Child Protection

Ceisteanna (1)

Anne Rabbitte

Ceist:

1. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the procedures in place for children in a situation of immediate risk and-or neglect at home; if there is a process of engagement between the HSE, Tusla and her Department for immediate intervention in cases in which neglect has been identified as a serious concern; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [9071/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (14 contributions) (Ceist ar Children)

I thank Deputy Rabbitte for allowing me to raise this question with the Minister. What procedures are in place for children in situations of immediate risk and-or neglect in their homes? Is there a process of engagement between the HSE, Tusla and the Department for Children and Youth Affairs for immediate intervention when neglect has been identified as a serious concern? I ask the Minister to make a statement on the matter. As the Minister is aware, I am highlighting a typical case to show there is a complete breakdown of these services in my area.

I thank Deputies Rabbitte and O'Rourke for this important question. I will address the issue of children in situations of immediate risk first and then I will address the issue of neglect.

Children who are in a situation of immediate risk may initially be dealt with by An Garda Síochána or by Tusla, but in the main both agencies work together in such cases. Tusla, when alerted to a child at immediate risk, for instance a young child left alone at home or abandoned, will contact An Garda Síochána if the child needs to be removed from the situation. The Garda may, under its section 12 powers in the Child Care Act, remove the child from danger and Tusla will then receive the child into its custody and, following an assessment, may apply for an emergency care order. Tusla has emergency foster placements available for such situations.

Where a child is identified as being at immediate risk from an adult, Tusla will identify if the child can be protected from that person by their parent or by the removal of the adult posing the risk. In such situations, Tusla will consult with relevant professionals to share information and to develop a safety plan for the child. If a child cannot be protected in their home, Tusla will apply to the courts for an emergency care order.

In cases of child neglect, a comprehensive assessment is needed, often involving a number of professionals, and progress needs to be tracked over time. Neglect is more common than physical abuse or sexual abuse, although there is evidence that children who are neglected may also suffer from physical and sexual abuse.

In neglect cases, parents will be supported to improve their parenting, and parental problems that contribute to the neglect will be identified for intervention. Parental substance misuse is a key indicator of risk for children. This was highlighted by Dr. Geoffrey Shannon in his report on the use of section 12 of the Child Care Act by An Garda Síochána. It is a feature in some cases that an immediate improvement may not be sustained, which is why it is important for the child's situation to be monitored over time.

If a child appears to be at risk of harm or neglect, concerns should be reported to Tusla. Anyone can report a concern about a child to Tusla and information on how to do so is available on the Tusla website. If a child is at immediate risk or in danger, the Garda should be alerted without delay.

With respect, if that process was working, I would not need to be here raising the issue with the Minister this morning. This is another such case - I came across a case involving a similar experience before Christmas. I will focus on this case and the problem with the breakdown of the services in this area in Kildare and particularly in Kildare North.

On 29 January, both the school and this lady's sister contacted the HSE and Tusla to raise grave concerns about the neglect of and the risk to the children because the mother was using drugs in the home. Four weeks later, they have had no engagement. There was only one call from a person within the service to say she was on holidays and she would deal with it when she came back on 19 February. That is nearly a week ago and there is still no engagement. Today, the sister has intervened and taken the children into her care without any legal guardianship or any legal proceedings, meaning there is no legal cover. At any time the mother could come for those children and take them back into her care.

In addition, the mother has also informed the services of her condition. Nobody has intervened to help her and to try to get the family unit the service and support they need to get them back into the system.

The Deputy will have another minute.

This is fundamentally wrong.

I appreciate the Deputy bringing this family's case to my attention. I understand Tusla has been contacted and there was an initial response, but no follow-up, based on what he outlined. Is that correct?

That is correct.

Has there been any contact with An Garda Síochána?

There was no contact with the Garda. The only contact was with Tusla and the HSE four weeks ago in which the school and the lady's sister outlined grave concerns and risk for the two children aged 12 and 15. Such was the concern that the sister intervened to take them out of the home without any legal guidance to do so.

