Seanad debates

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Child Care Inquiry Report: Statements

 

2:00 pm

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews.

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children and Young People, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I share with the HSE a deep regret about the circumstances described in yesterday's report and acknowledge the bravery of the children of the family concerned who so bravely presented themselves to the inquiry and Mr. Justice John McMenamin. I also commend Ms Norah Gibbons for an extraordinary report which was published in a timely fashion.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children and Young People, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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It restores some of the faith people might have lost in the manner in which we are capable as a country of accounting for ourselves when we fail to reach minimum standards.

In opening this debate on the report on the child care inquiry published yesterday I am mindful of the judgment of Mr. Justice McMenamin in granting the permissive order paving the way for publication. Having consulted all of the children, he carefully weighed the further hurt for the children that would accompany publication with the public good and the hope publication might prevent tragedies of this nature recurring. On balance, he ruled in favour of publication, but he gave clear guidance on how matters should be reported. I am in no doubt that Senators will share my concern for the children and seek to avoid causing further hurt in this debate. I note, in particular, Mr. Justice McMenamin's comments that the children should not be asked to relive the experience. In his words, "the children want it understood that they are normal young people."

In the first instance, the children were failed by their parents, their primary care givers, and subsequently by State services when signs which pointed to the need to remove them from obvious risk were ignored. It is a damning indictment that a proper decision on the appropriate care for them was not taken until one of them actually asked to be taken into State care. A child knew that the lack of care, or, more correctly, neglect, was abnormal, yet trained professionals did not identify the warning signs. Yesterday the HSE gave an unreserved apology for its failure to protect the children. I apologise to each of the six for the fact that the State did not intervene in time to remove them from such horrendous circumstances. The immediate concern is for their welfare. It is imperative that all measures be taken to preserve their anonymity and allow them to get on with their lives. I ask all involved in the matter to accept their responsibilities in this regard and not to add further to the children's hardship.

The report on the matter up to 2006 highlights the tragic consequences of what happens when children are failed by people in authority. The children's voices were not heard at a time when their needs were significant. It is imperative that the lessons around encompassing children's voices in child protection policy are learned. I took receipt of the report yesterday afternoon and it will be the subject of close study and assessment. However, my initial reaction is that the failures identified cannot be attributed to a lack of resources or legislative or constitutional gaps. The report has found that important child protection concerns were not identified and acted upon, notwithstanding the involvement of a range of professionals.

The report raises many questions, not least of which is why concerns of ongoing neglect did not lead to decisive action at an earlier stage. The report has found that, with one exception, the children's needs were not subject to a formal assessment, staff were not sufficiently alert to indicators of ongoing neglect and reports of neglect to the HSE did not trigger an appropriate response. It has found that the statements of the parents were accepted at face value when evidence to the contrary was evident. I am particularly concerned that the views of the children were not listened to. In the main, the inquiry has found that the deficits were in the area of social work practice. I note also the report's findings on the failure of social work management to manage the legal aspects of the case during a crucial period. The report indicates that, despite the good intentions of staff, appropriate and necessary actions were not taken at key points, which is a matter of deep concern. At this point, I acknowledge the work done by social workers who work in difficult and emotionally challenging circumstances and, unlike other health professionals, their intervention is often resisted. As everyone knows, it is not an exact science.

Recent studies in the United Kingdom have examined why previous reforms in the context of social services did not delivere expected improvements in the context of social work. They have found that social workers needed to improve their use of professional judgment, while bearing in mind that there was no guarantee of certainty where parents deliberately misled professionals involved in assessment. However, it is important that the development of social work skills and capacity through improvements in training is ongoing and I note the report makes many recommendations around a variety of measures aimed at improving social work capacity and staff retention, including recommendations on training, management and professional development.

The report highlights that changes need to be made in the way we do our business. Reform of our child protection services is necessary to ensure, in as far as possible, the likelihood of such events occurring is reduced.

Regarding child protection, a number of specific steps are being taken in the context of the Ryan implementation plan. Although the recommendations made in the report are of a more detailed nature than those made in the Ryan report, there are a number of shared recommendations which are being addressed. These include recommendations on the education, training, induction and supervision of social work staff, provision of management and supervision training for managers and implementation of Children First.

