Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children

Child and Family Agency: Discussion with Chairman Designate

2:00 pm


Apologies have been received from Deputies Ó Caoláin, Healy, and Troy. I ask members to switch mobile phones off or set them to aeroplane mode to facilitate broadcast transmission which is being covered by UPC. People also need to be cognisant of the effect of mobile phone interference on staff who have to record the proceedings. It is important to note that it is their workplace as well.

The sole purpose of today's meeting is a discussion with Ms Norah Gibbons, chairperson designate of the child and family agency. She is very welcome this afternoon and I thank her for attending. I also welcome Ms Elizabeth Canavan, Mr. Gerard McKiernan and Mr. Bill O'Dea. As members are aware, the programme for Government committed to inviting proposed chairpersons of boards to appear before Oireachtas committees to engage in discussion. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, established a task force on the child and family support agency in September 2011 in response to a commitment in the programme for Government. It has published a report that culminated in the introduction of the Bill to establish the child and family agency and the appointment of Ms Norah Gibbons as chairperson designate of the board.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence you are to give this committee. If you are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and you continue to so do, you are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of your evidence. You are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and you are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, you should not criticise or make charges against any persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of a long-standing ruling of the Chair and parliamentary practice to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or any official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

The format of today's meeting is that Ms Gibbons will make her opening remarks, which will be followed by a question-and-answer session. Members have already been given a copy of Ms Gibbons's statement.

Ms Norah Gibbons:

I thank the Chairman and members of the joint committee for their welcome and for the opportunity to make this presentation to them. I am joined today by Ms Elizabeth Canavan of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, Mr. Bill O'Dea of the family support agency and by Mr. Gerard McKiernan from the Health Services Executive, child and family division. All of them have been heavily involved in developing the new agency with Mr. Gordon Jeyes and others. They are happy to assist me and the committee with any detailed queries germane to their work.

The history of Ireland’s services for children has largely been written in the reports of inquiries concerned with historical abuse in institutions established to care for and educate children - institutions where children should have been safe - and with abuse in families, where children should be loved, cherished and protected. Children have a right to safety and need to have their rights protected and their needs met in all settings. The publication of each report has brought painful truths to the fore - knowledge and evidence that we have often failed our children, particularly those who, due to their circumstances, should have had first call on the resources of the State. Inquiries in other jurisdictions, most notably in the United Kingdom, have often been the catalyst for changes in child welfare and protection services and have laid the basis of much that is familiar to us in child welfare and protection in this jurisdiction. In Ireland today we are on the cusp of developing a national service, the child and family agency, dedicated to children and families. The establishment of this agency, which will align key services into a single cohesive, integrated and accountable delivery system, is a very welcome development towards modernising our child welfare and protection services.

I am greatly honoured to be proposed by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, both as chairperson of the existing Family Support Agency and as the first chairperson of the board of the child and family agency. I am committed to working with the Minister, with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, with fellow board members, with Mr. Gordon Jeyes and his staff, and with all those involved across all sectors working with children, families and communities. I want to ensure we achieve what we all want, which is an agency that is fit for purpose and delivers high-quality services for children and families in Ireland. I see this as a challenging and ambitious undertaking but one that must succeed.

All of my professional life has been spent working in the area of child and family services. When I qualified I worked in statutory social work in England for 13 years. I joined the social services as they underwent significant change and realignment on foot of the Maria Colwell inquiry in 1973. Maria died following her return to an abusive home despite evidence of her fearful reaction to contact with her mother. Work in statutory social services was busy but entirely satisfying, providing me with daily challenges but also with huge learning experiences. My responsibilities covered child welfare and protection, foster-care services, adoption, juvenile justice and guardian-ad-litem services in the courts. Services were organised generically, so I gained experience in mental health as well as with services for older people.

I have probably been through the entire life cycle in my professional work.

On my return to Ireland in 1989, I initially worked in a centre for the unemployed. I became engaged in community work in a disadvantaged area. I saw at first hand the power of solid local communities to build resilience despite a challenging economic backdrop. Children live in families and families live in communities.

I worked with Barnardos from 1990 until August 2012, during which time I had a wide range of responsibilities at different management levels. I was seconded to the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse as a full member from 2000 to 2005 and as an ongoing board member until the Ryan report was published in 2009. I wish to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the bravery, understanding and consideration for others of those witnesses who told the commission of their painful and personal life experiences. It was a humbling experience for me and the lessons from that time will always be with me.

A key area of work for me in Barnardos that is germane to my current position was the development of targeted family support services in conjunction with the then health boards in the late 1990s. The rationale for those services was to work with children whose needs were not being met and where a concentrated programme of work with the child in the context of his or her family could hopefully avoid admission to the care system. I am convinced of the need for support for families at all levels and I applaud the firm bedrock represented by the 106 family resource centres developed by the Family Support Agency. This coincides with the new agency. Through strategic partnerships with other key providers across the voluntary and community sectors, the new agency will be better placed than at any other time to offer real support to children and families in their own localities in a way that is open and inviting and links with other services as the needs of children and families dictate.

