Dáil debates

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Children in Care

9:40 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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Before we start, if this happens again, I will take the last group here, which was just two, and then adjourn. It is not fair to the other Deputies who are here. It is certainly not fair to the Ministers who are all here. I direct that to nobody in particular. That is to everybody.

Photo of Patrick CostelloPatrick Costello (Dublin South Central, Green Party)
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Apologies, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. Unfortunately, as a Dublin Deputy, I had to go home to deal with family issues. I was attempting to stick to the schedule. It is not fair. We talk about this job not being family friendly, but it is not fair to-----

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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If we could deal with the Topical Issue matter, the other matters can be dealt with at the Business Committee.

Photo of Patrick CostelloPatrick Costello (Dublin South Central, Green Party)
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What I wish to raise as a Topical Issue matter is the issue of support for parents who are engaged with Tusla in respect of child protection concerns and whose children are in care. The reality is that this is a group of parents are often quite stigmatised and receive very little support.

Tusla will do its best to support a family to prevent a child coming into care but once a child comes into care, the child becomes the centre. We are told children's welfare should be paramount. The child becomes the centre and the parents are frequently left behind. This causes several problems.

First, it undermines the parents fundamental rights. We have seen in a recent study from UCC which looked at the use of voluntary care agreements how parents can be left confused, bewildered and unsupported and this ultimately undermines the free and informed consent required for a voluntary care agreement and their own fundamental rights.

Furthermore, when a child comes into care, this is a horrendous process. It is often a necessary process but it is a process that engenders huge amounts of loss, anger, grief and bereavement, all of which is totally understandable. My experience has been that parents are left sitting with those feelings and they are not given supports. This creates hostility between them and the social workers which makes the social workers' job harder, which puts more stress on them and, ultimately, the children lose out because parents are less able to engage with access, are less able to engage with reunification and are less able to engage meaningfully with the social work department.

Ultimately, this is about children's rights. By providing these supports, we can meet children's rights better. A parent who is supported to engage with the family safety plan, reunification and access, and who is able to process that loss and grief so that the child does not get caught in the crossfire between a suffering parent and the social workers where access becomes a front in the battle, ultimately supports those children.

There are some local support projects doing this, for instance, Clarecare which provides excellent and wide-ranging support, but we need something at a national level. I know this works for two reasons. All one needs to do is look at Clarecare and the work it does, but also at Empowering People in Care, EPIC. EPIC supports young people in care. It is an independent advocacy service for young people in care which could do so much more with proper resourcing. They support young people with a care history, some of whom are parents and some of whom are parents whose children are being taken into care.

I worked as a social worker taking a child into care from a parent who had a care history herself and she had an advocate from EPIC. That was a significant benefit. The case was not easy. It still had its difficulties but we had somebody there who could help the parent engage in the process, who could provide counselling supports for them, who could link them in further with other supports, and who could help them engage meaningfully with those in the social work department to make the process less traumatic. It helped them to engage in access after the fact that so that even though their child was in care, the trauma did not have to continue and they ultimately had a more stable placement supporting the rights of the child and supporting the child in care.

This is a much-needed service. There have beenad hocattempts within Tusla and the HSE over the years which often have been met, not with outright hostility but certainly with a slowness or reluctance because the focus has been on the child. It is time we looked at the child in the context of his or her family even if that child is in care.

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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I want to express my appreciation to Deputy Costello. The Deputy posed this Topical Issue matter a while ago and he facilitated me by moving it to today. I thank the Deputy for that.

The issue the Deputy has brought to our attention is a very important one. There are approximately 6,000 children in care in the State. Of those, a very large proportion, 93%, are in foster care and a small number live in residential care. The vast majority of children in care need to stay in contact with their parents, siblings and extended family. Good relationships between parents, children and carers lead in the best outcomes for children in care.

Placing a child in care and away from his or her birth family is a serious decision and it is only made after extensive social work intervention, assessment and consideration. When a decision is reached that a child needs to come into care it is preferable if this can be done with the consent and agreement of the child's parents. Such an agreement enables the parent or parents and the social worker to work more effectively to address difficulties within the family which led to the need for alternative care, and to work towards the safe return of the child to the care of the parent or parents.