The Ryan implementation plan spans a four-year timeframe and is deliberately ambitious in what it sets out to achieve. In setting clearly identified actions with ambitious timescales we are challenging ourselves to improve standards and reform services. That we are doing this in a time of extreme economic difficulty only serves to highlight the commitment of the Government to improving services for children in the care of the State. The allocation of an additional €15 million in the current year further reflects the Government's commitment in this regard.

Successive public debates on child protection have indicated that our policy and legislative framework is sound but that implementation and service delivery must be overhauled. What the Ryan implementation plan sets out to address is the reality that, despite this strong legislative and policy base, service delivery for children in need and at risk is not sufficiently co-ordinated, is unevenly distributed nationally and must be improved. In addition, social workers need to be aware of the impact and long lasting effects of chronic neglect and act accordingly.

One of the principal commitments in the Ryan implementation plan is the need to ensure all children are safe and that those in care have an allocated social worker and a care plan. This will contribute to ensuring children's voices are heard. To this end, the Government has committed to filling 270 HSE social worker posts by the end of next year and to the front-loading of this initiative in 2010 with the filling of 200 posts. This initiative is designed to target resources at front line services in order to ensure the HSE fulfils its statutory obligations. The Oireachtas has voted that the necessary finance be provided. the filling of social work posts has been exempted from the public service moratorium on recruitment and replacement of staff and there is an explicit commitment in the HSE service plan for this year, as laid before the Oireachtas, that these posts will be filled. I met with senior HSE representatives today to review the progress being made in this regard and they reassured me the 200 posts will be filled by the end of December. The HSE has also informed me that where any of these child protection posts were filled from other areas of the HSE, these vacancies are also being back-filled. The recruitment of these additional social workers is critical in terms of progressing the implementation plan, ensuring the allocation of a named social worker to each child in care and the availability of care plans for all of these children. I have been assured by the HSE that the matter is being afforded the highest priority.

Much more needs to be done to build a strong and responsive service for children and families. It is my view that a fresh approach is required within the HSE to deliver the change we all wish to see. In the course of my ongoing discussions with the HSE, I raised the need for the appointment of an individual at a national management level who has a proven track record in the reform of children and family services. The process of recruiting this person is nearing completion and I hope an announcement will be made in the very near future. The creation of this new position is a logical development and very much consistent with the emphasis on strengthening management so children and family services get priority within the HSE. The appointment is being accompanied by the restructuring of the service at national, regional and local level in order to strengthen front line delivery of services. Managers need to know what is going on locally and regionally in order to ensure that a good quality of children's services is applied consistently across the country.

The HSE has also developed standardised business processes in order that children regardless of geographical location receive a good quality of service. This and the national child care information system, a national ICT system which will provide a basis for collecting and reporting on the delivery of front line services, will strengthen accountability within the HSE.

Another key priority for me as Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs was the commitment to publish a revised Children First guidelines. The original guidelines, first published in 1999, were revised and placed on the departmental website in December 2009, in line with the commitment in the Ryan implementation plan. A number of amendments have been made in the interim to take on board, for example, recommendations from the Ombudsman for Children and the recent guidance provided by HIQA to the HSE with regard to the deaths of children in care and serious adverse incidents. Arrangements for the printing and dissemination of the guidelines are being finalised. In addition, legislation is to be drafted to provide a duty to comply with Children First for all bodies in receipt of State funding.

I will bring proposals to Government before the end of this year setting out a comprehensive implementation framework, including a particular emphasis on strengthening the audit and inspection framework. This is to ensure the guidelines are implemented more effectively and correctly across all sectors working with children.

Yesterday, I stated publicly I remain fully committed to the holding of a children's referendum. I noted that in the discussions Mr. Justice McMenamin had with the children involved in this case they, too, were determined there should be a referendum on children's rights. That should redouble everybody's resolve in this regard, namely, to put children at the centre of our Constitution which would contain a stand-alone and explicit expression of children's rights. However, we in this House must be honest when we speak to the public. To suggest that if a referendum had been passed, the children at the centre of this inquiry would have been saved from the trauma and horror inflicted at the hands of their parents is incorrect. There were sufficient powers conferred on social workers under the Child Care Act 1991 to take children into the care of the State when risks were identified and there was evidence of parental failure. There was no legislative gap. The problem, according to the report, was that the health board failed to pursue and effect a care order. It should also be noted that when the health board pursued care orders in the correct manner in 2004 there was no legal or constitutional impediment to taking them into care.