In addition to my work in establishing and chairing the confidential committee of the child abuse commission between 2000 and 2005, I chaired the inquiry into the Roscommon child care case that reported in 2010. That report brought attention to the key issue of neglect, the impact that abuse of alcohol has on parenting and the consequences for children if steps are not taken to recognise and react proportionately in situations of chronic neglect. Most of the report's recommendations are closely aligned with the needs audit on neglect that was published recently.

Like the 2012 independent child death review that I co-chaired with Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, the Roscommon report highlighted that children were missing out on effective prevention and early intervention services and that, too often, problems in families were not being tackled effectively until crises hit, at which point services were often ineffective. A noticeable issue in many of the cases that I reviewed was non-attendance at school. This is often a signal that something is going wrong at home or at school. It must be identified and remedied if we are to help children. I welcome the integration of the National Education Welfare Board, NEWB, with the new child and family agency, bringing with it the expertise that it has built up.

The new agency will also have responsibility for preschool inspection services, domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services and services related to the psychological welfare of children. Some or all of these service issues arise where child neglect or abuse is also an issue.

No amount of situating services together would make any difference if that was all we did. I was pleased to have been appointed as a member of the task force that reported to the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, in July 2012 on the establishment of the new agency. The task force was working at a time when there were findings from many recent reports. It was noted that the fragmentation and silos that can exist in services were the systemic cause of the failure to meet children's needs. The task force's vision for a quality Irish childhood emphasised that children should feel nurtured, protected, safe, listened to and cared for. It also stressed that, for these good things to happen, society needed to invest in preparing and supporting parents in their parenting and caring roles.

The task force correctly identified that we had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reform children's services fundamentally. The need to bring together primary intervention, early intervention, family support and therapeutic care interventions was clearly outlined. This broad scope of services is in line with international evidence and is what children in Ireland require and should have.

I am pleased that the legislation to establish the child and family agency is before the Oireachtas. The agency's establishment is an ambitious undertaking. The Bill sets out a strong framework of public accountability, with the Minister establishing the policy objectives for the agency and the agency, through its board, being responsible to the Minister for its performance. It involves the bringing together of more than 4,000 staff and a budget of more than €570 million from three existing bodies to be led by a single management team. I look forward to seeing the Bill's progress through the Houses.

The leadership for the agency is almost fully in place under the stewardship of Mr. Gordon Jeyes. Senior managers were recruited by open competition and should provide the capacity and leadership that the agency requires. Each of the senior managers will have child and family services as his or her exclusive priority. This represents a major departure from previous practice whereby senior managers often had responsibility for a list of services, none of which was directly related to children or families.

Below senior management level, there is an emphasis on strong local management operating within a clear national framework. I understand that significant work has already been undertaken at an operational and logistical level to prepare for the agency's establishment. This forms part of a two-year process of change that is under way. I understand that the committee has received recent updates on these developments. A project management team is in place and is working towards the smooth transfer of responsibilities to the agency on establishment day.

The HSE will continue to provide many services to children and families. Both agencies' staffs are likely to share space, premises and clients. There is a need to ensure that no existing synergies are lost and that more opportunities for collaborative working are established as the agency moves forward.

I have a particular personal interest in ensuring that the best interests of children are central to everything the new agency does. Their voices must be heard at every stage and the focus of the agencies' work must be on outcomes for children. I want to see a model of work ensuring that, at practical level, the voice of the child is present when a file is being reviewed. With some files, we could not find information on the children's wishes, what they had said or, unfortunately, whether they had been seen alone. There must be clear evidence that every decision for a child has his or her best interests at its core. This is what they should articulate when they are asked how they experienced the staff of the agency.

As a society, we need to establish a culture of listening to children and paying attention to their voices and lived experiences. As a social worker and a member of the child abuse commission and in carrying out case reviews, I am committed to the well-being of the 6,421 children and young people in the care of the State. The vast majority are in general or relative foster care, with smaller numbers in residential care.

The decision to remove a child from his or her home can never be the first resort. Prevention, early intervention and support to families come first. However, where children's well-being and safety are at risk and interventions are not working, taking them into State care is the right decision. It is crucial that those who take over responsibility for their safety, care and development are suited to the task, safely recruited, trained and supported in carrying out that critical role.

Another specific concern relates to ensuring with the board and CEO that the agency has the necessary resources to carry out its work effectively. The number of children and young people in the State continues to grow, with more than 1.148 million individuals aged under 18 years.

Since 2002 the number of children and young people has increased by over 13%. The demand for the services of the child and family agency is increasing year on year, with 40,000 referrals last year. We need to ensure that we have the correct staff numbers and skills mix available to carry out its functions. I understand that work is now under way to map social work provision and to review the case loads of social workers. I hope to have some of those results in the autumn.

There is much work yet to be done in establishing the new agency and it must happen while the everyday work of child welfare, family support and child protection goes on. I do not underestimate the demands of the task at management and front-line levels and pay tribute to all those involved.

Children, young people and families deserve a working agency and system that supports and protects them. There is no room for complacency. Change is very difficult for all of us, but the prize - a system fit for purpose for children and families - is one worth changing for. Child care is never finished, and new issues and challenges will emerge as society develops and changes. It is important to recognise those emerging needs, to know their extent and to develop plans, services and skills to meet them. I believe that we can never give up on children because we owe them their future. I am happy to answer any questions.

