Seanad debates

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Child Care Inquiry Report: Statements


2:00 pm

Photo of Alex WhiteAlex White (Labour)

Ms Norah Gibbons and her colleagues, Mr. Harrison, Ms Lunny and Mr. O'Neill have done the community and State a great service in terms of their preparation of this report which I have only had an opportunity to skim through and note during the course of the day. From what I have read, the report is cogent, does not pull punches and clearly sets out the issues involved and where the problems lie. It makes no bones about it and deals specifically with management failure and failure of practice. It lays the blame where it lies. We tend to avoid the use of the word "blame" but it is often necessary to use English in the way it was intended to be used. The authors of the report have gone straight to the nub of what occurred and identified the issues and problems in an admirably clear and cogent fashion.

There is often a paradox in public debates about social workers and the social work profession. In our neighbouring jurisdiction the main line of attack on social workers, which is often used in this jurisdiction as well, is that they are too quick to intervene, that they want to take children away from families unnecessarily and too quickly, and that they are excessively interventionist and play God. This is an unjustified, over-the-top, excessive, ill-judged and ill-informed level of criticism of social workers and the social work profession.

The criticism in this report is criticism of the opposite kind. It is, unfortunately, identification of a failure to intervene where intervention was necessary. I invite those who are so quick to criticise social workers and the social work profession for its excessive zeal to consider what happened in this case, the care with which this report has been prepared and the conclusions contained therein. If they did so, we might have a more balanced debate on what we expect of social workers, the social work profession and its management.

The Minister of State was correct to acknowledge in his speech the extraordinary work done by social workers throughout the country, very often in extremely difficult circumstances, in particular where, as identified in the report, the family, especially parents, actively mislead social workers who visit their home. We all need to pause for a moment to work out what it is we expect social workers to do when repeatedly told manifest lies which they cannot go behind, so to speak, without either intervention of the most rigorous kind or remaining in the home and observing what happens. Is that the level of intervention we want? It is not enough for us to say what they should or should not have done. While I am not resiling from what I said about the report, which I believe is strong, none the less what do and should we as a society expect from social workers? We all need to examine our conscience on the level of intervention we believe is appropriate in different circumstances. This is often a matter of professional judgment. For this reason the report is correct in identifying the need for training, professional development and strategies to be employed by professionals in the field. The report is very helpful in this regard.

I did not hear the interview on "Morning Ireland" with Mr. Geoffrey Shannon, whom I greatly admire. He has been invoked several times during the day in this Chamber and elsewhere. It is probably an exaggeration for any colleague to suggest that Mr. Shannon believes or said, or that anyone could reasonably believe, this issue is wholly unconnected with the children's rights referendum or that the issues we dealt with in preparing the wording of the referendum are somehow on a separate track. They are not; they are intimately connected.

The Minister of State has formed the preliminary conclusion that the failures identified cannot be attributed to a lack of resources - I suspect this bears further scrutiny - or legislative or constitutional gaps. The Minister of State will be aware that one of the topics debated by the committee during its deliberations was the proper threshold of intervention and whether the current threshold is too high and needs to be addressed, if necessary by way of constitutional change. This is germane to the issues in this case. I will not go so far as to say that had we done what the committee proposed in terms of constitutional change, this abuse would never have occurred. It would be absurd to suggest the abuse would not have occurred or that the delayed intervention which resulted from deception on the part of the family would not have otherwise occurred. We need to address the threshold of intervention, which is one of the things the constitutional amendment sets out to do.

The Minister of State said he held town hall meetings with social workers, none of whom saw the Constitution as an obstacle. I draw his attention to the second last paragraph on page 39 of the report where a social worker in reply to questions - this is when the injunction was applied for in 2000 and was not resisted - states: "I think the element of family was highlighted in that affidavit [in other words, the application to court] and I would have thought it was probably out of constitutional concerns for the protection of the family." That seems to be the basis upon which the application was made, and it was not resisted. I do not know if the Minister stated it in his contribution earlier but he said yesterday, and he is right-----


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