The Oireachtas special rapporteur on child protection, Mr. Geoffrey Shannon, made this very point earlier today on "Morning Ireland". He said very clearly that although he had campaigned for a children's referendum for the past ten years he could not argue that the Constitution prevented or hampered these children from being taken into State care. His words were:

All of the legislation was there and I heard yesterday people making reference to the fact: if we had a constitutional referendum, this case would have been decided differently. I respectfully disagree. The Child Care Act of 1991 allows for an application for what is called a supervision order.

The Ombudsman for Children made the very same point when interviewed on "The News At One" today. She stated that although we should aspire to constitutional change no constitution could prevent children from being abused.

There are 5,836 children in care today. Care orders were applied for and sought in respect of many of these children. My point is that the Child Care Act is employed weekly in the District Courts as the statutory tool by which to take children into care. I have conducted roughly a dozen town hall meetings around the country with social workers during the course of the last 12 months. I routinely ask them whether the Constitution limits them in making care order applications. Their response is that it does not.

Senators will be anxious to hear the exact status of the current proposal on the children's rights referendum. I presented a copy of the third and final report of the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children to Cabinet in early March. The Cabinet decided that, in view of the complex nature of the issues involved, all Ministers and Departments, as well as the Attorney General, should consider the report and examine the implications of the proposed wording for their individual areas of responsibility. I know some Senators have voiced alarm that the Cabinet would ask each Department to examine the proposed wording. However, to do otherwise would be irresponsible in the extreme. We cannot introduce far-reaching changes to the Constitution without asking senior civil servants the likely consequences for Departments and what likely costs might arise. This is part of a due diligence exercise that must be gone through by a Government regardless of shape or colour.

I listened to Ms Gemma Hussey speak a couple of Sundays ago about the terrible problems caused by the wording contained in the 1983 referendum. The language was too vague and it took four subsequent referendums to try to clarify the situation. We cannot repeat those mistakes. A range of unintended policy and resource implications were identified and, in view of these difficulties, I presented to Government the policy objectives for the referendum and was granted Government approval to develop revised wording for an amendment, in co-operation with the Office of the Attorney General. New wording, which takes into account the proposals put forward with carefully constructed consensus by the committee, is being drafted by the Attorney General's Office with policy support provided by the my office. I intend to bring a memorandum to Cabinet very shortly that will contain wording which, while differing from the committee's proposal, seeks to maintain the full range of policy goals as set out by the committee. The matter is receiving my full attention. In addition to Cabinet discussions I have had meetings with the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Attorney General and the Minister for Justice and Law Reform with a view to moving the proposal forward.

I wish to thank the inquiry team, in particular, the chair, Ms Norah Gibbons, for the tremendous work in producing a report of this nature. This report is a template for future work in ensuring transparency in children's services.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Andrews. When we first read details of the litany of abuse these children were subjected to we had a terrible sense of déjÀ vu. This is another in a long line of reports that outline the plight of utterly defenceless children who felt helpless, that there was nobody they could turn to, that they were unable to seek the support of the State or rely on it for their protection. As the Minister of State did, I wish to commend the courage of these children, not only in standing up for one another as siblings but in having the courage to allow for the publication of this report. Mr. Justice McMenamin stated that he very carefully weighed in the balance the further hurt for the children that would accompany publication against the public good and the hope that publication might prevent tragedies of this nature occurring in the future. I genuinely hope the hurt that has been caused to these children by their parents and the hurt the publication inevitably will visit upon them does not go in vain. All of us need to sit back for a moment and consider the value system we have as a State and what underpins everything the Government does to protect our children and our vulnerable people.

Every healthily functioning and meaningful democracy requires an underlying ethos. Mr. Geoffrey Shannon pointed out that even had there been a children's referendum with a resulting amendment in place in our Constitution the children involved would not have been afforded any extra protection. I agree with him. We need a philosophy. The philosophy of a democracy is always contained within its constitution. Such a philosophy would guide us in making decisions that affect the lives of citizens.

