Thursday, 25 February 2021
Topical Issue Debate
I welcome the opportunity to address this issue with the Minister of State. It has been the case for many years in Laois-Offaly that there have been long waiting lists for services such as child psychology, speech and language therapy and occupational therapy. However, the situation is now truly awful and this is not all due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Action is needed now to deal with the backlog of children in these two counties who have been waiting for several years to access these services. It is a scandal that 4,771 children are waiting for services in these three specialties. What is worse is that some of those children, 2,650 of them to be accurate, have been waiting for more than one year to be given an appointment for assessment or appropriate therapy. The damage being done to children who may have autism spectrum disorder, ASD, or some other condition is immeasurable. The Minister of State understands that.
Some 2,014 children are on the waiting list for occupational therapy, with 1,181 of those children waiting for more than 12 months. In the area of child psychology, 1,304 children are on the waiting list, 801 of whom have been waiting for more than a year. There are 1,453 children in the queue for speech and language services, with 568 of those children waiting for longer than 12 months. These are the latest figures I obtained through parliamentary questions and they are shocking. Does the Government understand this situation is storing up massive problems for the future? I say this sincerely to the Minister of State. If appropriate interventions and services are not provided at an early stage in a child's development, more difficulties and more complex issues will arise in adulthood. I am not an expert in these areas, but all those who are experts have told me that over the years.
Aside from the difficulties being caused to children, these waiting lists are also causing great stress and many problems for parents and families. They have been watching their children regressing and have then had to deal with the resultant behavioural issues and cope with all that entails. Teachers are trying to deal and cope with challenges and problems being caused in school classrooms. The community and society in general will also face issues in this regard in future. It is important therefore that we try to rectify this situation. The Covid-19 pandemic does not explain away the existing backlog and the poor state of child services in Laois-Offaly. This area appears to have been a blackspot in this regard for many years. The provision of these services in Laois-Offaly has been poor for as long as I have been around. I was raising this issue some 20 years ago as a county councillor, but these services are in crisis now.
Action is needed. I have raised this situation year after year, and sometimes several times each year. I have raised it with the management of the HSE and with successive Ministers. The real issue here concerns the provision of services where they are needed, which is on the front line. It is crucially important that these services are in place. We should not look at the situation from a financial perspective, but there will be major economic consequences down the line. The human aspect, however, is the most important. I refer to the effects on the children themselves and the problems we are storing up for those children in adulthood, as well as the effects on their families, in classrooms and on the wider community. I ask the Minister of State to address this issue.