Seanad debates

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Child and Family Agency Bill 2013: Second Stage

 

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

12:00 pm

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am pleased to bring the Child and Family Agency Bill 2013 before the House and look forward to engaging with Senators in a constructive debate as it proceeds through the various Stages. Last week we completed Report Stage in the Dáil where the Bill was the subject of some intense and lively debate. In the course of the various Stages in the Dáil a number of amendments were made and the version before the House constitutes strong and comprehensive legislation.

The Bill is the legislative element of one of the Government's largest public service reform initiatives. More importantly, it is the most ambitious and comprehensive reform of child protection, early intervention and family support services ever undertaken. The need for change is undeniable, as shown by nearly 20 major reports in the past 30 years on child protection failings, most recently last year's report of the independent child death review group. Stark findings have emerged of service dysfunction and fragmentation and a lack of inter-agency working. Recent inspections by the Health Information and Quality Authority and last month's pilot phase report on the national audit of neglect demonstrate that structural and systemic deficits and inconsistencies remain in services.

If one wishes to make improvements to a system, one must first identify what are its failings and outstanding issues and which of its elements are operating successfully. The HIQA reports on child protection services are providing such information on a frequent basis. For this reason, I welcome the agency's reports on child protection services, fostering and residential services. A consistent feature of the reports is that dedicated staff went above and beyond the call of duty. However, they have also found that some staff fell far short. While some geographical regions were excellent in how they operated, others required significant improvement. Similarly, while many legislative and financial supports were found to be robust, some were treated as purely aspirational.

There is no doubt that serious gaps persist in basic data for children in care, referrals and service provision generally. These gaps are being addressed and the country has become data rich in respect of children. I have just returned from the launch of the Growing Up in Ireland survey which examines the position of five year old children. It is encouraging to note how well these children have made the transition into primary school. While specific issues such as obesity need to be addressed and the past five years have been tough on families, it is to the credit of families and parents that the country's five year old children are doing well, as the study found.

The identification of systemic gaps related to the safety, protection and well-being of the nation's children was a call to arms for the Government that could not be ignored. The need for change gave rise to the establishment of the first dedicated Department of Children and Youth Affairs and a requirement to establish a body such as the Child and Family Agency.

The need for change gave rise to the establishment of the first dedicated Department of Children and Youth Affairs and it gives rise to the need to establish a body such as the child and family agency. In order to do things differently, we must proactively identify and correct our failures. Since taking up my position as Minister, I have introduced the new Children First national guidelines and overseen the Children First implementation framework. I recently secured Cabinet approval for the publication of sectoral implementation plans. This is important because it means that every Department is responsible for implementing Children First. Representatives from Departments work together to share what they are doing in their respective areas. This has been done in advance of the legislation so that we are well prepared once it is in place. We have introduced the first ever national standards for child protection services and an independent inspection regime under HIQA. This new standards-led approach is central to fostering a new culture of transparency, accountability and effectiveness. We have recruited additional social workers, although we need more. We have a young workforce, and the retention of social workers is a big issue in this country and every other European country. We can retain front-line social workers and staff by giving them support and better training for their challenging work.

We are designing new models for assessment and referral to ensure that young children who have been sexually abused get the response they require when they present to services. They have to be seen as a priority, as do cases of child protection and serious neglect. Gordon Jeyes is reorganising care services so that they respond in a timely and effective manner to those who need them. We are implementing new models for data management and performance monitoring. We have seen the publication by the HSE children and family service of the very useful child welfare and protection practice handbook. We have arranged training sessions around the country whereby those who work in the field of child protection can examine in detail the handbook and the Children First guidelines. The main message that emanates from these sessions is on the need for inter-agency co-operation and partnership. GPs need to be good partners with child protection teams, which in turn need to work with local schools, so that when a referral is made ongoing exchanges of information and support form part of the response. We are emancipating our child protection and welfare services from the monolith of the health service, where for too long in the past they were lost and effectively rudderless. Inter-agency co-operation will be a big part of the way forward. We need more integration of policy and services so that we do better for children and families. In 2011 I established a task force of dedicated expert volunteers chaired by the very able Ms. Maureen Lynott to advise me on the establishment of the new agency. The task force examined international best practice and made recommendations on the development of the agency.

The task force report referred to the once-in-a-generation opportunity to fundamentally reform children's services in Ireland. The Bill I am now presenting seeks to make that opportunity a reality. It provides the organisational context, leadership focus and accountability within which real improvements in child and family services can be achieved. I do not pretend this will happen overnight. It is an ongoing challenge, but we are putting the building blocks in place. Just as the creation of my Department brought child-related policy out of the shadow of the Department of Health and into the direct light of ministerial, Cabinet and public scrutiny, this legislation will once and for all move the services for children and families into the light of day. Put simply, we are moving from a position in which child and family welfare was barely a priority to one in which it is the sole focus of a single dedicated State agency, overseen by a dedicated Department. I pay tribute to all the workers who have laboured on the front lines over the years to deliver effective services to families. I recognise the need for continuity as well, to make the best of our new start.

In bringing the Bill before the House, I am delivering a key commitment in the programme for Government and something that has been a priority for me as Minister. I thank all the staff who have been involved in the preparation of the Bill. A considerable amount of work has already been undertaken on the logistical, organisational and financial management aspects of the establishment of and transition to the new agency. With 4,000 staff transferring, Senators will understand that more work remains to be done. We have recruited a new management team led by CEO designate Gordon Jeyes and are setting up a transitional board chaired by Ms. Norah Gibbons.

