Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 29 January 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children
Seventh Report on Child Protection 2014: Discussion
Our meeting this morning is to hear from, and discuss with, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, special rapporteur on child protection, his seventh report on child protection, which was published at the end of last November. I welcome Dr. Shannon to the meeting this morning and thank him in advance for his presentation and most sincerely for his work, his advocacy on behalf of children, and for being available to this committee.
I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.
Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice 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 invite Dr. Shannon to make his opening remarks.
Dr. Geoffrey Shannon:
Good morning. I express my deep personal gratitude for the opportunity to present my key findings to the committee this morning. I do not intend to go through the detailed recommendations. I intend to stay within the ten minutes allocated me, to afford members the opportunity to put any questions they might have on the detail of the report.
As I was recently appointed as the founding patron of the Children's Rights Alliance, my first official task in that role might very well be to endorse the Chairman’s comments.
My seventh report on child protection identified several outstanding issues that need to be addressed in this area. These included how the best interests principle should be a core part of our legislative framework. Direct provision is an issue which I have raised with this committee on every occasion I have attended it. I continue to advocate on the need to address what I would describe as a potential breach not only of domestic but of international law in this area. The Child Care Act 1991 is over two decades old and it is time to review it. During the year, I met with all key stakeholders including members of the Judiciary and the President of the District Court has now published judgments in the area. This gives us a unique opportunity to examine some of the gaps in the child protection legislative framework. Internet safety of children is a key issue which I have also raised every year. We need to be ahead of the curve on this matter. A gap was identified in our laws concerning forced marriages in a judgment of Mr. Justice John Mac Menamin in 2013 which needs to be addressed.
A very significant year for child protection was 2012 with the passing of the constitutional referendum on the rights of the child. As part of that, we signed up to ensuring the best interests principle will become part of our domestic law in child protection. There are three core aspects to how best interests principles are implemented. First, it is a substantive right. Second, it is a fundamental and interpretive legal principle. Third, it is a rule of procedure. We need to ensure that this is just not an aspiration but is included in all of our laws and administrative processes in the area of child protection.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child is the standard-setter in protecting the rights of the child. It has four core principles. First, non-discrimination, as set out in Article 2. Second, the best interests principle, as set out in Article 3. Third, Article 6 is dedicated to life survival and development. Fourth, the voice of the child, as reflected in Article 12. There are other core provisions of the convention of which we need to be aware. The rights of parents are important and need to be considered when legislating for the rights of children, as set out in Article 5. We have had a national debate around the needs to ensure the right to identity is reflected in our laws, as clearly reflected in Articles 7 and 8. There is also the right of children and parents to have access to each other when relationships break down, as set out in Article 9. Perhaps the most important right is the right of the child to be protected from harm, abuse, exploitation, violence and neglect which is reflected in article 19. This should be the template for legislating in this area. In approaching my report, I have attempted to reflect the principles of the convention in my recommendations.
This year for the first time I looked outside into other areas where I feel child protection concerns are beginning to emerge. As I was writing my report in 2013, two key documents were issued by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. General comment No. 14 gives us an insight into how to imbed the best interests principle into domestic law and expounded guidelines as to its application. This should be a template in ensuring our laws reflect not only the substance but the spirit of Article 3 of UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The committee also released General comment No. 15 which ties into Article 24 of the convention, namely the right of the child to enjoy the highest attainable standard of health. This is quite interesting in terms of the current concerns articulated about obesity. The committee’s comment referenced the World Health Organization, WHO, guidelines on childhood obesity and the need to address this issue. It also contained an express reference to breastfeeding. I have highlighted the issue of breastfeeding rates in this jurisdiction as the comment states there is a direct correlation between breastfeeding and lower levels of obesity citing WHO research in this area.
I have raised the issue of direct provision every year at this committee. I welcome the recent establishment by the Minister for Justice and Equality of a working group to examine this issue. I have been asked by the chair of that working group to appear before it soon. During the week, the Department of Justice and Equality issued new figures showing there has been a decrease of 110 in the numbers in direct provision. Now, there are up to 4,280 individuals in direct provision, a third of whom are children. This should give us all pause for thought. While there are 34 centres, only three of these are purpose-built. There are large numbers of vulnerable women housed with children in the centres. The system has been criticised by virtually every international body including the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights and the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. The very issue at stake here is dignity. What we all want for our citizens is dignity. When I was writing my report, the Northern Ireland High Court considered the case of a Sudanese family which it decided not to return to the Republic on the basis our direct provision system was not consistent with the best interests principle for children.
