Seanad debates

Thursday, 8 May 2003

National Standards for Foster Care: Statements.

 

10:30 am

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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Foster care is the main form of alternative care provided by health boards for children in need of care and protection who cannot remain in their own homes. Over 4,500 children are currently in the care of the health boards, of whom approximately 4,000 are in foster care. These figures show the critical importance of the foster care services in our child protection and welfare service. Families and family life are very important to all children and the opportunity to experience the qualities of family life is one of the main objectives of the national children's strategy. For those children who cannot be looked after in their own families and need to be provided with alternative care, foster care provides the best way to experience family life. The challenge for us is to provide an appropriate response for the children of this vulnerable group. This response must respect their rights to a childhood in a secure family environment in order that they may fulfil their potential in adulthood.

The importance the Government attaches to foster care was underlined by the publication in 2001 of the report of the working group on foster care, Foster Care: A Child-Centred Partnership. The report points the way forward to strengthening and developing the service and provides the guidelines to improve standards in foster care.

This report noted that the foster care allowance was not adequate to meet the needs of children in foster care and it recommended that the allowance be increased. In August 2001 the allowance was substantially increased, alleviating the need for foster parents to apply to health boards for every extra financial need of their foster child or children. Before August 2001 the allowance was €90.85 per week for a child under 12 years and €108.88 per week for a child of 12 years and over. The current rates of payment are €281.50 and €308.50 per week respectively.

In order to ensure the highest quality of care nationally, the report also recommended that national standards for foster care be established. This is one of the most significant recommendations in the report and I was delighted to launch these standards officially on 29 April this year.

The National Standards for Foster Care Committee was established in September 2001. The committee comprises representatives of the Department of Health and Children, the social services inspectorates in the Republic and in Northern Ireland, the health boards, the Irish Foster Care Association, the Irish Association of Social Workers and the Daughters of Charity. The wide-ranging consultation process, undertaken by the committee, played a vital part in the drafting process. This process enabled numerous groups and individuals with responsibility and an interest in foster care to make their views known. It ensured that the voices of everybody involved in foster care were heard, including the most important group – the children and young persons themselves.

The terms of reference of the committee were to develop national standards on policies, practices and procedures in consultation with key stakeholders of the service which should apply to foster care, in line with the recommendations of the report and focusing in particular on the need to improve the quality and consistency of services for children and young people in foster care, standards and practices related to foster carers and providing guidance to health boards on how they can effectively meet their statutory obligations. The national standards for foster care, therefore, comprise three sections dealing with standards relating to the children and young persons in foster care, the foster carers, and the health boards respectively.

The national standards aim to ensure that children and young persons in foster care are given the best possible care and are provided with the tools and knowledge to function fully in society as adults. The importance of this is highlighted in the fact that over half of the standards relate to children and young persons in foster care.

One of the main concerns of children in foster care is that they are anonymous – that they have no say in their future and that no one listens to their concerns. As the House is aware, giving children a voice is one of the primary goals of the national children's strategy. The standards for foster care aim to address this issue. Indeed, the first standard states, "Children and young people are provided with foster care services that promote a positive sense of identity for them."

The standards ensure that children and young persons are involved when decisions about their care are being made. Standard 3, concerning children's rights, notes: "Children and young people are treated with dignity, their privacy is respected, they make choices based on information provided to them in an age-appropriate manner, and have their views, including complaints, heard when decisions are made which affect them or the care they receive."

These standards aim to address the difficulties experienced by those in foster care and to break the cycle of children and young persons becoming "lost in the system". To this end, the standards assert that there should be a designated social worker for each child and young person in foster care; an assessment of the child's or young person's needs should be made prior to any placement or, in the case of emergencies, as soon as possible thereafter; and each child and young person in foster care should have a written care plan. The child or young person and his or her family should participate in the preparation of the care plan.

As well as ensuring that children and young persons in foster care are placed in a safe and positive environment where they are protected from abuse and neglect – standards 9 and 10 – the standards ensure that children and young persons in foster care receive the best of care regarding their health and education. The standards state that children in foster care should have their own medical cards and "prioritised access to medical, psychiatric, psychological, dental, ophthalmic, therapeutic and other specialist services and treatment when required". The standards also assert that "the educational needs of children and young people in foster care are given high priority and they are encouraged to attain their full potential. Education is understood to include the development of social and life skills."

After-care is recognised as being of the utmost importance in foster care as it acts as a stepping-stone between leaving care and entering into the adult world. The standards state that all health boards should have a written policy on after-care provision that outlines all aspects of support and entitlement for those leaving care.

Concerns have been raised over the care of young persons with a disability who reach the age of 18. The standards aim to address these concerns and note that "after-care planning for a young person with a disability involves consultation with the adult disability service in order to provide a seamless transition to that service for the young person on reaching adulthood."

Foster carers play a critically important role in the lives of children and young persons in care by providing a place in their homes at what must be a vulnerable time of the children's lives. The standards acknowledge the importance of foster carers and have developed standards aimed at providing them with support and training. The standards will also act to encourage and retain the services of existing foster carers who are currently undertaking such a valuable task.