It is now almost a year since publication of the proposed new article in the Constitution by the Joint Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children and I am glad to hear the Minister of State is actively moving on the issue of holding a referendum. If we are to have a value system that will underpin everything society does, this article needs to be included in the Constitution.

Ireland has proved that it is well capable of moving swiftly and decisively when emergency legislation is required. In September 2008 we sat into the early hours of the morning to enact legislation to guarantee bank deposits, yet to date we seemingly have proved incapable of affording the same priority to the protection of children. The Children First guidelines referred to by the Minister of State were published 11 years ago and have yet to be placed on a statutory footing. The number of social workers in Ireland is currently one for every 1,800 persons, while in Northern Ireland it is one for every 660. Again, I welcome the Minister of State's commitment to address this shortcoming. I hope that when there is momentum and the first of the new recruits are in place, we will continue to try to recitfy the imbalance in social worker provision between this jurisdiction and Northern Ireland.

The Minister of State has said the Roscommon report raises many questions, not least of which is why concerns about ongoing neglect did not lead to decisive action at an earlier stage. He has also said he is particularly concerned that the views of the children were not listened to, a recurring theme in the report. The children themselves asked why no one had listened to them.

I always find it disheartening to read the reports from the ISPCC each year on the level of activity in its Childline service. Last year 800,000 telephone calls were made to the service, probably by children in similar circumstances. Of the 800,000 calls, 300,000 went unanswered. That is an appalling indictment of us as a society. The ISPCC states it is working towards ensuring all calls will be answered within the next two years. It will cost in the region of €1.5 million to €2 million to put such a service in place. That is not the cost of recruiting people but rather of training the volunteers who will man the system and provide the infrastructure for the ISPCC to enable it to answer that number of calls. As a gesture by the State to the children of Ireland, I ask the Minister of State to ensure we play our part in fast-tracking that process in order that we will not have to wait two years before every call to Childline is answered. With minimal investment by the State, combined with the efforts made by the ISPCC, the system could be in place early next year. As a symbolic act, to convince children in desperate circumstances that when they ring Childline, they should be assured there will be somebody on the other end of the line to whom they will be able to talk. I ask the Minister of State to address this shortcoming.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Minister of State for his apology, on behalf of the State, that it did not intervene in time to remove the children concerned from such horrendous circumstances. It was so perverse that it was like Nazi Germany's treatment of human beings. In the first instance, the children were failed by their perverted parents and then by incompetent State services when signs that pointed to a need to remove them from obvious risk were ignored. It is a damning indictment that a proper decision on appropriate care was not taken until one of the children actually asked to be taken into care. A child knew that the lack of care, or, more correctly, neglect, was abnormal, yet trained professionals did not identify the warning signs.

Yesterday the HSE gave an unreserved apology for its failure to protect the children, but, with all due respect to the Minister of State, people will have to be held to account for what they did. Judgment must be passed on their incompetence.

The findings of the Roscommon child care inquiry report detail how once again the State and its legal system spectacularly failed to protect our children. The report clearly shows that the parents of the children successfully blocked the State in intervening to protect them by citing their constitutional rights as a marital family. The Constitution does not grant individual rights to children within marital families. Critically, the parents' right to be heard was not matched by an equal right to give consideration to the wishes and needs of the children. The inquiry team highlights the fact that the voice of the children was virtually silent, both in the court proceedings and the HSE conference notes. This highlights once again the need for constitutional change to give children in vulnerable circumstances a voice.

The report focuses on the role of the HSE which, without doubt, failed in its duty of care to protect the children. The report also highlights the concerns raised consistently by relatives and neighbours to draw attention to the plight of the children. This is hard to credit, given all of the reports we have received in recent years on the exposure of the treatment of children by the State and its servants. I cannot understand how the professionals who dealt with the children were so incompetent as not to be able to open their mouths and protect them. It is clear that there must be constitutional reform as a matter of urgency to ensure children are protected. Hundreds of children are living with unapproved carers, a matter I have raised before. It is spine chilling. Social workers are unable to respond to the thousands of cases of suspected abuse and neglect. More than 100 young people in care or who were in contact with social services died from neglect or a drug overdose; we do not even know whether they were murdered.