It is my considered view the direct provision system is a disproportionate response to the need to control immigration. It is arguable it breaches Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, an international instrument to which Ireland is a signatory, and that it does not meet the right to respect for family life, not least because children do not enjoy life in a family unit but rather in a communal setting in inadequate accommodation. We have spent an entire year on the Tuam mother and baby home issue. I congratulate the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Reilly, for his comprehensive terms of reference for the inquiry into these homes. However, we should not forget that poor practices of the present can be the scandals of the future. Taking the costs of the direct provision system on mental health, child development and family life, apart from the human cost, there will be future costs on social services that yet have to be quantified. Direct provision is an issue of which we all need to be aware. Neither should we forget our past. When the Irish travelled abroad to the UK in the past, we were critical of the manner in which we were treated. Are we happy with the way we treat those who land on our shores, sometimes in a very vulnerable state?
I also urge the committee to add the case that Ireland opt into the recast reception conditions directive of 2013, which set a baseline for conditions in these reception centres and in asylum in general.
In terms of European developments, my report highlights a number of developments and I would just cite one of those, namely, the recommendation of the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers to member states on measures to combat discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity. This is something of which we need to be aware and must embed in our laws.
Perhaps the key recommendation in my report this year revolves around the need to review our Child Care Act. There are more than 50 recommendations on reform of our Child Care Act. I welcome the fact the in camerarule has been relaxed. The legislation introduced is a sensible balancing act between the need to ensure the right to a fair, transparent and accountable system of justice and the need to protect privacy. As I cited in my opening statement, during 2013, three cases came before the High Court, two of which were worthy of particular note. The judgment of Mr. Justice Hogan found that the absence of the same discount in regard to remission for children in Oberstown, relative to adults, was an issue that needed to be addressed.
The second issue highlighted a gap in our child protection system. A case came before the High Court dealing with what is called "a supervision order". If we are looking at keeping children in families, we need to add to the tools in the toolkit. The High Court stated that one could not attach a condition to a supervision order. Our legislation now needs to look at providing much greater flexibility to the court. This comes into sharp focus when one looks at the two Roma cases. I was asked by the Ombudsman to advise her office on the Roma case. One of the issues to emerge from that case was that perhaps there were not enough options available to those faced with this dilemma, something I will address momentarily.
Some 20 years on, the time is ripe to look at whether our Child Care Act needs updating and it is my view that it does. If we look at how society has changed in the intervening period, we see that there is a greater number of children arriving on our shores from other jurisdictions. We have a protocol with the UK. In so far as Northern Ireland is concerned, we have a very good working arrangement but that needs to be extended. We need protocols across all member states and perhaps a more robust protocol with England and Wales, given the number of children arriving from the two jurisdictions.
In terms of the emergency powers being exercised, in particular, by members of An Garda Síochána under section 12 of the Child Care Act, again, we need greater protocols and greater transparency in regard to those protocols. That was a key feature of the two Roma cases and it is one that needs to be addressed. I make a number of recommendations in the report on that issue.
An issue that has received very little public attention is the number of women arriving in Ireland in the late stages of pregnancy. What seems to happen at the moment is that applications are made to the District Court when the women are in labour, which is not a civilised way to deal with this. What I suggest is that we introduce a new order. I characterise that as an emergency care order pre-birth, so that we give the birth mother an opportunity to put her position to the District Court. The District Court can do this in a manner which gives that mother the opportunity to put her position. It is about ensuring that we keep children in families rather than taking children into care system when that is not necessary. That is a more proportionate response and it is one I would advocate.
As well as the legal issues I address in my report, there is also a need for structural reform in terms of a family court system that meets the needs of our citizens, is less adversarial and promotes alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. I am conscious of the fact that this matter is in the programme for Government and that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, is currently looking at this issue. However, I think both go hand-in-hand. Legislative reform and structural reform will ensure we have a more civilised system.
I will finish on two issues, the first of which is Internet safety. Many members will have seen the "Prime Time" programme prior to Christmas which sent shivers down all our spines in terms of the real dangers posed by the Internet. The fact that it is remote and anonymous seems sometimes to take away from the impact but for children, the permanence and global reach of the Internet can have profound damaging effects. Also, there are problems in terms of bringing cases against perpetrators because it is very difficult to establish jurisdiction. I welcome the fact that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, recently published the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill and that there will be an attempt to deal with this jurisdiction issue.
There are two aspects of that which I have raised before this committee consistently. The first of those is the need to criminalise child pornography. I welcome the fact that happens in this Bill. Perhaps the recommendation with which I am most associated is the need to criminalise grooming. I raised this recommendation in 2007 and I welcome the fact we are at last addressing it because it is hugely important that where child protection issues are addressed and are identified, we close those gaps as soon as possible. I welcome the fact the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, proposes to do this in the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill.