2:10 pm

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank Ms Gibbons for her comprehensive, thorough, professional and engaging presentation. Her opening remarks were refreshing and I thank her for her candour. I call on Deputy McLellan to commence.

Photo of Sandra McLellanSandra McLellan (Cork East, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome the delegation and thank Ms Gibbons for her presentation. Deputy Ó Caoláin has asked me to convey his apologies. He is very sorry but he cannot attend due to unforeseen circumstances in Monaghan which mean that he must remain in his constituency. He asked me to wish Ms Gibbons well in her role and to assure her that she has his full support. I too wish her well in her new and important role of chairperson of the child and family agency. There is a clear need for a cultural change in how we approach these matters. A series of reports lambasted the Government on its failure to protect children in care and the details of instances have horrified us all. Ms Gibbons knows more than most about the reports. The agency has great potential provided it is given the chance and the space to carry out its functions.

Recently, my colleague Deputy Ó Caoláin and I spoke on the legislation to establish the new agency. We are all familiar with the issue of the number of social workers and employees in the youth care sector. The Minister has allowed for a number of additional appointments to be made but available resources mean that the number falls far short of what is required. Ireland has relatively few child protection workers per head of population and relative to the total number of children in care.

According to the recently published report prepared last year by Lynn Peyton, 96 cases were brought to the attention of the HSE's child protection services but less than half were adequately addressed. Does Ms Gibbons believe this situation will continue? Can we expect realisable targets? Will greater pressure be placed on resources? An increasing population and increasing poverty due to austerity will increase demand. Will the new agency have adequate staffing levels to cope with demand? Is there a need to employ additional staff in order to ensure that the new workload created by the Children First guidelines can be matched?

Deputy Ó Caoláin raised issues with regard to the Minister's disbandment of the Family Support Agency board. When will a meeting of the interim or transitional board be convened? What numbers will the board accommodate?

I wish to comment on the welfare of children detained in direct provision institutions. Recently the Ombudsman, Ms Emily O'Reilly, warned that Ireland's treatment of asylum seekers may be in breach of the Constitution and international human rights. Can Ms Gibbons comment? Can she intervene on behalf of such children?

Ms Gibbons has our full support as she goes about her important work. Her presentation and curriculum vitae clearly illustrate that she is eminently qualified and very knowledgeable in this area. She has seen at first hand the damage caused by the State's dereliction of duty in so many areas. I hope the Minister and the Government give her their full support and all that she and the job deserve.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I apologise for being slightly distracted, but I anticipate that there will shortly be a vote in the Seanad.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I will inform the Senator if that happens.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
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I warmly welcome Ms Gibbons. Her experience and expertise are evident. I did question the principle of appointing a chairperson and would have preferred if the post had been advertised, but I have no difficulty with her nomination.

Will the terms of reference for the chairperson and board members be published? Its publication would help us all to understand the roles and powers of the agency and the scope of those powers. Perhaps that is part of the transition phase.

One of the difficulties I am trying to work through is the vision of the new agency. I seek clarity on its relationship with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, its interaction with the HSE and other services such as the Department of Education and Skills and other Departments. What will Ms Gibbons's powers be as chairperson? Where can she seek support? Will she be able to attend meetings of the Joint Committee on Health and Children and other bodies in order to effect and leverage necessary change? All too often we have waited for the publication of a shocking report rather than have a pre-emptive system under which a board, perhaps, could express its concern if it felt the agency was not going in the right direction.

Ms Gibbons mentioned the task force report that she actively participated in drafting. Is the new agency's vision aligned with the findings of the task force report? Does it differ? I still struggle with the vision of the new agency. I understand the generalities but I do not know which disciplines will be transferred to the agency. Last week the committee raised the issue of referrals with the Minister at its meeting. What are the referral pathways? We are all quite clear on what constitutes a child protection issue or an escalated issue, but where are we with regard to welfare concerns? In my voluntary capacity as a girl guide leader we occasionally have to advise statutory authorities of low-level concerns such as the neglect of a child. At present we are told that nothing can be done unless we escalate an issue. That is not appropriate, because it is just a concern, but someone should be able to join the dots. I know that Ms Gibbons is all too aware of such issues due to her past work with Barnardos and dealing with much more vulnerable children. Sometimes we nearly have to manipulate the system in order to get the response we want.

The budget for the new agency is quite sizeable. What is the role of the board when it comes to budgetary decisions? One-fifth of the budget will go to civil society NGO service providers. How will the budget be determined? Can Ms Gibbons explain the governance surrounding the budget?

I wish Ms Gibbons every success. We are all aware that the public must have confidence in the new agency. Yesterday a new prince was born in the UK and the first steps of the new agency will be scrutinised as much as his. We all want the agency to take firm first steps and not to become an agency for troubled children. We are experiencing a tight recession so there is a potential for the agency to become one for troubled children. I do not believe anybody here wants that to happen, but it could happen, which is why it is great to know that so many people are interested in the agency. I wish Ms Gibbons every success in her new role and the committee is more than happy to give her any support it can.