Childline receives 2,000 calls a day from children, but only 62% of calls are answered owing to a lack of resources. The backlog of applications for Garda vetting has reached crisis point. Around 60,000 applications are being processed by the Garda central vetting unit, with a turnover time of between ten and 12 weeks. According to the Children's Rights Alliance which represents about 90 voluntary organisations dealing with children, we are reaching crisis point.

I cite the most important words of Mr. Justice John McMenamin that the children should not be asked to relive the experience. In his words, the children want it to be understood they are normal young people and should not have to bear a further burden as regards the way they have been treated by their parents and the State services.

Photo of David NorrisDavid Norris (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State. Members on all sides have called for a debate such as this, but it was unusual to receive such a rapid and practical response. I am very grateful to the Government for providing us with this opportunity.

Each of us shares a natural revulsion at the abuse of children, whether it is physical, emotional or sexual. In this case, all three were combined. It is extraordinary that so many of the children were abused, and that the oldest son in particular was routinely sexually molested by his mother. That is a deeply tragic and worrying circumstance. I understand that because so many Members want to contribute there may not be an opportunity for questions. Therefore, I will front-load some of my questions. One of the most disastrous elements of this case is that an attempt was made by the social services to intervene, but it was frustrated by a legal action taken by the parents with the encouragement of a group that has been described as right wing, reactionary, Catholic and pro family. I would challenge that. I do not believe the decent Catholic citizens of Ireland wanted this and do not regard this group as pro family. Can the Minister confirm this happened and the exact circumstances? Who are the people or organisation in question and what exactly did they do? Can this be prevented in future? I believe that there is a vicious, small group of people who intervene in these cases to protect what they see as the notional identity of the family and the rights of parents and who assert these disastrously against the interests of children. I and every other Member of this House believe that in these matters the rights of the child should be made paramount.

This morning, the Minister of State relied heavily on Mr. Geoffrey Shannon. I concur with Mr. Shannon, who was perfectly clear and who is one of those who has campaigned for a referendum on the rights of children. That referendum should be held. There has been all-party agreement in committee that it should be held. It should not be further delayed. However, this case is not germane to the referendum and should not be clouded with these extraneous issues. When the Minister of State said there is no legislative gap, he went a step too far. The preface of the report states that because there is no reference whatever in the Guardianship of Infants Act 1964 to the emotional welfare of children in the definition in section 2, that Act should be amended and such a definition should be included. Ms Norah Gibbons says an amendment such as this would help to strengthen the recognition of the importance of a positive emotional environment for the healthy development of children and strengthen the ability of the statutory services to seek the protection of children suffering emotional abuse. Is the Government contemplating an urgent examination of the possibility of introducing such an amendment?

The Minister of State said in his speech that some people have expressed concern that the Cabinet has referred the question of the referendum to all departmental heads and responsible Ministers. He says this is being done because we cannot introduce far-reaching changes into the Constitution without asking senior civil servants what are the likely consequences. That is fair enough, but will he put a timeframe on this process? When can we expect the process to be completed, because there is an awful aura of procrastination about? I recognise that we are in the midst of a major financial crisis and that much of the expertise in all Departments is focused on that, which could cause a delay. Therefore, will the Minister of State give us a time line, something to aim for which can be reviewed if not met?

The report raises a number of serious matters. There is provision for the seeking of supervision orders from the courts, but this was not done. What was the reason given for this? The recommendations are clear. The authorities should not anticipate failure when making a decision on such matters. The report found that another devastating factor was the virtual absence of any detailed description of the accounts of the children. Nothing happened until that heroic young man reported the situation. I do not know how he found the courage or how he was able to look after his siblings and take on the role of a parent when just a child. I remind the House that we are bound by the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Minister of State has been able to announce additional funding of €15 million in this area and that is very welcome in these difficult times. He has also announced the appointment of a national director for child and family services. However, I point him also towards the recommendations in the report to the effect that this should be supported by a clinical team of professionally qualified and experienced social workers and other suitably qualified staff to drive and support practice in child welfare. There should also be a test carried out within the HSE for compliance with the conventions and the HSE should be proofed as a matter of course against them.