There are two further international instruments which I urge the State to ratify, namely, the Lanzarote and the Budapest conventions, addressing the whole area of cybercrime. It is a new area at which we need to look. In both Canada and Victoria, the area of voyeurism has been addressed. We must have zero tolerance when it comes to the exploitation of our children on the Internet.
A final recommendation I make in my report touches on the need for legislation to deal with child protection and welfare concerns in circumstances where the subject of a forced marriage involves a child. We need legislation in this area and I suggest that this gap in our legislation is closed as soon as possible.
I am very grateful for the opportunity to present before the committee and I am happy to take any questions. We should not lose sight of the fact that the present we are constructing is the future we want. I thank the committee for its attention.
I welcome Dr. Geoffrey Shannon. He has always been very generous with his time in appearing for the committee. Each year he has appeared before the committee there have been recurring recommendations. As the author of this report, does he believe it would be appropriate to introduce an implementation plan, or a timeframe, to ensure he is not just labouring in vain and that the Government of the day, whatever its colour, implements the recommendations? Dr. Shannon submitted his report at the beginning of last year but it was not published until November of last year. I imagine he is nearly at the stage of submitting last year's report but we are talking about the report from two years ago. We need to have the structure in place and an implementation plan. I would like to hear Dr. Shannon's views on that.
Last year Dr. Shannon raised the issue of alcohol abuse and the significant role that plays in child welfare and protection. Today he cited Article 19 and what he considers one of the most fundamental rights, the right of the child not to be used and neglected. I would like to hear his opinion on the watering down of the Government's commitment to ban alcohol advertising. Does he believe that it is a retrograde step?
The Chairman of the committee was on the radio saying it would not go ahead.
I wish to turn to the area of direct provision, which Dr. Shannon said is a grievous breach of international law.
This practice has been condemned by a number of international experts. It is an issue of human dignity. How could it be resolved? The Department has commissioned yet another report but the time for reports is over. It is now time for action. We know from the figures released last week that 58 deaths have occurred in these institutions in the past ten years of which 13 have been children under the age of five years. That is horrific. It is wrong that people live in these circumstances and we do not need a report to tell us that. Dr. Shannon has the expertise in how to deal with these situations. In his report Dr. Shannon outlines that Mr. Justice J. Stevens would not send a family back to Ireland because it was not in the best interest of the child to live in these institutions. Members across all the political parties condemned the barbaric practices of mother and baby homes, yet in our modern democracy we are facilitating barbaric practices in direct provision centres. Will it not be the case in 30 years' time that those who succeed us as Members of the Oireachtas will be talking about how we, the current Members, failed a vulnerable section of society?
Dr. Shannon speaks about the need for fundamental reform of child protection legislation. There are in excess of 20 suggestions in his report. In his view did the shortcomings in the legislation contribute to the Roma case? It must have been a difficult experience for the family to have a member of the Garda Síochána knock on the door and take away their child because the child did not look like the rest of his family or bear a resemblance to them. I do not criticise the Garda Síochána because in the absence of a proper protocol and clear legislation one must strike a balance in arriving at the circumstances in which to intervene to ensure that the welfare of the child is protected. Sometimes the State and the Garda Síochána are criticised for failing to intervene in time. It is very important to ensure we have clear protocols in place so that the State intervenes only at the appropriate stage in child welfare.
The issue of Internet safety was raised. This is a recurring theme which was addressed in previous reports. It is welcome that legislation will be introduced to criminalise child pornography and child grooming. I hope that will be passed by the Oireachtas this year. We are aware of horrific instances of bullying and harassment. We know that such incidents have led to teenagers taking their own lives. Our legislation has not kept pace with the advances in technology. Would Dr. Shannon consider it appropriate to update the legislation to deal clearly and explicitly with cyberbullying and have penalties that are a clear and strong deterrent to the perpetrators of such a heinous crime? At present, the only person who suffers the consequences of the bullying is the person who is being bullied, not the bully. I would welcome Dr. Shannon's opinion on that.
I welcome Dr. Shannon and I commend him on his comprehensive report. I apologise on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Ó Caoláin, who cannot be here this morning.
The reports states that "the best interests" were adopted in 2012. Has this changed the reality of the way the State agencies and the Judiciary actually work? I wish to raise the issue of direct provision, however the figures I have from the Department of Justice and Equality differ from those of Deputy Troy. According to these figures, 61 people living in direct provision have died since its establish in 2002 and of that number, 16 were young children under the age of five years. This is a shocking figure and raises fundamental questions about the suitability of direct provision for women and children. The Departments of Health, Children and Youth Affairs and Justice and Equality have much to answer and we need to have a serious debate on this issue in the House. Apart from the general issue of cooking facilities and facilities in general, I am concerned about young children and women living in close proximity to adults. Will we look back at direct provision in ten years' time and compare it with the mother and baby homes of a previous age? I believe that will be the case. Will Dr. Shannon outline his views on how we can address this serious issue?
