Wednesday, 8 March 2006
Social Welfare Code.
The issue I am raising is peculiar to Dublin inner city communities. It relates to that scourge of disadvantaged areas, heroin, a killer in every sense of the word that has caused devastation. Death, sometimes by suicide, is the by-product of overdosing or overuse of the drug and many young children are orphaned as a result of the drug's heavy toll on the lives of young people. Many of those children are taken in by their grandparents, aunts and uncles. The generosity of inner city communities knows no bounds and the extended families immediately step in and raise the children as their own. Effectively the children are adopted, though not formally.
The Department of Social and Family Affairs pays an allowance to such families. Families such as these receive €121 per week for the child from the Department of Social and Family Affairs. If, instead of taking the child in immediately, a family waited for the HSE to take the child into care, the child would then be the responsibility of the Department of Health and Children. If the family then fostered the child from the Department of Health and Children, even if the child was in the care of that Department for only one night, the family would be entitled to the Department of Health and Children allowance, which is €320 per week, almost three times the amount received from the Department of Social and Family Affairs. By immediately taking care of the orphan rather than allowing the State service to intervene in the first instance the extended family is penalised by the State.
Children become orphans in other tragic circumstances, such as road accidents, but this issue particularly relates to disadvantaged inner city communities, especially in Dublin, because 85% of heroin use is in the Dublin area. Many of these cases relate to heroin orphans. A relatively small number of people are involved, approximately 2,000, and it is time the two Departments came together and synchronised the payments they are making to these families for the same response and contribution. The families support, raise and nurture these children in the same way, yet the State's contribution is lopsided.
I welcome Deputy Costello's outlining of the differences in the rate payable under the adoptive benefit scheme and payments made to foster carers. Adoptive benefit is a social insurance payment paid by the Department of Social and Family Affairs to workers who would otherwise be without income during a period of entitlement to statutory leave in respect of the adoption. Entitlement to adoptive benefit is contingent in the first instance on entitlement to adoptive leave. The payment is funded from social insurance contributions paid by workers and their employers.
The right to adoptive leave is established under the adoptive leave legislation, which is the responsibility of my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. That legislation requires that the adopting parent's employer certifies entitlement to adoptive leave and the parent becomes an adopting parent for the purpose of the payment. Eligibility for adoptive benefit is confined to an "adopting parent", as defined under social welfare legislation, which is in turn tied into the provisions of adoptive leave legislation. An adopting parent can be an employed adopting mother, an employed sole male adopter or, where an adopting mother has died, an employed adopting father. Provision is also made for self-employed workers to avail of adoptive benefit. Adoptive benefit is payable at 80% of reckonable earnings in the relevant tax year subject to an earnings ceiling. Following the 2006 budget the maximum rate of benefit payable is €265.60 per week with the minimum rate equivalent to the rate of disability benefit, which is €182.60 per week.
Adoptive benefit payments serve as a non-means-tested income transfer in lieu of earnings foregone during a period of adoptive leave. As with all other social insurance based payments the criteria set out for eligibility require a recent link to the labour force as reflected in a minimum number of contributions paid and a number paid or credits in the period prior to claiming the benefit. The contribution criteria for adoptive benefit required to establish eligibility are less onerous than most other benefit payments, requiring 39 contributions paid in the 12 months immediately before the date the child is placed, or 39 weeks paid since first starting work and 39 weeks paid or credited in the relevant tax years on the subsequent tax year, or at least 26 paid in the relevant tax year and 26 paid in the subsequent year.
Foster care payments serve a different function from adoptive benefit and payment is contingent on adherence to specified standards rather than having an entitlement to statutory leave. Funding for foster care payments comes from general taxation rather than the social insurance fund and the payments are administered by the Health Service Executive. The Health Service Executive is responsible for children in need of care and protection, as provided for under the Child Care Act 1991.
Studies have shown that the development of a child is best achieved in a family environment but unfortunately it is not always possible for a child to remain in his or her own family for a variety of reasons. Child care policy is grounded on the principle that children who cannot, for whatever reason, live with their own family, and for whom the State has responsibility, should be provided with an appropriate alternative. Fostering is the main form of alternative care services for these children. Foster care is a critically important part of the child protection and welfare service. Children placed in foster care remain in the care of the State and a weekly foster care allowance is paid to the foster carers in recognition of their responsibilities and costs associated with looking after the children. The current foster care allowance rates are €305 per week for a child under 12 years and €332 per week for a child over 12 years.
Foster parents are not, a priori, excluded from entitlement to adoptive leave and in turn adoptive benefit, but the eligibility criteria prescribed in both adoptive leave and adoptive benefit legislation must be fulfilled to establish their entitlement to adoptive benefit. A foster parent who was employed or self-employed prior to adoption, even in part-time employment, may qualify for adoptive leave and in turn adoptive benefit.
Payment rates made in respect of adoptive benefit and foster care activity are not directly comparable.
They both serve different functions. The former is an income transfer in lieu of earnings forgone on foot of entitlement to statutory leave, whereas the foster care allowance is paid in recognition of the obligations placed on foster carers to meet the needs set out in the child's statutory care plan and in accordance with the standards set out in the national foster care standards.