Photo of Mary Mitchell O'ConnorMary Mitchell O'Connor (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
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I welcome Ms Gibbons and thank her for her good presentation. I liked the fact that she did not use soundbites and demonstrated that she has a great understanding of children. She said she was not going to pay lip service, that her curriculum vitae clearly showed her experience and that she wants to hear children's voices. As she said, for too long children's voices were not evident in case studies or social workers' reports. Too often the Departments responsible for education and health and the health boards passed the buck and no one took responsibility. That is why I welcome the child and family agency, and I am glad it is nearly set up.

Last week I listened to some of my colleagues here asking about the agency's vision.

Will Ms Gibbons tell us a little more about the agency? What exactly is her vision? I heard the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, say that when she became Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, she did not have evidence, proper figures or proper information. Does Ms Gibbons believe she has that information and that she can target resources to help children?

I talked about paying lip service, which was very evident in the referendum on children. There was a turnout of only approximately 30%. We talk about children and we respond if we see a programme about neglect of children, bullying or whatever, yet when a referendum was put to the people we did not come out to vote. How will Ms Gibbons get the message out to the public that the voices of children need to be heard and that we need to respond not only when there is a crisis but to all of the 1.1 million or so children in this country?

2:20 pm

Ms Norah Gibbons:

I thank members for their comments. We are at the beginning of this new agency. Although much background work has been done, we really are at the beginning. We are beginning because of the HIQA investigations, which members will continue to see published. We are beginning to gather the kind of information that was not available to the Minister, as she rightly said, when she took up responsibility for this new role and for the creation of the new Department. We are very much at the beginning but we are starting to get concrete information on where children are at, particularly children with needs that are not met within their families.

The task force did not want this new agency to be an agency only for troubled children. I am very much in favour of the local in terms of meeting the needs of most or nearly all of our children and of only moving towards a regional or a national system where children have very particular needs that perhaps cannot be met locally. The best way to ensure this agency does not end up as an agency for troubled children only is to do what we are doing - that is, to build in and blend in services provided by, for example, the family resource centres, Barnardos, the Daughters of Charity and other organisations providing family support, which provide a very basic information service for children in their locality, general help and general tips which all parents, including myself, need as they start out - things that concern all families. Also, in the same place, we must offer help and support to children who need more than that.

My vision for this agency is that it is an agency not only for troubled children. However, I am very conscious that at the core, we will have children who are in the care of the State - the children who, as I said, have a huge right to demand our resources because they are in the care of the State. We have become their parents.

One of the things that is clear from the publication of the HIQA reports and which Senator van Turnhout talked about - cases in which there are concerns but we are not talking about child protection - is that there is a pathway for a decision to be made after an initial assessment. This is something the family resource centre can help with. Maybe a family has not been to the family resource centre and maybe somebody has a nugget of information which is germane to what is happening in that family but which has never been given to anybody else. For example, teachers in schools often have that nugget of information. A child is doing okay but suddenly the teacher will notice that the child is coming in without a lunch and is dishevelled in a way he or she was not previously. If the teacher does not communicate that concern to somebody who can engage with the parents and find out what is going wrong, that is likely to turn into a crisis.

Like the vision of the task force, my vision is very much for a broad-based agency, so that if a child and family come through the door or if I knock on a door and explain why I am there, I have at my disposal not only my own skills but other skills in the locality, particularly psychology skills, if that is what is needed for a child, so that he or she does not have to go on a waiting list and wait for other problems to develop. I want it to be a safe agency, a caring agency and a non-stigmatising agency, which is very important for our children and our families. In other words, we want people not to feel they are doing something really bad as parents but that they are going to the agency because they are good parents and want to be better. However, that is not to disguise the fact there will be some children who will be in need of more of a service than is basically available. The important thing is that other help and support is given to that child and that people work together.

The other aspect that comes up in all of the reports is the lack of sharing of information. As happened in the Roscommon case, 15 or 16 agencies went in but sometimes they were working quite separately from each other and not helping each other with information. People said they were there to do this bit or that bit. If we continue like that, the agency will not be a success. I am quite determined that this will be a successful agency, as are others who work in it. It has to be successful because we have been given this opportunity to do something. Although it is happening at a time when we do not have all the resources in the world, one of the things I think will greatly help is the pulling together of different agencies so that we are not using scarce resources over and over in a haphazard way and that we have a detailed plan for the child and we make good use of the resources we have.

I am a social worker, so I recognise my own bias. The agency is undertaking a review of social work caseloads in this jurisdiction. It has been done in different countries at different times and I am sure we have tried to do it before. I am looking forward to the results of that review. If we identify that we need more resources, we will talk to the Government about that situation. That is our responsibility. However, we might also identify that we need many more family support workers, for example, a mix of resources and a mix of skills. I am looking forward to seeing that work, which has been going on over the past two years. That kind of information will be readily available to us. It will then be my responsibility and that of the board, together with the CEO, to talk to the relevant Department about the resources we need, and I put the Minister on notice in this regard.

What happens if we do not have the resources? What gets left behind? I referred to the partnership with key providers in family support. We all need to work towards the one goal. What are we doing? What is the outcome for the child for which we hope? Are we on the right path? Sometimes one goes down a path with a child and family but it does not work. If we have tried very hard but it is not working, what else do we need to do for this family rather than add in another service?

