Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 1 April 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children
General Scheme of Aftercare Bill 2014: Discussion
I welcome the delegates and thank them for attending. I apologise to them for the late start and thank them for their patience. We had to discuss a number of issues in private session. I welcome the viewers watching our proceedings on UPC this afternoon.
We are present to consider the general scheme or heads of the aftercare Bill 2014, which places a statutory duty on the Child and Family Agency to prepare an aftercare plan for each eligible child or young person and review, on request, an aftercare plan for an eligible young person, to provide that the Minister may make regulations on the matter and to provide for related matters.
I welcome, from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, Mr. Albert O'Donoghue, principal officer responsible for alternative care policy, and Michele Clarke, principal officer. I welcome Mr. Fred McBride and Ms Siobhan Mugan from the Child and Family Agency. I welcome also Ms June Tinsley of Barnardos, Ms Jennifer Gargan, director of EPIC, Ms Tanya Ward of the Children's Rights Alliance, and Mr. Mike Allen of Focus Ireland.
Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that evidence connected only with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or persons or an entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice or ruling of the Chair to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I call on Mr. Albert O'Donoghue to make his opening remarks.
Mr. Albert O'Donoghue:
I thank the members of the committee for their consideration of this Bill. I thank my colleagues in the Child and Family Agency and the representatives of Barnardos, the Children's Rights Alliance, Focus Ireland and EPIC, all of whom are present to contribute to the debate.
The provision of an appropriate aftercare service has been highlighted as a key element in achieving positive outcomes for young people leaving care. It is essential that all young people leaving care be provided with the type of transitional support that their individual circumstances require. While aftercare has been in existence for many years, the agency's national aftercare policy, operational since 2011, has improved the standard and consistency of aftercare planning and service delivery.
The vast majority of children in care live in foster care. Many of these young people remain living with their foster carers after they reach the age of 18. The agency advises that, at the end of December last year, 1,163 young people were in receipt of an aftercare service. Of those aged between 18 and 20, inclusive, some 55% were in full-time education. There were 639 young people in aftercare who were supported financially by the agency to remain living with their foster carers. These young people did not have to face the transition associated with leaving their foster carers at 18 and they received the main support from their carers with additional input from an aftercare worker. One hundred and ten young people were in a range of supported living arrangements, from supported lodgings and living with an assessed and vetted adult in a domestic setting to semi-independent flats with access to an aftercare key worker.
The most vulnerable group of children, however, comprises those living in residential care for short-term foster care placements. Children who come late into care, in their mid- to late teens, might not have developed the relationships with staff or aftercare workers that would help them to achieve good outcomes. It is essential that these children have the opportunity to develop a relationship with a dedicated aftercare worker who will work with them to identify their needs and ensure services are in place to help to provide them with the stability and support they need. These are the children who are most vulnerable to homelessness as young care leavers.
Ideally, aftercare services should provide the range and continuum of services to assist with the varying needs of young people leaving care to enable them to achieve a successful transition from the care environment to independent adult life in the community. A key factor in providing appropriate aftercare comprises the assessment and care planning that should take place in consultation with the young person and key individuals in the period coming up to the end of the legal care relationship between the State and the child. The transition period presents serious challenges to young people and agency staff alike, as the young adults encounter all the usual developmental issues associated with leaving home, in many cases without the security of a stable background for support and having been affected by early failures of attachment. Some young people, on leaving care, declare themselves independent of State services and are reluctant to engage further with such services. This in itself presents a particular challenge to service providers.
Aftercare provision incorporates advice, guidance and practical support. An individual needs assessment identifies where the young person will live, his education or training requirements and the financial and social network supports that are needed. One of the key features of an aftercare worker's role is to advocate on behalf of young people and promote their development, as fulfilled adults, in their community and, when necessary, link them to the appropriate services.
Under the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 and the Child Care Act 1991, the Child and Family Agency has a statutory duty to promote the welfare of children up to the age of 18 years who are not receiving adequate care and protection.
The Child Care Act 1991 provides that, where necessary, the agency may take the child into care either on a voluntary basis or by applying to the court for a care order.
Section 45 of the Child Care Act 1991 provides that the agency may assist a child leaving its care if it is satisfied that the person has a need for assistance. The provisions have been interpreted and applied on the basis that young people who have a care history with the agency are entitled to an assessment of need, from which an aftercare plan may be prepared and an aftercare service may be offered, based on assessed need. The legislation provides that the core eligible age range for aftercare is from 18 years to 21 years. This can be extended until the completion of a course of education and training in which a young person who has left care, or is leaving care, is engaged.
Last year, the Minister decided to strengthen the legislative provisions regarding aftercare to respond to past concerns that there was insufficient focus in the area and that such planning was not taking place on a properly structured and consistent basis. The approach adopted is to impose a statutory duty on the agency to prepare an aftercare plan for an eligible child or eligible young person. The aim is to create an explicit, as opposed to implicit, statement of the agency’s duty to satisfy itself as to the child’s or young person’s need for assistance by preparing a plan that identifies those needs for aftercare supports. The approach also clarifies the children eligible for an aftercare plan and promotes a broader approach than was the case previously or found in practice.
The draft provisions also clarify the range of agencies providing relevant services with which the agency will co-operate in the development of the plan. The prioritisation of services for young people receiving aftercare is considered in the context of the statutory and administrative criteria and rules relating to State provision of services and the requirement of all State bodies to provide services in accordance with resources available to them. The agency and officials of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs intend exploring these matters further with the relevant Departments and agencies on a bilateral basis as we continue to support the improvement of aftercare for this vulnerable cohort of children and young people.
The provisions in the draft Bill provide for an explicit requirement to prepare an aftercare plan in respect of a specified cohort of children and young people as they transition from State care. The scheme attempts to take account of the need for a degree of nuance in planning for leaving care for young people at a time that is appropriate and sensitive to their particular needs. At the same time, the intention is to ensure that the preparations take place in good time to allow a young person to participate in the preparations, to ensure the young person can prepare him- or herself for changes that may be occurring, and to ensure that the necessary supports can be identified and, subject to availability, put in place. The intention is to make the transition as seamless as possible at a time when young people can be particularly vulnerable. All of these provisions are to be effected by way of amendment to section 45 of the Child Care Act 1991.
The provisions will create an absolute obligation on the agency to implement a national standardised structure for aftercare planning, assessment and provision. While operationally the agency has been moving significantly in that direction, a point on which Mr. McBride will elaborate in respect of the progress of the agency, this provision clarifies and copperfastens the requirement for an aftercare plan. It puts such planning on the same footing as other statutory obligations on the agency. It guarantees the progress made to date will continue.
It is worth saying that the precursor of the agency, the HSE, developed aftercare plans and provided an aftercare service over many years. It provided resources to support young people in education and training, with accommodation and emotional and social support. However, reasonable criticisms were made that there were inconsistencies in how aftercare was provided and some confusion about who was eligible. This proposed legislation will now clarify and broaden the criteria of children who become eligible for an aftercare plan. In particular, it allows for young people who may wish to disengage with the agency at 17 or 18 years to reopen discussions in the future about the aftercare planning process. The aftercare planning process is a natural extension of the care planning process and it is a step necessary to ensure that the challenges of the transition to independent adulthood are recognised fully by way of an assessment for aftercare and that the plan put in place is appropriate for each individual young person’s needs.
Finally, many young people and their foster carers assume that aftercare will be provided by the foster family with which they continue to reside. In these instances, it is the foster carers who provide the emotional and social support of aftercare, while the agency plays a supportive role.
Mr. Fred McBride:
On behalf of the Child and Family Agency, I welcome this opportunity to offer our views on the heads of the aftercare Bill 2014. In this statement, we wish to cover three main areas - progress in the development of aftercare services to date, information on current levels of service activity, and comments on specific aspects of the heads of the aftercare Bill. I am joined by my colleague Ms Siobhan Mugan, national policy development manager for alternative care.