Sometimes it is not possible or feasible for such an agreement to be reached and in those circumstances Tusla will apply to the courts for a care order. It is more common for children to enter care with the voluntary agreement of their parents. Where the child's care plan identifies that a child should stay in care for a longer period, best practice is that Tusla applies to the courts for a care order. From his professional background, Deputy Costello will be well familiar with all of these processes. Providing a positive experience to children in alternative care is a key aim of the Irish care system and central to this is the provision of secure and stable placements.

Data collected by Tusla indicate that a very small proportion of children in care have three or more placements within a year - 2% in 2019 - which is indicative of good overall placement stability within the care system. Data also show that at year end the proportion of children in care who are on a care order is higher than when children are admitted to care. At the end of 2019, almost three quarters of the children in care were on a care order. This may mean that children are staying in care longer and as a consequence, his or her status has moved from a voluntary agreement to a legal order. This is also indicative of good placement stability.

Throughout lockdown, my Department has heard from many parents about their views on contact with their children over that difficult time. Tusla issued guidance for parents, carers, staff and children on how best to manage visits and stay in touch. Tusla's CEO emphasised that face-to-face visits were to happen if at all possible, even during the most stringent periods of lockdown.

As we emerge from Covid, my Department and Tusla want to learn from that experience and hear the experiences of parents throughout the crisis, including their ability to continue engaging and having familial relationships with their children. Mr. Bernard Gloster has met the Children's Rights Alliance on the issue of supporting parents whose children are in care. There are plans for a scoping of potential services for parents affected by this issue. That work is in its early stages, but there is a clear plan in Tusla to consider what supports can be provided to parents.

Officials from my Department have met representatives of an existing service that has worked with parents of children in care over many years. That organisation also produced supportive guides for parents during lockdown. It is hoped initiatives like those, which were initially developed to address local needs, can be scaled nationally.

I will look into the particular service that the Deputy mentioned, Clarecare. I am happy to continue engaging with him to see how we can develop the research further.

9:50 pm

Photo of Patrick CostelloPatrick Costello (Dublin South Central, Green Party)
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Regarding voluntary care agreements, a recent study by UCC highlighted some of the contentious issues and outlined options for reform. If it has not already done so, it would be useful if the Department engaged with the team in UCC that conducted this research and suggested these reforms.

I sent the Minister's office some information. These independent advocacy services are important, and they are commonplace in other jurisdictions. In Ireland, they occasionally provide support for parents who are in care, but that is done on an ad hocbasis and if the parents happen to be part of those advocacy services already.

I am happy to engage with the Minister again. I appreciate he is not in a position to micromanage Mr. Gloster and the operations of Tusla, but he is in a position to show leadership to and influence Tusla. Strong support for parents' rights as well as for parents in their journey through their children's time in care ultimately supports the rights of their children as much as supporting the children while they are in care does. Frequently, children are left with a conflict in loyalties between their placement by Tusla in a home in which they can grow up safely and their family of origin, to whom they are still deeply connected. Anything that can support that connection while maintaining their safety supports children's rights. It is a matter of parents' rights and children's rights. We need to lead strongly.

Photo of Roderic O'GormanRoderic O'Gorman (Dublin West, Green Party)
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Regarding alternative care and the wider care system, as the Deputy knows, there has been a long-running review of the Child Care Act 1991. We hope to make proposals for a significant amendment of that legislation in the near future. I look forward to working with Deputy Costello and other Members on the Joint Committee on Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. There is a great deal of work to be done and we can significantly reform the law in that area.

Regarding voluntary and representative groups that support children in the care process, I met Empowering People in Care, EPIC, early in my tenure as Minister and was impressed by its commitment to children and young people in care and by the structured way in which it sought to advocate for children.

I take on board the Deputy's comments about the importance of parents having a voice in this process. I am happy to engage with the Deputy further on understanding what that voice would look like and how it could be best amplified, for example, by directly representing parents in particular situations and, on a wider level, influencing policy.

The Deputy is right about the conflict some children in care experience for a while. The stresses and strains of time spent in care should be lessened as much as possible for the child, but also for the parent. We will consider what we can do in that regard and I will continue to engage with Tusla. Mr. Gloster has always shown leadership on these issues and is reform minded. I am happy to continue engaging with the Deputy on the matter as well.