Wednesday, 17 December 2003
Appointment of Ombudsman for Children: Motion.
The Ombudsman for Children will have a dual role. First, she will deal with complaints against public bodies, including schools and hospitals, by or on behalf of children and young persons. Second, the Ombudsman for Children will promote the rights and welfare of children and young persons. It is a key post in the national children strategy, particularly in giving children a voice. All Members will know how important that is in ensuring children's viewpoints are understood and factored into policy decisions.
We had an innovative and exciting selection process which involved children and young persons in drafting the person specification, in drawing up the advertisement and in the selection process for the position. It was rewarding for all involved. I thank the Civil Service Commission which managed the process, ensuring that the best recruitment practice was followed and meeting the challenge in developing a new approach to recruitment with enthusiasm and efficiency. The Civil Service Commission was ably assisted in participation and consultation by children through the National Children's Office. I thank the 70 children and young persons who gave their time, including a number of weekends, in helping with the selection process. Everyone was struck by their objectivity and enthusiasm as their contributions exceeded all expectations and they should be proud of their work's outcome.
The importance of coming before the Oireachtas with this nomination is that we must strive in obtaining a consensus between all parties in an appointment of this type. It is also important as this is the first appointment to this position. Of course, the ultimate decision has to be made by the Government. As a result of the proceedings of the Civil Service Commission, three candidates were identified and submitted for the Government's decision. The Government takes responsibility as the majority controlling interest in the Houses to make this determination. I thank the other party leaders with whom I discussed this matter for giving it such a fair wind in the Lower House.
That the Ombudsman for Children will be appointed by the President further emphasises the independence of the office and its significance. Ms Emily Logan can and will make a difference through advising on the development of children's policies and encouraging public bodies to develop policies, practices and procedures to promote the interests of children. The Ombudsman for Children will also promote public awareness of the rights of children and monitor and review legislation affecting children, consulting with them regularly.
I welcome the appointment of an Ombudsman for Children. Today of all days, with the conviction of Ian Huntley, Members realise its importance. We all heard the shocking news that Ian Huntley was previously accused of indecently assaulting 11 year old girls and having sex with a number of underage schoolgirls. It was frustrating for the police searching for Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman that they only found this out when they were telephoned by members of the public and discovered ten previous allegations against him. The appointment of an Ombudsman for Children is welcome news because it makes us more vigilant against these awful occurrences.
The Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 contains the procedures for appointment and terms of office. Has the staffing of the office been worked out yet? Also, the report of the UN committee on the rights of the child pointed out there was no mechanism in this State to vindicate children's rights and no way in which children could raise problems and complaints.
It was Fionnuala Kilfeather, the chief executive of the National Parents Council, who said that when things go wrong for children in school it can take months or even years for their rights to be addressed. The ombudsman will be an advocate for the child. Each week we hear new details of schools that are dilapidated, unheated or otherwise in urgent need of repair or reconstruction. The Ombudsman for Children will be able to intervene on behalf of children when their rights, including their educational rights, are ignored or violated.
Passage of the Ombudsman for Children Act 2002 was warmly welcomed by the alliance last year and was hailed as a major step in the effort to promote and protect the rights of children. Ms Logan is a very appropriate appointment as she was previously director of Our Lady's Hospital for children in Crumlin, and was directorate manager at Great Ormond Street Hospital in London. She also holds an MBA in health management and an MSc in psychology. I wish Ms Logan well in the office she is due to take up very soon, which unfortunately took a decade of campaigning by children's lobby groups to establish. The first commitment to establish an ombudsman came from the Minister with responsibility for children in the rainbow coalition, Mr. Austin Curry, in 1996. Sometimes we should congratulate ourselves, but in this case it took too long to appoint an ombudsman.
Mr. Glynn: Fáiltím an Aire chuig an Teach. This is a very historic day. I welcome the announcement that Ms Emily Logan has been nominated by the Government to be appointed by the President as the first Ombudsman for Children. As has already been said, Ms Logan is eminently qualified for this job and I am sure she will bring a great deal of commitment and enthusiasm to it. It is well worth noting, as was outlined by my colleague on the other side of the House, Senator Feighan, that her background of employment indicates very strongly that she is well placed and well qualified for this position.