On the progress of the development of aftercare services to date, I am pleased to say they are a key priority in the Child and Family Agency's business plan for 2014. The agency is committed to further improving and developing aftercare services and building on the commitments of the national leaving and aftercare policy, which was issued in 2011. The aim of this programme is to standardise the delivery of leaving and aftercare services across the country so that every young person who is eligible will be provided with services to meet his or her assessed and identified needs. In order achieve this, the work will be underpinned by inter-agency co-operation in the following areas. There will be standardisation and equity of service in accordance with assessed need, workforce development, the development of positive outcomes and outcome measures for young care leavers, and timely and accessible information. This will ensure resources are deployed to maximum effect and that a consistent service is provided in partnership with other statutory and non-statutory agencies.
A number of specific areas of action have been prioritised. These are the development of a dedicated aftercare service in each of the 17 functional areas of the Child and Family Agency; the standardisation of a range of financial packages to care leavers and care providers such as foster carers; the introduction of aftercare steering committees at local level; and the further development of the Child and Family Website, www.tusla.ie, to include a section dedicated to the provision of information on aftercare services in Ireland.
With regard to service activity, the leaving and aftercare services staff complement is currently 44 dedicated whole-time equivalents, with additional services provided through service level agreements with Focus Ireland, Clarecare, Don Bosco and the Simon Community. While there are vacancies at present, these have been approved for filling, the recruitment process has been concluded, and preferred candidates are now being employed.
The following points set out key information relating to service provision. There are currently 6,490 children in care as of January 2014. Almost 1,500 young people over 18 years of age are in receipt of an aftercare service, representing 70% of care leavers eligible for a service. Approximately 45% of these young people remained with their foster carers beyond the age of 18 years, which compares favourably with neighbouring jurisdictions. Some 60% of care leavers, as of January this year, were in some form of education or training. This also compares favourably with neighbouring jurisdictions, where my experience is that the figure can be as low as 30%. The support provided through aftercare can range from advice and support by an allocated worker to a financial package, which may include financial support to foster carers, a living allowance and travel costs.
With regard to the view of the Child and Family Agency on the proposed heads of the aftercare Bill, we welcome the proposed enhancement to the legislation on aftercare services and the agency is committed to supporting young people on leaving care. In respect of eligibility criteria for the service, under the agency's current national policy the following criteria are applied. Eighteen to 21 years is the core eligible age range for aftercare services. The second criterion is that a young person has been in the statutory care of the Child and Family Agency for a minimum period of 12 months on his or her 16th birthday. The third is that, where a young person is in the statutory care of the Child and Family Agency after the age of 16, he or she must be in care for a minimum period of 12 consecutive months prior to his or her 18th birthday.
Aftercare services are available to all those eligible, irrespective of which care sector they have been in - foster care, residential care or high-support. The length of time for receiving aftercare support is dictated by an ongoing needs assessment, up to 21 years, unless the person is in education, in which case the Child and Family Agency can support until 23 years. Until the young person reaches the age of 18 years he or she is still considered a minor under the Child Care Act 1991 and any issues pertaining to his or her welfare and risk are matters for the social work child protection and welfare teams. On occasion, a young person may continue to be in care until his or her 18th birthday, but may reside at his or her family home as part of the aftercare plan. These young people may remain eligible for aftercare advice and guidance up to the age of 21 years if they meet the above criteria. We welcome discussion on any proposed changes to these criteria and the implications thereof.
This section of the Bill does not in the first instance emphasise the importance of the assessment of need and how it relates and links to the level of services required to meet the need. Although a young person may meet the eligibility criteria, he or she may not, following assessment, require a service. Therefore we suggest the heads of Bill reflect a logical sequence of assessing the needs of those who are eligible for a service, the development of a multi-agency plan to meet those needs and the commitment of the relevant agencies and services to deliver the plan.
The Child and Family Agency is tasked with the provision of care and protection to children in the State who are assessed as needing it. However, to meet a child's needs in full requires a multi-agency response. The Child and Family Agency has the lead in the area of child protection and welfare but does not have a lead in other domains of the child or young person's life, such as health, education, housing and accommodation and income support. To meet the holistic needs of the child and young adult, all agencies must work together to ensure that those basic rights to services are met.
The provision of aftercare services is highly dependent on the co-operation of Departments, the Health Service Executive, HSE, housing authorities, educational institutions and non-statutory agencies in order that the young person's aftercare plan can be fully implemented. The agency therefore advises that the proposed legislation which provides for the development of a leaving and aftercare plan for every young person who meets the criteria can only be delivered in a system of inter-agency co-operation through the development of robust memorandums of understanding and joint working protocols. The duties of the heads of Bill all fall to the Child and Family Agency. There is an opportunity to place a duty to co-operate on the other agencies and services.
The proposed enhancement of the Child and Family Agency's responsibilities within the heads of Bill is welcome. The introduction of such legislation will play an important role in increasing the numbers of young people who receive support and assistance on leaving the care system. The Child and Family Agency is committed to developing the highest possible standards in the provision of these services, work which has already commenced. The focus is on ensuring young people are prepared and supported in making the transition to adult life through further educational attainment, suitable secure accommodation and the provision of timely therapeutic services by specialist services when required.
The agency recently published its initial statement of purpose, entitled Ireland's Child and Family Agency: Towards a Shared Purpose. The aim of this document is to enable a wide-ranging consultation and debate regarding the priorities and key objectives for the agency in the preparation of its first three-year plan, which will be published in the summer of 2014. We are inviting partners and stakeholders to critique this document to ensure the priorities outlined are the top priorities for Ireland's children. Consultation with the service providers and, in particular, young people in care and aftercare are and will continue to be an important part of this process.
Ms June Tinsley:
We warmly welcome the committee's invitation to discuss the heads of the aftercare Bill. Barnardos is delighted to be here with colleagues from Action for Aftercare, a coalition made up of a range of organisations and individuals who are concerned about the needs of care leavers. The group consists of a mix of service providers and advocates. The main organisations include Barnardos, the Children’s Rights Alliance, Empowering People in Care, EPIC, and Focus Ireland.
Individually and collectively we have been lobbying for improvements to aftercare for all care leavers. Through our experiences of working with care leavers we know that some are particularly vulnerable, and turning 18 can be a time of huge uncertainty and unpreparedness. Depending on the type and duration of their care experience, they often have a less secure network of family and friends to help them with this transition into adulthood. That is why the State, as the corporate parent, must ensure that sufficient supports, such as personal or financial supports, are available to them to ease this transition, just as any other parent would.
Action for Aftercare has been monitoring and feeding into the policy developments and legislative debates on aftercare in recent years. Thankfully, some positive strides have been made, including the HSE leaving and aftercare services national policy and procedures document 2011 and more recently the implementation plan to accompany the roll-out of this policy. The ongoing commitment of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to strengthen entitlement to aftercare is much appreciated. Despite these advances, however, the provision of services and supports remains inconsistent across the country.
Overall, we broadly welcome this Bill and believe it is a significant step forward. Therefore, to minimise any duplication, we have decided to concentrate on different themes in our presentations. I will examine the different eligibility criteria being proposed, EPIC will discuss strengthening the assessment process, Children's Rights Alliance will highlight the need for a rights-based approach to the legislation and Focus Ireland will outline the challenges currently facing care leavers.
The legislation must synchronise with the HSE leaving and aftercare services national policy and procedures. There must be common language used in both to ensure that professionals across a range of sectors have a shared understanding. The HSE policy emphasises the process involved in preparing for leaving care as well as aftercare. Therefore, the Bill and the regulations flowing from it must also adopt this holistic perspective, based on the idea that preparation is not a once-off event but a process that takes time and commitment. Allowing for sufficient preparation for leaving care is vital to ensuring an easier transition to independent living for these young people.