I appreciate, and I am certain the family appreciates, the Deputy raising the issue here.

In light of the very serious concerns identified by the Deputy, on completion of my work in the Chamber this morning I will investigate the matter and ensure that proper supports are provided. I will take the Deputy's bona fides in identifying the particulars of the case.

I take the Minister's comments in good faith and I hope she will contact me directly after Question Time. This is serious, especially for the sister who is caring for the two children without legal guardianship. There is no carer follow-up for the mother. This is one case. I highlighted another to the Minister's office and to that of the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, before Christmas of a 15 year old on suicide watch. That person was in the care of the State but on two occasions was allowed to go off unattended. The person went missing for five days and was eventually found by gardaí. I am highlighting this case. Unfortunately, I do not have the time to go into others but there is a major problem with the delivery of the services in my area to help families and children at risk or who are being neglected. This is not a once-off. Sometimes, when I raise matters with Ministers they say that it is an isolated issue but this is not. There is a pattern, as these two cases demonstrate. There is concern that we are not getting delivery of services. I hope the Minister will take up this case and ensure that services are delivered for families who need them.

I appreciate the Deputy raising the matter in this context of his being a public representative for his constituency. He is doing a fine job. The Deputy suggests that there is a pattern. I will investigate that and come back to him about it and about the very vulnerable families who need the assistance of the State.

Child and Family Agency Expenditure

Ceisteanna (2)

Denise Mitchell

Ceist:

2. Deputy Denise Mitchell asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she is satisfied that Tusla is implementing the recommendations aimed at rectifying shortcomings identified in the Oireachtas Committee of Public Accounts periodic report of September to October 2017; the correspondence she has had with Tusla on the issues raised in the report; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [9029/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Ceist ar Children)

I ask the Minister if she is satisfied that Tusla is implementing the recommendations aimed at rectifying governance shortcomings identified in the Committee of Public Accounts report of September to October 2017. What correspondence has she had with Tusla regarding the matter raised in the report?

The Committee of Public Accounts recently published its periodic report covering the period September 2017 to October 2017. Following Tusla's appearance before it on 19 October 2017 in respect of the examination of its 2016 financial statement, the committee made a number of recommendations. These covered the following areas: ensuring that service level agreements are in place for 100% of grant-funded agencies; ensuring that current weaknesses relating to procurement are addressed; ensuring that timelines are established for the implementation of an action plan with An Garda Síochána to improve inter-agency co-operation in the area of child protection; and ensuring that Tusla supports An Garda Síochána in implementing recommendations in a timely manner.

When I issued the performance statement, which is a statutory communication from the Minister to Tusla, in November 2017, I brought specific attention to similar concerns. I also requested early progress on the research being commissioned and managed by Tusla regarding actions taken following the invoking of section 12 of the Child Care Act, 1991 by An Garda Síochána.

Officials from my Department requested a written update from Tusla on 1 February 2018 with regard to the specific recommendations contained in the committee’s periodic report. Tusla provides grant-aided funding to 986 separate organisations. These include national organisations in receipt of over €7 million annually, as well as organisations in receipt of less than €1,000 per annum. Tusla has confirmed that it has put in place processes to achieve better compliance on the part of grant-aided organisations. It has, however, also identified that it will take some time to achieve 100% compliance in this area.

Tusla is making progress in improving its procurement arrangements. This will assist with proper planning and evaluation of Tusla’s requirements and will facilitate timely and appropriate procurement exercises to be carried out, ensuring good governance and value for money. In addition, a procurement training programme is being implemented for key personnel. I will deal with the audit by Dr. Shannon, special rapporteur on child protection, in later questions but I am pleased to confirm we have had substantial engagement with key stakeholders on his key recommendations.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

The special rapporteur on child protection, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, made a number of recommendations and I am working with the special rapporteur and Tusla to ensure that they be fully implemented.