Some people have complained that it has taken too long to nominate the Ombudsman for Children. We should note that this is a very important decision and such decisions should not be rushed as one has to get it right. If one rushes the decision many important people will be excluded from the decision-making process. However, this is not the way the matter was handled and I believe that was correct.
This is an extremely important position and it is essential that the right person was chosen. In order to choose the appropriate person it was essential that we included experts in the decision-making process. This is why children and young people were included in all aspects of the process, as has been stated by the Minister. Young people and children are very discerning and quick to spot the inadequacies and deficiencies in people's personalities. It does not take them long to separate the wheat from the chaff in determining whether a person is good or bad. They put much time and effort into the recruitment of Ms Logan and I pay tribute to them for this.
We did not procrastinate on this, we are not indulging in policy procrastination, but this Government has put words into action. The establishment of the Ombudsman for Children demonstrates this Government's dedication to implementing the rights of children. The establishment of an independent Office of the Ombudsman for Children was among commitments made in the national children's strategy 2000, just over three years ago.
In this Chamber on a number of occasions I have raised the matter of bullying. The newspapers recently reported an incident which was not good to read. With the advent of this very important position young children, if they see fit, will be able to make a complaint of their own volition and have it investigated, which is very important. A young lady at the tender age of 13 or 14 committed suicide in Mullingar because of bullying. I do not like to stand here in the full glare of publicity stating that, but regrettably it happens to be true.
In promoting the rights and welfare of children the Ombudsman for Children can, among other things, provide advice to the Government, encourage the development of policies, practices and procedures to promote children's rights and welfare, highlight issues that are of concern to children and monitor and review the operation of legislation in so far as it refers to children. The ombudsman will set up structures to consult with children, ensuring that their views are taken into account when policies and legislation are being considered. That speaks volumes about the commitment of this Government and the importance all sides of the House attach to this issue.
With regard to examining and investigating complaints, the remit of the Ombudsman for Children extends to public bodies, schools and voluntary hospitals. Complaints can be made by a child, a parent of the child or a person who has either a personal or professional relationship to the child concerned and is considered a suitable person by the Ombudsman for Children. This is a very wide remit whereby the welfare and safety of children can be protected. The ombudsman is the person who will implement the appropriate policies and ensure they are pursued in the interests of the protection of children.
The introduction of an Ombudsman for Children is a further step along the road to providing our children with quality services and letting their voice be heard. Since 1997 the Government has provided over €178 million in additional funding invested through the health boards in the development of child welfare and protection services. I identify fully with the concerns of Senator Henry on the matter she raised, but I am a former member and chairman of that health board and advise her to have a second look at the situation, although I know it is in hand. It is sub judice which precludes me from saying much about it, but I am concerned as is Senator Henry. The funding includes an additional €8 million for 2003. This funding has provided for a wide range of developments, including family support projects, preventative services and intensive community based services.
Some €282,000 was provided in budget 2004 for the establishment of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. Accommodation for the office has been secured in the city centre. In response to Senator Feighan's question about staff, approval has been given for seven staff members to be assigned to the office on a phased basis. The Department of Health and Children will work closely with the new Ombudsman for Children to select the appropriate staff. The Minister of State with responsibility for children, Deputy Brian Lenihan, whom I welcome, will sign off on the remaining sections in early 2004.
The Ombudsman for Children will affect the operation of a myriad of institutions by providing an opportunity to seek redress by, or for, a child without having recourse to adults or professionals in the first instance. It is not possible to have more autonomy. We need to ensure that when a child complains an examination can be started quickly without becoming entangled in an ever-increasing web, which could confuse and alienate our children from public institutions.