Concerns have been raised recently over the length of waiting periods before assessments of foster carers are carried out. The standards state, "The assessment is completed within 16 weeks of their formal application unless more time is required. They are informed of the reasons for any extension and given a new completion date."

The standards provide criteria on the provision of supervision and support to foster carers. They note, "Approved foster carers are supervised by a professionally qualified social worker. This person known as the link worker, ensures that foster carers have access to the information, advice and professional support necessary to enable them to provide high quality care."

Implementation of the standards will enable the foster carers to carry out their role to the best of their ability by ensuring that they receive the necessary training. The standards state, "Foster carers' reviews include an appraisal of their training needs and this forms the basis of the training programme for the following year." Foster carers' knowledge of their role is constantly updated and reviewed as their training is ongoing. The implementation of the standards should ensure that foster carers will not feel isolated in their roles as carers. The supports outlined will also encourage the recruitment of much needed new foster carers.

The standards will ensure that health boards have effective policies and plans in place to promote the provision of high quality foster care for those who require it, and that effective structures are in place for the management and monitoring of these services. They also provide guidelines to health boards on the provision of special foster care for children and young persons with serious behavioural difficulties. They state that in these cases, "The child's care plan identifies additional supports required for the placement and the health board ensures that these are provided." It is anticipated that this form of foster care would assist in the care of those children who may require a step-down service from secure or high support placements.

The standards aim to make the foster care service more accountable and transparent. Copies of the health boards' plans and policies should be available on request to all interested parties and state that in regard to representations and complaints, "Health boards have policies and procedures designed to ensure that children and young people, their families, foster carers and others with a bona fide interest in their welfare can make effective representations, including complaints, about any aspect of the fostering service, whether provided directly by a health board or by a non-statutory agency."

I am confident that these standards will serve to improve the quality and standards of foster care in Ireland. They will ensure that the standards of practice applied in looking after children in care and in supervising and supporting foster carers are of a consistent and high level.

The Children's Book about Foster Care, which is aimed at younger children in foster care, was launched along with the national standards for foster care. I am glad we have acknowledged the need for children in foster care to understand and know their rights and have a say in matters affecting them. We must not forget that providing these children with information and listening to their views will add greatly to all our understanding of what needs to be done to improve the quality of our foster care services. I hope that we will be in a position to develop similar children's versions in respect of the standards for children's residential care in the near future.

I recently launched Counting on Foster Care, a study published by the Northern Area Health Board. I was heartened by many of the findings of that study, especially the range of motives of foster carers that encompassed altruism and personal aspirations. I was pleased to see that most carers surveyed found the experience of fostering enjoyable and that any concerns they had prior to fostering had been alleviated. The indications are that there are significant benefits to be derived from the fostering experience, for both the children and foster carer families. This provides us with valuable information for the future recruitment of foster carers, with fostering being promoted as having something to offer not only to the children in care but to the foster family themselves.

The study also highlighted areas of concern in the foster care service such as the challenges inherent in caring for older children, foster carers' difficulty in gaining access to information and difficulty with agency service provision and delivery. I am confident that the national standards for foster care will go a long way to alleviating these difficulties and do much to improve the quality of the foster care service.

The Counting on Foster Care study also indicated that in February 2001, up to 40% of foster care placements in the eastern region were with relatives. This is considerably higher than the percentage of relative placement providers in England and Scotland. It is a welcome finding because research has shown consistently positive outcomes for children fostered with relatives. The National Standards for Foster Care Committee paid particular attention to the unique requirements of relative foster carers and the children in their care when drafting the national standards.

Many more foster carers are required. The health boards undertake local initiatives on an on-going basis to recruit foster carers. In 2002 over 300 new foster carers were recruited nationally. However, more work needs to be done to attract people to the area of foster care. In view of this, the standards emphasise the importance of recruitment strategies. Also highlighted is the importance of health boards responding promptly to fostering enquiries. Health boards are also encouraged, as mentioned previously, to undertake assessments of foster carers within a certain time limit. These measures will go a long way to ensuring that foster care applicants are not lost due to time delays in assessments or failure to respond promptly at the initial querying stage.

Last March I obtained approval from the Government to begin a wide-ranging consultation on adoption legislation. I have been aware for some time that the existing legislation is out of date and cumbersome and I am delighted to have an opportunity to consult with all interested parties with a view to making significant improvements. One of the issues in which I am interested is the adoption of children in long-term foster care. At present only a small proportion of these children are adopted. I am keen to ensure that where adoption is the best option for children in long-term foster care, everything possible is done to facilitate their adoption.

This will be a short and highly focused consultation process, which I intend will be finalised in the summer. A working document, which is being developed by an independent legal expert, will set out a number of issues for consideration and will soon be published. Written submissions will be invited from all interested parties and this will followed by an oral consultation. I hope this will result in workable proposals which I can bring to Government and lead to a new, modern and appropriate legislative framework for adoption focusing on the best interests of all children.