The Minister of State referred in his opening paragraphs to the right to privacy of a child. The children in question must rebuild their shattered lives and must not be intruded upon. There is a grey area in this regard between the necessary giving of a victim impact statement and possible intrusion. We also need a national policy of audit and review of the neglect cases in this area. Finally, this matter was muddied by ignorant and malign busybodies with a political agenda. They supported the very devious parents and used the law to do so. The recommendation must be taken seriously that third parties who express concern should be interviewed. The rights and views of the parents should be taken into account, but they should be tested against all further external evidence available. I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for his indulgence.

Photo of Niall Ó BrolcháinNiall Ó Brolcháin (Green Party)
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I welcome the Minister of State to debate this difficult issue. This is an important debate which should not be overshadowed by any of the other issues going on currently. I welcome the report and would like to read part of the first paragraph of the conclusion:

The Inquiry team concludes that the six children of the A family were neglected and emotionally abused by their parents until their removal from the home in 2003 and 2004. Some of the children have spoken of severe physical abuse by their parents. Some of the children were also sexually abused. There is no evidence that either parent understood or sought to consistently meet their children's needs.

This is always an extremely difficult issue to discuss. I accept the point made by the Minister of State that we do not want to discuss the particular issues of this case rather than look at the overall picture. I respect the anonymity of the family in question and their wishes in that regard.

A number of policy changes were recommended in the report, but the key one for me is the one referred to by Senator Norris. The report recommends that the HSE ensures that all appropriate policies and procedures are compliant with the requirements of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and for children to be heard in all matters that concern them. That is the key point. The Minister of State said the proposed referendum on children's rights would not have materially affected this particular case. I accept that. However, an issue that consistently arises in all child protection matters is that the rights of the child to be heard are not covered in legislation or by our Constitution to the extent many people feel they should be. We need to enhance the Constitution to get the balance right. Currently, the views of parents and of the family overall are given primacy.

I accept that no matter what legislation we provide, there will always be some level of child abuse in society and it will not always be possible to sort everything out through legislation. I accept the report's conclusion on the dereliction of duty and the fact that local people did not do their job properly. I welcome that the Minister of State has apologised on behalf of us all to the family in question for what occurred.

It is always said in this type of debate that we must ensure this can never happen again, which I do not believe is 100% possible. Nevertheless, we must do the maximum possible to ensure we prevent what happened in this case from recurring. Having read the report and listened to what the Minister of State had to say, I believe there should have been earlier intervention in this case. There are things that should have been done that were not done. I know the Minister of State will try to ensure this matter is rectified. It is obvious structural changes will need to made in this area. We need to learn the lessons from this case and to tighten up procedures.

The first recommendation of the report deals with organisational change and states that the post of national director for child and family services should be supported by a clinical team, professionally qualified and experienced social workers and other suitably qualified staff to drive and support practice in child welfare and protection services and ensure national standards are set, monitored and delivered. The key word in this regard is "delivered". It was the fact the staff did not act as they should have, rather than a lack of staff, that was the problem in this instance.

Victim impact statements are important. Guidelines regarding the preparation and presentation of victim impact statements and the rights to privacy of children in care should be issued to HSE staff. We need in this particular case to be as unemotional as is possible and to respect the right to privacy. I do not believe a debate which is emotional and over the top is good. The family, rather than the State, is the best care giver for children. It has been suggested that we should return to the type of intervention we had in the 1940s and 1950s and consider taking children into State care. We all know what happened in that situation. We must get the balance right, which is not what happened in this particular case or in respect of the institutional care provided in the past. It is difficult to get the balance right.

The Minister of State said that the answer to this particular case is not the holding of the children's rights referendum. I accept Senator Cannon's point that we need to set a date for the holding of that referendum because its context is something the people of this country believe to be important. We need to set a date for the holding of the referendum before Christmas. I do not mean that we can reasonably hold the referendum before Christmas but that we need to set a date before Christmas for the holding of the referendum. People are losing patience in relation to this referendum and it is time we got on with it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children and Young People, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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It was an ex parte application-----

Photo of Alex WhiteAlex White (Labour)
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It was an ex parte application-----

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children and Young People, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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-----but it was not resisted.

Photo of Alex WhiteAlex White (Labour)
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It would appear from my reading of the report that that ought to have been opposed. They should have come back to court.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I ask the Senator to conclude.