To our children, this ombudsman will be an important advocate for them, providing informality and accessibility in resolving the issues they consider important. The Ombudsman for Children shall be appointed by the President on the resolution of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann. I am glad to be a Member of this House today and to support this development. The acceptability of the Ombudsman for Children will be enhanced by the fact that the holder is acceptable to all sides of both Houses.
The independence of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children is vital as our children must see that this is an independent authority. I welcome the six year term of office, which can be renewed once. The Ombudsman for Children may undertake an investigation on his or her initiative, which is to be commended. I strongly support the motion before us and commend the Government. I appreciate the support that no doubt will be forthcoming from all sides of the House.
Dr. Henry: I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I very much welcome the appointment of Ms Emily Logan, who is an inspired choice. Those who have worked with her and know her say she will be absolutely splendid. She will certainly have her hands full as we live in a very wicked world considering what is happening to children.
Senator Feighan mentioned the gruesome case in England in which two ten year old girls were murdered by a man of 28. It is shocking to find that there were streams of accusations of child abuse against him. Apparently it was well known that at the age of 23 he had fathered a child with a 15 year old. This went on and on.
Dr. Henry: We seem to be little better at screening those involved in child care now than was the case when the incidents, which are being revealed at the Laffoy commission, happened. We say we did not realise what happened then. However, we were putting children into the care of institutions then and we know they were abused. Unfortunately, the same thing appears to be happening now. I am sympathetic to health boards that are having trouble recruiting staff to work with children, especially difficult children. However, we must make a better attempt than what is happening now. This case in England happened in an open school where the children were of an age at which one would think it was safe to leave them out and about. They were not very small children who would not have complained about what was happening to them.
Senator Glynn alluded to the case that Senator Ryan and Senator Hanafin raised on the Order of Business this morning regarding the very late abortion for a child in the care of a health board. I asked how she had been so poorly supervised as a 13 year old that she became pregnant, whether charges were being pressed and attempts made to discover who had impregnated her and where it had happened. While we do not have the details of this case, in the X case the parents informed the Attorney General they were going to England as they wanted to ensure DNA samples could be taken so that the person they suspected, the child had said and was since proved to have caused the pregnancy of that child, also aged 13, could be prosecuted. The health board must attempt to do the same in this sort of case.
It is 10,000 times worse that it should happen to a child in the care of the health board. As that child was taken into care, all of us have a collective responsibility for her. Did it happen here? Did it happen in England? What on earth was going on? I have raised this matter here before. I see this as a serious issue and I do not believe this was an isolated case.
I am also very troubled by the cases of unaccompanied minors. While some of them may arrive here pregnant, others may not. There is a considerable lack of supervision of these children who are in the care of the State as they are children. The Refugee Council report describes children as being unsupervised from 5 p.m. until 9 a.m. the following morning and teenagers minding teenagers, all of which is utterly unsuitable. I know there are huge difficulties, but we must do something to rectify this situation.
Despite the fact that it might be as a result of negligence and carelessness on our behalf, immigrant children appear to be excluded under section 11 of the Ombudsman for Children Act, which states that the Ombudsman for Children cannot investigate any action taken concerning the law relating to asylum, immigration, naturalisation or citizenship. This leaves these children in an incredibly vulnerable position of not even having the protection of the Ombudsman for Children. Also listed in the exclusions are cases where civil legal proceedings are taken in any court. Does the same apply if criminal legal proceedings are taking place, which is surely what should happen in a case such as the one in Senator Glynn's health board area? These are most depressing findings on a day when we all should be rejoicing about what has been achieved in appointing the Ombudsman for Children.
When we introduced the Child Care Act, I was very critical of the fact that inspections of institutions for young offenders were to take place every six months, whereas the inspection of institutions for non-offenders was to occur periodically. The then Minister said this was because there were not enough inspectors to go around. However, the family of a child offender would be more inclined to be in contact with and keep an eye on their child than the family of a child who may be in for neglect. There may be very little protection for such children. We have seen justified criticism about many institutions, which we have had to close. This should be reconsidered so that there can be more inspection of these facilities.