The report of the working group on foster care states:

The successful provision of a high quality service for foster children requires a partnership approach on the part of all those involved in the provision of the service. It also requires maintaining and constantly striving to improve the standards in relation to the delivery of services.

The national standards for foster care will enable us to achieve this goal.

I am pleased that already this year, the difficulties encountered with the foster care allowance have been resolved and that the national standards for foster care are now being launched. I am conscious, however, that more work remains to be done. Our attention must now become focused on ensuring that these national standards for foster care are met and on implementing fully the other recommendations of the working group's report on foster care.

I am fully confident that the national standards for foster care will serve as a basis for consistently promoting quality of care in the foster care services. It is against these standards that inspectors will form judgments about the quality the services. They should also provide useful and constructive guidelines for health boards and foster carers alike, as well as a basis for those in foster care and their families to judge the quality of the services they receive.

Photo of Frank FeighanFrank Feighan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. It was reassuring that he visited my county last Tuesday, where he is very popular. He is welcome back to Dublin.

We have come a long way since Oliver Twist and the Dickensian institutions of orphanages and foster care. Growing up as a young boy it was harrowing to see the emotional stress caused to orphaned friends who perhaps did not know they were orphans and were told of their position when they reached the age of 14 or 15 years. At that time foster care, as it is now called, was treated without emotion. In view of this, I welcome the advances that have been made since then, including the national standards for foster care.

Since the 1980s, parents have been recruited as long-term, short-term or respite fosters, but unfortunately the service today is in a state of crisis, with social workers having to resort to contacting foster parents to see if they have a bed available. It is a manifestation of one of the problems with modern society that people are not willing to foster.

Matters have been compounded by the lack of funding and I therefore welcome the increase in the pre-August 2001 allowance from €90.85 to €281 per week for a child under 12 years of age and from €108.88 to €388 for a child of 12 years and over. The failure to increase the allowances was a major barrier to recruiting good people to become foster parents. The cost to the State of their absence would be enormous.

There was a tragic case involving a 14 year old boy who was in residential care run by the Northern Area Health Board for three years because no place could be found for him. He was housed with five other boys ranging in age from six to ten years. They have been at the residential centre for between five months and three and a half years and have all been affected by a shortage of foster care places. Will the Minister of State indicate if there has been any change in harrowing statistics of this kind?

There is a high turnover of staff and a high reliance on agency staff at some residential centres, which results in a lack of continuity and consistency for children. Furthermore, three quarters of carers are over 40 years of age, more than half of them are engaged in fostering on a long-term basis, four in ten are related to the children being fostered and 16% of all foster families are headed by a single parent. Some families derive great satisfaction from fostering and it is incumbent on us to understand the critical success factors which contribute to this.

I welcome the Minister of State's emphasis on the need to improve the quality and consistency of services for children and young people in foster care and the standards of practice applicable to foster carers. With regard to the lengthy waiting periods before assessment of foster carers is undertaken, the Minister of State indicated that assessment is completed within 16 weeks of the formal application unless more time is required, at which point a new completion date is set. It has always been a problem that people have had to wait a long time before being given the green light. This initiative will help to alleviate this problem and will make people more aware of foster care.

I am sure many people would be willing and suitable to engage in foster care, yet the system appears to be shrouded in secrecy. Until I started to research the issue, I would not have known where to look or how to become involved. In the past, were priests or members of religious orders involved in placing children in foster care? Did a group exist which found foster carers? Perhaps an advertising campaign would help recruit more carers. While targeting through the health boards has probably been done, does the Minister of State have any other plans in this regard?

Some nine residential centres have been found to employ one or more members of staff who had no record of Garda checks, while seven had employed staff on whom Garda clearances were obtained only after taking up employment. Has that problem been resolved? Inspectors said they were impressed with the overall warmth and care shown by staff in the major centres, to whom I pay tribute.

I welcome the national standards for foster care. Children and young people need something with which they can identify and be familiar. They also need to be placed in schools and with families. The increase in funding available to families is welcome and will be of major benefit in ensuring that they will be able to provide help in this area.

Photo of Geraldine FeeneyGeraldine Feeney (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister of State back to the House. It is only a few short hours since he was last with us and he has returned bright and early this morning.

When I was researching material for this morning's debate, I looked, as always, to my health board, the North Western Health Board. I was a little surprised to learn the number of those in care. The vast majority of children in care are in foster care as opposed to residential care. When I came to Sligo from Offaly 20 years ago as a much younger woman, I went to Nazareth House on Monday evenings to help children with their home work. It was a huge institution which was full of sad children. I am glad that we have today moved away from residential care to the more emotional and homely setting of foster care. Today in the North Western Health Board there are between 96 and 103 children in care in the Sligo, Leitrim and west Cavan catchment area. In Donegal there are another 106 children in foster care. I am interested to see that children are cared for up to the age of 18 years after which they receive what is termed "after care". Nowadays children may not finish their full-time education until they are 24 years and I am glad to see that the Department of Health and Children is funding that aspect of care for foster children. While the funding is adequate, it could be a little better. I realise it is hard to address everything but perhaps the Minister of State could examine the provisions in this regard contained in the Child Care Act 1991.