I will be dealing with the audit by Dr. Shannon in detail in later questions. I am pleased to confirm, however, that I have had substantial engagement with the key stakeholders on Dr. Shannon’s recommendations. This has included visits to locations recommended by the special rapporteur and others in order to develop a model so that children who are sexually abused receive more child-friendly services.

The Ombudsman for Children, Dr. Niall Muldoon, also accompanied our delegation, which comprised personnel from my Department, the Department of Justice and Equality, Tusla and An Garda Síochána, on these visits.

I will continue to work to progress the various recommendations in Dr. Shannon’s report.

I thank the Minister for her reply. She will agree that some of the findings were very worrying when it comes to public money being spent and whether there has been proper oversight by Tusla. I specifically refer to paragraph A.21, which indicates that Tusla could not identify where €700,000 was spent. The Comptroller and Auditor General had to figure out where the money was spent, which is absolutely incredible. Who is overseeing the process to which the Minister refers? Does she believe we will see a significant improvement in the context of next year's report?

The Deputy inquired specifically as to who is overseeing the process. It is Tusla's executive and board. Ultimately, my oversight is provided through ongoing quarterly meetings with Tusla's board and executive on these matters. In the context of the Minister's oversight of Tusla, there is a process to identify, in a performance statement, the priorities and concerns from our Department for the agency for the upcoming year. This is what we suggest it needs to focus on in particular. With the performance statement, I have highlighted all the different areas, including the specific matters raised by the Deputy, on which Tusla will focus an improvement plan. I have also identified that it should implement actions for all those areas, including the value-for-money aspect of expenditure.

I thank the Minister. I recognise that efforts are being made to rectify many of the difficulties faced by Tusla and they are historical. I nevertheless have concerns. I understand that Tusla has said some of the issues are legacy problems, such as the €5.2 million paid in respect of non-competitive processes, including private foster care, interpretation services, insurance and agency staff. Given all the concerns we have, does the Minister have confidence in Tusla overseeing the process? I understand that there is a three-year procurement plan in place. Is the Minister happy with that process?

Yes, I am. I have identified that Tusla has in place a number of plans relating to the report. There is a section in my Department working with Tusla on oversight and the provision of support, as well as use of moneys being properly expended.

The Deputy referred to procurement. The management of Tusla is establishing procurement support within the agency. It is developing a three-year procurement plan for the agency in conjunction with the HSE's procurement service in order to identify the key procurement requirements of the agency. It is also incorporating a procurement training programme which is being implemented for managers, budget holders and relevant staff with responsibility for non-pay expenditure. Not unlike other major organisations throughout the public sector and beyond, procurement is absolutely critical, and Tusla has identified a number of programmes to ensure that improvement will happen.

Affordable Childcare Scheme Establishment

Ceisteanna (3)

Anne Rabbitte

Ceist:

3. Deputy Anne Rabbitte asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if the affordable child care scheme will be launched by September 2019; and the status of the delivery of this scheme. [9072/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Ceist ar Children)

I ask the Minister if the affordable child care scheme will be launched by September 2019 and the current status of the delivery of the scheme.

I am pleased to say we are making good progress in preparing for the delivery of the affordable child care scheme. As the Deputy is aware, I reported on the matter to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs on 24 January 2018 and our work continues intensively.

The introduction of the affordable child care scheme is dependent on the development of a supporting information technology, IT, system. The request for tender for the IT system has been published but until such time as an IT developer is in place and agrees a delivery timeframe, it is not possible to confirm and communicate a definitive start date for the scheme. However, for the purposes of planning and procurement, the scheme's project team has produced estimated target dates, which are set out in the published request for tender.

These dates involve the system being available to accept applications from the end of May 2019, with subsidies being paid from September 2019. I am committed to updating Deputies, the public and child care providers regarding the expected timeframe as the project progresses. It is important to note in the interim that enhanced child care schemes and subsidies introduced last September will remain in place.