Children should not be in the same institutions as adults. This is entirely unsuitable regardless of whether they are Irish nationals or immigrant children. It is impossible to keep an eye on them especially when people claim family relationships that may not exist. We must introduce better supervision in this area.
As the Minister of State knows, all family law cases are held in camera. A young barrister was appointed a few years ago to report on these cases. People do not realise how serious many of these cases are and how much they affect children even in fairly straightforward cases such as divorce and separation in which some judges do the very best they can to secure the rights of the child. For example, in cases where those separating are in better off circumstances, some judges have said that the children should be left in the home and the parents should find a flat or other accommodation. It is unworthy that the children should be the ones most disrupted. We have no idea what goes on in these cases. The Attorney General at the time, who is now the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, said that "in camera" meant "in camera". The barrister who was appointed could not sit in on these cases. As legislators, we need much more information about what is going on. The public also need such information. I ask that this area be examined as rapidly as possible because children are frequently badly done down.
I would also like to speak about children who are mentally ill. The facilities in this country for such children are woeful. The circumstances of children in voluntary hospitals can be investigated, but what about children in psychiatric hospitals? It is entirely unsuitable that they can be held in adult psychiatric hospitals, but that is what is happening. There are six places in the west and four places in Dublin. I am often contacted by psychiatrists who say they cannot get places for children who will do damage to their families. Those who are psychiatrically ill and attend hospitals on a day care basis do not receive any schooling. There is plenty for the new ombudsman to do. Those with attention deficit disorder, Asperger's syndrome and similar problems receive very little help. What proportion of the children to whom I have referred drop out of school at secondary level and attract the attention of the criminal justice system very shortly afterwards?
I am glad that Senator Glynn mentioned the issue of bullying. I was horrified to hear about a ten year old in his local area who was bullied. My Trinity College colleague, Professor Mona O'Moore, has been raising this issue for 20 years. A case involving bullying in junior infants is before the courts at present. Surely we can get a little more done in that regard. The Cathaoirleach has been very patient with me so I will conclude by reiterating that so much remains to be done. It would be good if the ombudsman could examine the recommendations of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution. The committee suggested about eight years ago, when it was chaired by Deputy Jim O'Keeffe, that the constitutional provisions in this regard could be changed. I apologise to the Minister of State for giving him something else to do.
Dr. Henry: The position of children under the Constitution is not as good as their position under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. I wish the new ombudsman, Ms Emily Logan, well in her work but I am afraid she will have a great deal to do even before she begins to assess individual cases.
Ms O'Rourke: I welcome the Minister of State to the House and the announcement that Ms Emily Logan is to be appointed as the Ombudsman for Children. I am glad that the House is having this brief chance to debate the matter, just as the Dáil enthusiastically approved the appointment this morning. I welcome the establishment of the position of Ombudsman for Children because it gives dignity to children, who are now seen as people in their own right, albeit in a formative stage. They need the guidance they receive from parents, families, communities and schools. The fact that young people were involved in the drafting process and in the discussions on the appointment means that their needs are clearly recognised. Children were told for a long time that they should shut up and know their place. We were all brought up on such good dictums, but there is an innate dignity in everybody, regardless of age. The appointment of the ombudsman will give a positive voice to that dignity, which will be very good.
I welcome Ms Logan to the position to which she is to be appointed by the President. The former Fine Gael Deputy, Austin Currie, was instrumental in the establishment of this position when he was Minister of State with responsibility for children. We have followed up his work by bringing about the establishment of the new office. Ms Logan will be enormously stretched in her job. It is depressing to read each day about offences against children. Very young children who live on the fringes of society are often deprived of the experience of childhood. Some of them may get involved in crime. It is enormously depressing.
