Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 8 May 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs
Children's Rights Alliance Report Card 2019: Discussion
I again welcome members, and viewers who may be watching proceedings on Oireachtas TV, to the public session of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs.
Our second session is with the Children's Rights Alliance on its report card for 2019. On behalf of the committee, I welcome Ms Tanya Ward, chief executive, and Ms Edel Quinn, legal research and public policy manager, and thank them for coming.
Before we commence, I am required to draw their attention 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 this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to 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 remind members and witnesses to turn off their mobile phones or switch them to flight mode, as they tend to interfere with the sound system which makes it difficult for parliamentary reporters to report the meeting.
I also wish to advise the witnesses that any submission or opening statements they make to the committee will be published on the committee website after this meeting. After their presentation, there will be questions from the members of the committee. I now call on Ms Ward and Ms Quinn to make their opening statements.
Ms Tanya Ward:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to present the results of our annual report card.
Before we go further I want to talk a little about the Children's Rights Alliance. We are a membership body that is almost 25 years old. We are an umbrella organisation for organisations campaigning for children and young people in Ireland.
The report card is one of our flagship projects and it is an annual project. The report tracks how the Government is delivering on its promises to children in the programme for Government. These are not promises we have made up; they have been made by the Government and the Government has committed to them in the programme for Government.
One significant point about the report card is that while the Children's Rights Alliance writes and researches the report, an independent panel grades the report card every year. The panel is chaired by Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness and includes a range of different experts. That is important for us because while we are close to the issues, the panel tries to be as neutral as possible in grading the report card.
I will comment on this year's report card. We are three years into the current programme for Government. The Government got a C grade, which is the highest grade to date for this programme for Government. This is because in nearly every area we have seen progress on the commitments the Government has made.
I will outline some of the high points in the report card. The Government gets an A grade for the LGBTI+ strategy. I will comment on the detail of that strategy. It is probably one of the biggest and most effective consultations ever undertaken for a youth initiative by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. One significant point is that the measures in the strategy will deal with some of the key problems that we know LGBTI children face. During the consultation we heard that many young people suffer from bullying in the school place. They are stereotyped and many self-harm. Even though we saw a high point with marriage equality, things have not changed sufficiently for LGBTI+ young people in schools. I hope the strategy will get us there.
Another high point relates to child poverty. The reason I say that is because last year, we had the most progressive budget to date since before the recession when it comes to child poverty. The Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection budget included a range of different measures that will have an impact for children. We have over 100,000 children living in consistent poverty. That number grew exponentially at different points during the recession. We had a decrease in December, with 25,000 children lifted out of consistent poverty. The types of measures in the budget related to older children, who are more likely to experience poverty. There was an extra €5 in welfare payments for those children. There was extra funding for the school meals programme, including the piloting of a hot school meals programme. That is really important because that is one of the answers when we are dealing with child poverty in Ireland. There was also the possibility of lone parents being able to earn more every week before losing their benefits. These kinds of targeted measures will make a major difference to families. Obviously, however, we are only part of the way there and we need sustained investment and programmes if we are going to change the dial when it comes to child poverty.
Another area I wish to highlight as a high point relates to childcare. Last year a total of 72,000 families got to benefit from a childcare subsidy. That is significant in our history. Committee members will know that we are far behind when it comes to childcare. Other countries were developing their national childcare systems in the 1940s and 1950s and so we are years behind. What is significant about last year is the fact that €574 million was secured to provide a national childcare scheme subsidy. There are issues in respect of whether that scheme will be wide enough for people living in poverty and I can talk to the committee in more detail about that but it is a milestone in the development of our system.
I will make some final points, including some points on direct provision. We saw some significant developments in the past year when it comes to children living in direct provision. The direct provision payment that children receive on a weekly basis was increased from €21.10 to €29.80. That is significant because for 15 years, children in direct provision were only receiving €9.60 per week.
Another important point is that national standards for refugee accommodation have been developed.
These have yet to be published and to be honest, unless there are independent inspections these standards will not be meaningful and will not result in the change that we need to see in this area.