The Bill seeks to facilitate each of the distinct elements that make up the programme for Government commitment through the creation of an agency which is solely and exclusively dedicated to children and families, has an improved range of services to meet the needs of children and families and is subject to best practice in the discharge of its accountability to the Government and the Oireachtas. The establishment a dedicated agency recognises that the complex operational management and reform of child welfare and protection services has jostled with many other competing objectives within the large and demanding health and personal social service arena. The Bill provides a mandate to a dedicated agency to lead the improvement of children's services. It will allow for the development of expertise and support for professionals in delivering some of the most complex interventions the State is charged with undertaking. The Bill provides for the Child and Family Agency to assume responsibility for a range of services from establishment day. These services include child welfare and protection services, family support responsibilities and National Educational Welfare Board responsibilities. It is extremely important that educational welfare services are included because serious non-attendance is often the first sign that a child is in trouble. We need to be proactive in responding to non-attendance. The agency will also assume responsibility for preschool inspection services, in which regard Senators will be familiar with the work I am doing on the preschool quality agenda; domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services - we have a long way to go to ensure we have the kind of service that can react effectively and quickly to children and women who face violence; and services related to the psychological welfare of children. We decided it was important that psychologists work with the agency so that front-line interventions can draw on psychological expertise. One of the recommendations from the reports prepared in recent months is that we need better assessment of children's needs at the point of intake.

This is a major public service reform involving 4,000 staff across three existing agencies and a budget of nearly €600 million. The children and family services transferring from the HSE include the full range of family support and child welfare services, child protection, foster care, residential care, after-care and adoption services. They include responsibility for some of our most vulnerable children, many of whom are doing extremely well. There are very good statistics on how children in care are doing in the education system. The vast majority of them are in full-time education. We will also have responsibility for the more than 1,500 young people who are getting after-care services and will also be responding to nearly 40,000 child protection and welfare referrals every year. The incorporation of preschool inspection services will further promote a nationally consistent approach to regulation, inspection and enforcement, all of which are key elements of my Department's ongoing preschool quality agenda. The transfer of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services from the HSE is important in equipping the agency to provide an integrated service to vulnerable families. Support to victims and groups working with those experiencing such violence, including rape crisis centres and refuges, will in future be the responsibility of the child and family agency. The HSE will retain responsibility for the sexual assault treatment units which are located in acute hospitals and other medical facilities.

While improving child protection is a key priority for us, it is my firm belief - which I am sure is shared by the Senators in this room, who have a lot of experience of working with families - that early intervention is the key. In this regard, I am delighted that I was able to announce the area-based childhood, ABC, programme, through which the Government is investing €30 million in working with families in certain areas.

It is based on the successful model of prevention and early intervention programmes funded by Atlantic Philanthropies, and that organisation has made a further contribution of €14 million, which the Government has matched. Therefore, we have almost €30 million available for such investment. Such an early intervention programme should make a big difference throughout the country and as time progresses we should be able to mainstream adolescents from that programme.

The pilot phase report of the national audit of neglect cases has also highlighted, as I said, the harsh reality of neglect.Parental alcohol misuse was a factor in 62% of families in the overall sample. That study has highlighted for us again that family dysfunction is often associated with chronic alcohol and drug misuse. We should make it a priority to have a very appropriate response to alcohol issues in this country; to be very clear that we do not want to see young children being exposed to inappropriate branding; to make sure that those working in the adult services with adults who have alcohol and addiction problems take account of the needs of children in those families; and to ensure that we make the right decisions for all of those children. It is important that universal, easily accessible services within the community work to promote good outcomes for children, including child welfare, and that they have a clear role in supporting child development and family functioning while always being vigilant and responsive to child protection issues. We need strong linkages between universal and specialist services. I have written into the agency Bill that prevention work will be supported by the agency and that family support is a key element of its work.

Much work is under way on the development of new models of case intake, assessment and referral, to include both a greater differentiation between child protection and welfare referrals and a greater focus on early intervention. We have got to get the balance right. Clearly, many crisis cases are coming forward, but if we do not do the early intervention work and provide support to families more crisis cases will arise. It is a catch-22 in that we have to do both to be effective.

Building on this work, the Bill provides for a much expanded range of services compared to that currently delivered within HSE child welfare and protection services. It provides for the delivery of psychological services to children and families and they will be part of the specialist support.

The Bill provides that the staff of the Family Support Agency, previously a separate agency, will transfer to the child and family agency on its establishment. The functions that agency is currently discharging, with the exception of family mediation, will transfer to the new agency. These include providing family support, relationship counselling, supporting and developing the family and community resource centres, which are all very important. The new agency will build on the work that the Family Support Agency has done over a long period and the work of the nationwide network of 106 family resource centres. The Family Support Agency also funds more than 600 voluntary and community organisations. The inclusion of those services will ensure that the ethos of the child and family agency is built upon partnership with communities. I want to reiterate that commitment today.

We have to take account of the impact of poverty, which I have gone into that in some detail in the my speech. Job creation and lifting people out of poverty will be a key element in helping families to deal with the severe economic difficulties of the past few years. The announcement yesterday of the type of job creation we are seeing is important for the families we are talking about. A job is certainly the best way out of poverty.

The Bill also provides that all the functions and staff of the National Educational Welfare Board, NEWB, will transfer to the child and family agency on its establishment. I have said that the educational focus is important and that should be maintained and developed. The agency's educational welfare responsibilities are set out in statute and we must ensure that they have very high visibility in the work of the agency.