We have a lot of work to do but we are on a good path and we are beginning to have the kind of information from the HIQA reports and the internal audits - such as the neglect audit, which needs to happen in other places - to see what learning we need to pick up. I am really pleased that in the autumn, Ms Lynn Peyton from Northern Ireland and Dr. Helen Buckley from Trinity College Dublin will take the results of that neglect audit and of the reviews into significant incidents and child deaths and hold concentrated workshops with staff to pull the learning out from all these inquiries so that they do not get put on a shelf. I am very committed to the continuation of that kind of learning because, as we would have known in the Roscommon case, despite the fact that there was a very similar tragic death of a child in the neighbouring county, the staff to whom I spoke had never had it discussed with them. It was discussed at the time and then it was left there. New staff were not acquainted with the lessons from those reviews. It is really important that we pick up on that.

In response to Deputy McLellan, I do not believe we will get that level of neglect coming back over time. I do not believe poverty is in any way equal to abuse. Many families living in and experiencing poverty do not in any way abuse their children but, of course, financial worries on top of other problems in a family can exacerbate parenting issues.

We all need to recognise that. During these times we know that more children are living in consistent poverty and more children are at risk of poverty, and we need to be alert to that. The money going into a family is very important in respect of poverty, but so are the services available to those families. We need to build the family support and NEWB work to make sure that it remains with us.

There are 12 members of the board of the current Family Support Agency. My first appointment - as long as members are happy - is as chairperson of that agency and that will be my main task. I do not take over as chairperson of the board of the child and family agency until it is established. I will arrange a meeting of the board when the Minister tells me who is appointed to the board. I have already been going into the offices of the Family Support Agency on Fridays - they have been very kind to me - and I have acquainted myself further with the work of the agency. I was delighted to attend two weeks ago when family resource centres from around the country were showing us the work they were doing, and I hope to get out and see more of them. I value that work very much.

I have had concerns about children in direct provision for some time, because some of the direct provision available in this country is not perhaps in children's best interests. It is certainly not in their best interests to stay there for a long period of time. Clearly the HSE child and family services would always respond if there were specific child protection concerns expressed to them. Children and families should obviously not be there. It is not a place to bring up children, because the fundamental things, such as what to cook and when to cook for them, are not available. I hope that we in Ireland can do better and we should heed the warning of the Ombudsman that this is an area that we do not want to be investigating in a few years.

2:30 pm

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Is there a timeframe in which we can move away from that?

Ms Norah Gibbons:

I would like timeframes. I am inclined to be impatient and I must curb it a bit sometimes, but we should be in a position to move away because we are not under the same pressure of numbers, even if we are under some financial pressure. Many of these children will remain as citizens growing up in this country and we want the best for them, as we do for everybody else.

Ms Elizabeth Canavan:

When we sent out the expressions of interest for board membership, we provided some terms of reference on what was involved. We can send those to the committee. The terms of reference are essentially the terms of reference of the FSA board as set out in statute. The role in respect of the new agency is limited until such time as that agency is established. The Minister hopes that on an administrative level, Ms Gibbons and whoever else comes on to the board will begin talking about the plans for the transition to the new agency. The whole idea is to have that kind of continuity. From a statutory point of view, the FSA terms of reference will be the terms of reference in the new agency.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Is it envisaged that the relationship between the Minister, the Department and the board will be independent?

Ms Elizabeth Canavan:

It is similar to any agency. The reporting relationships are from the CEO to the chairperson of the board and there is a relationship between the chairperson and the Minister. There are other relationships between the chief executive, the chairperson and the accounting officer for accounting issues. The arrangements are similar to those of any State body between the CEO, the chairperson and the Minister.

Photo of Regina DohertyRegina Doherty (Meath East, Fine Gael)
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I thank the witnesses for coming in today. It is unusual that the purpose of today's meeting is to scrutinise this appointment because we absolutely lucked out when we got somebody of the quality of Ms Gibbons. She has such a concern and passion for children's welfare, along with Mr. Shannon and the entire team that is being compiled. I wish them every success and we would like to offer any support we can on this committee. I love the fact that Ms Gibbons is impatient. I hope she can see that the questions coming from us demonstrate that we are impatient. I appreciate that until only recently we have had a relatively dysfunctional delivery of services, but at least we have had a good start. We all want to see it perfect by next Tuesday, but of course that will not happen.

When public health nurses came before us a few weeks ago, they expressed public and private concerns that they are not in the first phase. The new director designate, Mr. John Hennessy, also shared their concern that if the agency is only established with the NEWB and the child care people, then unfortunately it may garner the name of an agency that only looks after children who are in crisis. Ms Gibbons obviously knows that the task is not to do that, but to be all-encompassing. What plans does she have to ensure this does not happen in the interim period? How quickly does she envisage all of the other services being added? What is the timeframe for the agency roadmap from the initial stages to becoming something that is robust and can provide all services to children with their best outcomes in mind?

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank Ms Gibbons for her presentation. Nobody in this room doubts her sincerity, capability and experience. I have only a few questions. How does she see the integration of the NEWB role within the new agency? Her presentation referred to the need for society to invest in preparing and supporting parents in a parenting and caring role. Coming from a voluntary community background, I believe that parenting begins at home and within the family circle. We tend to pigeonhole people in communities. If a person lived in a certain flats complex he or she was put in a particular pigeonhole, but if the person lived in a housing estate he or she was not put in that pigeonhole. We have to be responsible for all children, whether they live in a housing estate, a flats complex or a private housing scheme. They all need services at certain stages. Can Ms Gibbons expand on investing in support for parenting? The key issue is how we view family surroundings and family links.

