Thursday, 28 October 2010
Child Care Inquiry Report: Statements
Barry 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)
I thank the Seanad for allowing me the opportunity to have this discussion with Members with such speed after the publication of the report yesterday.
Senator Cannon referred to the constant negativity in this area, and Senator Corrigan summed up the reason for that constant negativity. She said there are no positives possible to put in the public domain to weigh against all those negatives because under the child care legislation we cannot report the good things that happen, and it is an invasion of privacy to have put any of this information in the public domain.
We have 5,800 children in care. The vast majority of them are being cared for in a loving family by foster carers, in residential care or elsewhere. Very good interventions are being provided to them but the general public does not know anything about that because of clear and well-grounded reporting restrictions in the child care legislation.
As Senator Corrigan said, one of the recommendations of the committee of which Deputy Mary O'Rourke was the chairman was to put a reporting structure similar to the one Carol Coulter carried out for the Courts Service in regard to child care District Court order applications, and that is work we are undertaking. I want to congratulate her also on her initiative regarding the sub-committee set up to deal with children specifically. That is long overdue, and I look forward to co-operating with that sub-committee in the future.
An issue raised by Senator Mary White was that of accountability. The report refers to the good intentions of the people who were dealing with this family over the many years, and the many interventions.
It states resources were not an issue. In fact, too many resources were probably being used in dealing with the family, but the issues were never dealt with in a coherent way, although they represented a clear warning to the system that something was fundamentally wrong.
One of the aspects of the report that jumped out at me was the description of a believing management - those involved believed what was being represented to them. It struck me as being similar to the Monageer case, in which social workers dealing with the family concerned saw children sitting on their parents' knees and a general image of family solidarity. The same impression was given by the family in the case under discussion. The fundamental horror of the children's treatment was not seen by professionals whose duty it was to unpick the tapestry presented to them by people who were very manipulative.
Senator Alex White talked about the High Court injunction sought to prevent an informal arrangement that had been proposed to the family. As the injunction was ex parte, it was open to the health board to go back to court to vacate the order in the normal way and seek to enforce its duties under the Child Care Act 1991. It is clear, from this perspective, that there was no impediment in law or the Constitution to doing this and the children were eventually taken into care. There are 5,800 children in care, many of them on foot of court orders. We talk about the threshold for intervention, but it is clear that there is no major impediment to taking children into care under the Constitution.
The report underlines that what was profoundly lacking was good practice - knowledge of the law and the powers available, as well as the ability to piece together the jigsaw and use professional judgment. We are rightly concerned about processes and figures: how many children have an allocated social worker and how many have care plans? However, they are the inputs; the outputs are different. What is the quality of the relationship between a child and his or her social worker? Is there continuity of care? For how long has the social worker been dealing with the child and how is she or he getting on? Do social workers have the power to exercise professional judgment and is the risk involved shared with management? Is it properly supervised? These are the real issues raised. Sadly, they have been raised a couple of times before and will be raised again. We cannot eliminate risk; we can only minimise it.
I remind people that they must weigh the negatives against the positives. This is a very different country from what it was 15 years ago in terms of the interventions and therapies available. Through early intervention and provision for a free pre-school year, we are identifying delays in development and language acquisition and intervening to divert children away from the criminal justice system better than ever before. However, much of this work does not get into the public domain which prevents people from being more positive about the good things that are happening.
I would like to talk about this more, but we are pressed for time. I reaffirm my determination to hold a referendum, even though this is a slightly different issue from the one under discussion. The children in this case have made it clear that they want this to be done. It is encouraging for them that we are having this discussion. We recognise that they are utterly blameless and acknowledge their courage. We wish them happy and long lives, in spite of all the bad things that have happened to them. If there is a need for the report to be discussed further at a committee, whether privately or otherwise, I will be happy to co-operate.