I have agreed with Government colleagues to explore the scope for further extending the responsibilities of the child and family agency after it successfully commences operations. In any event, given the breadth of services provided to children, there will be an ongoing requirement for the agency to develop very strong partnerships with key agencies in the education, health, justice, local government and other sectors, and to continue relationships and partnerships with HSE staff, as in the case of, for example, public heath nurses. We have to make sure that those linkages continue.

The programme for Government commits to improving accountability. This reflects concerns regarding the transparency and openness of the child welfare and protection services. We have taken initial steps in this regard and we want to make sure that we have greater service delivery consistently, role clarity in performance management and stronger partnerships with voluntary agencies. Gordon Jeyes has done a good deal of work on this to ensure that he develops those partnerships with the voluntary organisations, that service level agreements are, and continue, to be worked out with the voluntary organisations and that everybody can have a focus on what their priorities are. We need to have joined-up thinking between the voluntary and statutory organisations in order to meet the many needs that exist.

The task force undertook a very detailed review of governance models both nationally and internationally and devised recommendations to assist in achieving good governance and accountability in the particular context applying to children's services and this agency. The proposed sections of the Bill reflect these recommendations and a range of specific legislative proposals have been included to introduce a new model of public accountability and responsiveness on behalf of the agency. I have listed those on page 12 of my speech. They include control of the allocation of funding to the agency through the Vote of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in order that financial allocations underpin Government priorities; the multi-annual performance framework for the agency, which sets out key priorities and the key policy, resource and governance considerations; and a performance statement for the agency each year outlining what the priorities will be and the resources and key Government targets that apply. These will be extremely helpful in ensuring that the agency remains on target in terms of the work it must do. The Minister will proactively articulate the Government's requirements and enter into dialogue with the agency as to how these priorities can be achieved.

I would like to draw the attention of Members to the provisions in the Bill related to the best interests and views of the child. These are ground-breaking ones in many ways. They fully meet the wording that was put before the people last year in the children's referendum and go beyond it in some important respects.

The specific requirements for the agency to perform its functions with regard to the Child Care Act and the Adoption Act accords with the provisions set out in the children's referendum. I introduced an amendment on Committee Stage of the Bill in the Dáil to broaden the operation of this section to provide that when performing particular functions in respect of an individual child under other specified Acts - not just the Child Care Act and the Adoption Act - the agency will seek to get views of the child and give them due weight having regard to the age and maturity of the child. At individual level it would be good practice to obtain the views of the young person, and it is what we should expect of our service providers, but this amendment will give statutory expression to good practice.

The Bill contains additional requirements across a broader range of functions relating to children and families. The agency will have regard to the best interests of the child in all matters and will ensure that consideration is given to the views of child as part of any consultation process in which the agency is involved. The Bill advances these important key principles, on which we had a great deal of discussion last year when discussing the children's referendum. In that context, it applied to the legal situations in which children found themselves, and obviously there are some legal issues outstanding in that regard.

There are 97 sections contained in 13 Parts and three Schedules to the Bill. I do not intend to go into detail on each one of those, but no doubt they will be covered in the course of our discussion. Section 1 covers the Title. Section 2 is important in that it defines the key terms in the Bill. There are a number of other provisions and I will not go through them in detail.Part 2 covers the child and family agency in section 6 to 18. Section 6 provides for the making of an order by the Minister in respect of an establishment day for the agency. I would like to thank Senators for facilitating the debate in the House today and the taking of Committee and Report Stages in the next few weeks. Section 7 provides for the establishment of the agency on establishment day. I refer the Members to section 8, which is an important one that provides for the functions of the agency. I engaged in a good deal of discussion on this during the course of the passage of the Bill through the Dáil. Section 9 provides for the agency to have regard to the best interests and views of the child when making decisions and planning and reviewing the provision of services. Section 10 provides that the functions of the agency may be performed by a public body by agreement between the public body and the agency. It provides for a reciprocal arrangement between the public body and the agency by agreement. This is very relevant to a child and family agency because it enables many providers to deliver the services that are needed.

There is a good history of working with voluntary organisations such as Barnardos and the ISPCC which work in this area.

Section 14 will oblige the agency to furnish information to the Minister which he or she is likely to consider significant for the performance of his or her functions or which has been specified by the Minister as falling within a class of developments of public interest or concern. This is about good information. It was difficult at one stage to obtain documentation and data from the HSE. Section 15 empowers the Minister to require the agency to furnish certain information or documents where he or she considers it necessary in the public interest to do so for the performance of his or her functions. Section 16 enables the Minister to share certain information or documents with the agency.

Section 19 provides for the composition of the board of the agency. I have appointed Norah Gibbons as chairperson of the interim board and a range of representatives who have good experience in the sector and in human resources, governance, finance and public accountability. The board will transition to being the board of the agency once it is established.

Part 3 deals with the duties and responsibilities of the board. Part 4 deals with the functions of the chief executive officer. It covers the delegation and sub-delegation of functions by the agency to the chief executive officer. It provides for everything one would expect in terms of the good governance of such a major organisation.

Part 5 addresses standards and qualifications. Section 36 provides for the maintenance of proper standards of integrity, conduct and concern for the public interest by specified persons performing functions under the Bill. This Part also provides for clear recommendations and codes of conduct.

Part 6 covers accountability and the funding of the agency.

