Seanad debates

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Child Care Inquiry Report: Statements

 

2:00 pm

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children and Young People, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)

It restores some of the faith people might have lost in the manner in which we are capable as a country of accounting for ourselves when we fail to reach minimum standards.

In opening this debate on the report on the child care inquiry published yesterday I am mindful of the judgment of Mr. Justice McMenamin in granting the permissive order paving the way for publication. Having consulted all of the children, he carefully weighed the further hurt for the children that would accompany publication with the public good and the hope publication might prevent tragedies of this nature recurring. On balance, he ruled in favour of publication, but he gave clear guidance on how matters should be reported. I am in no doubt that Senators will share my concern for the children and seek to avoid causing further hurt in this debate. I note, in particular, Mr. Justice McMenamin's comments that the children should not be asked to relive the experience. In his words, "the children want it understood that they are normal young people."

In the first instance, the children were failed by their parents, their primary care givers, and subsequently by State services when signs which pointed to the need to remove them from obvious risk were ignored. It is a damning indictment that a proper decision on the appropriate care for them was not taken until one of them actually asked to be taken into State care. A child knew that the lack of care, or, more correctly, neglect, was abnormal, yet trained professionals did not identify the warning signs. Yesterday the HSE gave an unreserved apology for its failure to protect the children. I apologise to each of the six for the fact that the State did not intervene in time to remove them from such horrendous circumstances. The immediate concern is for their welfare. It is imperative that all measures be taken to preserve their anonymity and allow them to get on with their lives. I ask all involved in the matter to accept their responsibilities in this regard and not to add further to the children's hardship.

The report on the matter up to 2006 highlights the tragic consequences of what happens when children are failed by people in authority. The children's voices were not heard at a time when their needs were significant. It is imperative that the lessons around encompassing children's voices in child protection policy are learned. I took receipt of the report yesterday afternoon and it will be the subject of close study and assessment. However, my initial reaction is that the failures identified cannot be attributed to a lack of resources or legislative or constitutional gaps. The report has found that important child protection concerns were not identified and acted upon, notwithstanding the involvement of a range of professionals.

The report raises many questions, not least of which is why concerns of ongoing neglect did not lead to decisive action at an earlier stage. The report has found that, with one exception, the children's needs were not subject to a formal assessment, staff were not sufficiently alert to indicators of ongoing neglect and reports of neglect to the HSE did not trigger an appropriate response. It has found that the statements of the parents were accepted at face value when evidence to the contrary was evident. I am particularly concerned that the views of the children were not listened to. In the main, the inquiry has found that the deficits were in the area of social work practice. I note also the report's findings on the failure of social work management to manage the legal aspects of the case during a crucial period. The report indicates that, despite the good intentions of staff, appropriate and necessary actions were not taken at key points, which is a matter of deep concern. At this point, I acknowledge the work done by social workers who work in difficult and emotionally challenging circumstances and, unlike other health professionals, their intervention is often resisted. As everyone knows, it is not an exact science.

Recent studies in the United Kingdom have examined why previous reforms in the context of social services did not delivere expected improvements in the context of social work. They have found that social workers needed to improve their use of professional judgment, while bearing in mind that there was no guarantee of certainty where parents deliberately misled professionals involved in assessment. However, it is important that the development of social work skills and capacity through improvements in training is ongoing and I note the report makes many recommendations around a variety of measures aimed at improving social work capacity and staff retention, including recommendations on training, management and professional development.

The report highlights that changes need to be made in the way we do our business. Reform of our child protection services is necessary to ensure, in as far as possible, the likelihood of such events occurring is reduced.

Regarding child protection, a number of specific steps are being taken in the context of the Ryan implementation plan. Although the recommendations made in the report are of a more detailed nature than those made in the Ryan report, there are a number of shared recommendations which are being addressed. These include recommendations on the education, training, induction and supervision of social work staff, provision of management and supervision training for managers and implementation of Children First.

The Ryan implementation plan spans a four-year timeframe and is deliberately ambitious in what it sets out to achieve. In setting clearly identified actions with ambitious timescales we are challenging ourselves to improve standards and reform services. That we are doing this in a time of extreme economic difficulty only serves to highlight the commitment of the Government to improving services for children in the care of the State. The allocation of an additional €15 million in the current year further reflects the Government's commitment in this regard.

Successive public debates on child protection have indicated that our policy and legislative framework is sound but that implementation and service delivery must be overhauled. What the Ryan implementation plan sets out to address is the reality that, despite this strong legislative and policy base, service delivery for children in need and at risk is not sufficiently co-ordinated, is unevenly distributed nationally and must be improved. In addition, social workers need to be aware of the impact and long lasting effects of chronic neglect and act accordingly.

One of the principal commitments in the Ryan implementation plan is the need to ensure all children are safe and that those in care have an allocated social worker and a care plan. This will contribute to ensuring children's voices are heard. To this end, the Government has committed to filling 270 HSE social worker posts by the end of next year and to the front-loading of this initiative in 2010 with the filling of 200 posts. This initiative is designed to target resources at front line services in order to ensure the HSE fulfils its statutory obligations. The Oireachtas has voted that the necessary finance be provided. the filling of social work posts has been exempted from the public service moratorium on recruitment and replacement of staff and there is an explicit commitment in the HSE service plan for this year, as laid before the Oireachtas, that these posts will be filled. I met with senior HSE representatives today to review the progress being made in this regard and they reassured me the 200 posts will be filled by the end of December. The HSE has also informed me that where any of these child protection posts were filled from other areas of the HSE, these vacancies are also being back-filled. The recruitment of these additional social workers is critical in terms of progressing the implementation plan, ensuring the allocation of a named social worker to each child in care and the availability of care plans for all of these children. I have been assured by the HSE that the matter is being afforded the highest priority.