I have mentioned Nazareth House. There has been a wonderful turnaround in the services provided but if I was to pick out one organisation for praise, it would be the Irish Foster Care Association which is holding its annual conference in Bundoran which will be attended by in excess of 300 carers and 100 children. These figures are suggestive of the type of programme the association puts together for carers and children alike.

There is an ongoing difficulty in obtaining placements for older children due to the social element associated with teenagers in general. As a mother of four, I am aware of the worry one has from the time teenage children go out on a Saturday night. One does not know what will happen to them before they come home. Many years ago when my children were small and I was running up and down the stairs to get them to sleep at night, my mother told me that I was experiencing the best days of my life with them. I told her that nothing could be more difficult than what I was undergoing but now I would love to have my four teenagers back at three and four years of age at which age one could put them to bed and know where they were.

I have been hugely impressed by the level of care and the care plans worked out among foster parents, health boards and natural parents. As Senator Feighan said, there is no coldness anymore. Foster children are encouraged to maintain strong links with their natural parents which is very important. They grow up knowing they had to be placed in foster care due to circumstances outside their control and perhaps that of their natural parents.

There is a difficulty in finding and retaining social workers who suffer from burn-out in the same way as primary and secondary school teachers. Dealing with children all the time is very demanding which is the reason we should establish and fund more places at third level. I stand to be corrected but my research for this debate indicates that places are available only at UCD, Trinity College and UCC. NUIG is seeking to establish a school and it might be an idea to introduce places at educational institutions like the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland which are medically or health care based. That would help to bring a larger number into the service. The Department of Health and Children has gone to great lengths to bring in social workers from outside the jurisdiction, particularly South Africa. South Africans have been working in the Midland Health Board. Recruitment of this sort is welcome and appreciated.

The North Western Health Board has told me that its goal is to keep children at home and out of care. We have come a long way in 20 years from the terrible institutions of the past. I use the word "terrible" with my tongue in my cheek as those institutions were run by good people. While we hear harrowing stories, there were some positive tales which came out of those institutions also. The "children first" guideline, with which the Minister of State and his predecessor, Deputy Hanafin, are familiar, means that the welfare and protection of children are overseen by multidisciplinary teams. Principal social workers, public health nurses, gardaí, medics and schools all play a role to ensure foster care children do not feel vulnerable or isolated. What is almost a feeling of normality is introduced as every area of the young person's life is catered for.

There is a strong push to keep families together but it is difficult to keep two, three or possibly five children together. It is a huge burden on a foster family to have to take that number of children in. In my health board area less than one third of families are placed together. Perhaps we could examine this problem as it is very important to try to keep families together. The Minister of State will be well aware of the problems involved in getting families to take difficult children. I am aware of the good work which has been done in this area and ask the Minister of State to keep it up. Perhaps long-term as opposed to short-term stays for children could be examined.

The Minister of State and Senator Feighan both mentioned the trebling of the allowance in August 2001. Those involved at the coalface are delighted with the increase and taking their hats off to the Minister of State. They are also delighted that from April this year the allowance will be directly funded by the Department of Health and Children, which is considered to be a much better system.

We must look continually at special needs children and funding for them. It is much easier to care for a three year old than it is to look after a teenager. When I was researching my contribution to this debate, I was made aware that a high support unit was opened recently in Castleblaney. It is a sign of the commitment of the Government, the Minister of State and the Department of Health and Children to fostering. The unit caters for three health board areas. I am glad that three beds in the unit are available to my local health board when needed. The high support offered is highly funded and made available to young people with challenging behaviours. All of their educational supports etc. are available on site. This is certainly new in our area in the north-west and the Minister of State would be more familiar with it in Dublin and further south.

The Minister of State should bear in mind the issues of recruiting social workers, maintaining them and giving them the supports they need to carry out their duties. I was delighted to hear him say this morning that there is a need for many more carers and that, in 2002, we had 300 new foster carers. I do not have any experience in foster care or in fostering children but it must be the most wonderful and rewarding thing to do. To somebody like me, looking in from the outside, it is clear that people who take in foster children open up their hearts and their homes to those children and share their lives with them. The children are unfortunate and vulnerable and the foster parents have a very positive impact on their young lives.

Like Senator Feighan, I welcome the national standards for foster care. I ask the Minister of State to keep his eye on the ball and continue to fund this very necessary and important area. I know this will be done.

Mary Henry (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House and his new booklet, National Standards for Foster Care. A great deal of work has obviously gone into compiling it and it looks on the child as an individual and tries to tailor the care of each child to his or her needs. Let us hope that we can live up to all that is in the booklet. I am quite sure that the Minister of State is determined to do so but, like Senator Feighan, I am very concerned about the shortage of social workers in this area and appreciate that it is a stressful occupation and that many involved in it leave after some years. We are not producing enough social workers in the universities and perhaps the Minister of State will talk to his colleagues in the Department of Education and Science to see if some of the relevant courses could be expanded.