Senator Henry has spoken strongly in recent weeks about the sad case of a 14 year old girl who became pregnant while in the care of the State. It is not good enough for public servants, of whatever rank, to say that they will do their jobs and to claim that those who seek additional information over the telephone are nosy parkers. We have every right to question what has happened because the children have been placed in care in our name. It is the duty of the care authorities to respond because they are acting in loco parentis. I appreciate that certain complexities are associated with this case, but the fact is that a child who was placed in care in the UK because of the lack of places in Ireland became pregnant. It is horrific to think that this happened under our aegis.
I referred to one aspect of Ms Logan's activities. Her appointment marks another level of progress in the care of children. We cannot expect her to solve all the problems faced by children immediately, but when she has been established her work will be of great assistance to families, parents, communities and schools. I do not know Ms Logan, but I have read her CV and I am familiar with what she has done. She has been very supportive of young people in all the positions she has held. I wish her well.
I appreciate that I must hand over to my colleague, Senator Feeney. I will conclude by saying that the most horrific aspect of the Huntley case was that he moved between the social service areas in England. The fact that he had been accused of certain crimes, some of which he has been proven to have committed, was not relayed to the relevant authorities. He was able to find many jobs in schools attended by young girls. The horrific crime of which he was convicted today should never have happened. It is a salutary lesson.
Ms Feeney: Like my fellow Senators, I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Lenihan, to the House. I have said before that it is lovely to come to the House when all Senators are singing from the same hymn sheet. It normally happens when a good news story is under discussion. The history which is being made today is being brought about on a cross-party basis. It is right that all parties have been involved in a process which will be of benefit not only to children, but also to society as a whole. The appointment of an ombudsman for children will give children a voice. It will give them the comfort to stand on their own feet. I agree with the Leader, who said that the new position will give dignity to children.
I will not discuss all the cases that have been mentioned by Senators today. Senator Glynn spoke of the shocking consequences of a bullying incident in his health board area. We should remember that adults are bullied in the workplace each day and we should spare a thought for those who suffer as a result. The word "crime" may seem to be a strong one to associate with bullying, but I consider bullying to be a horrible crime. It is a terrible shame that incidents of bullying are allowed to take place.
I would like to know how the proposed Office of the Ombudsman for Children will work. I am sure the details will be outlined in the coming weeks, after Ms Logan has been appointed. I am aware that a child will be able to contact the office directly, but it is important that parents are informed of such representations so that their constitutional rights can be safeguarded. There is no doubt in my mind that there is no pain quite so bad as that suffered by a young child. We adults here today would all say that we could bear any pain ourselves, but the worst thing in the world for any of us is to see a child or children suffering in any way. I say that because I have just returned from Lesotho, a small state in southern Africa. I was there last week with other Oireachtas colleagues. The suffering of young children is of a different type from what we are discussing here. They suffer from starvation or have been orphaned by HIV-AIDS. It is the same pain, but a different problem.
I am delighted that Ms Logan has come through the process. I certainly would not have liked to have been one of the candidates. It seemed a very interesting process as children were allowed to conduct interviews. That is absolutely fantastic, and I was delighted to read that each candidate had to be interviewed by the children involved in the selection process. There was a type of role-play in which they were interviewed by adults and other children. I wish Ms Logan well. Her CV is very impressive. Having sat for five years on An Bord Altranais, I rate the nursing profession in this country as one of the best. I have no doubt that she will be a wonderful ombudsman. She will now serve for a six-year term, which may be renewed once. That is a very wise decision as continuity is very important in this area where one deals with sensitive emotional issues.
I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan. I am delighted that we have reached this point. As I said at the outset, it is history in the making. I also thank the Minister's party colleague and predecessor as Minister of State, Deputy Mary Hanafin, who initiated the idea a few years ago.
Ms O'Meara: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Lenihan, to the House. I also particularly welcome this appointment, which has been a long time coming. The delay had nothing to do with getting it right, as Senator Glynn suggested. It was to do with money not being allocated to make the appointment.