With regard to head No. 1 of the Bill, Barnardos recommends that the legislation should provide a clear definition of aftercare to ensure that all professionals engaged with young people have the same understanding. Generally, Barnardos agrees with the definition of "eligible child" and "eligible young person" as proposed in the Bill. The categories recognise the diverse and inconsistent care patterns that exist for some children. These definitions are broader than those that apply in the HSE leaving and aftercare services policy and we welcome that. The policy and legislation need to be synchronised.
We would like, however, to make some recommendations to strengthen the eligibility criteria so that it is not too blunt an instrument, thereby excluding those particularly vulnerable young people who do require an aftercare plan and further supports just because they do not fit a clear definition. First, young people up to the age of 25 are under the remit of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. The forthcoming national children and young people’s policy framework will outline actions and supports for all, up to age 25 years. Barnardos would like to see this age range translated into this legislation, rather than a ceasing of engagement with care leavers at 21. Extending the age range would mean that young people up to the age of 25 would be entitled to an aftercare plan. This is also in line with some international standards.
Second, from the categories proposed, it is unclear whether those children who are in the care system under section 5 of the Child Care Act 1991 are included in the Bill. This is particularly relevant for those aged 17 years who would not meet the 12-month criteria yet are often at high risk of continued homelessness. Third, the Bill does not include those who choose not to engage at 18 and do not present to the agency later. Instead, it places a duty on these care leavers to present themselves to the agency.
Given how vulnerable and disempowered this group of young people can be, Barnardos believes there should be a legal obligation on the agency to attempt to re-engage them after they leave care. This could include getting aftercare staff to follow up with them at three-month intervals within their first year of leaving care to encourage the young person to re-engage as proposed in the HSE policy.
Fourth, those young people who have experienced the care system but who end their childhood in detention centres should also be entitled to an aftercare plan. Finally, it is important that the Bill allow for exceptional circumstances, so that other young people who do not fit the specified eligibility criteria but who have been in care and who in the assessment of the agency require an aftercare plan are entitled to one. This could include, for example, young people who are adopted following a care placement where this subsequently breaks down.
Before handing over to my colleagues, I reiterate the broad support of Barnardos for this legislation. Nevertheless, aspects of it can be improved to ensure it is driven by the desire to meet the needs of care leavers, and we are concerned that in the absence of an effective monitoring framework and increased availability of resources across a range of sectors, a young person’s aftercare plan will become a meaningless piece of paper and the individual will fail to make a successful transition to independent living.
Ms Jennifer Gargan:
I thank the committee for inviting EPIC to speak to the heads of the aftercare Bill. As an organisation which works directly with young people in care we are acutely aware of their particular vulnerabilities, especially as they approach 18 and begin their transition to independence. Approximately 500 young people each year "age out" of the system and move into aftercare. As we know, all young people need the continuing support of their parents and families to successfully move from childhood to adulthood, even those who grow up in stable, secure, loving environments and are as well equipped as possible to embark on an independent life. Young people in care are different in this respect as they often do not have the assurance of a safety net of family to turn to when the going gets tough. Unlike their peers, who often live at home until their mid-20s, they have an accelerated transition to adulthood at 18. Not only have many of them had traumatic childhoods marked by neglect and instability, but they are more likely to have had multiple moves when in care and more likely to leave care without the confidence, skills and educational qualifications of their peers in the general population. This puts them at greater risk of unemployment, dependence on social welfare, early parenthood, mental health problems and homelessness.
The State, as corporate parent, must take on the responsibility, as any parent would, of ensuring that children and young people are well prepared to successfully make that transition and are supported in doing so in order to achieve positive outcomes after care. This means that the State should plan for their futures, as all good parents would. Publication of the heads of the Bill is therefore a welcome first step in the right direction of strengthening aftercare provision. However, we must go further by including in head 2 a provision for the assessment process in order to inform the preparation of the aftercare plan. This would ensure legislative provision for the assessment of the needs of each young person and early identification of services and supports required when young people reach the age of 18.
Planning for aftercare is a process, as Ms Tinsley has indicated. It should begin at 16 with an assessment that should be holistic and realistic in looking at the needs of the young person. It should consider practical skills required to live independently but also the range of social, educational and health needs of the young person. In doing so it should identify where the young person needs supports or additional preparation and guidance in developing other skills and abilities. This is incorporated into the leaving care plan, which will aid the preparation of the young person for leaving care and help put in place the resources and services needed when he or she reaches 18. It is a crucial that this begin at 16, in plenty of time to undertake this work with the young person. It must be completed at least six months before the young person turns 18 in order to allow time for the person to feel settled and ready for this monumental stage in life. Many young people have come to EPIC weeks or sometimes days before their 18th birthday with no aftercare plan and no idea where they will leave once they reach 18.
The assessment process is necessary to inform the preparation for leaving care plan and ultimately arrive at the development of the aftercare plan. The aftercare plan cannot be divorced from the context of this ongoing assessment, preparation planning and review process. It is essential that every effort is made to engage with a young person in the assessment and planning process, and there is a much greater likelihood that when a young person is actively involved in the planning process, he or she will continue to engage with the aftercare worker and services after reaching 18. Implementation of the aftercare plan is the next phase of the process and should be regularly reviewed and revised as necessary; it should also be monitored to ensure the best possible outcome for the young person. However, we are concerned that there is no reference to implementation of the aftercare plan specifically in the Bill. In the absence of any legislative provision in the Bill for implementation, we are concerned that the supports and services required to meet the needs of this vulnerable group of young people, as identified in the aftercare plan, may not be effectively delivered.
Having an aftercare plan is no guarantee of receiving an aftercare service. In concluding I will detail the stories of two young people we have met through our work. They have had very different experiences of aftercare, which indicates the necessity not only of aftercare supports but also the impact of having stable aftercare accommodation on the long-term outcomes for young people. Stephen is now aged 25 and has been involved with our service for a number of years. He was taken into care at 15, having suffered years of emotional and physical abuse at home. He was placed in residential care because of his age and for the first time in his life he had stability, routine and was supported in going to school on a regular basis. He did well in school, completed his leaving certificate and expressed a desire to go to college. He was the first person from his family to go to third level education. He decided to study law and the HSE referred him to an aftercare service. When he was 18 he moved into supported accommodation, was provided with financial supports and had his education paid for. He completed his law degree and then went on to complete his professional legal training and exams. He qualified as a solicitor last year. During all this time he had consistent aftercare support, stable accommodation and a regular income.
Sarah, on the other hand, was not so fortunate. She is now 24 and was taken into care when she was eight. She was in foster care for several years but this did not work out for her. Subsequently, she had many moves and numerous social workers. She was in residential care until 16, when she became pregnant. She had few supports at this time and moved into private rented accommodation with her boyfriend. After her baby was born her boyfriend was sent to prison and Sarah had no option but to move in with his family. This did not work out either and she again moved into another apartment. As she was now over 21 and had not previously engaged with any aftercare services she was not eligible for any aftercare support. She coped reasonably well for a while but when things became really difficult she asked for her child to be taken into respite care. She suffered isolation, loneliness and depression, and she found it more and more difficult to cope. Her child was in and out of care and she could not maintain her home. Finally, her child was taken into full-time care. She became reliant on alcohol and drugs, and she is now homeless, living on the streets and struggling to overcome her addiction. From the age of 16 Sarah had no supports and was unable to access them at a later stage when she needed them.
We welcome the improvements and acceptance that there is a responsibility to provide aftercare services after a person reaches 18. We are heartened that there has been much progress in this area but although we firmly believe the legislation will strengthen aftercare supports for young people, it is vital that legislation be further strengthened to include assessment, as outlined, with reference to implementation thereafter.
Ms Tanya Ward:
I thank the committee for inviting us to speak today. We are delighted to have the opportunity to comment on the Bill. We commend the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and her Department for the leadership demonstrated in this area. There are two elements of the draft Bill that we wanted to consider from a rights-based perspective. The picture of what is happening to children and young people in aftercare has been well painted not only by the agency but also by the representatives of Barnardos and EPIC.
