Thursday, 1 December 2016
Topical Issue Debate
Special Educational Needs Service Provision
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for allowing this matter to be taken. I want to raise the issue of the failure to fill a needs assessment officer position in Dublin south west. This is a critical post for families, parents and schools wishing to allocate resource hours. The post has been vacant since March. It has not been filled. I accept that a process was engaged in to try to fill the post which was unsuccessful. I find it strange that it was unsuccessful. The impact this is having on parents and children in Dublin south west cannot be underestimated. I have had parents contact me who have been waiting since November 2015, which is a 12-month delay. I have had schools contact me who are in a situation where they cannot allocate the additional resource hours they know they need. They have children who have not been successful in getting additional hours under NEPS and they are still waiting year in, year out. Every year that is missed and every time we go past September, another child loses another year. It is a bureaucratic situation in lots of ways but it is unacceptable that 500 assessments are waiting for this post to be filled and for something to be done to help those children, parents and families. Can the Minister of State tell me when this post will be filled and what will be done to fill it as soon as possible?
I thank Deputy Brophy for raising this very important issue. He has been very supportive of the investment in and development of services for children with disabilities. I am also pleased to take this opportunity to update Deputy Brophy and other Members on the progress under way in developing services for children with disabilities and the current position on recruitment of staff and waiting times for assessments of need.
The HSE has recognised that early intervention services and services for school-age children with disabilities need to be improved and organised more effectively. This process is well under way. I emphasise there has been continual additional investment in this area in order to support the HSE as it faces significant challenges in respect of meeting the statutory timeframes which apply to the assessment of needs process.
In the context of the Dublin south west assessment officer position that became vacant in March 2016, the community health care organisation, CHO7, has been working to recruit this post since that time. Following a recent internal recruitment campaign, a suitable candidate was identified and offered the position. Unfortunately, prior to a start date being agreed, the candidate declined the appointment. That is the problem with the position in question. Given the urgency of the situation, another potential candidate has now been identified. Every effort is being made to progress the recruitment of this person as a matter of urgency. In the absence of the assessment officer, systems have been put in place to process applications and provide for assessments to be conducted. The HSE social care division has requested that the local area provide an improvement plan to address the significant backlog of applications. This implementation plan will be submitted and considered over the next two weeks with a view to implementing the appropriate action plan without further delay. The HSE is endeavouring to fill the position on a temporary basis until a successful candidate is appointed. The HSE will continue to process applications within the capacity and resources available to ensure the backlog of applications is reduced at the earliest opportunity.
I previously met a representative group of parents from the Dublin south-west area and the CEO of Uplift who presented me with a petition calling for this situation on disability assessments to be addressed. I am acutely aware of the difficulties being experienced by families in this area and I want this situation to be resolved. The HSE is currently engaged in a reconfiguration of existing therapy resources to geographic-based teams for children up to 18 years. The objective of the new model of assessment and intervention is to provide one clear referral pathway for all children irrespective of their disabilities, where they live or the schools they attend. It is expected that this reconfiguration of services will have a significant impact on our ability to meet the needs of children and young people in a more efficient, effective and equitable manner and, in particular, on our ability to comply with the statutory timeframes set out in the Disability Act and the accompanying regulations.
The current programme for a partnership Government commits the Government to improving services and increasing supports for people with disabilities, particularly for early assessment and intervention for children with special needs.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I acknowledge and recognise the investment the Government has put into this area. It is worth making the point again that this happened last March. I appreciate the Minister of State has met the parents. We have all, as public representatives, met parents who are caught up in this. It is an incredibly bureaucratic situation that it has taken until now for the need for a temporary person to fill the position to be recognised and for the process to be advanced to the point the Minister of State has outlined. The result of that delay is that 500 assessments are backlogged. I hope that on foot of the Minister of State's words today and what he has committed to there will be sufficient resources and effort by the HSE, when somebody comes into the position, to clear that backlog in a speedy and reasonable way. Each month is a month that is irreplaceably lost to the child and family. I thank the Minister of State for his reply. I welcome his reply and the additional information he has supplied but I make the point that it is about resources. The HSE must support the filling of this post by providing the necessary resources to allow the backlog to be cleared.
It is incredibly disappointing when we know in advance what will happen if someone leaves a role like an assessment officer role. Effectively, it takes a year or perhaps nine months or so before the necessary action is taken to fill that post.
I take Deputy Brophy's point about March as well as his proper points about the bureaucracy and delays. As far as I am concerned, delays are not good enough, especially with regard to assessments for children with disabilities. Long delays are not good for the child, especially the educational, personal and emotional development of the child.
I am giving a commitment to Deputy Brophy that there will be sufficient resources to clear the backlog. There was a problem with a person withdrawing from the process and then with filling the position subsequently. We have a wider problem in certain professions. We seem to have a problem with vacant positions and finding the right people.
At the end of 2015, there were approximately 400 assessment of need applications in process. It is estimated that at the current rate there will be approximately 500 assessment of need applications in the process by the end of the year.
The HSE social care division has requested that the local area provides an improvement plan to address the significant backlog of applications. I will be pushing strongly for this. The implementation plan will be submitted and considered. I am giving a commitment over the next two weeks to implement the appropriate action plan without further delay. The HSE is endeavouring to fill the position on a temporary basis until a successful candidate is appointed. The HSE will continue to progress applications within the available capacity and ensure that the backlog of applications is reduced at the earliest opportunity.
I will bring the strong message sent from Deputy Brophy back to the HSE and the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris. We cannot have a situation where delays in providing assessments of need for children, especially in my area of responsibility for children with disabilities, are allowed to continue. We have the resources and they are included in the programme for Government. Now we need to implement strong decisive action plans to deal with these issues.