Ms O'Meara: We had this discussion before with the Minister of State, but it was my clear understanding that the Department of Finance was dragging its heels on this matter. I note the Minister's wholehearted commitment to this appointment. I commend him for this and for his commitments to the implementation of the national children's strategy, published in 2002. Nearly four years on, very little has been implemented. However, this legislation is being passed. It was brought first to the Seanad where it was welcomed and received cross-party support. We were very pleased to pass the Bill, one of the last passed by the previous Seanad, introduced by the then Minister of State, Deputy Mary Hanafin.
While it is very welcome, we must be clear that this is a fairly minimal position. I wish Ms Logan very well in her appointment. I do not know her, but I read about her appointment in the newspaper this morning. She seems extremely well suited to her position. I ask her to be powerful in that position and push the boat out regarding the powers which this Act, though fairly minimal, has given her. She should exercise them to the fullest possible extent. As we know, and as has been said by other Senators, the position is clearly needed.
The position of many children in this society is unacceptable. As Senator Henry pointed out on the Order of Business this morning, the appalling situation where a young child in the care of this State had to be sent to England for the necessary care that we were not able to provide ourselves is an indictment of the system. The fact that, when in the care of the health board abroad, the child was left in such a vulnerable position that she is now facing the horrendous trauma of an abortion at such a young age is an absolutely extraordinary indictment of how one child is being treated by the system here. Perhaps the ombudsman might take up a complaint on behalf of that family's child. If legal issues are involved, that will plainly not happen.
Let us consider homelessness. In this week before Christmas, how many children are homeless? How many are living in poverty, acting as carers for their older relatives or parents, subject to domestic violence, abuse or education in inadequate schools? All those are indictments of our system for which we are collectively responsible. On the one hand, we should clap ourselves on the back that we are introducing some legislation but, on the other hand, unless we take full responsibility for our failings, we will get nowhere. Unless we give Ms Logan and her office the necessary resources, this legislation will be meaningless and unless we get our act together on vulnerable children, our fine words will also be meaningless.
The extent to which vulnerable children in particular need a specific level of care is regularly reported by the media – on national television and in print. We seem to be finding it difficult to provide that, and it is clear that much must be done. I do not question the Minister of State's commitment in this area. I have discussed the matter with him. Why do we continue to fail in this regard? It may be that we are failing the communities and families from which those children come. We must recognise as a society that there are areas in urban and not so urban communities where families are finding it impossible to cope. The social welfare cuts made in the last few weeks will not help. Many single parents are struggling and will find it even more difficult to manage because of the cuts being harshly forced through by the current Government.
I urge both the Minister and, in particular, Ms Logan, to be strong in their advocacy for children. I hope children will find the independent voice they need and that this will be the start of a cultural change. As other Senators have pointed out, we have come from a situation in Irish culture and society where children were seen but not heard. I hope this legislation is part of a change in that culture whereby children will be seen to have rights independently, not through their parents or family but in their own right. I hope we will stand up and be meaningful rather than pay lip service to the rights and needs of children and adequately respond to them, particularly regarding resources and the law.
Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. B. Lenihan): I thank the Seanad and Senators for their contributions and their general welcome for the appointment. I join with them in wishing Ms Emily Logan well. Senator O'Meara may be surprised to learn that, while I have met her on occasion, I do not know her either. Senators did not mention that the nature of the appointment process was a first in that, while it was a political appointment in the gift of the Government, rather than treating it as such, it was very carefully bestowed. We set up the procedure, so the Civil Service and Local Appointments Commissioners were not acting in a statutory context but as agents for the Government in undertaking the exercise.
Mr. B. Lenihan: It was my decision. In a sense, it was my appointment too. Of course, I should say that it was the Government's appointment, and it took its own decision although it was guided by what I had to say on the matter. I am delighted that the Seanad has also given a fair wind to this appointment, and I very much welcome the general discussion on children's welfare and rights. It was a very well focused discussion during which many issues were raised. I would like to take up some of those.
Senator Feighan raised the question of the most distressing proceedings in England today and that the gentleman in question – if I might call him that – had ten checks conducted on him, all of which proved negative. This illustrates a very important point about the whole subject of vetting. We are currently having a discussion on vetting in the other House. A very constructive motion has been tabled by Senator Feighan's political interest on that subject. We must always remember, however, that clearance through vetting is not clearance. There is no substitute for checking references.