Dr. Shannon mentioned the rights of the child to health services, with which we all agree. A significant issue arises for the parents of young children with disabilities. They have to fight tooth and nail to access basic services. I wish to pay particular attention to children who may have multiple disabilities. We have no cohesive pathway to services and parents are in a battle with a number of Departments to access services. I will not mention the Disability Act 2005 because as others have pointed out in respect to accessing services, we are constantly in breach of the Act. A lady who contacted me recently had a very premature baby, who survived. She highlighted that the State, at significant cost, helped her baby to progress to the age of two years but then she hit a brick wall because he needed numerous services. She had a consultation on the speech and language therapies he needed but was told that the service would not be available for nine months as the person was on maternity leave and nobody else was trained in that area. After all the effort made for such children to survive, no cohesive service is available for them. We need to try to progress services in a cohesive way so that parents can access all the services required. Parents find it very difficult to get an early diagnosis of autism. They face months waiting to get a diagnosis of the child's condition. We need to reduce the waiting period for a diagnosis because early intervention is so important.
In other jurisdictions the social workers dealing with child protection work from the police station and work hand-in-hand with police officers.
It is a very good way to work. It would not be practical in all areas of the country but in particular it could be used in city areas where cases are considered together. What are Dr. Shannon's views on that?
The Minister made comments last week about access to drugs on the part of children in care. HIQA issued a disturbing report about a residential unit for children in my constituency in Cork which stated that drug paraphernalia was discovered. The Minister said that this was not unique. What are Dr. Shannon's views on that?
I thank Dr. Shannon. His reports are always comprehensive and valuable. If I get any gaps in my time, his work is something I go to because he has given us so much material that we as legislators should work on. I congratulate him on being appointed founding patron of the Children's Rights Alliance. I may be slightly biased in saying that it is an outstanding organisation.
Dr. Shannon's appointment is well deserved and the alliance has made a superb choice.
My first question is more general. I received a commitment last year from the former Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, that the Government would look at Dr. Shannon's different reports - I feel sometimes he is reporting on an issue again and again - and look to carry out some implementation plan so that we as legislators would know what different Departments felt about the proposals made in his reports, such as whether they were viable or feasible and whether they were intended or planned. Has Dr. Shannon had any contact with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs or its Minister with regard to ensuring not just that we get a report from him, which is invaluable but that we can see how we could progress and track it and bring about change? I will limit myself to a few specific areas. Each area of Dr. Shannon's report warrants a hearing in itself.
In respect of direct provision, I support Dr. Shannon in respect of the recast reception conditions directive. The right to work is very important for family life and is critical in respect of role models for children. Dr. Shannon mentioned the work of the working group at the Department of Justice and Equality. I realise that this process is ongoing. However, I do not accept there is any barrier as to why the Minister for Justice and Equality cannot bring in the independent complaints mechanism and why we must await the outcome of a working group report. Dr. Shannon has recommended having an independent complaints mechanism on several occasions in his reports. We brought it in through legislation in the Child and Family Agency Act, which has the Ombudsman for Children as that mechanism. Is there any reason why this delay exists? It unacceptable at this stage that we do not have this mechanism in place.
I welcome the fact that Dr. Shannon has again raised the issue of forced marriages. It was on foot of his report that I put forward a motion with Senator Ivana Bacik on child marriage in June 2014 because I was alarmed in respect of the High Court ruling about the 29-year-old and the 16-year-old. For me, child marriage is socially licensed sexual abuse and amounts to exploitation of children. It reprehensible that Ireland allows it to happen. We allowed 28 applications in 2012. Does Dr. Shannon believe there is any reason we should keep the exemption in place to allow this? I do not see a reason in this day and age given our understanding of childhood.
I note what Dr. Shannon said about grooming and the measures proposed are well overdue. As Dr. Shannon said, he raised it in his first report in 2007 so we should take that on board along with the recommendations he made relating to the Child Care Act. They are wide and varied and could have huge ramifications that would be positive for child care now that we know more about what is happening in the courts, as Dr. Shannon noted.
In respect of the forthcoming child and family relationships Bill, I am of the opinion that Dr. Shannon has been misquoted. Perhaps I have misunderstood but I hear many people saying that he has said that marriage is the gold standard for families. I believe they have deliberately misinterpreted and misrepresented him.
I know but I have the special rapporteur in front of me and given the forthcoming legislation on children and families, I would like to make sure that I understand what was meant by that comment because I believe it has been repeatedly misrepresented.