The presentation also referred to the task force on alcohol, the abuse of alcohol among parents and the concerns about neglect and the impact on families and communities. In a report I read recently I was astonished to see that there was a 375% jump in the number of young people between the ages of 18 and 35 who will need new livers. We have many lone parents in the community I represent and in fact I would say we have children rearing children, because many of these lone parents are 18 or 19 years of age. In my eyes, they are still only very young adults. The abuse of alcohol has grown remarkably among that age group, and not just among lone parents but right across family circles, where most people drink alcohol at home. Going out for a drink is no longer the norm.

Ms Gibbons referred to poverty among children. I believe that being poor is nothing to be ashamed of. We have labelled people in the bracket of being disadvantaged and so on. Being poor does not mean being neglected. I grew up with children who did not have a pair of shoes but, by God, they had great parents. This relates to what I said in the beginning about parenting and how we help to provide services for young people with young families who are only learning to be parents at this stage. Does the agency have a role in that regard? Perhaps it is not the job of the agency, but I call on Ms Gibbons to address the question.

2:40 pm

Photo of Robert DowdsRobert Dowds (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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On my behalf and on behalf of Deputy Ciara Conway, who is the Vice Chairman of the committee and who specifically asked me to say so, I welcome Ms Gibbons to the meeting following her appointment. Like many people on the committee I have had a good deal of experience dealing with children. I was a teacher before I was elected to this establishment. One thing that frustrated me in my years teaching was that when the school staff became aware of inadequacies in various family homes we did not necessarily believe that adequate services were available to deal with the problems. As Deputy Catherine Byrne remarked, these difficulties may have included problems with alcohol and the resultant impact on children, or neglect.

I appreciate the fact that Ms Gibbons is impatient and I get the message. Perhaps Ms Gibbons will confirm whether I understood her correctly, but I took it that she intends to fight tooth and nail to try to ensure that all services will be as effective as possible. One problem relates to after-hours interventions. Often, the worst problems arise after hours. I am unsure whether Ms Gibbons can say anything about how such issues could be addressed. I was directly involved in one or two cases and I cannot say that I was happy with how some of the social services handled them.

Deputy Catherine Byrne raised the issue of the number of inexperienced single parents. I am well aware of the fact that many of those single mothers do a great job, but clearly there are some who find it very difficult to cope. Is there a need for the State or some agency to try to encourage people not to have children until they have a settled situation? To what extent does Ms Gibbons believe that problems in childhood are tied up with dysfunctional family situations? How can we best get away from those dysfunctional family situations?

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome Ms Gibbons and I wish her every success in her new role. It is a major challenge. One thing I find is that there are people who are self-employed and who employ several people who complain about some things to do with the Government. Then, when I ask them how their management situation is, it emerges that they are having difficulty. They might have a staff of fewer than ten people. There is major challenge in managing 4,000 people and I wish Ms Gibbons every success in putting the structures together.

I wish to touch on the time Ms Gibbons spent working in the United Kingdom and the changes that occurred there. Let us look at it from an Irish point of view. At what stage does Ms Gibbons believe we are here? How much catching up have we to do? I am not suggesting we should use the UK as the example, but, from international point of view, how much catching up do we have to do? What timescale will be required?

The other area I wish to mention is that of the family law courts, an area in which I have had some experience. While there is no major issue with children in the sense of their not being properly looked after, they get caught up in the process of the family law courts. What is the nature of the involvement of social services in giving backup support to parents there? How does Ms Gibbons envisage that area improving? We have talked about setting up a new structure for the long-term in the family law courts and that is an important element that we need to see emerging.

We are undertaking a major and welcome change, but will the process of change be fast enough? I raise this question in particular because Ms Gibbons referred to coming back from the UK. A person I know who was working in medical services in the UK came back to Ireland. One thing that struck her while working in Dublin was the number of girls coming to maternity wards under 18 years of age. She was surprised that there was no specific service aimed at young people. She suggested at the time that there should be a specific clinic to deal with the group of people under 18 years of age. It was amazing that it took ten years for that clinic to be set up in the hospital in question. There was resistance to change. Ms Gibbons has referred to major changes in the setting up of the new structures. Does Ms Gibbons believe the support levels are in place to implement that change? Does she believe it will come fast enough? This relates to my earlier question about catching up. How long will that take?

Photo of Eamonn MaloneyEamonn Maloney (Dublin South West, Labour)
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I concur with the other people in welcoming Ms Gibbons and her colleagues. I apologise for my lateness. I was overcome by the birth of the third heir to the throne.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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We are dealing with the appointment of the chairperson of the child and family agency.

Photo of Eamonn MaloneyEamonn Maloney (Dublin South West, Labour)
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I have to present some argument for being late and that is the best I can do.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I never took you for a royalist, Deputy.

Photo of Eamonn MaloneyEamonn Maloney (Dublin South West, Labour)
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I will take that as a compliment. I would be worried if you thought otherwise.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Let us get back to the matter at hand.

