Dáil debates

Tuesday, 18 May 2004

Adjournment Debate.

Foster Care.

8:00 pm

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise this matter. In Chapter 2 of her annual report for 2003, the Ombudsman states:

This complaint against the South Western Area Health Board in relation to a grandmother's entitlement to Foster Care Allowance highlights a difficulty which I understand faces many others in a similar position. I hope that by drawing attention to the matter the Oireachtas might consider alterations to the legislation.

This week the Minister announced that no such review would take place, which is a pity. The case in question is complicated and I have been dealing with it for more than two years. The person at the centre of the case had been dealing with the South Western Area Health Board for more than two years before that because of her circumstances.

This is not a unique case. This problem is faced by many people, especially grandparents, in Dublin, Cork and other areas, whose relatives have succumbed to drug or alcohol addiction and are not capable of rearing their children. In many cases the children are taken into care by relatives who cannot bear to see children as young as six months old abandoned. No human being could allow this to happen. In the case to which I refer, the mother did not notice for three days that the grandmother had taken her children away. This is the type of situation we are dealing with — the parent or parents are incapable of caring for their children at a certain time.

The problem in this case is that the children have not officially been put into the care of the health board so the relatives who have taken over the care of the children are not entitled to a fostering allowance. They must declare the children as orphans so they can receive the orphan's allowance, which is €97 per child, while the fostering allowance is nearly three times as much. The latter also allows carers to avail of grants to provide room for the additional family members who have been imposed upon them by their children's circumstances. It is no mean feat for grandparents to raise a second family starting from scratch. The Child Care Act 1991 allows for fostering by relatives.

I have written to the European Committee on Petitions to highlight this case because I do not believe the Ombudsman understood the circumstances fully. In this case a care worker had been assigned, which means the children were in the care of the health board. The health board disputes this, despite the existence of written proof, and we have not received a satisfactory answer.

This is just one case and there are many others in which people have not even been able to receive orphan's allowance. Some people received two allowances and lost out when the provisions in this area were changed recently. A review of the fostering allowance and orphan's allowance would be appropriate so that we can start to deal with these problems effectively.

The extra money these grandparents would receive through the fostering allowance would help ensure their quality of life. The family is living in a two-bedroom house with teenage sons and the husband has serious back problems. Two extra children must now live in the house. This is not abnormal. The poverty faced by grandparents in working class areas in Dublin, Cork and probably Limerick, although I have not dealt with cases in that area, is disgraceful. They should have some support. If these grandparents abandoned the children to the health board, the health board would deal with the problem and ask them to take the children in, but no family is willing to abandon young children in this way.

The Minister should address the issue and carry out a review.

9:00 pm

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Minister, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Teachta Ó Snodaigh as ucht deis a thabhairt dom an cheist seo a phlé ar Athló an Tí .

The Deputy is referring to the ombudsman's comments in her annual report in the context of an individual case brought to her attention. He also raised wider considerations. I would point out that the ombudsman did not find evidence that the health board in question had acted in an inappropriate or negligent way in this case by not placing the children in the care of their grandmother.

On the provision of the foster care allowance, health boards are required under the Child Care Act, 1991 to promote the welfare of children who are not receiving adequate care and protection. Where a child requires care or protection that he or she is unlikely to receive unless he or she is taken into care, the health board must take the child into its care and provide the most appropriate form of alternative care for that child. The foster care allowance can only be paid in respect of children who are taken into the care of the health board and placed in foster care or relative care in accordance with the Child Care Regulations, 1995.

In 1998, the Minister of State in the Department of Health and Children set up a working group on foster care. The task of the working group was to make recommendations on all aspects of foster care. The issue of relative care was dealt with in detail in the 2001 report of the working group entitled Foster Care — A Child Centred Partnership. The report sets out a number of basic principles that should guide placements with relatives. These are as follows: that the best interests of the child are paramount; that the child should be placed only in an appropriate, safe, healthy and stable environment; that the standard of care must be equivalent to that provided in a traditional foster care arrangement; that relative placements should only be made where a secure attachment exists or has the potential to develop between the child and the relative concerned; that a partnership approach should be used in developing skills and supports for relatives providing foster care and that placements should not be made as a means to provide income support.

The working group considered the possibility that some children are placed in the care of the health boards in order to provide income support for the family in relation to the child. The group was strongly of the view that such a practice would be highly inappropriate. Income support is a matter for the Department of Social and Family Affairs and those in need of such support should contact that Department. The working group stated that children should only be brought into the care of the health boards if they meet the criteria regarding the need for care and protection set out in the Child Care Act. In addition, the choice of placement of any child in the care system should be based on the child's best interests.

Under the current legislation, a health board must assess the needs of a child placed in care and the suitability of the prospective foster or relative carers and draw up a child care plan. The implementation of the child care plan places significant responsibilities and duties on foster carers, whether relatives or non-relatives. The foster care allowance is paid in recognition of these additional responsibilities and the additional costs of looking after foster children. The foster care allowance is currently paid in respect of approximately 4,000 children. This allowance was restructured in August 2001 in response to the recommendations of the working group I mentioned earlier.

The recommendations of this report were made on the basis of the views strongly expressed at consultation meetings held by the working group and the views expressed by the Irish Foster Care Association. In view of the consideration given by the working group on foster care to the issue of relative care, my Department has no current plans to review the Child Care Act, 1991 or the Child Care Regulations, 1995.

Payment of the orphans allowance or pension is a matter for the Department of Social and Family Affairs. These payments are made directly by the Department of Social and Family Affairs, normally to the child's guardian. The circumstances in which these payments are made and the level of payment are determined by that Department.

The Dáil adjourned at 9.05 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 19 May 2004.