Focus will highlight issues of homelessness.
The first area we are keen for the committee to examine is the duty to consult young people on the preparation of aftercare plans. The draft legislation states the agency is required to consult with the young person where appropriate in the development of the plan. We suggest deleting the words "where appropriate". The agency should do everything it can to consult the young person. The explanatory memorandum recognises that in some cases the young person will not engage with agency staff. This happens from time to time but a plan should still be drawn up for the young person in these circumstances. The words "where appropriate" could be misinterpreted. This has happened in the past where language has been vague. The best thing to do is to delete it and make it a clear obligation to consult with young people in developing a plan.
The next area relates to what happens after an assessment. The Bill strengthens the statutory framework for the preparation of plans, which is very welcome, and there is no doubt that it moves it forward. It also sets out that the agency will be obliged to interact with various service providers to provide support. What happens when these other services do not engage or deliver on the plan? This question has also been asked by EPIC and the Child and Family Agency. We are concerned about an excellent plan being drawn up but not followed through. Our suggestion to address this would be to extend care for a very vulnerable group of young people who need extra support. Mr. McBride mentioned that some young people do not need aftercare services, and we agree with this, but there is another group of approximately 100 very vulnerable young people who still need aftercare support. We recommend to the committee and the Minister that they examine the Scottish model as possibly the best way forward for this group of very vulnerable young people. Legislation was passed in February in Scotland extending aftercare for a group of young people. Such a measure here would potentially extend care for young people between the ages of 18 and 21 years. It would not have a big impact on the Exchequer because there are only approximately 100 people in the group. Foster care packages are available to children and young people up to the age of 23. It is to ensure that a very vulnerable group of young people are not left behind. In our view, this is the best way to build resilience and independence and ensure they are protected from homelessness, drug addiction and missing out on education. This is one of the best ways to ensure these young people will follow through and have very good outcomes down the line.
Mr. Mike Allen:
I thank the committee for inviting us to come before it on what is an historic day. The Dáil has frequently debated the deaths of children in care and those who grew up in care and looked at our sad history in this regard. To have committee members sitting around looking for the first time at legislation that aims to make the future better is extremely welcome. It is not only a tribute to the Minister and committee members discussing it, but also to our colleagues in the Child and Family Agency and the Department who have brought it to this stage.
Focus Ireland has worked on this issue for more than 15 years because our homeless services repeatedly come across young people, and older people, who are homeless largely as a result of their experience of growing up in care and inadequate follow-on. It is important to be clear that a large number of young people who grow up in care move into independent adulthood with only the usual issues which affect young people and the difficulties we all face in becoming adults. We must not stigmatise all those in care, but we need to focus on the substantial number of people who need care and support to proceed into adulthood. Historically, when we have failed them we have done so extremely badly, and we need to ensure the legislation changes this once and for all. We will continue to work with the older people who still suffer from the neglect of the past but we must ensure a new generation does not join them.
Young people need a range of emotional and physical supports, which my colleagues have discussed. Before these mean anything, one needs a secure place to live, to call a home, to return to at night and to build one's life around. It is the risk of homelessness that has brought Focus Ireland to this issue, and that is what I want to address.
One aspect of aftercare is the development of life skills. These need to be built throughout the period of care and specifically from the age of 16. My colleagues from EPIC have outlined this and we strongly endorse this position. Equally important is the physical provision of bricks and mortar and a roof over one's head. As a society we respond to these in two ways. The first of these is to provide actual homes for people through residential aftercare. To our knowledge, approximately 80 such housing units are available and approximately half of these are provided by Focus Ireland. The aftercare lasts approximately six months and involves an aftercare worker who supports the person in moving into the open housing market.
The second way, for those who do not get a place in a residential home, is that they must move straight from care into an independent home of their own. Given the way our social housing has developed, as it was never been designed to support the needs of young people, they will find their homes in the private rented market. There is no need to tell any constituency Deputy or Senator the difficulties in the private rented market throughout the country. A professional who has just lost his or her job and needs to provide a home for himself or herself has a nightmare trying to get a decent home to live in. How much more of a nightmare is it for a young person who does not have life experience? It has been a nightmare for my children, who are the same age as the young people we are discussing. For children who grew up in care and do not receive emotional advice or financial support from a parent, the chances of getting things wrong and of things going seriously wrong are absolutely enormous.
Focus Ireland has been dealing with this issue for approximately 13 years. Back then, a number of people we worked with in aftercare or quasi-aftercare positions were homeless. Over a period of time, all of the agencies involved transformed this situation. Three years ago - I am picking that time as an example - the organisation was confident that all the young people we were working with had a secure place to stay. At present, our services in Dublin deal with approximately 100 people. Of these, ten are experiencing adult life in emergency homeless hostels. They are homeless. A further 28 are in unsuitable accommodation and three have returned to their families of origin without any assessment of whether the risk that led to their being taken into care has been resolved.
I have been working with Focus Ireland for more than four years. These circumstances remind me of what I read in the history of the organisation. I also read in that history the consequences for the young people. This will not be solved. I very much endorse what the witnesses from the Child and Family Agency stated. These are problems that the agency cannot resolve. It is not its responsibility, as it is not the responsibility of an aftercare worker to change the housing market or reform it. To some extent it is the responsibility of committee members as elected representatives, but this responsibility was passed on to local authorities and the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.
The question for us is what can be put into the legislation which triggers the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and local authorities to respond more positively to these young people than they do at present and in a way they need. A young person who knows he or she will leave care cannot regularly or safely get a housing needs assessment from the local authority. Without this, he or she cannot receive rent supplement on the day he or she turns 18. That is when he or she must start the process. An example committee members might take is how the Department of Social Protection amended its basic legislation when it cut the rate of social welfare to young people.
That legislation was amended in order that the cut would not apply to young people who had grown up in care. It is a case in which the primary legislation, affecting one of the key agencies on which these young people rely, was changed. This change was made by the Department of Social Protection because the Department of Children and Youth Affairs did not exist at the time. We are requesting the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to seek legal advice on the aspects of primary legislation that affect the key agencies which, as they have indicated, can be changed to ensure a young person who has had an assessment of needs completed can walk into the Department of Education and Skills to access a grant. We must have the changes in place in order that when they need a home, the local authority official does not send then away because they have a form with the wrong logo and must start the process all over again. This must not be an assessment of young people who have grown up in care but of what we need to do as a society to help them to move to adulthood. It is not a mark against them, rather it is mark against us if we fail to deliver. That must be borne in mind when we develop the legislation. We must ensure we are not testing young people but ourselves in the process. Given the number of young people who leave care, it is possible for us to arrange the system such that they are offered the same protection that we afford to our own children.
I thank the Chairman and members for their time and hope we will be able to continue the discussion on the legislation before its enactment.
I thank the delegates for their contributions. I listened to Ms Gargan outline the contrasting cases of Stephen and Sarah. One person was able to access supports and availed of marvellous benefits which worked and had significant consequences for them personally. The other was not able to avail of these supports which had significant financial consequences for them and the State.
I compliment the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and her officials for giving this legislation priority. We need to get it right from day one. For that reason, it is very beneficial to have the relevant agencies highlighting the deficiencies or areas in which we need to improve. One of the recommendations made in the report on the independent child death review is that there be a mandatory aftercare provision. I am slightly worried that we are discussing a plan which is at the draft stage, but there are few references to how it should be implemented. We know - Mr.O'Donohue alluded to the provision in section 45 of the Child Care Act 1991 - that the health board "may" assist, but we must amend this in order that it reads the health board "shall" assist. We need to ensure children in care have an opportunity to feed into the process of change. More importantly, we need to ensure there will be sufficient resources in place for the effective implementation of the plan. That is absent from the draft we have before us.