Photo of Alex WhiteAlex White (Labour)
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I will finish on this because it is an important issue. That order should not have been allowed stand. It should have been contested.

We can rail all we want about right wing groups, small groups and so on. I find those groups getting involved equally annoying but we do have free access to the courts. I do not suppose anybody is advocating that we prevent access to the courts and sometimes these bodies, be they big or small, weird or otherwise, will assist people to go to court.

The test for us as a society, for the Health Service Executive and all of us is that we recognise when these kinds of applications ought to be contested and not try to stop people bringing them. Lawyers are often asked if somebody can go to court. Plenty of people can go to court. The question is whether they can succeed if it is contested. That is what should have happened.

Photo of Maria CorriganMaria Corrigan (Fianna Fail)
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I join colleagues in welcoming the Minister of State. The speedy way in which he made himself available to the Seanad and the amendment to the Order of Business this morning to accommodate this debate sends a powerful message.

Like the Minister and other colleagues, I have not had the opportunity to read the report in-depth but I have read parts of it and, to put it bluntly, the report is devastating. It is devastating to read about what was endured by children and the efforts at intervention throughout the years, to be aware of the State's knowledge and that of agents of the State and the efforts that were being made by relatives to try to protect these children.

I accept fully the point made regarding the children that there is no desire to cause further hurt to them or retraumatise them in any way. I will try to be conscious of that in what I say but throughout every sentence of the report I managed to read one aspect stood out. This report will shake child protection services throughout the country to the core because the one thing that came to my mind is whether the State has knowledge of other children in similar circumstances with whom it is trying to intervene. The Minister might clarify that.

There is talk of a national audit of vulnerable children. We need to do two things. First, we need to make sure that any child we have knowledge of is as safe as we can make him or her at the moment. Second, we must ensure that procedures and mechanisms are put in place because we cannot prevent abuse. We can try education, awareness and improving parenting skills but, as the Ombudsman for Children said at lunch time today, there is nothing, not even constitutional change, that will prevent abuse of children taking place. We must make sure, therefore, that we have some measure in place whereby if children are abused we will become aware of it as quickly as possible and act to ensure the safety of those children as quickly as possible.

I am conscious that we are talking about children but the Minister of State will be well aware that I have major concerns for the vulnerable adults in our society who may be victims of abuse. Can we please keep them in mind in terms of any step we take to shore up safety in that area? I welcome that the new sub-committee for the protection of children was established and held its first meeting last week.

We must take the opportunity to dissect this report in detail. Because of what we have been asked to do in regard to the children involved I ask that the report go before the new sub-committee on the protection of children. I am disappointed it is not a committee on the protection of children and vulnerable adults, but I ask that this report go before the new sub-committee, if necessary in private session, and that the HSE come before the sub-committee to discuss the way in which it will apply the lesson to be learned from this report, and we must learn from it. The report is clear, strong and to the point. It does not pull any punches and therefore there is a great deal to be learned from it.

Something that comes across strongly in the report is that there seemed to be concern at all stages about the threshold for intervention and that if the HSE went to court it would not succeed in getting a care order. That uncertainty exists everywhere and some of it has its origins in the fact we do not keep records and make available the applications to court for child care orders. It was one of the recommendations of the all-party committee on the proposed referendum on the rights of the child that we would set up something that would not compromise the anonymity of the children for whom the care orders were being sought but we need to know about the circumstances in which those care orders are being applied for and the circumstances in which they are granted. We must have evidence. We cannot always come back to either anecdotal evidence or to those cases that make it to the High Court. I ask the Minister of State to consider that.

I welcome the commitment the Minister has given today regarding the referendum on the rights of the child. I understand the point he is making. He wants to make sure the wording is as robust as possible. I believe the concern is that we would have a timeframe on that and that it would not go on indefinitely. None of us wants a wording that is not fit for purpose.

There is a glimmer of hope in the report in the fact that relatives consistently tried to seek intervention. Often there can be cases of abuse where nobody ever comes forward. In this instance relatives were coming forward, and there is a glimmer of hope in that for us all.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Fine Gael)
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I call the Minister of State to respond.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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On a point of order, it was suggested this morning that there might be a roll-over of this debate. I appreciate the Minister coming into the House at short notice but there is a number of other Senators who wish to contribute to this very important debate.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Fine Gael)
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I have no option but to dictate that we conclude at 4 p.m. There was no amendment to the Order of Business on that this morning.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I ask that the Leader may consider rolling over this debate.

