Dáil debates

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Child Abuse

12:30 pm

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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I am not joined by my colleague, Deputy Rabbitte, as she has been unavoidably detained in RTÉ studios. We had an agreement that I would take the issue and we speak with one voice on this matter.

I want to raise the issue of ongoing matters in Scouting Ireland in respect of historical child abuse cases. According to The Irish Timeson 21 February, 313 alleged victims and 237 alleged abusers in Scouting Ireland have been identified. We have raised this issue today because there has not been any mechanism since the Minister's last appearance at the Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs to articulate our concerns in respect of the drip-feeding of reports to the media without a parallel process in respect of these issues in place in the House. A mechanism must be found to ensure the Minister reports back to the House on these matters regularly.

I also wish to ask the Minister specifically when Mr. Elliott's report will be finalised and made public. This is a matter of grave public concern. Mr. Elliott was brought in by Scouting Ireland. He is a safeguarding expert whose bona fides are without question. However, it appears as though the lines of public communications seem to be between Mr. Elliott internally, the chief executive, presumably, and the line Department. We are concerned that this is quite a linear process which needs to be expanded. We need to see greater transparency around this.

I am also concerned that Scouting Ireland itself is managing the phoneline for those with concerns. Is it through Scouting Ireland, the Garda or Tusla that people should go? I do not believe that is right if a person is a victim or alleged victim, or that person wishes to report something. If a person has been traumatised by an organisation historically, it is very hard to have the confidence to return to that organisation to report allegations of abuse. I want to put that on the record as it is an issue that must be addressed. There are people who do not have confidence in Scouting Ireland, notwithstanding the bona fides of the child protection expert who has been brought in. They must have confidence that their issues will be dealt with through Scouting Ireland as the phoneline is currently constituted. There is a danger of revictimising people who have been traumatised.

Will the Minister consider an organisation such as One in Four being brought in to examine the mechanisms being used to deal with the historical cases? It could liaise with the external expert who has been hired as an internal adviser on child protection in Scouting Ireland. This liaison could take place through the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and-or Tusla.

12:40 pm

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Dublin South West, Independent)
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Like all in this House, I share the great concern of parents about safeguarding issues in Scouting Ireland. As Minister responsible for the safety, protection and care of children and young people, I have given the highest priority to the very serious concerns raised in 2018 about scouting. This has included face-to-face engagement with the leadership of the organisation to set out my concerns in person.

With this in mind I wish to inform Members and, most importantly, parents throughout the country about information of which I have become aware in recent hours. In recent days Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, has written to Scouting Ireland highlighting serious concerns about that organisation. I intend to put that letter into the public domain today both through my Department’s website and by circulation to all Members of this House. In the letter, Tusla outlines issues about the implementation of Children First within Scouting Ireland. I wish to inform parents and Deputies immediately of eight recommendations which the child safety and protection experts of Tusla has made to the chief executive of Scouting Ireland.

First, it is imperative that a proposed meeting between Scouting Ireland board of management is progressed without delay. Second, the actions of key personnel holding a role in safeguarding within Scouting Ireland may have been comprised and further consideration may have to be given to this. Consideration should be given to nominating the CEO of Scouting Ireland to be the principal liaison in work on Children First. A sub-committee should be put in place to review the child safeguarding statement and procedures throughout the organisation. An urgent review of the manner in which Scouting Ireland manages current child protection concerns and disclosures from children should commence. There should be an immediate review of the supervision of children involved in scouting. Scouting Ireland should consider the viability of continuing with overnight trips. Consideration should be given to ensure the personnel manning the helpline are independent of Scouting Ireland.

I have placed these recommendations in the public domain because I believe that parents have a right to know the views those who are charged with protecting and safeguarding our children and who work with no other agenda. As I stated these concerns have only come to light. They require urgent consideration and, with this in mind, I will be meeting the chief social worker in my Department to consider what further actions may be required.

I know that all in this Chamber, including the Deputies who tabled this Topical Issue question, share my view that we must never compromise on the issue of child safety and protection. Children must at all times come first whatever the implications for any club, body or organisation. I will be in further communication with Members in the coming hours. There are serious concerns about the issues raised within scouting. I am fully aware of this and, as a result, I have placed this as a top priority for me and have been fully engaged with the issues involved. Most recently I met representatives of Scouting Ireland on 28 January to be updated on the independent barrister’s report into issues surrounding an allegation of sexual assault by an adult volunteer against another adult volunteer. My officials met Scouting Ireland on 7 February to discuss the detail and actions taken on the latest available figures on the allegations of abuse.

I will conclude given that some of my statement which was circulated to Deputies was covered by Deputy Sherlock. Today we send a unified message as public representatives to those who suffered abuse and who continue to suffer in silence that help and support are available. To those victims I say that they should contact Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, or An Garda Síochána.

Photo of Seán SherlockSeán Sherlock (Cork East, Labour)
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I welcome the Minister's response. We are hearing of this almost as it has happened. However, I have a concern about the Minister's reply. Notwithstanding her openness and transparency, I asked specifically that in historical cases the helpline be operated by an independent organisation acting outside Scouting Ireland. That is important. The Minister did say that consideration should be given to ensure that the personnel manning the helpline are independent of Scouting Ireland. There is a mechanism to bring in an organisation such as One in Four. There is a lack of confidence in Scouting Ireland's ability to deal with its own affairs.

I am concerned by the Minister's statement that consideration should be given to nominating the CEO of Scouting Ireland to be the principal liaison to work on Children First. We need to examine the dynamics that exist within Scouting Ireland regarding its governance. Notwithstanding the Minister's robust reply, the Government needs to take this completely out of Scouting Ireland's hands for it to be dealt with wholly independently if there is to be confidence among the parents whose children are part of scout troops throughout the country. A great shadow is being cast across Scouting Ireland as a result of these revelations. Speaking as a parent myself, I am very concerned about Scouting Ireland as constituted, notwithstanding the issues around governance and child protection that it is going through. Scouting Ireland does not command the support of those its seeks to represent and the Government needs to intervene further to remove it from their hands entirely to deal with these issues.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Dublin South West, Independent)
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I appreciate and acknowledge Deputy Sherlock's strong response. I have put Tusla's recommendations to Scouting Ireland on the record of the House in the context of its role in implementing the protections for children in terms of the Children First legislation.

What the Deputy is referring to is what Tusla has stated.

I have also indicated that there are a number of actions in which I will be engaged in the next couple of hours in order to provide what I believe is the most appropriate response to the information I received in the past couple of hours. I appreciate Deputy Sherlock's concern that we need to take robust action and I will do that as soon as I have had the opportunity to have a little bit more advice from the chief social worker as well as consider what is being placed in front of me.

The information I have received emerged as a result of meetings between Tusla and Scouting Ireland that began at the beginning of this year whereby Tusla began a process to support Scouting Ireland in implementing the requirements of Children First, including its proper procedures and policies and that its safeguarding statement is compliant. Meetings were held. The Tusla principal social worker analysed sample cases of child protection and welfare reports that were received by it from Scouting Ireland and an examination of practices relating to the helpline was carried out. As a result, Tusla laid out the recommendations I have just outlined.

I assure the House that, as Minister, my concern relates first and foremost to the children. I will give that my attention. I will do everything in my power to ensure that this concern and priority regarding the children is what will be addressed in the next couple of hours and as we continue to work with Scouting Ireland.