My final point relates to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. Ireland will be before this committee within the next 12 months. The NGOs will be before the committee in early summer. I am conscious that we are awaiting a Supreme Court decision on the Thirty-first Amendment of the Constitution, which will bring in some of the language of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I am also very conscious that Dr. Shannon's reports were begun during the last periodic review of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child so he has had that period to consider matters since our last hearing. What has our progress been like over those seven years? On what issues do we need to get our house in order before Ireland's appearance before the committee?
I thank Dr. Shannon for his comprehensive report. In respect of care orders and the birth of the child, is there any analysis as to the number of children being born where there is clear evidence that the mother is using drugs? I remember how in the 1990s, the figures I got from one hospital showed that in any one day, ten babies were suffering from withdrawal symptoms. That did not mean there were ten babies being born every day but that the number of days a person has withdrawal symptoms goes on for a period of time. Have we any up-to-date data on the numbers we are talking about?
Dr. Shannon talks about a pre-birth order. If we are going down that road, there should be serious consultation with the medical profession. I recently spoke to three or four medical consultants who deal with this area. They spoke to me about cases involving people involved in substance misuse who failed to attend clinics, which makes the work that much more difficult from the consultants' perspective. In one case, there was a co-ordinated effort between social services, the medical profession and the Garda where the Garda brought the person to the clinic each week or month. It was a co-ordinated effort to make sure the person and the baby were looked after. After the baby was born, an application for a care order had to be made. If care orders are applied for before the birth, that may have consequences regarding how to get the person to attend clinics and all the work that must be done before the birth. If we are going down that road, before we decide on that issue, there should be serious consultation with the people working in the medical services on this issue.
One frightening aspect is that previously this was very much a Dublin problem. Now it is a problem in all 19 public maternity units around the country. It is a growing problem that is not going away.
That is why I am asking about the need for research and more up-to-date data in this area, so that we can see the extent of the problem.
Another issue also arises. If the person expecting the child already has children who appear to be coping well, is there not a difficulty for a care order to be justified in that situation? Those are some of the issues that will arise, so perhaps Dr. Shannon could deal with them in light of his own experience. We have not faced up to this issue in recent years, but it is now coming more and more to the fore so we need to start planning for it.
I thank Dr. Shannon for being here. I would remind Deputy Troy that Fianna Fáil was in government for over 30 years since the foundation of the State, yet the current Government was the first to create a Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in Cabinet. This Government was also the first to address the Magdalen laundry issue. The Deputy should therefore consider what he is saying here.
I have a few questions. In what way does Dr. Shannon think obesity can be addressed through education in schools? Does he believe in pre-natal care and that enough promotion is given to mothers to breast-feed? If not, why not? What does he think needs to be done in this regard?
As adults we eat what we like, but children do not. They eat what is put in the shopping basket or supermarket trolley, and then provided for them at home. The grocery sector is very commercial at the moment. One can buy a bag of carrots for 49 cent compared to a tin of carrots for €1.79. The whole process of preparing food is a turn-off for some parents, but home-cooking can make a huge difference in children's lives. There is a great opportunity for children to be fed well in this country.
At the opposite end of the scale we once had a presentation here about food. I was struck by the fact that the person giving the presentation said people should eat more fish. However, it can cost €7 to purchase a fish. Many people are not in a position to buy fish for their children. Poultry is one of the biggest selling foods around the world, including this country. As an island nation, there are plenty of fish around. The price of fish in supermarkets is astronomical, yet we are asking people on very low incomes to feed their children properly. Hopefully, however, things are changing.
I wish to comment on breast-feeding. I have three grandchildren who were born in the last four years. I never breast-fed any of my children and never felt the need to do so. They all turned out healthy. Some of them are fanatical about their health while others, like me, can put on a bit of weight and lose it again. I often asked them why breast-feeding turns them off. One of them recently said to me, "Mam, when I look at the television and see poor children in some countries hanging out of those withered breasts, it turns me off". I believe that is down to our psyche. It comes from a religious upbringing in this country and the requirement to behave modestly. We need to change our attitude towards young people. When one goes into a café in town to have a cup of tea, one might see a poor girl breast-feeding with a blanket over her child's head. It is ridiculous carry on.
I thank Dr. Shannon for his presentation. It is always interesting when he comes before this committee.
I thank Dr. Shannon for his presentation. He mentioned a review of the Child Care Act. I wish to ask about the involuntary admission of children to mental health treatment. According to our Constitution a child is a person under 18 years of age. I can understand young children being admitted for such treatment involuntarily, but are teenagers with difficulties consulted regarding involuntary admission? If so, what level of consultation takes place? We refer to mental health services for children and adolescents but there is no such thing as adolescence unless one goes over 18, if one wants to call them adolescents. Legally, anyone under 18 is a child.