The restrictive nature of eligibility for services gives rise to concern. Sometimes the most vulnerable children are those who are continually in and out of the care system and who have not had the benefit of such services. We need to broaden the scope to ensure these children are able to avail of aftercare services. One of the speakers alluded to the experience of those who passed through the care system. Some come through it relatively strongly and unscathed and may not need the supports of an aftercare service, but others are in greater need of such services. This issue is not addressed in the proposed legislation.
Inter-agency co-operation is critical. Various reports have identified the lack of co-operation between agencies which has led to some of the dire situations that have arisen. We need to ensure in legislation that we will have a robust strategy and protocols to ensure other agencies, be it the HSE, the Department of Education and Skills or the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, will adhere to the requirements set out in the aftercare plan. A plan is all very fine, but if it is not executed, it will go nowhere. We need to take cognisance of this.
I would like to see the regulations being published in tandem with the legislation in order that we will know exactly what we are talking about. In the absence of published regulations, we are talking in a vacuum. We need clarity and information.
The points made about the plan are valid. The need for it to be completed six months in advance to ensure children will have a sense of security when they reach their 18th birthday. I honestly think it is a worthwhile exercise for the various stakeholders to give their opinions based on first-hand knowledge of how they have been dealing with the issue and it will not work unless the Minister and her departmental officials take on board the suggestions that have been made.
I apologise, but I must leave before the end of the meeting as I have another engagement, but that is no reflection on the contributions made.
I join members in welcoming our guests. As an Opposition Deputy who has on several occasions complimented the first Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, I happily do so again. I also compliment each and every delegate in his or her respective role and, in particular, the NGOs on their persistent pursuit of this legislative change. I also include Members, Government or Opposition voices, who have also played a part in helping to bring us to this point.
I refer to a point raised in Focus Ireland's presentation where it contrasts the expectations for its clients three years ago with the outcomes for its current cohort. It is a significant worry. We can have all the assessments and aftercare plans we like, but implementation is critical. This is also reflected in the presentation made by EPIC. Implementation of aftercare plans is absolutely essential.
That in some way needs to be a clearly stated objective of this exercise. We need not only the preparation of aftercare plans but their implementation and the pursuit of that. The phrase "the State is the acting parent" is used somewhere else. That is it exactly and it should act as any of us as parents would act for our children in the same situation at that delicate and important point, that transitional period in life from moving from being a child and young person to adulthood and all the challenges that brings.
Many of the presentations dealt with child health, education, housing and income support, although I am referring in that respect to the Child and Family Agency presentation. The EPIC presentation was the only one that dealt with unemployment, which is the issue of jobs. I do not for a moment want to create a hierarchy of housing as absolutely essential but with respect to the importance of the dignity of work, what is does for an individual's fulfilment in life, filling one's day and giving one purpose, it was interesting that the representative from EPIC in her presentation put that first. She said, "This puts them at greater risk of unemployment, dependence on social welfare, early parenthood, mental health problems and homelessness". Jobs are integral to all of this. I emphasise that I am not suggesting for a moment that one element is more important than the other. It is a package. That reflects, and this comes across in the presentation by the representative from EPIC, the need to create an holistic approach, and I refer here to all agencies. That is also referred to in the presentation by the representative form the Child and Family Agency. He spoke about the development of a multi-agency plan. That is essential and to the exclusion of no Department or agency. They all have a contribution to make to this and it has to work but it can only work if there is a coming together.
It is difficult to find specific questions and these are only points on which I wanted to reflect. The point Ms Tanya Ward from the Children's Rights Alliance made about voluntarily continuing in-care after the period of time is interesting. This model of extended care has been adopted in Scotland. We need to inform ourselves more about what that can do. I would say, as a parent, I know about that and one could call it a voluntary extension of care. I have five children. I was long gone from my home and working and standing on my feet when I consider the age of some of my older children. The are in dependency today and that is the truth of it for many families across our society today. If we as natural birth parents are doing that for our children, why would the State not do the same for children in its care, as the surrogate parent in this instance? We have to reflect the reality that we all know in this world today. I agree with that point.
I concur with the two points made by the representative from Barnardos regarding those who do not opt for aftercare and having an obligation to continue to engage. It could happen that after a short period of time one could have the realisation that "I've made a call here; I do need the help". We should not have strict criteria that closes a door on a young person at that time in his or her life when he or she needs help. Re-engagement and continuing engagement and leaving the door open is very important. The same applies to the point regarding the period of 12 months, consequently or cumulatively, and while it is very much within the legislation we need there to be flexibility. We are dealing with young people. I would like that we would have the same flexibility that we all have to expect at times in our own relationships and engagement with others. I would be concerned about the very strict criteria for consideration for eligibility. We need something much more pliant modelled on need and need as it presents.
I address my final comments to the representatives from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs regarding the Department's view as to when the consultation process and preparation should commence. Different views have been expressed in that it should commence at age 16 or 17. I think the representative from EPIC said it should be at age 16. How does the Department view that matter? When should this process begin? The representative from the Department in his presentation stated it should begin in the period coming up to the end of the legal care relationship and he went on to say that the preparations should take place in good time. Could the delegate quantify that to give us a sense of it? The representative also stated:
The legislation provides that the core eligible age range for aftercare is from 18 to 21 years. This can be extended until the completion of a course of education and training in which a young person who has left care, or is leaving care, is engaged.I believe it must be a little more than just education and training. That is reflected in the contributions of the NGO sector, with which I am at one. If we do not adopt the most flexible, embracing and inclusive approach, we will lose a wonderful opportunity to do something really worthwhile. Given my years serving as a Member of the Oireachtas I would like that this would be a part of something on which I could look back with satisfaction.
I join in thanking each of the speakers for their presentations. It is a very welcome day that we are sitting here looking at the general scheme of the aftercare Bill. The action for aftercare groups can be assured of my support. They presented us with very moderate proposals. What they are asking for is fair and I would be supportive of their proposals. We must ensure that the Bill does what we all intend it to do. We must remember the horror and that feeling we had when we were looking at the child death report and channel that into the aftercare Bill that will come before us.
My difficulty is, and I will ask the Department to clarify this, that the Bill reads that there is a statutory duty to provide an aftercare plan but there is no statutory entitlement to aftercare. That is a huge difficulty because we all know that resource constraints will inevitably dictate the scope of implementation in practice, but surely there should be some minimum standards that can be expected. As Ms June Tinsley from Barnardos said, we do not want a meaningless piece of paper. When trying to build trust with young people where a system, a family or somebody has failed them and we are presenting them with a plan it would be a case of then saying that while there is an ideal it will not be possible to implement to that level but that we could negotiate.
Mr. McBride from the Child and Family Agency spoke about the responsibilities outside the Child and Family Agency. Again we saw that in the child death report with regard to the number of agencies involved in a child's life. How do we ensure their co-operation? Is that something we should be examining in the Bill? One of the areas I am concerned about is the reality that many children in care can commit crime and many coming out detention need care and protection. Both cohorts of children and young people exhibit similar recurring issues. They fall on one side of the line or another. This cohort of young people falls into the criminal justice system or into the health system and sometimes it is down to chance in terms of where they are living. Geographical circumstances could push them because it comes down to which professional is dealing with the young person concerned. I wonder if, in the legislation, we can also examine empowering the professionals who work with these people in the agencies to take decisions.
Too often, cases must go through many layers of bureaucracy. The professionals would work within constraints, of course. I do not expect them to get some kind of credit card that can be spent endlessly. In a case involving a separated child, however, a professional needed to go through five layers of management to get one night's emergency accommodation. When dealing with young people, we must rebuild trust by showing that our State cares and will deliver for them.
The young persons' probation division is only meant to deal with 12 to 18 year olds, but it has a policy of dealing with some people of up to 21 years of age. Given the fact that some parts of the State already do this, there is scope for an extension.
The question of eligibility needs grounds must be examined. No professional interest wants the legislation to limit it to dealing with persons who are no older than 17 years and 364 days. That is no one's intention, but I would hate to learn that the legislation had inserted an eligibility criterion that excluded young people. We must consider the flexibility proposed by the Children's Rights Alliance.