Mr. B. Lenihan: That is fundamental, and we must state it at all times. We must give a lead on the issue. I am not saying there are no problems with vetting. The central vetting unit clearly has a great deal of work to do and needs to expand its functions. A review group will be reporting on that to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell, in early January. That is a very important issue, and I know there has been legitimate criticism of Government policy in the area. The voluntary groups are very concerned about it. However, vetting is not conclusive and I cannot overemphasise the importance of checking references. Senator Feighan highlighted that point.
One of the functions of the Ombudsman for Children will be to promote the United Nations Convention and the work of that organisation's committee. With regard to dilapidated schools, the Minister for Education and Science has produced a well funded programme in respect of primary and second level schools. If Members consider the document the Minister published this morning, they will see that he has brought a tremendous professionalism to the preparation of the school building programme. That programme has been moved away from the land of the nod and the wink and, in a manner which is characteristic of the Minister, the process of how schools should be improved is now established on an open and transparent basis. The criteria for the assessment of schools are published in detail in the report.
Senator Glynn naturally welcomed the appointment of a nurse to the position of ombudsman. I agree with his sentiments in that regard. The Senator and also Senator Henry and Senator Feeney referred to bullying, which is a key issue. We learned, through the consultation process, that bullying is a key concern of children and is a neglected underside of our social life. I have no doubt that the ombudsman will comment on and take action in respect of this matter.
Senator Glynn also referred to our child welfare protection services. I will deal with that matter in reply to Senator Henry who asked whether we are doing enough in that area. The health board published the children first guidelines some time ago. An amount of money has been spent in publicising these guidelines in the different health board areas and I have been concerned for some time about the lack of awareness of them. This year, in the youth budget, the Government, through the Department of Education and Science, ensured that the various youth organisations should also be funded in respect of the provision of child protection and training therefor. Work in this area is ongoing. It is important that we promote awareness of these matters.
Senator Henry also referred to unaccompanied minors, which is a difficult subject. Senators should understand that, under the refugee legislation, if a child who is unaccompanied and under the age of 18 years presents here, he or she is deemed to be in the care of the health board. However, cases involving these children are not typical of other child care cases. Children normally come into the care of the health boards because they are at risk in some way, perhaps from negligent or abusive parents or through a personal circumstance. However, in cases involving the children to whom Senator Henry referred, the risk is purely that they are unaccompanied minors. Social workers, the bulk of whom are retained by the East Coast Area Health Board, which holds the operational role for the eastern region, must make refugee applications on behalf of unaccompanied minors. The State, as parent, not only cares for these children, it also decides that refugee claims must be made in respect of them.
As a result of measures taken by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, there has been a reduction in the number of these children arriving here. I have had a number of conferences with the health boards and officials from the Department of Health and Children and Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in respect of this matter. My concern is that the priority of social workers operating in this area should be in terms of the reunification of these children with their families. We are, however, constrained by our international legal obligations and we have been obliged to provide accommodation. As Senator Henry pointed out, such accommodation is not intensively supervised. The amount of investment that would be required to provide the full child care model that obtains in respect of, for example, domestic cases would be inordinately prohibitive. The measures taken to reduce numbers have eased matters somewhat. We are of the view that further reductions will take place in the coming months.
Senator Henry also referred to the inspection of institutions. It is important to note that we have established the social services inspectorate, which has produced a number of good reports. One of the concerns I have as a result of reading those reports is that there is still a relatively high number of children in residential care who are under the age of 12. There is no reason these children should not be fostered. One of the matters I continually raise with the chief executives of the health boards is the need to promote fostering and to encourage as many parents as possible to foster children. A family placement is always better than a residential one. It is difficult to obtain a placement for a teenager in a foster care setting—
The social services inspectorate has highlighted the problem with fostering children under the age of 12 and I have raised it with the chief executives of the health boards. Some health boards have been more successful than others in implementing policies of this type. For example, the North Western Health Board does not have a single child in residential care; they are all fostered. That is a model we should pursue. The cost of residential care far exceeds that of foster care and the State provides generous material incentives to foster parents. I am preparing legislation which would give greater legal security to fostering. It is important that we promote fostering at every opportunity. The social services inspectorate is doing a good job and the reports it has published can be perused on its website. I wanted to allay Senator Henry's fears in respect of that matter.