We have been concerned for a number of years about mental health services for children. Some improvement has taken place but it is coming from a low base. Children are still being admitted to adult psychiatric institutions, which is a matter of concern years after an all-party commitment was made to ensure it would not happen.
Has Dr. Shannon examined the area of cyberbullying, which is much misunderstood? The media will label everything as cyberbullying but in the cases I have examined, cyberbullying had very little to do with it. That is because there was a history of serious mental illness concerning children as young as six who later took their lives aged 13, 14 or 15, yet somebody signed off on it as being the result of cyberbullying. It is a real issue but we do not have a handle on it. Can we get a handle on it? How does one undertake research in that area? We can all say we must do something about it, but if we do not know the extent, limitations or the issues involved, what can we do? What is Dr. Shannon's experience in that regard? He has not examined that area but perhaps he has an opinion on it.
Huge improvements were made in child welfare and protection by previous Governments. The previous Government appointed Dr. Shannon in his role as independent child rapporteur. I am sorry if adverting to deficiencies in the current system upsets certain members of the committee but I will not be silenced if I feel I should raise matters and be an advocate on behalf of vulnerable, less well-off and marginalised people in our society.
Dr. Geoffrey Shannon:
I will just look at the issues. I am grateful for the questions, which I could spend all day responding to because they are so rich in terms of the issues they raise. I will start with Deputy Troy's questions about the implementation plan. Of course, I would like to see an implementation plan concerning my recommendations; that goes without saying. Anybody who writes a report always likes to see it implemented. I am reassured that many of the recommendations I have suggested in the past are reflected in the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill, as published. The concerns I had about child trafficking are captured to a certain extent, in addition to child pornography, grooming and jurisdictional issues.
There is merit in having an annual review of recommendations. As regards how I came up with these recommendations, I engaged in extensive consultations for my report. It comes back to a question raised by Senator Colm Burke. With regard to the emergency care order pre-birth, I consulted widely on that issue in gathering data. I consulted with members of the Judiciary on cases coming before the courts, not only in the Dublin area but also outside it. The Deputy's question is a legitimate one and I will come back and deal with it specifically. I consult all the stakeholders and then look at the issues. I try to frame a recommendation that reflects international best practice on the issue raised.
I am profoundly concerned about direct provision. It would be disingenuous of me, as an independent expert, not to articulate that view. Earlier this morning, I articulated the issues surrounding that. These practices have the potential to become the subject of tribunals in the future.
I welcome the establishment of the working group and I also welcome the opportunity to present my views to the group. What I present to the committee this morning is my considered view as to why I believe that the practice, while it may be cost-effective in the interim, in the long run it may end up costing the State significantly. I refer to the commission of investigation into the Tuam mother and baby home. The Minister is to be commended that €21 million expenditure has been allocated because it will be a robust system. However, what we should be trying to do is to ensure that this will be the commission of all commissions and that it should be the last commission. I would much prefer to see money invested in the protection of children in the future rather than on an historic inquiry. We are storing up trouble for the future in the case of the direct provision system. That is how I would characterise it and I do not need to add anything further.
I refer to Deputy Troy's question about the Child Care Actin light of the Roma cases. Undoubtedly, the lack of clarity around the protocols did act as a catalyst for at least one of those cases. The public need to be reassured in the aftermath of the Roma cases. As a citizen listening to the media commentary one would be left with the impression that the agents of the State, the Garda Síochána, took these kids into care without due consideration. In my view they did so for all the right reasons. We heard reference to the fact that they may very well have been criticised if they did not take these children into the care system. We need to publish protocols and to make them available in a manner that is understandable to the public so the public knows when these provisions will be activated. I make a number of further recommendations in my report which I urge should be implemented.
I do not intend getting involved in the politics of alcohol but my recommendations on alcohol have not been ambivalent. Norah Gibbons and I chaired the review into the deaths of 196 children in the care system. One finding that stood out is the failure on the part of society to comprehensively address the alcohol problem leaves the State services dealing with an insurmountable problem. We cannot have an ambivalent approach when it comes to alcohol or alcohol-sponsorship, particularly in the area of sport. For example, I was struck by what Deputy Byrne said and I agree completely with her in terms of breast-feeding in that it is a case of how it is portrayed. If we link alcohol to the advertising, children get the impression that this is something trendy. This is my concern. I am aware of the fact that there will be trade-offs. I say this from the position that I do not have to make those difficult decisions but I reiterate what I said to the committee last year.