The Government delivered on its commitment to make child care more affordable from September 2017 by introducing these enhanced measures. Currently, over 67,000 children, that is 96% of estimated eligible children, are benefitting from these measures, which include both universal subsidies for children under three and targeted subsidies for those on lower incomes or in training. The door remains open for more families to apply. In other words, many of the immediate benefits for parents of the affordable child care scheme have been fast-tracked without compromising on the rigour and time needed to develop and launch this major new scheme.

Alongside the development of the affordable child care scheme IT system, we continue to make good progress on other elements of the affordable child care scheme. For example, the Childcare Support Bill has completed Second Stage in the Dáil.

When I reported to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs on 24 January last, I noted that the full affordable child care scheme would mark a radical redesign of the legal and technical infrastructure underpinning our support for child care in Ireland.

I thank the Minister, Deputy Zappone, for her response. It is welcome to hear good work is going on behind the scenes. It is important as well to acknowledge that ICT at the very beginning, before the affordable child care scheme, was always under pressure within Departments. When we added extra Departments it of course put on extra pressure. The Minister has outlined certain timelines. However, the timeline regarding the delivery of ICT concerns me. If we do not have that timeline in place, while the legislation is working its way through, I cannot see how this will work seamlessly for the providers in September.

That also sets another red flag for me. I do not wish to be a doomsayer, but if it is not sorted out with a proper timeframe that would indicate to me it may not be ready for delivery in September 2019. When I think back, it was disappointing the pressure child care providers were already under in August 2017. The Minister did put in hours to support them in respect of time worked in their offices. However, it is nearly two years since the affordable child care scheme was launched and, unfortunately, I am still waiting to hear that it will be ready to go for September.

As the Deputy can appreciate, I also share her concern on the timeframe and continuing to move it forward. We agree on that. We are now in a tender process in respect of development of the ICT system. We expect to identify a successful vender to commence the development of the system. It will take approximately 25 weeks so that will bring us to July. We hope that will put us in place. If we manage that it will bring us on time in that regard.

However, as I indicated earlier, it will only be after we appoint a company or organisation to develop the system that we will be clear on confirming when we can deliver the affordable child care scheme. As soon as I know that, the Deputy and her colleagues will be the next to know.

Let me be clear I have understood the Minister correctly. There is a 25 week process for the successful tender. It is from then a company is appointed to design and deliver the system from July. I live in the real world, as does the Minister. I am a realist. That tells me it will be the end of July, possibly, and more than likely we will not have an ICT system up and functioning for 21 August and the roll out of the affordable child care scheme. The tenders will only be coming in at the end of July. Is that correct?

That was going to be my third point. I think I referred to this earlier. As of September 2018, the current procedures for applications from parents and working with providers will be the same as 2017. That is not the fully formed affordable child care scheme we are all waiting for. As I have emphasised before, providers have done an incredible job working with us in order to put in place and fast track interim measures to ensure a huge percentage of our families and children are benefitting from the subsidies that we announced. We have made an effort to compensate the providers for that.

I thank the Minister and Deputy for adhering to the time limits.

Child Protection

Ceisteanna (4)

Róisín Shortall

Ceist:

4. Deputy Róisín Shortall asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the arrangements she is making to ensure that all child care workers participate in child protection training under the children first national guidelines; and if funding will be provided for in-service training similar to the arrangements for primary school teachers. [9200/18]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Ceist ar Children)

 The Children First Act 2015 imposes obligations on key professionals to report child protection concerns, and on providers of relevant services to carry out a risk assessment and develop a child safeguarding statement. All persons running a registered early years service and those employed as child care staff are mandated persons under the Act. All early years settings have until 11 March 2018 to develop their child safeguarding statement.

I am aware this is a significant responsibility and my Department has put in place a range of supports to assist services to meet their statutory obligations. Child protection training has been funded by my Department for the last three years as part of the national early years Children First programme. Over the three year period, 15,000 individual child care workers have already availed of training. My Department will continue to support this programme actively.