There are low points too. Committee members will see in the report card that the Government gets an F grade when it comes to child homelessness. It is not that we fail to recognise there is much happening across the board. We know over €60 million is going into homeless services. We know €1 billion is going into housing assistance payments to help families try to stay in rented accommodation. However, the reality is that between 2017 and 2018 an extra 500 children entered homeless accommodation. These measures have not been sufficient to turn the tide when it comes to child homelessness. We know that approximately 12% of children in homeless accommodation have been there for two years or more. We are highly concerned about the impact of institutionalisation on these children, as well as the impact on their education and welfare.
Lastly, I wish to highlight the area of Travellers. This is to my shame. I have been chief executive of the Children's Rights Alliance for seven years at this stage. We are seeing a serious deterioration in the situation for Traveller children, especially when it comes to accommodation. We know that 40% of Traveller children are living in overcrowded accommodation. That makes it very difficult for them and it is a very stressful situation. Oftentimes, they do not have access to sanitation. We hear parents talking about bringing children out during the night to urinate. We also hear, despite all of this, that central government is making money available to invest in Traveller accommodation but it is not being spent. That is one of the major scandals when it comes to Travellers.
Those are some of the main points. I am happy to answer any questions from committee members.
Thank you very much, Ms Ward. I will let Senator Freeman in presently because I know time is against her. I will be quick. I have some observations to make on which I seek your views.
Lest I be accused of being party political, a C+ grade is not good enough for this State. An F grade on homelessness is disgraceful. Our national legacy of the treatment of Travellers, regardless of what we have done in respect of ethnicity, is a problem. I worked as a member of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality during the last Dáil. I worked extensively with the then Chairman of that committee, and now Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Stanton. Our collective failure to provide Traveller accommodation throughout the State is nothing short of a disgrace. I want to put all of those matters out into the open straight away.
There is one thing I find most frustrating. Ms Ward hit the nail straight on the head in starting out by making the clear and unambiguous statement that the number of children in consistent levels of poverty has reduced dramatically in the recent past. Yet, on every occasion when we have this conversation, especially in Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann, the opposite information is being presented as fact. I find it incredibly frustrating that the narrative is being created in the political world in this country to the effect that we, as a State and all its institutions, whether they be State-sponsored or NGOs, are failing in their duties or responsibilities in respect of consistent levels of child poverty or those at risk of child poverty. The opposite is the case. That is something I am keen to put on the record.
One of the questions I have relates to Travellers and I am pleased that Ms Ward has raised the point. When I was going through all the submissions yesterday one point jumped out at me having worked on the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality during the last Dáil. How do we change the attitude of local authorities and their councillors, especially in the context of a local election in two weeks? How do we change the attitude of council members? At times, for sound reasons, they refuse to permit local authorities to expend moneys on sites that are down back country lanes with absolutely no services whatsoever. At other times, there are out-and-out objections for the sake of it. How does the State grasp this contentious nettle and provide the services that we should be providing to an ethnically recognised part of our society? How do we ensure that the area where we have a particular interest, that is to say, where the children of Traveller families throughout the State find themselves in deplorable conditions, is addressed? Does Ms Ward have advice to offer to the committee?
Ms Tanya Ward:
I welcome the question on Traveller children. There is a multiplicity of things we need to do. From talking to Travellers about their everyday experiences, one of the core things to address is the discrimination and interpersonal racism they experience, which influences the actions of council members and local authorities in deciding what to do around accommodation issues. One of the striking and shocking things when we went to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child was to hear Pavee Point, whose representatives attended with us, present to the committee how Travellers felt after the Carrickmines fire. Travellers could not get their heads around the lack of compassion for them after the biggest fire in the State since the Stardust fire. It was symptomatic of something deeper in Irish society which we have yet to address. We need to do more work on valuing Travellers and their culture and identity in Irish society and to address the discrimination that happens for Travellers on an everyday basis. Consistently, they will tell one that they have to hide their Traveller identity in the workplace because they are unlikely to hold onto their jobs. We had Kathleen speak at the launch of our report card and she talked about her experience. When she got her first job after school and they found out she was a Traveller, things suddenly became much more difficult and she was constructively dismissed. If one looks at what happened to the Equality Authority around the same time and the reduction in funding, it just so happens that discrimination for Travellers increased and we did not address it. There is a big piece there that we need to address. Obviously, we have the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, which has a very important role to play to address discrimination.