Photo of Eamonn MaloneyEamonn Maloney (Dublin South West, Labour)
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In previous debates I have welcomed the establishment of the agency and complimented the Minister, who, in a short period, has been very innovative and committed to the subject we are discussing - that is, the welfare and protection of children. In one respect it is regrettable that our society needs such an agency. It is a reflection of some bad things in our society, of which I am a part. As in many other areas, perhaps we have deluded ourselves as a society about some difficult things that have taken place in our short history.

I concur with everything that the people to my right and left have said about the role of the State in terms of caring for children. I accept all of it. However, I wish to make one point and ask Ms Gibbons one question. The role of the State is one thing, but I had a telephone conversation with one of the unfortunate woman who was in the Magdalen laundries. She now lives in County Cork. She wrote to me on the basis of a comment I had made in the Dáil. We had a good conversation and she made one particularly interesting point. We were discussing the role of the church and State in respect of the bad treatment these women received. She was very polite but she stopped me at one stage, and rightly so, to say to me that it was not only the church and State but it was society too. We were all to blame.

I almost dropped the phone, but she was quite right.

The figures do not make for very pleasant reading. For example, the figures for 2012 from the ISPCC show there were 750,000 calls to its very good helpline, Childline. We have a real problem if such large numbers of children are telephoning a charity for help. Whatever about the role of the State - I am in favour of providing the best of services - we will eventually have to face the fact that there is something wrong with adults who, in such large numbers, treat children so badly.

2:50 pm

Ms Norah Gibbons:

I thank the Deputies. I will respond to Deputy Maloney first. I firmly believe that children are the responsibility of every one of us and very much welcome that the Children First guidelines will be put on a statutory basis. That will tell every citizen that he or she has a responsibility if things are going wrong for children.

Unfortunately, we are not unique in not recognising children as full individuals in their own right. It is only relatively recently in the first world that we have treated children as people who should be heard, listened to and given their own voice. All of us who grew up in Ireland, even with the very best of parents, know that one was told what was good for one rather than being asked.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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There is a vote in the Seanad.

Ms Norah Gibbons:

I very much welcome the discussion that took place in the State during the children's referendum campaign on recognising the voices of children. People are beginning to understand, albeit not in the numbers we would have liked, that children are unique by reason of their youthfulness and we need to pay special attention to them.

Parenting courses of different types and quality have been taking place for many years in the country. The triple P parenting programme, which has been tested and works, is now available. It is supported by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the Department of Health and is being rolled out in the midlands. We hope it will be rolled out over time.

I constantly refer to family resource centres because I am very fond of the services they provide. Last year, 1,242 adults and 566 children benefitted from programme activities, including parenting programmes and the Strengthening Families programmes. The community mothers programme, under which mothers in the community visit first-time mothers, particularly those at risk, has been widely deployed throughout the country.

For many years I was the chair of Treoir, the organisation providing support for young parents. The number of parents aged under 18 is falling and has been for some time, which is good. Once young people are looking forward to a different life involving work, the rate decreases. Young parents are not bad parents; rather, they can be very good parents if they have support within their families. In the past, as the committee knows, the tradition in Ireland, unfortunately, was that young parents were removed from the family orbit because people did not want to acknowledge what had happened. Nowadays they are kept within the family and for most of them things work very well.

There are a number of programmes for young parents. I was previously employed by Barnardos, which runs one of them. Others, run by the HSE and other organisations around the country, are specifically about supporting teenage parents and taking over from the specialised clinics to which Senator Burke referred. We do not need to set up a specific programme but, rather, to help parents into programmes that already exist. With the integration of resources into one agency that will be easier. If we discover an area of the country has nothing for teenage parents we can talk to the family resource centres easily, because they will be a part of the whole, as well as other agencies. We will able to identify that a need has arisen and ask whether the agency can address it. I recognise that we cannot always build in new resources. We must examine how we are using the current resources.

The NEWB is joining the child and family agency and will have a representative on the senior management team, as I understand it. It will continue to carry out its current role; the Act will not change that. It will come under the board of the child and family agency but its tasks will remain the same. I am very happy that as the agencies begin to work as one the information and expertise they have will be much easier to access for children who may be at serious risk of falling out of school, which is a key factor. If we want to succeed with children and young people we need to keep them in the education system or adapt it to hold onto such children, particularly troubled children who are often in services such as Youthreach.

Alcohol is a major problem for children and families in this country. It is a major problem for the country. I know the Government is examining the issue. It is, perhaps, difficult to admit to the level of misuse of alcohol in this country. It is a major public health matter and is commented on as such. It is to be hoped there will be some recognition of that.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Does Ms Gibbons have a view on the role of children and their input in terms of the consumption of alcohol?

Ms Norah Gibbons:

We have good laws on not serving children and young people. In my view, children are more abused by alcohol than they are abusers of alcohol. As a country we have had various discussions about whether we will continue alcohol sponsorship for sports, advertising of alcohol near schools and things like that. In my view that is not helpful, and it is not helpful for us to portray alcohol to young people as something they have to consume. I hope that our emphasis on being healthier and taking part in exercise will be more helpful to young people. Advertising conveys strong messages to young people. If one sees all of one's idols taking part in something, it is likely one would think that is the thing to do.