The hearing of family law cases in camera is a wide philosophical issue and is a matter for the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. If we operate the in camera rule in judicial proceedings affecting the welfare of children, those proceedings will be removed from effective scrutiny. When powers are invested in the courts, judges must be independent in the exercise of them. One of the most valuable safeguards of public criticism in a free society is the exposure of judicial proceedings. The application of total secrecy to any branch of judicial proceedings means that they are effectively removed from public criticism. That is a difficulty and it is why the Constitution states that there must be publicity in court proceedings, save in exceptional limited circumstances. In recent decades the break-up of family life or the involvement of child welfare questions in judicial proceedings are no longer exceptional or unusual circumstances. The legal profession and the Judiciary are perhaps not as enthusiastic about proceedings being subjected to publicity and many individuals would be unhappy about their private arrangements being exposed in court. It is, therefore, a difficult issue.
I agree with Senator Henry about adolescent psychiatry. There is some limited, but not enough, provision in this area. However, one of the difficulties with adolescent psychiatry is that of attracting some of the Senator's colleagues in the medical profession to practise in the area. One of our institutions cannot operate at present because we cannot fill a consultant position. While consultant psychiatrists are very interested in the area of child development at the younger age, they are not as attracted to working with difficult teenagers.
Senator O'Rourke, at her most philosophical, referred to the dignity of the appointment and the dignity it will bestow on children. It is important to remember that it is for children that this appointment is being made. Children will be able to go directly to the ombudsman. As Senator Feeney stated, they will not be able complain about their parents because they will be complaining about public bodies or voluntary hospitals, that is, the State.
Senator O'Meara referred to complaints in the context of children in care. The State will be involved in this regard and a recent matter to which several Members referred could result in a complaint to the ombudsman. It is not policy to comment on individual cases but the Minister for Health and Children has sought a report on the matter in question. I would not like Senators to be under the impression that it is necessarily the case that the placement in England resulted from any shortage of provision here. There were wider issues involved, but I do not wish to comment any further.
I wish to place on record, for Senator O'Meara's benefit, that provision was made in last year's Estimates. However, an embargo on recruitment to the public service was in operation at that time. The necessary positions to support the ombudsman had to be identified. That was the constraint on proceeding in the first six months of last year with the appointment. There was a financial constraint, but it was not a cutback. However, it disappeared in July and we have been working on it since. I asked my officials why we could not place the advertisement in the newspaper and was told we could not do so because the children had to be involved in its drafting.
Mr. B. Lenihan: Yes, and we had to explain to them what an ombudsman does and then ask them to design the advertisement. The advertisement was ready in November. I was anxious to make the appointment before Christmas and I am thankful to all parties for facilitating me in this regard. We made it in the nick of time.
I enjoyed the discussion on the general issues and hope I have addressed most of the matters raised. Senator O'Meara made a fair point about the children's strategy. That matter is being monitored by the children's office and we will be benchmarking ourselves on it. She also raised the question of resources and vulnerable children in the care system. There is no doubt but that the health boards have very grave responsibilities in this area.
Senator O'Rourke said we cannot always assume that practices are correct and must evaluate them. That is true. I have always had concerns in this regard. It is good that the social services inspectorate now evaluates practice in institutions. We have to move on from that and look at how we will evaluate practice in terms of social workers. We know, as Members of the Oireachtas, that we cannot interfere in such matters on an individual basis but someone must make a judgment on them. That said, we have to evaluate the quality of such judgments.