 Other supports my Department has made available include distribution of the revised Children First guidance to all 4,500 early years services; the publication by Tusla of a suite of resource documents relating to Children First; the production by Tusla of a comprehensive 90 minute basic Children First training programme universally available on line, free of charge; briefing sessions held nationwide with services; the development of a child safeguarding statement template which has been distributed to all early years services; and the provision of €18 million in programme support payments in 2017, to be repeated in 2018, to support services with the administrative demands associated with Government schemes and meeting legislative requirements, including the production of policies and procedures.

Further to these supports, my officials are currently developing a national continuous professional development plan for the early years sector. This will seek to identify the sector's training needs, target existing learning resources to support the sector in meeting its regulatory requirements and look to increase investment in supporting the workforce in its professionalisation journey.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

It is important to note the early years sector is different to the primary or secondary school sectors in that services are privately run or operated by community or not for profit services. My Department is not the employer. It provides a range of supports through capitation payments and other initiatives or schemes to support the sector. The response of the child care sector to the Children First legislation has been extremely heartening. I know from many conversations with early years providers across the country that they take their responsibilities in relation to Children First very seriously and I look forward to continuing this engagement.

We all agree this is a well qualified workforce with a minimum qualification of a Level 5 Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, award. We also accept ongoing education and training is vital, especially in the area of child protection. There are difficulties in retaining staff within the sector. Many providers have spoken about this. Early Childhood Ireland, ECI, showed 86% of its respondents were concerned that difficulties recruiting and retaining staff would impact on the viability of their service.

There are two specific requests. I asked the Minister about the financial support that will be provided for in-service training. Will the Minister give approval for ECI services to close for the purposes of developing their child safeguarding strategy while retaining their funding so that they will not be penalised for closing? Will the Minister also provide additional funding to facilitate full day care services to develop their child safeguarding strategy and provide child protection training for staff, as happens currently in respect of both our primary and secondary schools?

On the Deputy's first question, it is important to note that the early years sector is different from the primary and secondary school sector in that the services are privately run or operated by community or not-for-profit services and, therefore, my Department is not the employer, as the Deputy is aware. However, as I outlined in my response, we provide a range of supports through capitation payments and other initiatives and schemes to specifically support the sector. There are no current plans to follow a similar path to that of the Department of Education and Skills in that regard. The early years sector is different in nature and construct from the school system. I am aware of the challenges that entails but many registered services are small or one-person operations and their closure with a consequent lack of child care on the days concerned would have significant downstream effects for children, parents and the wider economy. My Department is not the employer. It respects the rights of private or not-for-profit businesses to make their own decisions regarding service closure and to meet training requirements and, rather, is concentrated on a range of other supports, as outlined in my reply.

I put it to the Minister that there will be significant downstream impacts if services are unable to provide training for their staff or if the staff become so browned off with being treated as second class educators whose training is not funded that they leave the service. There is a proper requirement on all those working with children to have completed child protection training. It is funded for teachers in primary and secondary schools and it makes no sense that it is not funded in the child care sector, particularly as people working in that area are so poorly paid relative to teachers. Funding is provided for teachers to undergo this training but the Department is not providing it for those working in the child care sector, where wages are pretty abysmal. People in the child care sector are entitled to the same level of respect as teachers for the work they do. Will the Minister reconsider the possibility of providing specific funding to enable them to undertake this training?

As the Deputy will appreciate, I agree with the sentiments behind her question. I hope that the efforts and supports we have identified and provided in an ongoing and flexible manner demonstrate our respect for the sector. I am aware of the issues raised by the Deputy because I also hear of them from the sector. Although I would love to be able to provide for the measures suggested by Deputy Shortall, as she is aware, the early years sector has a differently structured form of provision; it is not a public service or a set of public services and, therefore, I do not have the same capacity as the Minister for Education and Skills to say a school can close because it is a public service. That is what I am trying to identify. I am not saying I do not aspire to being able to implement these measures------

That is a matter for Government and should be addressed at Cabinet.

-----but, because services in the sector are private or not-for-profit entities, I do not have the responsibility or ability to do that.