It is important to consult young people. Inserting qualifiers to this would not be appropriate.
One question that will be asked is why aftercare should receive investment. There are many demands on children's services. Putting on my devil's advocate hat, what short and long-term benefits do we get from aftercare? There are benefits for individuals, but why should we not invest that money elsewhere in the agency's services? Is aftercare critical or should the Child and Family Agency focus on the youngest cohort? I support aftercare, but we must make choices.
I thank the witnesses for their excellent presentations. Many of the questions I wanted to raise have been asked, so I will not repeat them, but I will tease out details of some of the agency's practices. Policy development is Ms Mugan's area. Some aftercare services are already being provided, albeit hit and miss, but what practices will change after the legislation has passed? How can we ensure better outcomes for young people? Many people have campaigned for this legislation for a long time.
I am probably right in saying that the majority of children in care have successful foster placements and remain with those families until they are 21, 22 or 23 years of age. Is there scope in the Bill to give such children a status? I know of many cases involving 21 year olds and 23 year olds whose foster parents view them as their own children. However, foster parents are not allowed to leave more than €26,000 to their foster children in their wills. I know of foster parents who never spent a cent of their foster care allowances. Instead, they saved that money to buy their foster children properties, but they are not allowed to sign them over as intended. Following the children's rights referendum, we have it within our gift to ensure that children who were not eligible for adoption previously can now be adopted. In the eyes of the law, however, persons who are over 18 years of age and whose foster parents and foster brothers and sisters view them as their own children and siblings, respectively, are treated differently. I would love to be able to do something about that situation.
What supports do we provide to foster carers? The best outcome for young people is a stable relationship. This Bill should make a difference to the supports available to foster carers so as to ensure stable early placements for children. Children aged between eight and 11 years begin exhibiting difficult behaviours regardless of whether they are in care. A book on the subject - I cannot remember by whom - points out that, whereas a child in care who kicks or slams a door is interpreted as having anger or defiance issues, a parent's own seven or eight year old at home is defined as being a moody little so-and-so. We need to support foster parents to ensure that children who are in care have good outcomes. Aftercare would allow them to remain part of those families.
A minority do not have good outcomes. The children most at risk of dying are those who are difficult to engage. If we put in place barriers such as a six-month period and a person who is six months under 21 or 23 years of age - whichever it is - knocks on a carer's door after that time has lapsed, it would be a real indictment of our services if that young person could not be helped. We should be able to provide help. This is what people in the service want. People whom I worked with ten or 12 years ago still ask me for this, that or the other.
There are examples of good practice; it is not all bad. I have worked closely with many survivors of institutional abuse. The local authorities in Waterford were wonderful in helping the survivors with their housing needs. One criterion is that a person must be from the area. While a particular survivor may have been raised in Artane or Galway, he or she may originally be from Waterford. Survivors do not need to go through the ins and outs of it all with the staff or be humiliated or abused again through the retelling of their stories. This type of understanding is something that local authorities must work towards when dealing with children who are exiting care. Children who are from Waterford could be placed in Kildare or Dublin.
I thank the witnesses for their contributions. I agree with my colleagues that it is refreshing to discuss something that is positive. The aspirations behind this legislation are worthy, which is why it is welcome, but what changes to the agency's processes and practices are envisaged, what resources will be put in place and by how much will the budget increase to meet the needs of this small cohort of 80 to 100 people?
As Deputy Conway mentioned, the majority of people in care go on to live in their family homes. Foster parents do not decide that children are no longer theirs or they do not love them when they reach 18 years of age. However, the small cohort who are not in that situation - the most vulnerable and the most disengaged - need these resources. We must put our money where our mouth is.
Regarding the term "where appropriate", Ms Ward could not have said it any better. It is appropriate in every single case to engage with the child or young person in respect of whom the plan is being prepared.
There is no need for the words "where appropriate". Inclusion of them gives the lie to there being a loophole which would mean we need not talk to them. We need to talk to the children and young adults in each case. I concur that these words should be removed from that head of the Bill.
I thank the delegations for their presentations and commend them on the work they do. I also commend the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, on her positive work in this instance.
Reference was made in the Barnardos presentation to the people who are hard to reach. How do the agencies interact with such people? On the Focus Ireland presentation, what hits home is the point with regard to young people coming to the agency shortly before reaching their 18th birthday wanting to know where they will live when they leave the system. We should be ashamed of ourselves that 18 year olds are ready to leave the system and have no homes to go to.
I am glad Deputy Conway's interaction with local authorities has been positive. My experience has been the opposite. I know of people who have gone through the care system, some of whom had been living on the streets, who found it extremely difficult to get on any housing list because they needed ties to a community, which they did not have. In one case, the person had lived for four years in a community but that was not good enough. While I have tabled a number of parliamentary questions on the issue the response has always been that this is a matter for each local authority. I would like to see this change to the effect that each local authority address particular issues, in particular, people who have come through care homes, those released from prison and so on. The thinking appears to be that these people may be problematic or suffer from mental health issues and as such local authorities do not want them in their areas. I am being brutally honest. That has been my experience. I feel so sorry for those people who cannot get the help they require.
I am visited at my clinics by older people with mental health issues, as, I am sure, are other representatives. While I agree with the eligibility criteria set out, there are people in their 30s who need help and assistance. I accept that this matter may be outside of the remit of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. However, these people still need help, often owing to their experiences as children when in care or foster homes. It is hard to set particular criteria in this area because people have differing needs.
It was stated that there are 44 aftercare staff. Who will carry out the assessments in respect of the 16 to 18 year olds? Will this be the responsibility of the aftercare service staff or social workers? I hope it will not be the aftercare staff because they already have too much to cope with. I have come across cases which social workers have tried to close because they were too busy, even though the parents involved did not agree. I have brought this matter to the attention of the Minister. I would welcome a response to the questions I have raised.
Mr. Mike Allen:
I thank members for their comments and questions. I am glad that the issue of eligibility was picked up on by committee members. The eligibility outlined in the legislation is a more inclusive eligibility than is set out in the guidelines. While we welcome this, we still think it should go further. I accept the points made in regard to the need to make allowances for people in exceptional need. The point in regard to children in detention is crucial.
On Deputy McLellan's question in regard to who will carry out the assessments, which will probably be responded to in more detail later by representatives of the agency, it is worth mentioning that huge progress has been made in terms of the number of young people in receipt of aftercare. One of the concerns of all of the organisations present today is the significantly increased caseload of aftercare work. When dealing with the hard to reach people or those with intensive needs, a caseload of 25 becomes a tick box exercise. We have already put our case on this issue. On why resources should be put into this area, starting from a rights-based point of view young people have a right to support. We have a deep understanding in our society about the transition from childhood to adulthood. We understand this process well. As stated by Deputy Ó Caoláin, this period of transition in a modern society is longer than it has been historically. I am loathe to make these arguments but it is necessary to say that there are financial benefits to this also, not only in terms of the people concerned being able to work and make a contribution to society but in terms of their potential cost to society if we fail them. I do not believe this is what should motivate us but as it is what motivates some people it is important to mention it.
In regard to whether the agency should put its resources into a young person who is six months old versus a young person who is 19 years old that is a difficult question to answer. Currently, there is a great deal of legislation around children. This directs resources in this area. To some extent the legislation levels that playing pitch in that it states that right through the period of transition there is a legal provision on which we need to focus. We welcome this.
Ms Tanya Ward:
I echo Mr Allen's remarks around preventative support and why we need it. There is an economic argument to be made in that apart from changing the life chances of the young people involved, it costs approximately €100,000 per annum to imprison a person who becomes involved in crime and the cost of providing rehabilitative care for a person who becomes addicted to drugs is very high. There are people with high level needs who go on to become parents. These needs impact on their ability to be parents. The vast majority of people who have gone through the care system will go on to be outstanding parents but some of them need additional support and help. As such, a lack of preventative support will impact on generations of children to come. The cost in this regard to the Exchequer will not be that high. Currently, approximately 100 people annually require this specialised support from the agency and other services.