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Fine Gael)
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Unfortunately, our hands our tied. There is no option but to call on the Minister of State to respond. We must conclude by 4 p.m.

4:00 pm

Photo of Barry AndrewsBarry Andrews (Minister of State with special responsibility for Children and Young People, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Seanad for allowing me the opportunity to have this discussion with Members with such speed after the publication of the report yesterday.

Senator Cannon referred to the constant negativity in this area, and Senator Corrigan summed up the reason for that constant negativity. She said there are no positives possible to put in the public domain to weigh against all those negatives because under the child care legislation we cannot report the good things that happen, and it is an invasion of privacy to have put any of this information in the public domain.

We have 5,800 children in care. The vast majority of them are being cared for in a loving family by foster carers, in residential care or elsewhere. Very good interventions are being provided to them but the general public does not know anything about that because of clear and well-grounded reporting restrictions in the child care legislation.

As Senator Corrigan said, one of the recommendations of the committee of which Deputy Mary O'Rourke was the chairman was to put a reporting structure similar to the one Carol Coulter carried out for the Courts Service in regard to child care District Court order applications, and that is work we are undertaking. I want to congratulate her also on her initiative regarding the sub-committee set up to deal with children specifically. That is long overdue, and I look forward to co-operating with that sub-committee in the future.

An issue raised by Senator Mary White was that of accountability. The report refers to the good intentions of the people who were dealing with this family over the many years, and the many interventions.

It states resources were not an issue. In fact, too many resources were probably being used in dealing with the family, but the issues were never dealt with in a coherent way, although they represented a clear warning to the system that something was fundamentally wrong.

One of the aspects of the report that jumped out at me was the description of a believing management - those involved believed what was being represented to them. It struck me as being similar to the Monageer case, in which social workers dealing with the family concerned saw children sitting on their parents' knees and a general image of family solidarity. The same impression was given by the family in the case under discussion. The fundamental horror of the children's treatment was not seen by professionals whose duty it was to unpick the tapestry presented to them by people who were very manipulative.

Senator Alex White talked about the High Court injunction sought to prevent an informal arrangement that had been proposed to the family. As the injunction was ex parte, it was open to the health board to go back to court to vacate the order in the normal way and seek to enforce its duties under the Child Care Act 1991. It is clear, from this perspective, that there was no impediment in law or the Constitution to doing this and the children were eventually taken into care. There are 5,800 children in care, many of them on foot of court orders. We talk about the threshold for intervention, but it is clear that there is no major impediment to taking children into care under the Constitution.

The report underlines that what was profoundly lacking was good practice - knowledge of the law and the powers available, as well as the ability to piece together the jigsaw and use professional judgment. We are rightly concerned about processes and figures: how many children have an allocated social worker and how many have care plans? However, they are the inputs; the outputs are different. What is the quality of the relationship between a child and his or her social worker? Is there continuity of care? For how long has the social worker been dealing with the child and how is she or he getting on? Do social workers have the power to exercise professional judgment and is the risk involved shared with management? Is it properly supervised? These are the real issues raised. Sadly, they have been raised a couple of times before and will be raised again. We cannot eliminate risk; we can only minimise it.

I remind people that they must weigh the negatives against the positives. This is a very different country from what it was 15 years ago in terms of the interventions and therapies available. Through early intervention and provision for a free pre-school year, we are identifying delays in development and language acquisition and intervening to divert children away from the criminal justice system better than ever before. However, much of this work does not get into the public domain which prevents people from being more positive about the good things that are happening.

I would like to talk about this more, but we are pressed for time. I reaffirm my determination to hold a referendum, even though this is a slightly different issue from the one under discussion. The children in this case have made it clear that they want this to be done. It is encouraging for them that we are having this discussion. We recognise that they are utterly blameless and acknowledge their courage. We wish them happy and long lives, in spite of all the bad things that have happened to them. If there is a need for the report to be discussed further at a committee, whether privately or otherwise, I will be happy to co-operate.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Maria CorriganMaria Corrigan (Fianna Fail)
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At 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 2 November 2010.