Dáil debates

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Priority Questions

Child Care Services

2:00 pm

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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Question 3: To ask the Minister for Health and Children the nature of her discussions with senior executives of the Health Service Executive on the matter of deaths of children in care; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [1935/11]

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children and Young People, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I meet monthly with senior officials from the HSE to discuss a range of child protection issues, including deaths of children in care. Last March, I established an independent review group on child deaths, which is reviewing the deaths of children over the period of 1 January 2000 to 30 April 2010 who were in care within the meaning of the Child Care Act 1991 at the time of death; in receipt of after care within the meaning of section 45 of the Child Care Act 1991 at the time of death; or known to the child protection services within the meaning of the HIQA guidance to the HSE of 20 January 2010 at the time of death. The review group has indicated that it expects to report to me early next month.

As set out in the Ryan report implementation plan, HIQA has developed guidance for the HSE for the review of serious incidents, including deaths of children in care. The HSE has established a panel, chaired by an independent expert, Dr. Helen Buckley of Trinity College, Dublin, to carry out such reviews.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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Will the Minister of State outline to the House when and in what way he specifically conveyed the views of the Irish public to the HSE on the matter of the totally unacceptable culture of secrecy, lack of transparency, complete absence of accountability and the scandal that has been and continues to be deaths of children while in care? The Minister of State indicated that he established the review group but is he satisfied that the review group has received all the appropriate papers from the HSE? Is he concerned at the reports that in spite of legislation rushed through this House because of the legislative weakness in the HSE structure, the review group only received some vital information by way of a consignment of files some weeks ago? Those files were sought earlier in the year.

Will the Minister of State outline to the House the number of children who have died in care during the period under review by the group? These figures appear to be unavailable and seem to change, again giving rise to well-grounded feelings on the part of people involved that there continues to be a culture of secrecy and a total lack of transparency and accountability in the provision of these figures and such vital information.

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children and Young People, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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This is an extremely sensitive and important area; I do not use those words carelessly. It is important because-----

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I asked the question because it is important. That is a given.

Photo of Mary HarneyMary Harney (Minister, Department of Health and Children; Dublin Mid West, Independent)
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The Deputy might listen to the answer.

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children and Young People, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I agree with Deputy Flanagan. The point is this is the way in which members of the public see our child protection services. Child protection cases are not reported in newspapers because of privacy associated with section 31 of the Child Care Act. The only way we can see it is in this type of reporting, so it is extremely important it is done correctly. As we saw in the tragic circumstances surrounding what is commonly known as the Roscommon case, the High Court took great care in ensuring the manner of its publication struck the right balance between the public interest, which Deputy Flanagan says he represents, and the importance balancing right of the families to their privacy and the continuing care often associated with families which must deal with the tragedy after the event.

Striking the right balance is at the core of the issue. It is easy to feed into the narrative of secrecy a lack of transparency and an attempt to conceal information when the truth is that we are striving to strike the right balance. That is why we set up the independent review group and the group chaired by Dr. Helen Buckley. This is so that in future there would be a very clear standard for reporting in this area and members of the public can have confidence that the HSE is not inspired by a desire to conceal information but rather to get that information into the public domain in a way that strikes the balance I have referred to and which the High Court took such great care in trying to achieve.

In terms of numbers, the HSE has transferred documentation and the review group hopes to have examination of these files completed, with a report by next month. To date, 185 files have been transferred and another 11 are in the process of being handed over following a further trawl of case files. There is a continuing process which I would not describe as a case where there is a reluctance to act. Clearly everybody wants to comply with the law as it applies to the transfer of these very sensitive case files to allow the review group to complete its work.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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The Minister of State and the Ceann Comhairle will forgive me if I exhibit a sense of frustration at the Minister of State's comments. He refused to accept my invitation to confirm that he had conveyed the abhorrence of the public to the scandalous litany of failures in the child protection services. I thought he might confirm at least that he conveyed the displeasure of the people but he chose not to.

Having regard to his comments on the review group, there will be another opportunity to discuss the matter. I dispute the Minister of State's comments. Leaving aside the review group, how many child deaths have taken place in care since March 2010 or when the review group was set up?

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children and Young People, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I will clarify how I conveyed to the HSE the abhorrence spoken of by the Deputy. I initiated the policy of meeting HSE representatives on a monthly basis to deal with child protection issues. We have ensured that 200 additional social workers are in place to alleviate the case load that social workers had in the child protection area; we achieved that target, on which I was rightly questioned throughout the year.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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It is not as simple as that. It is a different question and the Minister of State should answer the question he was asked.

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children and Young People, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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There is a new national director with specific responsibility for children and families. My point is that the Deputy should not take my word for it but look at our record on child protection. We hired social workers when a moratorium was in place and there was virtually no other recruitment in the public service. That proves the commitment from the Government and me to ensuring child protection services are improved. We have confirmed the appointment of a new national director with specific responsibility for children and families, reporting for the first time to the chief executive of the HSE. That will centralise and mainstream child protection in the HSE for the first time.

I answered a question on the figures of deaths in care since March 2010 but I do not have the figures to hand. I will provide them to the Deputy as soon as possible.

Photo of Charles FlanaganCharles Flanagan (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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The Minister of State has confirmed a total disconnection between his office and the HSE.