Foster families, as is said in the booklet, are either related or unrelated to the child and there are very many reasons why children end up in the care of the State and in foster care. Sometimes it is only for a short term because of illness in the family but in other cases, due to the breakdown of the family or the death of one or both parents, the children involved may be in foster care for a very long time. It is so important that we try to make sure that the individual needs of that child are looked after. Also, it is good to see so much emphasis being placed on what occurs when the child leaves foster care because we know of too many sad stories of children in residential units who were put outside the door on their 15th or 16th birthdays or whenever they reached the relevant age limit. They had very tough lives from then on.

The booklet is a blueprint and let us all hope that we live up to what is in it. I compliment the Minister of State on the booklet he produced for children. I had a chance to look at it and thought it was very readable and a very good idea. I am quite sure I can see young ones standing with it in hand citing it to whoever is standing before them, telling them what they are supposed to do. It is a good idea because it gives children a sense not just of their rights but also of their responsibilities. This is no harm because they will know what is expected of them. I was glad to see that sort of thing spelt out.

There has been a big improvement in terms of increasing the number of children taken in by families. That is the most desirable option, rather than placing them in residential units. However, we still have a considerable number of children in residential units and many of them are there for years. I expressed concern during the passage of the Child Care Bill regarding the fact that these units do not have to be inspected on a regular basis. If one looks at the Act, one will see that where children have to be put in a residential unit because they run into trouble with the law, the unit has to be inspected every six months. If they are placed in a unit through no fault of their own, the unit need only be inspected periodically. One of the reasons for not having the units inspected every six months, which was given to me by the then Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Hanafin, is the shortage of inspectors. This could lead to residential units being inspected very rarely.

It is difficult to get staff. We know that there are frequent problems regarding the quality of staff in units but when one cannot get anyone to work in them it must be extremely tempting to get whoever one can to help. It takes an enormous number of people to run these units and I hope the issue of inspecting them is examined very carefully.

I have been very interested in talking to people who work in residential units about how determined they are to try get children into the care of families. As they say to me repeatedly, children in residential care can breed problems between them. For example, it is all too easy for a child in a unit who has been abusing alcohol to encourage other children within the unit to get up to the same tricks as himself. When the child is dealing with perhaps 12 people per week in charge of him, it is much easier to bend things around than if he is in a domestic setting where there is a couple of parents to whom he has to report. They have a much better idea of what the child is doing.

Everyone has praised the fact that remuneration for families was increased. The circumstances that obtained previously really were ridiculous and people who took in foster children must have been at a considerable loss. It is much more realistic now, but still must cost a great deal less than having children in residential care.

There is still a huge shortage of families for children. The problem is to try to get social workers to run courses to train such families and give them backup when they are fostering. One finds that families do need backup, especially in circumstances where, perhaps, a difficult child is taken in. Bad experiences with one child might lead to people being discouraged from taking another.

I gather that short-term fostering of very young children is not that great a problem but that there is still considerable work to be done in the area of getting places for older children. It is wrong for the State to put children into hospitals when they come into its care, be it on a short-term or long-term basis. For example, the Romanian child, who it was thought was brought into this country for an arranged marriage at about 12 years of age, was put in Crumlin hospital. She left it one morning and I do not know where she is now. It was not a suitable place to put a child.

I know of children who have been in other children's hospitals because of violence, but they were not victims of violence themselves. They were, quite correctly, taken out of the family home but ended up in acute beds in one of our children's hospitals for up to two years. That is not right and must be avoided at all costs. I remember one child in particular who was trying to make approaches to anyone who came into the ward by running forward to seek affection and establish some sort of relationship. The child was brought in as an infant and was, by this stage, about two or two and a half. This must be guarded against very much.

The establishment of day care units in some residential establishments has also been good. Perhaps the children could partially be kept within the care of the family if there was support available during the day. I know efforts have been made to promote this sort of support because intervention to prevent us having to take children into the care of the State is also extremely important. I get letters and phone calls repeatedly from parents and people who are trying to deal with children with difficulties who say that the children might not have come into the care of the State if intervention had been earlier. If they get into trouble with the law, we hear about them in the courts. There are many, however, who have not yet got into trouble with the law. It is about these children that neighbours ask what must be done before somebody makes an intervention on their behalf.

I have spoken about and written to the Department of Health and Children repeatedly about the situation regarding child and adolescent psychiatric services in this country. I thank the Minister of State for the fact that I received the report that was written approximately two years ago and about which nothing has happened in terms of improving the child and adolescent psychiatric services. There are ten beds in the entire country for children and adolescents who are suffer from psychiatric illnesses, four in the eastern region and six in Galway. People, including psychiatrists, repeatedly contact with me about this matter. The situation must be very bad if they are obliged to contact me.

These children then run into serious trouble and must be taken into the care of the State and the facilities we have to deal with them are inadequate. I have a three-page letter on my desk that I could show the Minister of State in which the words "where is early intervention" were used by a mother about half a dozen times. Nothing has yet been done for this.

