Dáil debates

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

2:00 pm

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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Question 23: To ask the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her implementation plan for the introduction of 24 hour social work service; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [33373/12]

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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As I indicated to Deputy Healy in my earlier response, the current arrangements for out-of-hours services are that the Health Service Executive provides out-of-hours emergency services for children at risk in the greater Dublin area through the crisis intervention service and outside the greater Dublin area through the emergency place of safety service. I have had discussions with Gordon Jeyes, national director for children and family services in the HSE, on the roll-out of the national service model. It was clear in the recently published report on child death that young people who leave care are vulnerable. I expect the HSE will bring forward an outline model for this service later this year.

It is important and critical that children in crisis, no matter where they are, have access to 24-hour social work assistance and supports. I am in agreement with the director on this point and we are working towards its implementation. I am committed to a service that the new child and family support agency can implement. The current arrangements for out-of-hours services are those in Dublin and the crisis intervention service outside Dublin. The nationwide model will be informed by the ongoing work on the pilot projects, which will continue this year. We have the reports and the evaluation is also completed. Mr. Gordon Jeyes will examine the pilot projects, the evaluation of them carried out by the HSE and also the outside evaluation which is now available.

In the Donegal area there were only eight referrals, nevertheless important referrals, and in Cork there were 29. Clearly, there is a demand for the service. Equally, the foster care arrangement now in place throughout the country is a huge improvement on the way these issues were dealt with previously, where gardaí were left to deal with very difficult crisis situations involving children. Unfortunately, these situations arise and they also arise out of hours.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal North East, Fianna Fail)
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The report of the independent child death review panel highlighted the inadequacy of our social worker service and the fact that in many parts of the country there is no service outside the hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. should it be required. There is no control over the timing of when such a service is required so there is an urgent need for the Minister to direct the HSE to take every step required to ensure that a 24 hour social worker service is established as a matter of absolute priority. The Minister indicated that the numbers are small in some cases, but it is crucial that in cases dealing with vulnerable children a social worker is available out of hours when required. There must not be any delays relating to evaluations. We know this is required and it is crucial that the Minister prioritises it. I realise this is difficult in a situation where there is pressure on social worker services, but could the Minister give a timeline for when we can expect to have a 24 hour service across the country?

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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As the Deputy said, access to a service is important. The form in which that will be provided can vary, but it is access to the service and to the right type of assessment that is critical, so that somebody can assess the crisis and ensure the right action is taken. The evaluation has shown that there is clear potential for such a service nationally. I am told it can be relatively inexpensive. It is important to note that usage is and has been low in the pilot schemes. I agree with the Deputy it is an important addition to the range of child welfare and protection services in Ireland. The director is committed to developing an appropriate service in urban and rural areas. The service in place at present is much improved on the previous situation but there is a need to have a national plan.

As I have repeatedly said with regard to child and family support services, the area has been bedevilled by a lack of national planning, and this is another example. There has been no national planning for out-of-hours services. The Deputy is correct that we must move towards a national plan. A national protocol will have to be established with regard to how this service will operate to ensure there are more standardised procedures and supports around the country for people who need services. That work will have to be done. It will be greatly aided by the two pilot projects and the evaluation Trinity College conducted of those projects. That material must be brought together and we must do it quickly and ensure the plan is in place in September or October clearly outlining what a national service would look like and how it can be moved forward in the best possible way given the restraints that exist, as we must be realistic about the resource issue in the context of current resources, to ensure a service is available for those in crisis.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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With regard to the two pilot projects, has there been an assessment, with the exception of the Trinity College report, of the extent of public knowledge in the two pilot areas of the out of hours or 24-7 service? While the Minister cited the number who have taken up the opportunity, it is important to assess awareness. Having accessibility without awareness does not address the issue.

It ought to be a no-brainer that accessibility for 24 hours per day is extremely important. It is of little doubt to any of us here that the times of greatest risk are during the evening, at night and at weekends. Social worker support is not just a matter of provision from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Monday to Friday. This does not address the real need. We need to assess the real need and ask whether the pilot projects have identified it. Has the Minister further information on awareness? Does she accept that everybody wishes to see the service rolled out as early as possible?

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy's point on people's knowledge of the service is very reasonable. I understand it is addressed somewhat. An issue arises as to members of the Garda and relevant personnel knowing the service is available. This clearly needs to be addressed, and it should be addressed in the national protocol that will be rolled out.

The review recommends a joint protocol for the HSE, An Garda Síochána and the placement providers. That would need to be developed. It would include the private, voluntary and statutory providers such that there would be a broad range of common practices around the country. There is clearly work to be done but it has started. We can benefit from the pilot projects and the evaluation. We need to learn the lessons to be learned and develop the road map for the development of the service.