Dáil debates

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Priority Questions

Child Care Services

2:00 pm

Photo of Séamus HealySéamus Healy (Tipperary South, Workers and Unemployed Action Group)
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Question 20: To ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the current arrangements for the 24/7 availability of social workers; the extent of the current arrangements; the areas covered; the timescale for the roll out of this cover throughout the country; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [33635/12]

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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In response to the publication of the report of the independent child death review group, I reaffirmed my view on the importance of children in crisis, no matter where they are, having access to 24-hour social work assistance. I recently discussed this issue with Mr. Gordon Jeyes, national director for children and family services in the HSE. I expect the HSE to bring forward an implementation plan for the roll-out of a national service model later this year for implementation by the new child and family support agency.

The Health Service Executive already provides out-of-hours emergency services for children at risk in the greater Dublin area through the crisis intervention service - which I recently visited in Dublin - and outside the greater Dublin area through the emergency place of safety service. The crisis intervention service provides out-of-hours emergency social work assistance to young people aged under 18 years who are in crisis. That service operates across the greater Dublin area, including counties Dublin, Kildare and Wicklow. Referrals are made by service providers outside of normal working hours - that is, gardaí, hospital and ambulance service personnel.

Outside the greater Dublin area in 2009, the HSE established the emergency place of safety service whereby gardaí can access an emergency placement for children found to be at risk out of hours. This is a great improvement compared to the previous service. The current service involves the placement of a child in a family setting until the next working day, when the local social work service assumes responsibility for the case. As part of this service, gardaí have access to advice and information from a non-HSE social work off-site resource which is provided on a contract basis.

I pay tribute to the work of the Garda Síochána over the years in this area. Now is the time to support that work in having new procedures in place. In 2011, the HSE commenced two out-of-hours pilot projects, one in Donegal and the other in Cork. Both projects were evaluated by the HSE, which then commissioned an independent external assessment, undertaken by Trinity College, Dublin. On the last occasion, I was asked about this by Deputy McConalogue and said that the report was being undertaken. It has now been completed and presented to Mr. Gordon Jeyes. My Department has recently received a copy of the report whose findings will inform further decisions in the coming months on progression to a national out-of-hours service model.

Photo of Séamus HealySéamus Healy (Tipperary South, Workers and Unemployed Action Group)
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I thank the Minister for her reply. As she knows, this is an area that has given rise to considerable concern and continues to do so despite the various emergency proposals that have been put in place. While they are an improvement, they are neither adequate nor appropriate. Over the years, numerous serious incidents have occurred out of hours but had these services been available, things might well have been different.

Is the Minister satisfied with the proposal, and the commitment given by Mr. Jeyes and the HSE, concerning the roll-out of the service she has outlined? Is she satisfied that the roll-out will take place prior to the end of this year? There have been promises in the past about this matter, but they have not come to fruition. In view of the various reports that have been prepared, including the most recent report on child deaths, it is vitally important that this service should be put in place immediately.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I want to inform the House that the existing pilot projects that were running in Cork and Donegal will continue in 2012. Clearly, whatever model emerges will need to address the challenges of the varying demographic demands in rural and urban settings. For example, the number of referrals to the Cork pilot project was 29, while the Donegal pilot only received eight referrals.

Building on the Cork and Donegal projects, and the lessons which we must learn from them, the HSE will be designing comprehensive national arrangements which can be implemented by the new child and family support agency. I would expect that around September or October we will have that national plan for the model that needs to be used. I do not believe it will be the same model in all parts of the country as needs vary. We must ensure we put in place a model which ensures access to social work intervention. The format within which that will be provided may and should vary depending on the demands of different areas.

Photo of Séamus HealySéamus Healy (Tipperary South, Workers and Unemployed Action Group)
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I assure the Minister that we will be monitoring the situation closely. It is hoped that, as stated by the Minister, a national plan will be ready for implementation in September-October.

My understanding is that non-replacement of social workers on maternity, sick and annual leave is giving rise to serious concern not alone in this area but in a range of other areas. I would welcome the Minister's view on this.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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Given the current financial situation resources is a key issue. Replacement of social workers is outside of the embargo. The director of child and family services has the authority to replace social workers within the resources available to him. These are greater than previously. There is a great deal of demand in this area although not so much in terms of out-of-hours services but in general. There are many pressures on the services given the financial situation. The Deputy will be aware that we have recruited an additional 262 social workers.

Retention of workers in the health service and in particular in the area of front line social work, which has been the subject of many studies nationally and internationally, is an ongoing challenge. However, issues can be acted upon to address this, including, for example, the provision of more support to front line social workers and more supervision. The new plan, which has been put in place by Mr. Gordon Jeyes, in regard to the amalgamation of child protection and family support services and ensuring families are referred to the appropriate services will, along with the new agency, help in the provision of better and more effective services.