Seanad debates

Thursday, 4 February 2010

12:00 pm

Photo of Maria CorriganMaria Corrigan (Fianna Fail)
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I am delighted to have the opportunity to raise this very important issue and thank the Minister of State for coming into the House respond.

In the past few years in excess of 500 children in the care of the HSE have gone missing. The children to whom I refer specifically are non-nationals or unaccompanied minors. In excess of 70 have been located and determined to be safe. However, in excess of 424 remain missing. These children entered the country unaccompanied and arrangements were made to have them placed in the care of the HSE. There is a belief many of them have sought out family members and left the care of the HSE of their own volition without giving notice or an indication that they were doing so. There are concerns that some of them may have been brought into the country for the purposes of exploitation, whether in the labour force or the sex trade. The reality is that this is all conjecture and that the evidence is anecdotal. We do not know what has happened to these 424 children.

I welcome the new national action plan and the agreement put in place between the HSE and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. It should work very well for any new child who goes missing. It is of the utmost importance that Ireland send a very clear message in regard to the 424 children who remain missing that we want to learn of their whereabouts and be assured that they are safe. That is an important message to send in order that Ireland will not be viewed as a soft target for child traffickers.

Given that the children in question are unaccompanied, they do not know anybody in this country. There is no one to go to the Garda Síochána or the HSE to ask what steps have been taken to find Johnny or Mary; there is no one to speak on their behalf. This is something of which I am very conscious. Will the Minister of State undertake as soon as possible a national campaign focused on these 424 children and provide a dedicated telephone line which members of the public with information on their safety and whereabouts could utilise?

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the opportunity to reply to this Adjournment matter. I believe the Senator is referring to the number of children entering the State who go missing immediately or from the care of the HSE. It is obviously a matter of great concern that unaccompanied minors or separated children go missing after they enter the State. However, separated children going missing from care is not a phenomenon unique to Ireland.

The HSE has developed a strong working relationship with the Garda National Immigration Bureau, GNIB, in regard to missing children. The issue of separated children who go missing from care is complex and at times its treatment has been over-simplified. There has been a tendency to equate all missing children with trafficking which, I hasten to add, is not what the Senator has done. There may also be an issue of over-reporting. Some of the missing individuals are initially recorded as children on the basis of their referral to the out-of-hours social work service. However, the HSE advises that there is evidence to indicate that some of these individuals may be adults who disappeared before a comprehensive age assessment process could be undertaken by it.

It has been acknowledged by the operational social work service and also by other relevant statutory agencies that there are several factors that may contribute to the disappearance of a child from care. These include the following: the child's appeal for asylum has been refused and he or she is nearing 18 years and reacting to the pending threat of deportation; the person has been smuggled into the country to join the workforce on a consensual basis and is availing of the child protection service as a fast-track route into the State; or the child has been trafficked into the State by traffickers using the child protection service as an easy route.

The level of inter-agency co-operation between the HSE and the GNIB has been consistently high and was intensified in the face of the increase in the number of missing children who presented in late 2008 and early 2009. A joint national protocol on children who go missing from care has been agreed between the Garda and the HSE. Intensive meetings took place last year between HSE management, the GNIB and local gardaí to adapt the protocol in terms of its application to separated children who go missing. The following measures were agreed: collaborative interviewing at ports between social workers and gardaí; fingerprinting of persons presenting as under age at ports for tracking purposes; planned Garda surveillance of those at risk of going missing from the point of presentation at ports to the initial placement period in hostels; monitoring of the notification system of missing persons to local gardaí to be closely monitored by Garda inspectors; joint training of HSE staff and gardaí-GNIB staff in regard to children at high risk of going missing; and the sharing of photographic evidence between HSE and the Garda. These measures were implemented and existing processes improved throughout the first half of 2009. Links between local Garda stations in whose areas hostels were located and HSE-hostel staff were also strengthened. The GNIB mounted several surveillance operations with the collaboration of HSE staff and successfully tracked some children who went missing.

Of the 47 children who went missing from care in 2009, nine were successfully traced. The Garda is currently investigating adults involved with some of these cases. There was a decline in the number of children presenting and remaining missing in the last quarter of 2009. This is the result of intensive inter-agency efforts throughout that year. No children were reported missing in October-November, while one was reported missing in December and subsequently traced.

My office, HSE management and staff have been closely involved, in collaboration with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, in the development of the national action plan on anti-human trafficking. I am committed to ensuring we play an active part in combating trafficking as outlined in the plan.

The implementation plan for the 2009 report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse contains a commitment that separated children will be accommodated in mainstream care, instead of hostels by December 2010. This move from hostel accommodation to residential and foster care should help to ensure fewer children will go missing. The HSE has begun the process of phasing out the hostel arrangements. Three hostels have been closed, while the remaining four will close this year.

I am satisfied that the efforts made by the HSE and the GNIB to address concerns regarding unaccompanied minors have proved effective. Both agencies are committed to intensifying their joint work in this area with a view to preventing children from going missing and locating those who do. I am encouraged that the Garda has made unaccompanied minors a policy priority for 2010. I advise anyone with information on missing children to contact the Garda missing persons bureau or his or her local Garda station.

Photo of Maria CorriganMaria Corrigan (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the response of the Minister of State. In my opening comments I welcomed all the advances and the new steps which had been taken. However, I am still concerned that we still do not know for sure what has happened to each of the 424 children concerned. As long as even one child is missing, we need to satisfy ourselves that he or she is safe. I take the Minister of State's point that anybody with information should contact the Garda missing persons bureau. Perhaps there is a dedicated telephone number and publicising it may benefit everybody, as there are others who go missing.

The children in question are unaccompanied and do not have a specific advocate who is independent of the service to follow up on their behalf. I ask the Minister of State to give consideration to giving the Ombudsman for Children specific responsibility to advocate on behalf of missing children, with the names of children who go missing being notified to it. That office could then have responsibility for advocating, on a regular and consistent basis, with the HSE and the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to track investigations to find missing children.

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I again emphasis that this is a very serious issue and of major concern to me. It is caught up with other issues such as illegal immigration. Conflating it exclusively with trafficking is something we should not do. I agree a telephone number should be made more widely available, a point the Senator made in her opening comments.

In terms of advocacy, I have met representative groups such as the ISPCC, the Children's Rights Alliance and Barnardos which are advocating on behalf of this group. We have set up a working group to try to monitor the closure of the hostels to which I referred. I understand the Senator is referring to a statutory advocacy role for the Office of the Ombudsman for Children which was set up under statute and has specific functions. Therefore, expanding its role would require legislation but I am sure it would not hesitate to support the other groups to which I referred which are represented on the working group. It is a worry. In spite of the initiatives we have taken, there was a spike in the numbers in 2009. There are serious issues which have to be addressed and I hope the initiatives taken will bear fruit in due course.