Part 7 deals with provisions relating to employees and advisers, while Part 8 address the provision of services. Section 56 enables the agency, subject to certain matters, including the resources available to it, to enter into arrangements with not-for-profit service providers for the provision of child and family services. The other sections in this Part are necessary for an agency of this size and clarify the governance and accountability measures that need to be in place for such an agency.

Sections 60 to 70, inclusive, in Part 9 provide for complaints, while Part 10, sections 71 to 81, inclusive, deal with the dissolution of the Family Support Agency and the National Educational Welfare Board on establishment day. This will allow the important functions in which they are engaged to transition to the new agency. Part 11 outlines how the staff make that transfer and how their rights, terms and conditions, tenure of office and remuneration will be protected following the transfer. An intensive human resources process has been ongoing for approximately a year and a half with the staff and we have received great support from those who are transferring. I thank all those involved in the process because this is about change for people who are moving employment from the HSE to the new agency. It has been responded to well by all who have been involved. I thank the unions, employers and staff who have engaged in the process. They got on with the work in a private way to make sure the agency could be established. I express my gratitude to them for the serious way in which they have done the work and its success, as evidenced by the fact that every staff member who is transferring was informed of the transition several months ago and some of the complexities that inevitably arise from such a transfer have been worked out. This Part also provides for the transfer of certain staff functions from the HSE to the agency.

Part 12 deals with the amendment of the Child Care Act 1992. Under section 92, a new Part is being inserted into the Child Care Act 1991. I have taken the opportunity to use the legislation to deal with issues relating to the early years sector which have been highlighted in recent months by "Prime Time" and which clearly needed to be addressed. The section provides for the registration of early years service providers, minimum qualifications for those working in the early years sector, enforcement of standards in early years services and increased penalties on conviction for breaches of statutory provisions. Sections 93 to 97, inclusive, deal with miscellaneous provisions relating to the continuation of appointments, designations and authorisations under various statutes where the person held the appointment immediately before enactment. Much of this is technical to make sure we have continuity when people transfer from one agency to another.

I hope that gives Members a sense of the philosophy behind the setting up of the agency, the services it will provide, the transfer, governance and accountability. I thank Members, many of whom are supportive of the principle of establishing a new agency, and look forward to the debate on the detail of the legislation. I commend the Bill to the House.

12:25 pm

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister and congratulate her on bringing forward the Bill. Fianna Fáil welcomes and, in principle, supports this long delayed and much promised legislation which formally establishes the Child and Family Agency. However, the Bill seems to be more about the agency than the child, with the functions of the agency and the best interests of the child occupying two sections, whereas eight sections are devoted to the agency's chief executive officer. The establishment of the agency is meant to address the issue of fragmentation in child services. I fully support that objective. The Bill also seeks to put in place clear lines of accountability in decision-making. The agency in its day-to-day operations will be independent of the Departments of Health and Children and Youth Affairs, while the Minister will be responsible for policy making. Curiously, the same rationale was used in the creation of the HSE, an agency the Government plans to abolish.

We have concerns a the number of services that the task force on the establishment of the new agency recommended to be included have not been followed up on by the Minister. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that under the HSE services for children did not receive the attention they deserved and the establishment of the agency which has the child at the forefront of its concerns is to be greatly welcomed. During the years the State did not cherish its children well and the different reports on the way they were treated in residential institutions highlighted how much of a scandal and a shame it was. We are endeavouring to rectify this, but it will never be rectified for those who suffered, whether in the Magdalen laundries or residential institutions run by different agencies acting on behalf of the State. The recent film reproductions on what had happened were upsetting as we witnessed how children had been treated by the State. We failed them and it is about time this agency was created. It is a step in the right direction, which is why we support it.

It is sometimes forgotten that when Fianna Fáil was in government, we took action. In 2011 the Minister announced the publication of a new national children's strategy for the period 2012 to 2017 to give an opportunity to set out a clear road map for the next five years. During our period in office the introduction of the free preschool year was worthwhile and the Minister hopes to introduce a second free preschool year. The current provision is available to all eligible children in the year prior to commencing primary school.

The scheme has been hugely successful with approximately 95% of children availing of the free preschool provision in the year prior to attending school. There has been a major step forward in preschool education. From meeting children who have gone through the system I can say it gives them great confidence when starting primary school. It certainly makes the first days at school much easier as children have built up friendships in preschool. I know it is the Minister's wish to add a second preschool year but that is difficult due to existing financial constraints. There is no point in saying otherwise. However, I commend her on retaining the free preschool year. I presume it might have come under pressure during the budgetary discussions but the Minister fought for it and succeeded in retaining it.

For the first time in Irish history, we established both an Office of the Minister for Children and a Minister for children. I accept that the Taoiseach elevated the position to a full Cabinet Ministry but previously the Minister of State sat at the Cabinet table. Key Government officials were brought together in the Office of the Minister for Children to work in a co-ordinated and integrated way. The late Brian Lenihan launched the first overarching Government policy to guide the delivery of all children’s services in December 2007. It was based on the principle of having health and personal social services provided on the basis of the child being supported within the family and the local community. It was aimed at all those working with children and families - policy makers, HSE managers and front-line workers. Its aims were to enable earlier interventions before problems became critical.

It is important to highlight some of the worthwhile steps taken by the Fianna Fáil Government in coalition with the Green Party and others. The Children Act 2001 was the primary statutory framework for the youth justice system. It adopted a twin-track approach, namely, child welfare and youth justice, to address the needs of children who might be in need of special care or protection and children who offend. The Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2009 provided for the High Court to have statutory jurisdiction to hear applications by the HSE for special care orders in respect of children where their welfare might require their detention in a special care unit. Those issues were progressed at the time. The Minister was a Member of the Seanad then and supported the measures.