I am delighted that the Government is bringing forward the adoption legislation. As the Minister of State knows, I have been interested in this for quite some time. It is good to see developments being made in that regard.

One other thing I would like to mention to the Minister of State is the fact that we have brought forward the Crisis Pregnancy Agency. I am the president of Cherish, which gives support and help to young women, or indeed any lone parent, who feels able to parent on their own. For a long period, however, adopting has not seemed an accessible alternative. I also chair an ad hoc committee within the Oireachtas of people who are interested in reproductive health. There are Members of all parties involved. We try to encourage UNICEF in the work it does abroad but we have also been looking at the area of crisis pregnancies in this country.

Ms Catherine Heaney of the Irish Family Planning Association told me about an open adoption agency in Chicago called the Cradle. It was established over 80 years ago but has only promoted more open adoption in recent years. Deputy Seán Power, when he visited Chicago, kindly went to look at the organisation for me. This is an area into which we really should put some time and thought because it makes the situation after the child has been born much more fluid than is often possible here. The Cradle organisation has a small institution where the mother can live with the child or the child can be cared for by a family. The child is not actually in the care of the state but still in the care of the mother, and somebody else just minds the child for her until she tries to decide what is the best thing she should do about her child.

This is done in a much more open way than we are used to, but it is going to be introduced here because I have talked to the vice-chairman of the Adoption Board about it. A more open adoption situation emerges and the birth mother meets the parents to discuss the situation. It may be decided that adoption is the right option to proceed with. It is not envisaged, however, that the birth mother would lose total contact with her child; it is envisaged that she would have whatever contact is settled upon between her and the adoptive parents. This is the sort of initiative we should try to encourage here. Perhaps some short-term fostering parents would consider this because many of these sort of parents are extremely experienced people and might be a very good middle ground for such discussions to take place.

I was also interested to hear the Minister of State say that he will look at and try to encourage adoption by long-term foster parents. That is very important, but will there be different standards for foster parents and adoptive parents? This is a difficult issue because age is a big factor with birth mothers, in particular, who may perhaps like to see their child going to a young couple. However, they must know that many people do not discover that they cannot have children until they are well into their 30s. An older child, in particular, might fit in quite well with older parents, so there is a lot be discussed in this regard.

I was delighted to hear the Minister of State say that legislation will be introduced at the end of the summer. Having met some of those people who were adopted as children, I am aware of the urgency of their situation because they see themselves and their birth parents getting older and the possibility of meeting them receding. It is most important that some sense of urgency is brought to this situation. This legislation can come before the Houses of the Oireachtas and we can trash it out, line by line. Things do not have to be kept in the Department forever. As the Minister of State knows, the Seanad is a very sympathetic and receptive place in which to introduce legislation that perhaps needs less party political discussion. He has received nothing but encouragement this morning for what he is doing.

I congratulate the Minister of State on his initiative and look forward to seeing what happens with the legislation he intends to introduce. I hope he will consider the points I have made regarding a more open situation for a young women who has just had a child, a situation in which the child is not going to be in legal limbo and in which we now look at adoption in a different way and realise that contributions can be made from far more quarters than one thinks to the welfare of the child.

I again congratulate all who were involved in bringing forward these standards. Let us ensure now that they are not just pious hopes.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach:

I welcome Councillor McGreal to the Visitors Gallery. I know that, as a member of the Western Health Board, he has a keen interest in this matter.

Photo of Camillus GlynnCamillus Glynn (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate and I welcome the publication of the national standards for foster care. It is interesting to note that, until the publication of this booklet, there were absolutely no proper standards for foster care. We have to say that this is a disgrace when one considers that foster care is a service that affects over 4,000 children. While we warmly congratulate the Ministers of State, Deputies Brian Lenihan and Mary Hanafin, for their role in bringing forward the rights of children in foster care and indeed the service providers – the foster parents – we have to say that it is never too late to do the right thing.

The ideal situation is that a child should be able to live in his or her own home in the care of loving parents. Nevertheless, it has to be admitted that, regrettably, this is often not the case. Whether it has to do with an alcohol or drug problem or just incompatibility within a marriage, very often the falls guys or fall girls are the children. That is very regrettable.

It is very important to ensure that children in that situation will get a second chance, as it were, and that is why foster parents play a pivotal role in the context of a providing an important service to these children.

I agree with Senator Henry and others who have more or less given the thumbs down to child care facilities in an institutional setting. That is the last option I would go choose. There are many sound reasons as to why one would adopt that particular thinking. When one considers that a child is the most vulnerable member of society, it is axiomatic that they should have the opportunity of benefiting from a situation corresponding to the most normal sense of everyday living that would pertain to other children in other settings. That is why foster parents have such a pivotal role to play in this area of child care.

As chairman of the Midlands Health Board in 2001, I had the honour of being asked by the Irish Foster Care Parents Association to launch their conference in Tullamore. It was an eye-opener to speak to many of those in attendance.

