inter-country adoption between both countries. The meeting was very positive and detailed discussions took place between the Russian officials and officials from my Department, as well as the Adoption Authority of Ireland, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and the Health Service Executive.

In order to explore the potential for agreement of specific areas addressed in the discussions, my Department subsequently undertook work on a revised draft wording which was forwarded to the Russian authorities in February of this year. In transmitting these revisions it was suggested that should these revisions be acceptable to the Russian Federation, it would be useful for both sides to meet again for further discussions.

The Russian Ministry of Education and Science has advised the Irish embassy in Moscow that all proposed adoption agreements are currently on hold while the Russian Government considers proposals in relation to how it deals with adoption agreements in general. It is understood that the Russian supreme court recently made recommendations regarding adoption agreements and these are being considered by the Russian Government. It is hoped that following the Russian Government's consideration of these matters, it will be in a position to examine and respond to these proposals as furnished.

Can I take it from the Minister's response, that the Irish Government and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs have done everything required of them from our end, and that the delay now is from the Russian end? Will the Department of Children and Youth Affairs also be in touch with the Russian authorities to try to speed up this process? I understand the need for it to be done legally and properly, because nobody wants problems in years to come. I understand, however, that there are 537 declarations of eligibility in existence and that only 11 post-Hague adoptions have been completed since 2010. In the meantime, we know what is happening to children in state care in Russia and about the families who are waiting to receive them into their homes in Ireland. It seems as if it is up to the Russian authorities, but can the Minister's Department do more to put pressure on them to come to a speedier resolution? As the Minister said, everything seems to be in place for these adoptions to happen.

I agree with what the Deputy said, that there is an element of anxiety, upset and trauma on the part of many prospective adoptive parents in this jurisdiction as to a perceived delay. I assure the Deputy that every effort will be made to minimise that delay and have matters resolved at the earliest opportunity. My Department prepared a revised draft wording on a number of specific points that were forwarded recently to the authorities in Russia. It was suggested that should these revisions be acceptable to the Russian Federation, it would be useful for both sides to meet again for further discussions. The Russian Ministry for education has again been in touch with our embassy. The Deputy will be aware that the Russian supreme court recently made some substantial proposals with regard to the text of the proposed agreement. These have not yet been completed or finally signed off on by the Russian Government.

Intergovernmental discussions on this precise issue were proposed in recent weeks but the embassy has agreed to speak to them again for a further update in the next couple of weeks. I assure Deputy O'Sullivan that we will try to have this matter resolved at the earliest opportunity. I hope she will accept the fact that at this stage the resolution is perhaps beyond our immediate capacity.

Quite a number of those prospective adoptive parents have been waiting for more than four years to adopt children from Russia. We know from other agencies that are working with children in state care in Russia of the dire need for those children to get away from there as soon as possible. I accept what the Minister has said and I hope this can be resolved. The matter has been ongoing for four years and there was supposed to be a decision at the end of April. We are now into May, yet the Minister is talking about a few more weeks, so it is dragging on. I take the Minister's word, however, that he will be following this up in order that we might get something sooner rather than later.

I wish to reassure Deputy O'Sullivan that officials in our embassy and in my Department are ready and willing to engage in any form of discussion to bring this matter to a resolution.