On the question about Internet safety and the issue of bullying, I will link this question to Deputy Neville's question. I addressed Deputy Neville in my last year's report when I made a comprehensive submission to this committee on cyberbullying. I referenced the fact that mental health issues arise and that it is not a straightforward issue. None the less, I said that, in my view, the law had not kept pace with technology in the general area of Internet safety. I welcome the fact that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, has introduced comprehensive legislation on sexual offences.
Cyberbullying is a problem. I was asked last year to speak at a conference on this issue organised as part of the Greek Presidency. This problem is not confined to this jurisdiction and it exists elsewhere. We need to look at how we respond to it. I refer to some very good research on the subject. I have suggested that homophobic bullying needs to be tackled with a zero tolerance approach. We have seen in the media in recent hours that it is a societal issue. I refer to the extraordinary work done by BeLonG To and GLEN in addressing this issue which society must deal with. I agree with Deputy Neville that cyberbullying may be part of a broader problem. I agree with Deputy Troy that it needs a legislative response.
Deputy McLellan asked how has the best-interest principle been implemented following the referendum. The referendum result has yet to be ratified. The legislation emerging post the ratification of the referendum has reflected that principle. I wish to put on the record that there has been a lot of misinformation in the aftermath of the publication of the children and family relationships Bill. I suggest that as part of the three legislative consultation processes that two separate drafts have been put into the public domain so there has been wide consultation. Some people are saying that this legislation will be rushed. The legislation has had two airings already and it is commendable that the first draft was significantly changed in the redrafting into which was added the right to identity in the donor-conceived register. That is the advantage of having a pre-legislative consultation process. I refer to a very progressive provision in the Children and Family Relationships Bill. Head 34, as it was, addresses the best-interest principle in a pervasive type of fashion so this is being reflected in our law and it will be very positive once it has constitutional standing.
I share passionately all Deputy McLellan's views on direct provision. Few people who have worked in this area believe it is satisfactory. I share the Deputy's views on the need for supports for those with a disability. This issue ties in, to a certain extent, with the recommendations that I make on the Child Care Act. I refer to those parents who find themselves unable to cope and because they are unable to cope, their children may end up in the care system. It is not just a question of support but rather targeted support to meet the needs of adults. That is what we need to examine. Too often in the past, our approach has been to throw money at an issue when, in fact, a more targeted approach would generate much greater returns.
I also agree with Deputy McLellan's view on the need for a greater link between the agencies. She suggested we look at other models. I have examined many models, including the Australian and New Zealand models. This also ties in with my recommendation for structural reform as well as legislative reform. It is not just about legislation, which is only one part of the issue.
I agree with Senator van Turnhout that we need robust, independent oversight of the direct provision system. There is a counter-argument that these children are really not in State care. I would passionately say that these children do not enjoy life in a family unit. It is exactly what Deputy McLellan said, that vulnerable women and children are in close proximity to other individuals, the type of individuals whom we would vet if given the opportunity. I suggest that there should be an independent complaints mechanism, whatever shape that takes.
Senator van Turnhout also asked about my views on marriage, which have been grossly misrepresented. A number of years ago I put together a piece in which I had described marriage as the gold standard but I mentioned it in the context of that institution as being available to all citizens. I see it as being manipulated by some people and I do not intend to include it in today's discussion. However, it is important to clarify that point for the record.
A great deal of progress has been made. We need to be fair and objective. I refer, for example, to the establishment of a separate Minister with responsibility for this issue. We have also had a referendum on the rights of the child. However, much work remains to be done. It would be disingenuous of us if we were not to acknowledge the fact that progress has been made. When we make progress, it is important that we should acknowledge that fact. The next big body of work relates to the Child Care Act. The latter is our fundamental instrument of child protection and in my opinion it is in need of significant updating.
Senator Colm Burke posed a really good question. Just to explain, this is not a recommendation which occurred to me overnight. It is one which I framed having discussed matters with many of the key stakeholders involved. I do not have to hand the statistics the Senator is seeking but I agree that it is important to gather the relevant data. If the Senator is asking why I made the recommendation in question, the answer is that I am of the view that we need a proportionate response to a child protection issue that is likely to emerge. I happen to think that it is not proportionate to seek to take a child into care where a mother is in labour. That is my view. When I started examining this issue, I discovered it is becoming much more prevalent. It needs to be addressed, taking into account all of the caveats the Senator highlighted. I am of the view that what I propose is much more proportionate response. The birth mother will, at least, have the opportunity to respond and to defend her situation when she is not in a hospital bed. That is why I am suggesting this may be a better way of dealing with the matter and taking into consideration all of the caveats the Senator outlined. I agree with everything he said - which is legitimate - but I am suggesting that this is probably a more proportionate response to the child protection issue that is emerging. I agree that further work needs to be done on this matter.