Previously in this House, I have referred to the difficulty of recruiting social workers. As everybody knows, social workers play a central role in foster care in terms of establishing the suitability of foster parents. The issue of recruiting social workers was brought to my attention in a very forceful way on that occasion. My health board had to go to South Africa to recruit social workers. Perhaps the Minister of State and the Department should advise career guidance teachers to encourage students to take up social work, which is an important area. Whether in the context of foster parenting or adoption, social workers play a pivotal role.

Having taken a keen interest in the areas of fostering and adoption, ultimately adoption has to be the best option for which one could hope. Where the long-term possibility of children returning to their natural parents is not a realisable option, adoption has to be the preferred option and I would encourage it in so far as it can be done.

The Minister of State referred to what has been done in regard to allowances for this important service. This is de facto a recognition by the Minister of State and his Department of the service these people provide. As has been said in other fora and by many famous people through the years, the labourer is worthy of his hire. Rearing children is not a cheap option; it is an expensive and important part of everyday life. We are talking about the children who will be the adults of tomorrow and the leaders and pillars of society.

I refer to the situation pertaining to care centres. There are children in care who exhibit difficult and challenging behaviour. They have to be looked after in a care setting. Rath na nÓg House in Castleblayney is one such location and it provides services for my health board, the Midland Health Board. Where possible, those centres should only be used for respite services. In the main, we must endeavour at all times to provide a home setting for children who come from difficult or broken homes.

Much has been said about the scheme. Under the revised scheme, the provisions of the orphan's allowance or pension were extended to all children in full-time foster care to ensure all our foster children are treated fairly and equitably.

A committee was established in 2001 to develop national standards for foster care and it was the Government's aim to ensure that it would represent all the interests involved in foster care. One of the most important groups to be consulted was young people in foster care. Nobody is better placed to give chapter and verse about a service than a recipient of it. The Minister of State ensured that the optimum amount of information was gleaned from the consultations with the groups concerned.

Children in care must be shown love and understanding which is what any home hopes to give to them. Foster homes provide a second chance for young children to make it in life – they provide them with a chance to see the other side.

Much has been said about the difficulties in regard to care centres. We would like to consign those difficulties to the history books but one important thing about history is that if one learns from its mistakes, one will never repeat them. That is why this book is so important. For the first time, it sets out the standards and the parameters for foster parents and for carees. I compliment the Minister of State.

Much that I would have liked to say has already been said and there is no point in repeating it. I welcome this report and look forward to its implementation. At long last, we have a bible outlining the performance we can expect from foster parents, who provide such an important service to the most vulnerable sector of society, our children.

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)
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I thank Senators for their contributions to the debate. I welcome the fact that the Seanad has had a discussion on the subject of fostering because it is important.

Senator Feighan made a good point that there is still an air of mystery about this subject among the public and that people do not appreciate how important fostering has become in our child care system. Before the enactment of Child Care Act, it was on an informal footing. When children are taken into care, the ideal solution is to find a fostering placement. This has become important in our child care system. As Senator Glynn pointed out, it is remarkable that it has taken until now for us to formulate the bible of standards to which he referred. It is tremendous that we now have it at hand.

Senator Feighan drew attention to the fact there was formerly an unwillingness to foster but that the financial incentives are far greater now and they have created a much better environment in which people look at the options of fostering. It is important to stress that in addition to the financial incentives which have been fully agreed upon following the enactment of this year's Social Welfare Act, which provided for a unified payment and has deemed children who are orphans not to be orphans when in a fostering placement, there are important altruistic incentives which were highlighted in the recent study by the Northern Area Health Board. Those who foster children enjoy fostering and derive positive benefit from doing so. It is important to stress this.

Several Senators, including Senators Henry and Glynn, mentioned adoption. Many Irish couples seek to adopt and find it extremely difficult to locate a child for adoption. In the majority of cases, a child must be found in another jurisdiction. One faces an international complication, the movement of a child from one jurisdiction to another and an assessment procedure, which is required under our adoption legislation. One often hears heartbreaking stories and accounts of what happens in other countries in the pursuit of a child, yet in Ireland a great number of children are available for fostering. In our history, fostering was the preferred method of caring for children under the old Brehon Law. It is not something which is new to Ireland. That is one of the reasons I raised the question, which Senator Henry mentioned, in the adoption review of looking at the position of long-term foster care and whether it can lead on to adoption in certain circumstances. I am not prescribing it but it is an issue at which we have to look.

Senator Feighan also mentioned the need to shift from residential to foster placements. I agree with him. As the Senator is aware, foster care placements may not always meet the specific needs of a child, so there must be a broad spectrum of services from family support services to foster care placement to residential placements to youth advocacy programmes where there is a mentor-based approach in the community.