Public health nurses have a very strong role to play in families. The new agency is building strong foundations and is already working with HSE on how all parts of the HSE, not just public health nurses, will still be in place for children and families and how they will interact.

I understand negotiations are at an advanced stage with regard to the project planning to which I referred. Not all of that has been worked out, and I understand Deputy Doherty's comments. We have to take particular care that we do not lose the expertise of public health nurses for children, particularly those involved at an early stage with families, and the role they play in keeping children safe, together with the rest of us.

Part of the information to which I referred in my opening statement was that Children First would be put on a statutory basis. Locally, it is really important that when care pathways are being worked out for referrals, more and more of which are coming in, we are able to get welfare services in to support children where there is not a level of concern that would lead to child protection issues.

I understand from the CEO designate that a plan is underway for after-hours services and there will be a report in the autumn. It is hoped to roll out an after-hours service on a national basis, starting in urban areas. Particular issues arise in rural provision.

That is not to say there are no problems in our rural society, as we all know well. I agree that problems do not only arise between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., but we have a plan to do this, which we did not have previously. The encouraging aspect for me is that many suggestions that were not taken on board are now being taken on board and the plans are in place to advance them. It will not happen all at once, despite my impatience, and I must remember that.

I think those were all the notes I made. If I have missed anything, please advise me.

3:00 pm

Photo of Catherine ByrneCatherine Byrne (Dublin South Central, Fine Gael)
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I want to make it clear to Ms Gibbons that I did not say I believed lone parents were bad parents, because I know many of them and I have contact with many lone parents through my work, particularly with regard to housing difficulties in Dublin, about which parents with two children, who are perhaps expecting another, come to see me. Many of the young parents I know are not the first generation of lone parents but may be the second or third generation. I was trying to emphasise that to Ms Gibbons and may not have been clear in what I said. There is a history of lone parents over two and three generations in some communities. I had a young family, although my baby is now 20 and has just finished college. Many young people who were in school with my daughter have lost out on advancing their education because they had children younger and therefore found it difficult to get back into the system. I have no doubt that the youth projects are doing a wonderful job in trying to work locally with young people who left school at a particular age. Ms Gibbons said the numbers involved were falling but I remain concerned about the people who come to my clinics with a housing query because they are very young. Not only do some of them have one child but they may be expecting another. I am concerned about that cycle, particularly in certain communities. That is the reason I asked the question about the agency. Does Ms Gibbons see the agency having a role in trying to encourage people to hold off having a family until they complete their education and get a job or work experience? In my role as a public representative and, long before I went into politics, as a voluntary community representative I found there was a generation of people coming through who were lone parents and within whose families there was a cycle of not attending school and not sitting the junior or leaving certificate. I remain concerned that I continue to see the same picture, which has not changed dramatically, in my work today that I saw in my work when I was a teenager in a youth club. I am trying to get my head around that. I know the agency and the board have the specific task of bringing together people from the various groups but I ask that the board examine that situation because it is a real problem in some, although not all, communities. I did not use the word "problem" to describe a lone parent.

Ms Norah Gibbons:

I did not mean to suggest that Deputy Byrne or indeed anybody was critical of lone parents. I know from my own work with lone parents that they can be very good parents. As a country we are doing much better at retaining children in second level education. That is one of the positive findings in our recent state of the nation report. There was much work to be done in the areas of education and youth work, which is now under the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. That has been pulled together in terms of helping people to make good decisions in many areas. I note the Deputy's concern about it. All things being equal, if one can put off starting a family until a later point in life, one is much better suited to be a parent. One has much more energy and one knows what one wants if one is not trying to grow up while one is parenting, although many of us do our growing up once we have children of our own for whom we are responsible. However, I note what Deputy Byrne said.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank Ms Gibbons for her enlightened engagement with the committee. She came before us with a strong professional background and from her opening remarks and her engagement it is clear that her appointment is the correct decision. She has reaffirmed that by her engagement with the committee this afternoon. I thank her sincerely for that.

I join Ms Gibbons in saluting the bravery of those witnesses who met with the Commission of Inquiry into Child Abuse. Ms Gibbons was right to highlight that they were brave in helping to shed light on an awful period in our history. That was one of the most important parts of her engagement with the committee. Her views were refreshing and I was struck by the fact that she has the best interests of the child and the family at heart and that this is central to everything she does. I acknowledge also the role of the staff who work with children across our State. We are all conscious of their workload and the changing background of the work they do but with Ms Gibbons as chairperson of the child and family agency, it is off to a very good start.

That concludes our engagement with the chairperson designate. Is it agreed that we will inform the Minister that we have concluded our discussion with Ms Gibbons, that we found it to be very positive, and that we will forward a copy of the transcript of these proceedings to the Minister for her information? Agreed.

I thank all the witnesses. I again acknowledge the presence of Mr. Bill O'Dea, Mr. Gerard McKiernan, Ms Liz Canavan and also Ms Gibbons' daughter, Mairead. I thank the members for attending. I remind them that the committee will adjourn until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday for our quarterly meeting with the Minister for Health, the Ministers of State and the Health Service Executive.

The joint committee adjourned at 3.20 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 25 July 2013.