We may need to look at sanctions in respect of local authority members and the way local authorities operate or something more forthright to ensure they make the decisions to provide accommodation. One particular local authority returned €2 million to the Department and that has been done in successive years. This particular local authority area has a very large Traveller population. Something must be done at national level to address this crisis. Travellers are ending up in homeless accommodation. That is what Focus Ireland is saying. Travellers have larger families and they are finding it more difficult to find homes and accommodation. We need to take a more forthright and twinned approach by looking at Traveller identity and addressing discrimination. We have to get to Traveller children themselves. They do not value themselves at this point in time. Morale is very low and they feel very low. We had a consultation with children from around the country in which Traveller children took part. There were two children in particular who, while they had never experienced discrimination, said they had no hope for their futures. We have to change that. Every Traveller child in the country should have hope for his or her future.
Ms Edel Quinn:
The Traveller accommodation expert group was established last October and was due to report within six months to set out priorities in the area. Therefore, we expect that report to be published soon. We can then look at the recommendations of that group and move to prioritise and implement them.
I thank the witnesses for their report. One of my questions follows a question from the Chairman. I do not know if I am understanding this right. It has to do with the Travellers. I remember that we invited Pavee Point to an Oireachtas meeting on mental health. One of the figures that stands out to me all the time is that 90% of Traveller men will not reach the age of 60. That alone is horrifying. When the witnesses say the money is not being spent even though it has been allocated, is it the local authorities who are refusing to spend it? I do not get that.
The solution is to involve people from the Traveller community in government. They should be on county councils or running for election. Is that happening at all? I cannot understand how the money is being sent back.
The second question I have relates to my one-trick pony, namely, mental health.
Has the Children's Rights Alliance made any findings on mental health on children and the available services? I am deeply surprised to hear the witnesses say the Government has scored a C grade, I am deeply surprised. When I say "deeply surprised", I do not mean "pleasantly". I do not believe it has achieved a C grade and would have put it all down as an F grade. I would be interested to hear what the findings were.
Ms Tanya Ward:
Regarding the Traveller situation, representation at different levels is very important. I am not aware of any Travellers standing for election at the moment but there are obviously black and ethnic minority people coming forward. What is very positive to see is that Traveller organisations are doing a lot of leadership development at the moment. One will see great people starting to come up through education, including people with PhDs, who are going to lead into the future. Excellent work has been done by Travellers themselves. Mobilisation of the Traveller community to speak for themselves and to organise themselves and to lead is fundamental to addressing the key issues. It is shocking to hear that there is money available for accommodation which is not being spent. We always complain that no money is being made available by central government. We need something more radical if we are going to change the figures because the State is just paying for it in other ways. The State pays because Travellers are in homeless accommodation. We are paying for it in terms of health services. The Senator is right that infant mortality rates, the high death rate for adult men and low employment rates all smack of deep levels of deprivation that we have allowed to happen over a long period. I do not know whether people realise that half of all Travellers are children and young people under the age of 18. It is an extraordinary opportunity to engage in early intervention to address the deep levels of discrimination and deprivation. I will pass over to my colleague, Ms Quinn, to discuss mental health.
Ms Edel Quinn:
The Government was awarded a D-minus grade this year on mental health and it has consistently been given that grade over the course of the programme for Government, which is now in its third year. It is one of the lowest grades the Government has been given. That is due largely to the review of A Vision for Change not having been completed yet and the lack of 24-7 access to services, which is something that comes through on our own information line. People are ringing up to ask what they are going to do for their child on a Friday evening when that child needs access to services. Waiting lists are another issue. Children and young people are waiting long periods for access. Last year, approximately 20% of children waited over a year for access to CAMHS. There are also waiting lists for community and psychology services.