The Bill is a culmination of the work that has been done. Each piece of work was a step in the right direction. There had long been a need for the issues to be addressed. The Murphy report and other reports highlighted the abuse of children in the State by people in positions of responsibility. Cases of abuse within the family, as opposed to abuse by unrelated individuals, now come before the courts on a regular basis. It is an appalling situation that arises in all societies not just in this country. Nevertheless, the State is in a better position to respond in a positive way. I do not take issue with the recent response to the cases of suspected child abduction. One could ask whether one could stand idly by and not take any action. I accept there might have been overreaction and the situation could have been handled better but it is preferable to be proactive than not to take action in a case of potential abuse. I believe all the staff involved were working in the best interests of the children concerned. The information received might not have been accurate but if no action were taken the Minister would be held responsible. It is no harm to be vigilant in that respect and for inquiries to be carried out without taking the ultimate step of taking children into care or away from their families. Balance is required. If a child is secure within a family then tests and investigations can be carried out without taking a child into care. Lessons have been learned. The Garda Síochána acted on information brought to its attention by individuals. If the Garda had not acted it might have been responsible if child abduction were involved. Where child abduction has taken place, we must ensure that it is resolved. The case in Greece was a possible case of abduction but the circumstances surrounding it are unclear.

I commend the Minister on the successful passage of the referendum on children. It was the ultimate decision of the Minister to set up the agency that is becoming reality. She will get support for the Bill within this House where we have such expertise as there are many Members involved in child care issues. It is interesting to note that Senator Coghlan is the only male on the Government side of the House today while Senator Quinn and I are the only males on the Opposition side. Child care affects fathers and men as well as women.

12:35 pm

Photo of Terry LeydenTerry Leyden (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am pleased to see the two young ladies from the Department. When I was in the Department of Health I met representatives of the La Leche group. Two male officials were sent to accompany me, which was not very helpful. Nevertheless, that is the past. A far greater number of capable women are now working in the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and other Departments. I wish them well. I also wish the Bill a successful passage through the House. The Minister will have the full co-operation of the Fianna Fáil Members.

Photo of Jillian van TurnhoutJillian van Turnhout (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

The Minister is, as always, very welcome to the House, especially so given her introduction of the Bill before us. It provides us with immense potential to streamline and co-ordinate services for children. It is a huge and impressive undertaking involving three source agencies – the HSE, the Family Support Agency and the National Educational Welfare Board. I see the evidence and appreciate the seriously hard work that has been done by the Minister personally and her departmental officials. I thank Liz Canavan, assistant secretary at the Department, for a thorough briefing on the Bill yesterday afternoon and also the Minister for her clarification at the briefing.

I fully agree that what we are striving for now is to get the agency operational by 1 January 2014, the establishment date. In that vein, I wish to be very clear that I am approaching this Bill in as supportive and constructive a manner as possible. Any issues I raise are in the context of the fact that we are all striving to produce the best possible agency. I will do everything I can to ensure the Bill’s passage through this House.

I followed closely the Bill’s passage through the Dáil. I acknowledge and welcome the fact that the Minister has made significant changes to the Bill, in particular following suggestions from civil society organisations such as the Children’s Rights Alliance and Barnardos primarily. We have a unique opportunity to ditch ineffective systems and to finally make sure that children get the treatment they deserve, and that families get the supports they require also. I am concerned about the emphasis on management and the centralisation of services. I understand it in part but I fear the creation of a bureaucracy. What we want to do is ensure consistent standards throughout the country. An effective and accountable child and family agency will be a monumental step forward for a country that has so spectacularly failed some of the most vulnerable children in the past.

We must ensure consistency and standardised practice on the ground. This opportunity has been a long time coming. I thank the Minister for bringing it to fruition. We know that history is unforgiving. As the Minister outlined, there have been more than 30 reports. We must learn from our failings and demonstrate clearly that is the case. We are duty bound to get this right and everyone is striving for the best outcome for children. I will submit a number of amendments on Committee Stage and Report Stage in an effort to strengthen the Bill before us today. I will make every effort to ensure the Bill’s passage through the House. I look forward to a fruitful debate.

I commend the Minister on her role in securing Government approval of a proposal to strengthen legislation on aftercare, by introducing a statutory right to an aftercare plan. This will be done by way of an amendment to the Child Care Act 1991 and is an essential component to ensure stability in care and to enable young people to make the transition from care to independence in a safe, progressive, tailored and appropriate way. The Minister may be assured of our support when she brings this landmark legislation through the House.

At this juncture I want to focus on how we can ensure that we give the new agency the best start possible and restore public confidence in our child and family services. The Minister mentioned the referendum on children and when I travelled around the country, the biggest concern related to how people had been treated in the past by the agencies or how they perceived they would be treated. These perceptions are significant with regard to how people feel and we should not diminish those feelings. It is important we find ways to instil confidence in this new opportunity we are discussing today.