I passionately share Deputy Catherine Byrne's views on LGBT children. I have had the absolute pleasure of working with BeLonGTo. When I was compiling my report last year, I spent a great deal of time considering the issues with BeLonGTo. By working with such an organisation, one obtains an appreciation of what are the issues. I also travelled internationally to discover whether there are other models in operation. I spent a great deal of time in connection with my report for last year looking at the discrete issue. I am really concerned that some schools should be aware of the fact that all children should be treated equally, regardless of their sexual orientation. There is much to be done yet on this front, particularly in terms of education. Many children will be aware of their sexual orientation at 12 years of age and they spend those formidable years in a school context. The research conducted by Dublin City University, the Supporting LGBT Lives study etc., all point to the need to ensure that teachers are equipped with the necessary resources to ensure that the school environment is safe. A child falling out of school because he or she has been bullied or targeted for bullying is really regrettable because it is not possible to get those years back. We need to redouble our efforts in this regard. In fairness, however, much has been done. The publication of the report by the Department of Education and Skills on tackling this issue is a major step forward. The current Government has been very impressive in the context of tackling this issue and is to be warmly congratulated for engaging directly in respect of it.
I fully agree with the Deputy in respect of prenatal care. I wondered whether I would address this kind of topic but I felt I had to do so because as I was writing my report, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child published its general comment No. 15. The issues the Deputy articulated so eloquently are very clearly reflected in the latter. What struck me when I read general comment No. 15 was the referencing of the World Health Organization's research and data and the fact that there is a direct correlation between breast-feeding and lower levels of obesity. That is quite a stark revelation. I am of the view that there is a reluctance to tackle the advertising issue in this area. If we are going to place children's health at the centre of our decision making, then we are going to be obliged to make some tough decisions. This was one of the recommendations in my report which generated a great deal of debate on publication. This meeting presents me with an opportunity to articulate why I felt it necessary to include it.
On Deputy Neville's question regarding involuntary admissions, I completely share his view in respect of consultation. A great deal has already been done but a lot more must be done in the area of mental health, particularly in the context of involuntary admission. The judgment I cited in my opening statement is very interesting in that it considers the issues the Deputy raised. In the instance in question, the court felt that the approach adopted under section 25 of the Mental Health Act was sufficient to incorporate, in a proportionate manner, the welfare and the views of the child.
Those are brief responses to the questions that have been posed. Lest there be any doubt, I wish to place on record my opinion that enormous progress has been made in so far as children's issues are concerned. I am privileged to have the opportunity to bring these further recommendations to the committee. My headline recommendation relates to direct provision and many members, including Senator van Turnhout and Deputy McLellan, referred to it. I am of the view that we need to redouble our efforts on that front.
On the issue of care orders before birth, this is a very difficult area with which to deal. I fully accept that Dr. Shannon has examined all aspects of it. The big problem that will also arise is that if a care order is in place before birth, a partner who may have the same problem as the mother may intervene. The latter can give rise to a number of difficulties for medical and nursing staff. This is an issue which must be dealt with in a very careful manner. Each case will have to be judged on its merits. Nursing, medical and hospital administration staff would be very concerned by the prospect of fighting a number of battles simultaneously. Their first priority is to ensure the safe delivery of babies and to see to it that there are no risks to such children. If they are obliged to do this while a number of people are working against them, then matters can become difficult. The latter must be borne in mind when dealing with this issue.
Dr. Geoffrey Shannon:
It is a question of proportionality and of examining the current approach. I had the opportunity to discuss this matter with people and I am of the view that it is only a matter of time before litigation arises in respect of it and that Ireland ends up before the European Court of Human Rights. If a birth mother is lying in a hospital bed and is trying to defend proceedings, she would have a fairly decent case to argue that one's Article 8 rights had been infringed. I accept everything Senator Colm Burke states but we need to consider a number of issues. I do not have a fixed view about how we dealt with or characterise this matter. However, I do have a fixed view another matter. In the trauma and emotion which follows the birth of a child, it is more difficult for a birth mother to defend proceedings such as those to which we are referring. I am coming at this from the point of view of considering how we might ensure that fewer children end up in our care system. This is something to which I am passionately committed because family support sometimes ranks as a poor third to child protection and alternative care in the battle for resources and professional time. We must ensure that we do enough at the emergency care order pre-birth hearing to clarify the position for the prospective mother.
If she is in a position to act responsibly, we do not have to take the child into the care system. That is what this provision is all about.
I thank Dr. Shannon for his presence this morning and his informative response to the questions and engagement with the members. I thank him too for his work and for his courtesy to all of us, in particular to me and the Committee Secretariat.
The Select Committee on Children will meet next Tuesday at 5.30 p.m.