There are a wide range of options in the health board system when children are at risk. Information from seven of the ten health boards indicates that 39 children in residential care were awaiting foster care placements at the end of 2002. The health boards are trying to provide placements for them. It is very important that we do so. One of the great developments has been the establishment of the social services inspectorate because it looks around the various residential centres and notes where there should be fostering rather than residential placements. In my work with the chief executives of the health boards I constantly remind them of the need to audit their residential placements and see whether fostering can provide an adequate alternative in any of those cases. Health boards, like other institutions, tend to build their own critical mass, and it is very important that one evaluates and audits that mass.

Senator Feeney referred to the North Western Health Board, which is unusual in having very few residential placements, something the Senator noted. However, that is not the position in all the health boards. One of the difficulties with residential care is that, where a child remains in such care for a long time in his or her younger years, it becomes very difficult to foster him or her in the teenage years. I agree with Senator Feighan. I have constantly reiterated to the health boards the need to shift towards foster placements away from residential care. The Senator also raised the question of delays in assessments. I hope the standards, which have set a specific time specification of 16 weeks, will improve matters. There have recently been improvements in the recruitment of social workers, which we hope will improve the rate of assessments and reduce the length of delays.

There was also the question of inspection of residential centres, an issue also raised by Senator Henry. The social services inspectorate is up and running and has produced its second annual report. I am very glad to read in that report, which was launched on the same date as the standards, that it is satisfied that there have been real improvements in residential homes resulting from the inspection process.

I agree with Senator Feighan on the importance of focusing on the recruitment of foster carers. The working group's report on foster care and standards called for the development of recruitment strategies to ensure a speedy response to queries. In 2002 over 300 new foster carers were recruited through local initiatives, and I hope that, with the implementation of the standards in health boards, there will be far more of what the Senator was talking about in terms of advertising positively for fostering and encouraging it through local initiatives. These can also often take place with the Irish Foster Care Association, which, as many Senators pointed out, does a great deal of good work in this area.

Senator Feeney mentioned the importance of maintaining links with natural parents. It is an important point that one of the great advantages of fostering is that it is an open arrangement without a rigid closure of identification between the child and the natural parent. The Senator mentioned the North Western Health Board. As I said, compared to other boards, in the North Western Health Board area a very high proportion of children are in foster care compared with residential care, and it is important that we work on this in other health board areas. The Senator also referred to siblings. The standards emphasise and highlight the importance of keeping them together.

Senator Henry spoke about the shortage of social workers. The Minister for Health and Children is aware that the number of social workers being trained has increased. While I do not have any figures to hand, I know that the Department is very concerned about the problem, something also referred to by Senator Glynn, who has taken up the issue before. There has been an increase in numbers in training. In the Eastern Regional Health Authority area there has been an increase in the numbers allocated. Senator Henry also raised the matter of children's hospitals. There were inappropriate social placements in the past but a directive has now been issued to the Eastern Regional Health Authority to stop this, and we have received assurances from it that measures are being taken to avoid such occurrences. I agree with Senators that it is most undesirable that it should happen.

Child and adolescent psychiatric services are a cause close to my heart, and we really must develop them. I have raised the matter with the Minister for Health and Children. I had to intervene earlier this year to keep one unit open which had been faced with closure, something which seemed ridiculous given our small national provision.

Senator Henry referred to adoption. While I do not want to pre-empt what will emerge from the consultation, the question of open adoption is already with us in the sense that the Adoption Board now often makes orders subject to conditions which preserve a degree of contact between the birth mother, the adopted child and the adoptive family. This is one of the issues which will have to be looked at in the consultation process. I hope Senator Henry and Deputy Power, whom she mentioned, will make a submission to the review in order that whatever legislative framework we put in place will be adequate to allow for such experiments. It is important that we look at different ways of encouraging mothers to bond with their children and address the problems that confront them in a crisis pregnancy.

Senator Henry also stressed the need to have residential units inspected, on which there has been a lot of progress. We have no immediate plans to put the social services inspectorate on a statutory basis but I am very happy with the extent to which it is conducting regular, periodic inspections of the various institutions. It is very important work because it sets standards in them.

Senator Glynn returned to the subject of social workers. I know that he is most anxious that we work on this issue. I agree with him that residential settings should be the last option. That is certainly my philosophy, which I have communicated to the health boards very strongly. He said adoption could be the best possible option. I am not entirely sure about this, though he raises a very interesting point. We must also stress the importance of fostering. As I said, there are many seeking to adopt who cannot find children, yet there is a huge pool of Irish children who wish to be fostered. The debate is very welcome, allowing us to promote fostering as a positive parenting option.

It is also important that we look at the issues surrounding long-term fostering raised by Senator Henry. If we at least moved towards providing for adoption as an option, it might encourage more into fostering. Adopting a child of a marriage requires an application to the High Court under 1988 legislation and is very cumbersome and expensive. We must examine the issue in the consultation process to see how we can make matters easier in such circumstances for those who require adoption where it is in the best interests of the child concerned.

I thank Senators for their contributions and the interest they have shown in this subject. I will bring the question of the provision of social workers to the attention of the Minister for Health and Children and the Minister for Education and Science.

Sitting suspended at 12.30 p.m. and resumed at 2 p.m.