We heard in the news today about the potential overrun in the HSE. I will not get into a debate on that, but it gives rise to more concerns about the resources that will be transferred from the current HSE operations to the Child and Family Agency. Can we guarantee there will be enough of a budget transfer to do what is planned today? Can we guarantee there will be no loss of services? What improvements can we expect? I am concerned the agency may start with a deficit. That would be like a ball and chain being added on the starting line. I fear that the transfer of resources may mean the transfer of a deficit. This would be totally unacceptable. We have an opportunity with this new agency and we need to use it. During Committee Stage, I will look more closely at the details of the budget for the agency, particularly with regard to outsourcing. We know the agency has a budget of approximately €545 million, and I understand €100 million of that will go to outsourcing. I will seek further clarity on that on Committee Stage.

The issue I want to focus on today is the issue of special care. The issues in this regard are indicative of some of the issues I am raising about confidence and how we go forward. Under the special care order of the Child Care Amendment Act 2011, only children and young people aged from 11 to 17 with serious emotional and behavioural difficulties that put them “at a real and substantive risk to his or her health, safety, development or welfare” and who are unlikely to receive special care or protection “unless the court makes such an order” can access these facilities. An example of this may be a child who is self-harming, suicidal, abusing drugs and-or alcohol, where all other attempts by the Health Services Executive have not stabilised the current, serious situation. Rightly, one has to go to the High Court to obtain such an order. This is an appropriate safeguard due to the nature and seriousness of such intervention and the restriction of the individual’s liberty.

The recent report by the HIQA into Rath na nÓg raised serious concerns. The response from the HSE was to close the facility, which was relativity new. One could be forgiven for thinking as a result of that action that there is no demand for places. However, I understand there are currently 16 children on a waiting list for places and as many as 40 children who have not got onto the waiting list in need of a special care placement. Having read the definition, I cannot understand how there can be a waiting list for special care.

I am conscious that we are sending children to facilities abroad. For this to be done legally involves a time limit. Therefore, this involves returning to the High Court time and again to extend the period. The State is paying substantial costs both legally and for the provision of these places outside the State. Can we not develop a home grown solution that will be in the best interests of children? I am also concerned about the current arrangements around applications and placement for special care. The personnel in the HSE who decide whether to initiate a High Court application for special care are the same personnel who manage the number of special care places that are available. This is a serious concern because of the implicit conflict. Somebody said to me that the philosophy is: "If we do not have a place, we do not make an application in the first place.” Surely need and the best interests of the child should be the driving and deciding factor in whether a special care order is sought. Are we failing children today? Are we failing the 16 children on the waiting list? They have been assessed and identified as needing special care. At the least, I ask for the Minister's assurance that this practice, as outlined, will not carry over into the new agency. There should not be a waiting list for special care.

The Minister was right to say we need to look at co-operation and bringing services together. I agree we must break down the barriers between agencies and services. We need an informed and integrated approach and for all of them to be under one roof. One of the regrets I have as we move forward with this is that children with disabilities will not be under the roof of the agency. Public health nurses will not be included either. All too often we hear that public health nurses are identifying upstream issues relating to a young child. At a recent meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children, the special rapporteur on child protection gave us what could be called a master class on children's rights. One of the issues he raised was the issue of alcohol as a risk indicator and the need for social workers to consider this.

The issue now is how are all of these other services to communicate and liaise with the new agency. We have talked about integration and working together. Let us look for example at the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, CAMHS. We would assume, judging by its name, that this service would transfer to the new agency. CAMHS caters for young people up to 16 years, with an extension on occasion to 18 years. Social workers on the ground say they find it extremely difficult to access CAMHS, particularly once a child has been put into care. It is almost as if the perception is that once they are in State care, the State cannot outsource the facilities to CAMHS and will deal with them in the community. This is a further cost on the State. There is a concern that if CAMHS does not transfer to the new agency, this will further exacerbate the difficulty social workers are experiencing accessing these services for children. We have seen in the child death report the critical role that CAMHS plays. I do not understand why it is not being made part of the new agency. Is it because it does not want to be? This is a serious concern.

There is plenty more I could say, but I will keep it for Committee Stage. I am anxious to ensure the agency will be about all children and child welfare and that its remit is not limited. I do not question the Minister's commitment, but the Bill is about outlining and putting down a foundation for the future. It is about a future when none of us will be here. We need to grasp the opportunity we have and maximise the potential of the Bill.

12:45 pm

Photo of Imelda HenryImelda Henry (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister to the House and congratulate her and her staff on bringing the Bill to the Oireachtas. They have undertaken and completed an enormous amount of work.

This Bill will establish a stand alone agency that is concerned with the welfare of children and families. Members on all sides have recognised and acknowledged that this is a huge step forward. Until now, we had 4,000 staff scattered across the sector, but now we will have an interagency approach. We know from previous experience that where we have several agencies dealing with children with difficulties, some children get lost in the system. This is the first time, with the exception of section 20 of the Child Care Act 2007, that we are taking an interagency approach and are mentioning the word “interagency” in our Statute Book. This is a hugely positive reflection on the work done by the Minister.

Under the Bill, child welfare and child protection will be a priority. This change is long overdue and badly needed. The needs of children are complex, as are the needs of families. Having a stand alone agency to deal with child related services recognises these complexities. It will allow for the delivery of effective services, a much more thorough and focused analysis and a more accountable delivery of services. Irish children deserve no less.

As we move forward with this Bill, it is important we remember how we got here and what happened in the past. We cannot forget the litany of cases since the Kilkenny incest report was published in 1993. Those reports and reviews read as a litany of failure and silence. They reflect on a time when we feared authority and where no action was taken. Since the Kilkenny incest case report recommended that those with responsibility for the support and safeguarding of children be brought together under one roof, we have had a litany of failures, right up to the report last year by Geoffrey Shannon and Norah Gibbons on the deaths of children in this country.