Ms Edel Quinn:
It was a "D-minus in the first year, 2016, a D-minus in 2017, a D-plus in 2018 and it is a D-minus again for 2019. It went slightly up but has gone back down again this year. It has always been one of the lowest grades and it is a matter the independent panel of experts who award the report card grades feel passionately about.
I have to leave shortly to attend an information meeting presented by the Minister of State with responsibility for mental health, Deputy Jim Daly. I will be saying "You got a D-minus". I will be speaking on the witnesses' behalf.
The witnesses mentioned waiting lists. Are there different waiting lists in different parts of the country? There are nine CHOs. Do they have different waiting lists or is it uniform across the board? Do the witnesses have statistics on that? Regarding accommodation and related issues, are some areas performing better than others? Are the witnesses seeing more problems in different sectors of the country?
Ms Tanya Ward:
I will let Ms Quinn take the detail on waiting lists but I note the following.
We know there is a direct link between the availability of community psychologists and CAMHS services and school attendance. When a young person is suffering emotionally and mentally and cannot get the support he or she needs, he or she finds it very hard to go to school and to stay in school. The exams can be the reason for the stress but usually there has been a long lead in period. By the time a young person needs to go to CAMHS there has usually been a long period of stress and that is the reason the person needs CAMHS services. In an area such as Wexford, where there is a gap in service provision, school attendance will be lower. We know that from talking to different actors in the field. We think that is something that must be address because there is an issue with school attendance. If one addresses the mental health needs of those children and young people, one will get better school attendance.
Ms Edel Quinn:
That is largely down to the lack of availability of the clinicians to carry out the services. What we have been hearing from the HSE mental health service is that it is having trouble getting the staff to apply for jobs. I think it has something to do with the level of pay and the location of the jobs.
I can give the witnesses some extra information. The recruitment model of the HSE is not helping. It is not a locally sourced service but it is a national centralised system of recruitment. It would be interesting from the perspective of the Children's Rights Alliance to conduct research into this and bring it back to the table. From my research and from speaking to bodies such as Tusla and others, I know there is no local or regional recruitment drive but only a national campaign and the use of panels. That is why I asked the questions around the community healthcare organisations, CHOs. There has been 114 assistant psychologists put into community health care. I thank the witnesses for their time and I think this is a point they might feed back to the HSE when they speak to it.
I thank the witnesses for appearing before us. I have two points, the first of which is child homelessness. Nobody in this room will disagree on what needs to be done, but unfortunately it is not happening quickly enough. We need social and affordable housing. In the meantime for a child who is living day-to-day in a provision for the homeless, what can we do to make life better for that child? The witnesses can talk us through the impacts of homelessness. We hear so much about the emotional impact, as well as the impact on health but is there anything we can do between the time the child goes to school comes home to help that child?
Ms Tanya Ward:
There is quite a lot we could be doing to address the situation for the 3,824 children who are in homeless accommodation. One thing that is striking about our housing laws and policy is that they were developed at a time when the main group of people availing of homeless services were men with addiction issues, rough sleepers and so on. Given that children make up such a significant cohort of the homeless population, it is something we need to look at. If we oblige decision makers to make decisions in the best interests of children, it would mean that when they develop accommodation solutions, that they have to think about the child. One of the issues we hear from our members is that there is a major variation in the stock that is used in homeless services. One might get a family hub with great facilities for families, such as great play facilities and then another might not have sufficient facilities at all. The early years providers of services are seeing that. They see children who do not have play facilities, children who do not a have a space to crawl and the big concern for very young children is that they will miss all their developmental milestones so that when they arrive at school, they will be way behind all the other children as well.
When it comes to the educational and emotional welfare of young people going through this experience, what was very striking from the Ombudsman for Children's consultation was the fact that children themselves did not see family hubs as the solution to homelessness. What they want is a home as soon as possible, they want security because it is such a destabilising experience. Something we have called for in our campaigns, Report Card 2019 and No Child 2020 is a time limit on the use of homeless accommodation. If one minimises it to six months, one could try to minimise the impact of institutionalisation.