Deputy Conway referred to young people in foster care and issues around succession. These issues can best be dealt with in the children and family relationships Bill which is currently being drafted. There are some good proposals in that Bill that will radically transform family law in Ireland. For example, one third of children currently in foster care are in voluntary care. There is a provision in that Bill which states that foster parents may be granted custody of children who have been in a voluntary arrangement for more than 12 months. This is incredibly important for the children and young people involved. There is no reason the succession issue cannot be dealt with in that legislation.
The situation in regard to the referendum result is unfortunate. The number of people contacting the Children's Right Alliance asking what impact the referendum result will have on their child and so on is remarkable. We have had to inform these people that the referendum result has been held up by a challenge to it in the Supreme Court.
If the Supreme Court allows the referendum result to be certified, there will be a chance for those foster children. There are hundreds of foster children waiting to be adopted and it is sad for many of these because the clock is ticking and they are close to reaching 18. They are missing out on being adopted because the referendum result is being challenged in the Supreme Court.
I thank the members for their comments and echo the contribution of Deputy Regina Doherty regarding the importance of the voice of the child. We should remind ourselves that a key finding of the Shannon and Gibbons child deaths report was the absence of the voice of children and young people in cases. Records maintenance was patchy for a range of reasons and the voice of the young person was often absent. We must remember to include a duty to consult with a young person in every possible way.
Ms Jennifer Gargan:
There are a couple of points I would like to address. There was the question of who will do the assessments, and the agency will probably provide an answer. The aftercare worker will do the assessment but the young person cannot be referred to an aftercare worker if he or she does not have a social worker. In some instances we are aware that is the case. It is the responsibility of the social worker to develop the aftercare plan and ensure it is put in place. There is sometimes a catch-22 as one cannot get an aftercare worker without a social worker. There are waiting lists in some areas for aftercare workers, which can also be an issue. Young people have spoken to us about how they feel rushed, ill-prepared and stressed out in some cases.
A member commented that young people may be almost 18 but not know where they are to go. We deal with young people who have problems but fortunately there are many young people who do not have problems. We are only seeing people with difficulties, and that means any crisis arising must be addressed, perhaps up to the week before a youth turns 18. I could tell members about those cases all day and it is a problem. There are a few aspects of the process which must be realised, which is why we would like a clearer outline in the Bill.
Why do we want aftercare? It is part of a continuum of care and as parents, we start to prepare our children for leaving home and becoming adults from the day we teach them how to walk, dress themselves, etc. That is what every parent does. Aftercare is not an "either-or" process, as it is not a case of having good care or aftercare and we must have both. One of the critical elements of our research, outlined in the longer document submitted to the committee, is the finding that young people who have stability in care placement for the years prior to leaving care are more likely to have stability in aftercare and are more likely to do well. A person cannot go to further education, get a job or settle into anything if there is no place to live or sleep for the night. It is a crucial point. As Mr. Allen indicated, accommodation is a critical issue, particularly in Dublin, and it is really difficult for anybody to access, never mind young people without help and support. Resources must be seen within a continuum of care. Many young people may not need aftercare support but they need to be assessed because circumstances can change.
Deputy Ó Caoláin referred to employment. I do not know why I listed it first but young people coming to us aspire to being like everybody else and having a job, a home, a marriage and a family. If they do not have education they cannot get a job, and if they have disrupted placements when in care, it is more difficult for them to get the education and qualifications they need. I have had this job for nine years and I have noted a major improvement, particularly in the past few years, with the number of young people going to education and training. Unfortunately, there are still difficulties, and it may come as an unintended consequence of the available aftercare supports, as young people get more supports if they are in education. Sometimes they may be likely to choose a course that is not right and opt for any kind of a course in some cases because they need supports. They may see such action as a way to make the transition with more support. That is not a criticism but it is a fact. Employment is a key issue but education is a major factor in getting that employment.
The question was asked of why we would invest in aftercare, and others have already outlined the individual benefits. There are major benefits to our society and if we invest now, we will save later. That would be wise. There is an obligation and responsibility as a state, and it is not limited to the Child and Family Agency. Although that body has a responsibility as a corporate parent but no more than we, as parents, can provide children with education, employment and other support, it is imperative that protocols are set up as an aid. This Bill should address the process to ensure other agencies can come together in the work. Mr. McBride spoke about the aftercare committees which will have a vital role and which are already doing this very successfully. Deputy Conway gave the examples in Waterford, so not everything that is happening is bad.
There should be no qualifications regarding consultation with youths, and all young people should be engaged. If and when the children's rights amendment goes through, there will be a responsibility on the State to ensure it consults with young people in all matters affecting them.
Ms June Tinsley:
I have some further comments and my colleagues have already answered the question of why we must invest in aftercare. There are benefits for the individuals and also the wider society, with proven savings to the Exchequer in return for the support. I concur with Deputy Troy in that now is the time to ensure we get the legislation right. Significant progress has been made and we must ensure it is kept on track. Aligned to this is the matter I raised earlier and which other Deputies referred to, which is eligibility. We do not want this process to be restrictive, with the possibility that very vulnerable young people could slip through the net and make an unsuccessful transition to adulthood. That is already happening and we want to close the loophole so that individuals can be captured; those who are hard to reach must be engaged.
The other component to the success of this Bill will be the need for interagency co-operation to guarantee the plan's implementation. The Bill must be strengthened in this regard as there is not enough emphasis on the successful implementation of a plan. Our key concern is that in 20 years we could be faced with another child death review report because other individuals would have been failed. Now is our chance to ensure that does not happen.
Mr. Fred McBride:
Deputies Conway and Regina Doherty very sensibly asked what will change, and it is a very important question. I hope there will be three changes. The first is we will have more dedicated aftercare services, and we are attempting to have dedicated aftercare services in each of the 17 areas. Currently, some of those services are split across different groups of staff, and some social workers, for example, will hold aftercare cases in their busy workloads. Creating a dedicated service will help to bring a difference. In providing such a dedicated service we would train people who have the right skills and experience to engage with young people. The issue of young people who are hard to reach was mentioned and the skill of keeping young people engaged will be very important. There will be a difference in that respect.
We have also said that in each area we will have a multi-agency aftercare committee where there will be multi-agency planning for aftercare services. Hopefully, people will begin to see the benefits of that.
The third area is better information and-or advice on access to services. The committee will perhaps be aware that as part of the creation of the new agency we have taken under our wing what was the Family Support Agency, which has in excess of 100 family resource centres across the country. We are carefully examining whether these family resource centres could be a good access point for young people seeking information and advice about aftercare services, even after a period when they have opted out and, perhaps, social work departments and aftercare workers have lost track of them because they do not know where they have gone. Those family resource centres are community based and located in many of the areas where those young people are from and live, so they are very accessible and can be used as a type of drop-in point for young people, including young people who wish to return to a service after a period of disengagement. It is an opportunity for our new agency to have that resource at our disposal.
There was also a question about hard-to-reach young people. Our partners in the non-governmental sector are also very good at engaging and tracking young people who are hard to reach. Sometimes these young people see the community and voluntary sector as not being part of the system and therefore they are more willing to engage, so there is greater partnership in that regard. In addition, over €50 million is spent on youth services. Those services must be harnessed as well for engaging with some of these young people.
In terms of the resource issue, I have a responsibility to manage within the resources I am given. Whether there will be any additional resources associated with this legislation is not for me to say, but I can say that if we are successful at this multi-agency approach, that will bring many more resources to the table than is currently the case.