The commitment in the programme for Government to establish the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the appointment of a full Cabinet Minister marked the first step towards real change in dealing with children, their welfare, care and rights. The State, sadly, has a long and shameful history of letting children down and the Minister is determined to put this right. She successfully steered last year’s children’s rights referendum which enshrined these rights in the Constitution for the first time. This legislation will establish a stand-alone agency for children and families which will be built on accountability and be child focused.

I compliment all of the agencies involved such as Barnardos and the Children's Rights Alliance which have done sterling work in this area. There are multiple agencies that do excellent work as advocates for children. Some of this work is remunerated, but much of it is unpaid, undertaken by people who work above and beyond the call of duty. They include child care workers, parents and voluntary staff who put in long hours without pay. They do it because they are interested in the health, welfare and protection of children.

The Minister stated family resource centres would continue to play an important role in the community-based models for early intervention and family support services, as envisaged in the children’s rights referendum. This is welcome as the services local family resources centres provde in communities are invaluable. I am glad that their role will not be diminished.

I am pleased that this legislation is before the House. Clearly, the establishment of the agency is an ambitious undertaking. The Bill sets out a strong framework of public accountability, with the Minister establishing the policy objectives for the agency and its board being responsible to her for its performance. It involves the bringing together of over 4,000 staff and a budget of nearly €600 million from three existing bodies to be led by a single management team. The leadership of the Child and Family Agency is in place under the stewardship of Gordon Jeyes. Senior managers were recruited by open competition and will provide the capacity, as well as the leadership, the agency requires. Each of the senior managers will have child and family services as his or her exclusive priority. Below that management level, there is an emphasis on strong local management operating within a clear national framework.

The Children's Rights Alliance has acknowledged the sterling work of the Minister, describing the new agency as a powerful vehicle for delivery for children. It is welcome that we have reached this point and will have an inter-agency approach to delivering child welfare services, although we may not all agree on everything and there may be issues that we need to tease out. I congratulate todays’ announcement of more funding for the area-based childhood, ABC, programme. The issue of alcohol abuse is raised in the House every week. Easy availability and cheap pricing are the main difficulties in this regard. The Minister of State, Deputy Alex White, has said legislation in this area is moving forward. It really should be at the top of the Government’s agenda because alcohol abuse causes significant problems for families.

12:55 pm

Photo of Feargal QuinnFeargal Quinn (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, back to the House. Before she was demoted to the Lower House some years ago, she played an active role here.

All Members support this Bill. Senator Jillian van Turnhout said she planned to improve it on Committee Stage. I look forward to seeing her proposals.

I commend the work done by the Government in this area and this landmark legislation. The new Child and Family Agency is very much needed, not least because of the significant increase in the number of child protection referrals, even in the past year. I hope the agency will be given adequate resources in order that it can help children and families effectively. I hope it will also bring a cultural change, one based on best international practice. I also hope it can play a strong role in child care inspections, given the number of concerning incidents in recent months of the mistreatment of children in crèches. The agency needs to have strong powers of enforcement and perhaps even to impose fines to ensure a high quality service is guaranteed.

The number of deaths of children in State care is concerning. It is envisioned the agency will play a more effective role in this area by providing a more tailored service. Will the Minister explain what she is doing to ensure social workers will not be over-burdened with red tape and administration? We know this is a problem, meaning that there is less time for social workers to work directly with children. For instance, in the United Kingdom Ms Sue White of Lancaster University studied the integrated children's system on which child protection workers must record their every deed. She stated, "It regularly takes up 80% of social workers' days because red icons flash at them if they miss deadlines, its demands feel more pressing than their home visits." We have a similar problem here. While no one disputes the legislation will be a change for the better, we have to be practical and learn from the experiences of other countries, especially in terms of the administrative burden.

Will the Minister comment on the allegations that the Garda acted alone and did not consult social workers before the recent removal of Roma children from their families based on false allegations? Will this legislation have any effect in ensuring this will not happen again? Will the Garda still be able to act rashly or can the Child and Family Agency have more power? For instance, will the Garda be legally obliged to consult the agency before any Garda action on suspicions about a child or its parents? I am sure there is a place for the agency in this regard.

Critical to the running of the new agency is the mandatory reporting of child abuse. What about the reporting of abuse of elderly people? Elderly people can be as vulnerable as children and there appears to be massive under-reporting of such abuse. Can we do more to strengthen the legal provisions in this area? The report, A Total Indifference to our Dignity, published in 2011, stated older people's dread of going into nursing homes was such that many would see abuse by their family as more acceptable. California's elder abuse Act provides for a confidential Internet system for reporting instances of elder abuse instead of a telephone line. In November 2010 it was determined that 27% of callers hung up rather than wait on the line to report abuses, leaving seniors and dependent adults at further risk of abuse. The secure Internet system requires mandated reporters to provide the same information as required in writing or over the telephone. This service has been made available at no additional cost to the State of California. Does the Minister have any view on this development?

Also in California, regardless of whether they are paid, anyone with full or intermittent responsibility for taking care of an elderly person is considered a mandated reporter. California law protects mandated reporters from being sanctioned or penalised for making reports. The reports remain confidential, while mandated reporters are protected from civil or criminal liability when acting in good faith. These examples are worth considering in the wider context of the Bill, especially as the agency is called the Child and Family Agency.