We are seeing the impact of institutionalisation on children, especially in the consultation document from the Ombudsman for Children and the research we commissioned last year on homelessness. To give examples, 14 year old children do not have the possibility of being able to go to the family room on their own. Children have to sign in every day, which makes them feel there are in a prison. They are told what to do by other adults other than their parents. That is what institutionalisation starts to feel like.
Another piece, from an educational point of view, which we uncovered in research we published last year was the distinction between a DEIS school and a non-DEIS school. The DEIS school has more flexibility, a breakfast club and funding to provide extra supports for children. In the main, schools are doing the best they can and doing a very good job for the children. What non-DEIS schools have told us is that they have no flexible budgets to do anything. If a child arrives in a dirty school uniform, they have no money available and teachers are spending their own money to buy clothes for a child. They are also spending their own money to feed children. What the schools have stated they need for a temporary period is a home-school liaison officer or teacher to support families. Principals say they sometimes ring Focus Ireland, accommodation providers or hotels to try to get a family into accommodation. A home-school liaison officer could do that work. The findings of the research show that the emotional well-being of families is being affected. Teachers say this happens over a period of time. When that starts to happen, children start to miss school because they are ashamed of having to describe their situation as homelessness. They say they have to leave early and cannot hang out with their friends after school. They start to lose their motivation and they are more vulnerable to dropping out. That is where we need a school completion programme. We have had a lot of dealings with them in tracking the children to make sure we can keep them in school, but it is really about supporting the school to promote the well-being of children and give them the emotional toolkit they need to mind their mental health and emotions and giving schools the resources they need to do the best job they can.
Let me ask a question about the school completion programme. Has Ms Ward found that the programme is working better than when it was within the remit of the Department of Education and Skills? It is now under Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, or has she seen a decline in service?
Ms Tanya Ward:
Not necessarily. Of what we are aware is that Tusla does not have sufficient educational welfare officers to do the job. It responds to all reports, but it needs more educational welfare officers because it needs to be able to chase the non-attendance of children in school. If one looks at Carol Coulter's report which documents children in child care cases in the courts, one will see that a significant number have not been in school. One wonders what happened from an educational point of view. If one looks at the statistics for children in the Oberstown centre, one will find that a significant number were not in school. How come they were not in school? How come measures were not taken to address the issue? It is an issue that at the very least needs to be addressed.
The guardian ad litemservice was touched on and a report will be published soon. Do the delegates have proposals or a further submission to make in that regard? Do they think the service has an independent identity? Is there anything they would like to see happen to enhance the service?
Ms Edel Quinn:
We expect to see the new draft legislation any time now. We have made a number of submissions on it to the joint committee and the Department. We hear that there is a consultation process in place with children and young people, which is an initiative for which we had called in the past couple of years. We hope the experiences of children will enhance the legislation. We welcome the latest iteration of the Bill, with the new executive office under the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, as opposed to Tusla. That is something for which we have called. The status of the guardian ad litemservice is the key outstanding issue for us because it will be a witness, as opposed to a party, in a case.
That undermines the role guardians ad litemcurrently have. It dilutes the powers they have and the way they are able to represent children. I refer to cross examination, for example. One of the main areas where the convention has evolved over years is that guardians ad litem, GAL, would be able to cross examine through a lawyer - for example, it would be able to cross examine Tusla - on decisions taken. They would be severely limited in their ability to cross examine and that would fundamentally impact the role that the guardians ad litemplay and the way that children's voices are heard in proceedings that have a huge impact on their lives.
That is something that is common. Anybody we have been speaking to has raised that. They believe that is watering down the service because it is an invaluable service. As Ms Quinn said, it is representing children's voices. Does the role itself need to be enhanced? When we look at figures from different counties, appointments of guardians ad litemare made quicker in some counties. Is there anything Ms Quinn would like to see happen with that?