Ms Siobhan Mugan:
To expand on what Mr. McBride said about the aftercare steering committees, one of the main functions of the steering committee is to have interagency co-operation at local level, as Deputy Conway referred to in Waterford. We are rolling them out nationally into all 17 areas. Their main function is to case-manage the very complex needs of young people between the age of 16 and 18 years to ensure there is a comprehensive interagency plan for these young people. The other part is to build up networks in each local area - each area is quite different given the urban-rural divide - to ensure these areas work together closely in partnership to deliver services for these young people and to build up networks and a directory of services for young people in the local area. It is about highlighting gaps in service provision and these groups will report to the national steering committee, which is an interagency committee, within the agency.
The purpose also of those steering groups is to ensure that when young people do not engage or disengage at 18 years of age, it is a way for them to be re-linked back in. If they turn up in the homeless services at 19 or 20 years of age, they can signposted back into the aftercare group. That is a way of trying to re-engage young people. I emphasise that our current policy is about the process of tracking and trying to re-engage those young people who are not interested in linking with us when they are 18 but often find it is difficult and return to us when they are 19 or 20.
With regard to foster care, one of our focuses this year is the development of a foster care strategy. It is about supporting foster carers in managing young people with particularly challenging needs so it does not break down and things end up going awry for them.
We shall resume in public session. Apologies have been received from Deputies Regina Doherty and Catherine Byrne because they must attend another meeting. I call on Ms Mugan to resume her statement.
Ms Siobhán Mugan:
To finalise, one of the key aspects of the service over the past while is highlighting the voice of the child and young people's participation, not only in their care planning, but in policy development. Consultation with young people as part of their aftercare will be done and will be underpinned by the legislation.
Ms Michele Clarke:
I welcome the contributions made by everybody and it has been very helpful for us to hear them as people who have worked in the area. We really appreciate the thought and time that people have given to the subject. We are quite taken with the recognition, across the committee, of the need for a cross-departmental and cross-agency contribution to the working of good aftercare which is something that we shall take back to the Department. I shall address two points and my colleague, Mr. O'Donoghue, will address the other points.
With regard to Deputy Ó Caoláin's comment on consultation, it is important to understand - and I think that the agency will take this on - that it must be from 16 years of age, at a minimum. Obviously if a child is in residential care and is unclear or anxious in any way then the care should start earlier. Sensitivity must also extend to a child who, perhaps, is in a very stable foster care situation and assumes he or she will live there. The approach of beginning the discussion of aftercare with that child must be done in such a way as to not undermine his or her stability.
When we talk about consultation beginning, one must realise that it is part of care planning. Part of care planning is assessing when one needs to start this engagement with the child. Depending on his or her circumstances, it could be earlier but, at a minimum, by 16 years of age and it should be noted on his or her formal care plan what the decision is and what is happening at that time. It starts with the social worker and then moves on to the aftercare worker, depending on the circumstances of the child.
The second question was about the vulnerability of some young people leaving care and how the agency can support them through that period. We would like to recognise that there is a higher proportion of children with disability in care than there is in the general population. Some of the children have very severe disabilities and some have severe mental health difficulties. They are children and young people who will probably carry a lot of these challenges or difficulties with them throughout their adult life. The core issue for the agency, in terms of developing an aftercare plan, is to help that young person transition over time from the agency service to the appropriate adult service, rather than remain with the agency forever. That transition must be done in a way that ensures that the child or young adult is securely placed into the responsibility and care of the agency dealing with the adult difficulty, particularly individuals with very severe difficulties. Those are the two points that I had wished to address and I leave the remainder to Mr. O'Donoghue.
Mr. Albert O'Donoghue:
I thank the members of the committee and the representatives of the NGOs, Mr. McBride and Ms Mugan, for attending. When an issue like this is debated and the views of all parties are sought and received, it makes our job of trying to craft something at the centre a lot easier.
The legislation gives visibility to the cohort of children that we are trying to support in aftercare which did not happen in the past. We hope, and are reasonably confident, that it will address the consistency issues that were touched on by Deputy McLellan regarding living on one side of the river and what a person may or may not get in assessment and the various plans that would ensue. As a corollary, we hope that it removes the ambiguity around who is eligible for the aftercare process and the assessment of need that would preclude that from happening.
Senators and Deputies raised a number of themes, which is the best way of describing them, during the course of the discussion and I shall try to touch on all of them briefly. In terms of eligibility, and I return to the point made by Deputy McLellan, it is quite hard to define eligibility but we have tried to keep it as broad as possible. It took quite a while to figure out how we could incorporate the various cohorts of children into these definitions. There has been some talk here that it is restrictive but I can provide an example of the structure. For example, what happens when a child, in the previous five years prior to presentation to the agency, has had 12 months consecutive care. That means a child, upon reaching the age of 16, presenting to the agency. Therefore, we would have to go back to the time when the child was 11 or 12 years old and look at his or her care record. I am of the view that in terms of what is in play at the moment, and what we are suggesting here, there has been quite a shift in terms of the cohort of children that would become eligible for the aftercare planning process.
A lot of talk centred around inter-agency co-operation. Mr. Allen and some of the members drew attention to the fact that this is not all within the gift of our colleagues in the Child and Family Agency to deliver. I drew reference, albeit passing, in my opening remarks to a series of bilaterals which we hope to kick off with our colleagues in other Departments in order to examine how we might move these issues along and have proper cognisance, from their perspective, of the cohort of children that we seek to support. That would be the opening salvo in moving towards something which Mr. McBride alluded to, in terms of memos of understanding and service level agreements, but I see it as something further down the road. We need to get their radar attuned to the fact that there is a small but vulnerable cohort of children who need to avail of the services that are distinctly within their bailiwick to deliver.
The voice of the child was raised regarding use of the phrase "as appropriate" in the draft heads before the committee today. Everything that the agency does is governed by section 9 which says that the voice of the child must be considered, due weight and regard having to be had of the maturity of that particular child. The phrase "as appropriate" was used in the legislative provision so that an absolute obligation is not placed on the agency in relation to children or young people that it cannot track down. Where it engages with children it is bound by section 9 - and I believe this is something Deputy Ó Caoláin was passionate about during the debate on the Child and Family Agency Bill prior to Christmas - but it still stands. This is a technicality to deal with cases where a child disengages from the system, cannot be tracked down or does not wish to engage. The phraseology used does not place an obligation on the agency to deal with a child who does not want to engage. It does not in any way, shape or form detract from the agency's obligation to have due regard to the voice of the child.
There was a brief mention of detention and aftercare. One third of children who enter detention do so under court order, a further 25% to 30% are well known to the Child and Family Agency and, if memory serves me correctly regarding a passing discussion with one of my colleagues, a social worker has been allocated. Approximately 60% or so would, in the main, qualify under the provisions, as we have crafted them here, for aftercare planning.
With regard to the inter-agency issue, the residual cohort in detention are catered for by an agreement between the probation service and the Children and Family Agency to look after those children. A process and protocol are already in play. That means that if they do not fall within the remit of this provision they will be picked up on the other side.
There was another question but I may have misheard Ms Ward. As far as I am aware, a child can be adopted up to the age of 18. Is that what Ms Ward said, or did she say "not up to the age of 18"? I ask both questions in order to seek clarification.
Mr. Albert O'Donoghue:
The Deputy is right. That would touch on aspects of the Finance Bill and the taxes consolidation Act. As the Deputy alluded to, adoption prior to 18 years, at this point in time, is the only recourse that is available for those children in terms of the severing of previous ties and a formal integration into their foster family.
I thank the witnesses for their patience and their excellent presentations and engagement. I apologise for the delay at the beginning and the interruption for the vote. I thank the members for their commitment in staying and for their participation.
Mr. Albert O'Donoghue:
We will await for the deliberations of the committee. When that report is submitted to us, there may or may not be recommendations arising from it which would require the Minister's consideration. At that point, we will talk to the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and the Houses of the Oireachtas on when we might be able to progress matters through both Houses.
We will progress our report and we will hand it to the Minister as quickly as we can. I propose we adjourn until 9.30 a.m. on Thursday, 3 April 2014, for our quarterly meeting with the Minister for Health and the HSE.