Much more needs to be done to build a strong and responsive service for children and families. It is my view that a fresh approach is required within the HSE to deliver the change we all wish to see. In the course of my ongoing discussions with the HSE, I raised the need for the appointment of an individual at a national management level who has a proven track record in the reform of children and family services. The process of recruiting this person is nearing completion and I hope an announcement will be made in the very near future. The creation of this new position is a logical development and very much consistent with the emphasis on strengthening management so children and family services get priority within the HSE. The appointment is being accompanied by the restructuring of the service at national, regional and local level in order to strengthen front line delivery of services. Managers need to know what is going on locally and regionally in order to ensure that a good quality of children's services is applied consistently across the country.

The HSE has also developed standardised business processes in order that children regardless of geographical location receive a good quality of service. This and the national child care information system, a national ICT system which will provide a basis for collecting and reporting on the delivery of front line services, will strengthen accountability within the HSE.

Another key priority for me as Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs was the commitment to publish a revised Children First guidelines. The original guidelines, first published in 1999, were revised and placed on the departmental website in December 2009, in line with the commitment in the Ryan implementation plan. A number of amendments have been made in the interim to take on board, for example, recommendations from the Ombudsman for Children and the recent guidance provided by HIQA to the HSE with regard to the deaths of children in care and serious adverse incidents. Arrangements for the printing and dissemination of the guidelines are being finalised. In addition, legislation is to be drafted to provide a duty to comply with Children First for all bodies in receipt of State funding.

I will bring proposals to Government before the end of this year setting out a comprehensive implementation framework, including a particular emphasis on strengthening the audit and inspection framework. This is to ensure the guidelines are implemented more effectively and correctly across all sectors working with children.

Yesterday, I stated publicly I remain fully committed to the holding of a children's referendum. I noted that in the discussions Mr. Justice McMenamin had with the children involved in this case they, too, were determined there should be a referendum on children's rights. That should redouble everybody's resolve in this regard, namely, to put children at the centre of our Constitution which would contain a stand-alone and explicit expression of children's rights. However, we in this House must be honest when we speak to the public. To suggest that if a referendum had been passed, the children at the centre of this inquiry would have been saved from the trauma and horror inflicted at the hands of their parents is incorrect. There were sufficient powers conferred on social workers under the Child Care Act 1991 to take children into the care of the State when risks were identified and there was evidence of parental failure. There was no legislative gap. The problem, according to the report, was that the health board failed to pursue and effect a care order. It should also be noted that when the health board pursued care orders in the correct manner in 2004 there was no legal or constitutional impediment to taking them into care.

The Oireachtas special rapporteur on child protection, Mr. Geoffrey Shannon, made this very point earlier today on "Morning Ireland". He said very clearly that although he had campaigned for a children's referendum for the past ten years he could not argue that the Constitution prevented or hampered these children from being taken into State care. His words were:

All of the legislation was there and I heard yesterday people making reference to the fact: if we had a constitutional referendum, this case would have been decided differently. I respectfully disagree. The Child Care Act of 1991 allows for an application for what is called a supervision order.

The Ombudsman for Children made the very same point when interviewed on "The News At One" today. She stated that although we should aspire to constitutional change no constitution could prevent children from being abused.

There are 5,836 children in care today. Care orders were applied for and sought in respect of many of these children. My point is that the Child Care Act is employed weekly in the District Courts as the statutory tool by which to take children into care. I have conducted roughly a dozen town hall meetings around the country with social workers during the course of the last 12 months. I routinely ask them whether the Constitution limits them in making care order applications. Their response is that it does not.

Senators will be anxious to hear the exact status of the current proposal on the children's rights referendum. I presented a copy of the third and final report of the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children to Cabinet in early March. The Cabinet decided that, in view of the complex nature of the issues involved, all Ministers and Departments, as well as the Attorney General, should consider the report and examine the implications of the proposed wording for their individual areas of responsibility. I know some Senators have voiced alarm that the Cabinet would ask each Department to examine the proposed wording. However, to do otherwise would be irresponsible in the extreme. We cannot introduce far-reaching changes to the Constitution without asking senior civil servants the likely consequences for Departments and what likely costs might arise. This is part of a due diligence exercise that must be gone through by a Government regardless of shape or colour.

I listened to Ms Gemma Hussey speak a couple of Sundays ago about the terrible problems caused by the wording contained in the 1983 referendum. The language was too vague and it took four subsequent referendums to try to clarify the situation. We cannot repeat those mistakes. A range of unintended policy and resource implications were identified and, in view of these difficulties, I presented to Government the policy objectives for the referendum and was granted Government approval to develop revised wording for an amendment, in co-operation with the Office of the Attorney General. New wording, which takes into account the proposals put forward with carefully constructed consensus by the committee, is being drafted by the Attorney General's Office with policy support provided by the my office. I intend to bring a memorandum to Cabinet very shortly that will contain wording which, while differing from the committee's proposal, seeks to maintain the full range of policy goals as set out by the committee. The matter is receiving my full attention. In addition to Cabinet discussions I have had meetings with the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Attorney General and the Minister for Justice and Law Reform with a view to moving the proposal forward.

I wish to thank the inquiry team, in particular, the chair, Ms Norah Gibbons, for the tremendous work in producing a report of this nature. This report is a template for future work in ensuring transparency in children's services.

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