Ms Edel Quinn:
What we are hearing from the Department is that the intention behind the legislation is that it would be the norm to have guardians ad litemappointed but it would be up to a judge to decide that. What we are seeing at the moment is that there is a real variance across the country. In Louth guardians ad litemare appointed in around 75% to 80% of cases whereas in Galway it is down to 13%. It is really necessary for judges in courthouses across the country to apply this to a more consistent level to ensure that guardians ad litemare appointed and to ensure that the judges give reasons if they are not appointing them. That would hopefully help in that area.
I was at the launch and it is a really important indicator and really important for our work to see where the State is at. Did the Department engage with the Children's Rights Alliance before and after and what did that engagement look like? Did it contest anything?
Ms Tanya Ward:
It is positive. We find the engagement we have with Government Departments when we are developing the Report Card to be open and transparent. We would submit questions to the different Government Departments and try to get behind the rationale for some of the initiatives that might not be happening or to try to understand what the delays are and we find that generally, most Government Departments are open to recommendations and ideas when it comes to the different initiatives. Ms Quinn manages all these relationships so she can give the Senator her direct experience of it.
Ms Edel Quinn:
We engage thoroughly with about seven Departments, including the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, and a number of agencies and bodies within those Departments so the level of engagement is very heavy. We find that they are keen to highlight the work they have done so for the most part they tend to engage well and provide us with the data we need. That is helpful. We know every year that when it comes to completing our Report Card we can find the information we need and help our members with that as well if they are looking for particular information. We find that it is a positive engagement, something that we have built up over years and we actively work to maintain that positive relationship.
We have the Minister, Deputy Zappone, in next week for an update on the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, LGBTI, strategy. It is only a two year strategy so we are about a year in. I have not seen many actions completed but that said, they could be teeing everything up for the second the year. Relationships, sexuality, education, bullying in schools, gender recognition and the legal relationship between LGBTI parents and their children will all come up but it is a fitting grade given the publication of the strategy.
I would love to stay on the various details but we would be going around in circles if we did. I commend the work the Children's Rights Alliance has done.
The last time we spoke, free travel for children during the school term was provided. Has that progressed to the summertime? Has anything changed with that considering that children will be breaking up from school in a few months and left sitting in hotel rooms, etc.? Did that progress?
Ms Tanya Ward:
It is my understanding that it has not progressed and it is still an issue that needs to be addressed. The staff within the homeless services are finding the administration of the travel scheme taxing as well. It could make a considerable difference for families, in terms of reducing the level of institutionalisation and alienation, if that could be addressed by the committee.
It relates to the free travel for children getting to school. There was a vigorous campaign last year that children should be given it, not only at school time but over the summer period to allow families to take their children out. One is only talking about eight weeks. It is something that, when we have the Minister in, we can raise again.
Absolutely. We might take it upon ourselves to get in contact with the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport in relation to the issue. It would seem to be one of those costs that involves a net benefit to the State in the long run. Of course, we would need to determine what the cost is first. I thank Deputy Mitchell for that.
Ms Tanya Ward:
We hear from our member organisations that sometimes they find it difficult to identify where the hubs and services are to be able to provide services, particularly within the early years area or in the family support area. A piece of work might need to be done to link the services together so that there are data-sharing agreements, which are obviously GDPR compliant, put in place to make them aware so that they can get those services in. The key is getting children out of those facilities, particularly if they are inappropriate in any way, and trying to give them some sense of normality.
What was striking from the homework research we published last year, which looked at children experiencing homelessness, was that education facilities, such as crèches, Montessori schools, primary schools and secondary schools, are a place of solace for children. They provide their only sense of normality. The better the engagement that they have and the better the support that those institutions are given, the better the outcomes for children.
That concludes our discussion. On behalf of the committee, I thank Ms Ward and Ms Quinn for answering our questions so comprehensively and thank them for taking the time to attend. The joint committee will now adjourn until 9 a.m. on Wednesday, 15 May 2019, when it will meet the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to receive an update on the LGBTI+ youth strategy.