I support the Bill. Senator van Turnhout is talking about some amendments on Committee Stage. We all wish to support the Bill but also, maybe, to improve it if possible. The Senators' comments are made in the spirit of trying to improve the Bill rather than trying in any way to hamper the ambitions and targets the Minister has set. The Minister has done a great job. Let us ensure she has the full support of this House.

1:05 pm

Photo of Aideen HaydenAideen Hayden (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister and commend her on her introduction of the Bill. It marks a major step forward in child protection and welfare services. As already noted, it is one of the most significant public service reforms in the life of this Government. The programme for Government undertook to fundamentally reform the delivery of child protection services by removing child welfare and protection from the HSE and ensuring the creation of a dedicated child welfare and protection agency, reforming the service delivery model and improving accountability to the Dáil. This is interesting because, presumably, since the Irish people have chosen to retain the Seanad, that means the Seanad as well. Perhaps it should be accountability to the Oireachtas rather then the Dáil.

We are all aware of the historic failings in child protection services in this State, as other speakers have mentioned. Over the last decade we have seen approximately 17 reports chronicling the Irish State's dismal failure to protect Irish children. More recently we have seen independent reviews into, for example, the deaths of 23 children who were in contact with HSE services in 2012. That report raised concerns over ongoing matters which we should be very concerned about, particularly the heavy workloads and under-staffing in social services. The Minister has done great work in increasing the number of social workers, but this remains a concern. The number of young people who died by committing suicide while in contact with State services was of great concern.

That report, and a number of others, raised concerns about poor co-operation between State agencies and substandard assessments of vulnerable children's needs. In half of the cases in the report, inter-agency reviews would have assisted in their management. There has been consensus in a number of reports about the lack of harmonisation of services for children and the fact that the current complex operational system is damaging our capacity to protect children.

A key recommendation of a number of the reports has led us to where we are today. In particular, the task force on the child and family support agency recommended an integrated model of service delivery with inter-agency working and the merging of a range of primary prevention, early intervention and therapeutic interventions into a single agency along with child protection and welfare services that were within the HSE. The task force recommended the establishment of an independent agency rather than an attempt to bring matters more fully under HSE control. It examined a number of other models and came down on the side of the independent agency approach for a number of reasons.

Credit is due to the Minister in a number of other areas that sit four-square with the matter before us today - for example, the introduction in 2011 of the Children First guidelines, which brought about a greater awareness of child protection issues and the need for more extensive reporting. The proof of the success of that measure has been the rise in the number of reports of abuse and neglect of children. In 2012 more than 40,000 cases of abuse and neglect of children were reported, a damning figure by any standards. Other reforms include the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 and the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012. Much progress has been made and I congratulate the Minister on that.

We are here to acknowledge the failures in the system and ask whether creating a child and family agency will improve outcomes for children. I believe it will, for two reasons. First, the failures identified are being addressed in great measure by what is before us today. The new agency will have a staff of more than 4,000 and a budget of nearly €600 million. On the face of it, the transfer of child protection, welfare, preschool inspections, domestic and sexual abuse services, child and related community psychology services into one agency with the staff and budget coming, as it does, from the HSE, together with the merging of the Family Support Agency and the National Educational Welfare Board, seems as though it should address many of the concerns about inter-agency co-operation. However, I have a number of questions.

There have been concerns about the transfer of what is seen as a flawed corporate culture within the HSE into the new agency. Steps must be made to ensure that flawed corporate culture is not allowed to dominate the corporate culture of the new agency. There were concerns that some of the measures included do not go far enough and that some of the functions the task force recommended to be included in the new agency, such as speech and language therapy, will not be transferred in the immediate future, although the Minister is committed to reviewing this. Children's detention schools will remain within the Minister's Department and will not be brought into the new agency, and there will be no change to the hospital social worker situation. This represents a risk of lack of follow-through when children present within a hospital scenario.

Resources are of concern, given the 10.5% rise in the number of people aged 17 and under between 2006 and 2011. Although we have a slight easing back on that, we are still in a positive population growth scenario. Reports to the HSE children and family services increased by 36.5% between 2007 and 2011. It is important to acknowledge the need for resources for this agency if it is to do the job it is intended to do. I welcome the Minister's comments on the need for resources within communities generally. The Minister and others have made the point that, irrespective of how successful this agency is, the fact remains that many of the difficulties faced by children and families today are economically driven and relate to poverty and social exclusion.

I welcome the launch by the Minister and the Tánaiste, Deputy Gilmore, today of the area-based childhood program 2013 to 2016. Unfortunately, I do not think €30 million will cut it. Examining the criminal justice system, those in homeless provision and those in substance-abuse provision, we can see that many of the difficulties created by poverty and social exclusion lead to poor outcomes for children in these situations. I very much welcome the Minister's commitment to amending the Child Care Act 1991 regarding after-care services. The fact that 1,500 children are receiving after-care services is excellent and most welcome.

I would like to see inspection and regulation of all child care arrangements, not just preschool. I am very concerned about this issue and will raise it at the Labour Party conference this weekend.

Photo of Aideen HaydenAideen Hayden (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

More than 50% of children in this State are cared for in informal child care scenarios, and these children should not be excluded from protection. Again, I thank the Minister for bringing this before us. International best practice must be kept under review and there should be a clear mandate, enshrined in law, that this agency be obliged to review international best practice regularly.

Photo of Caít KeaneCaít Keane (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister to the House for this most important piece of legislation - the most important legislation we will deal with for a while. Senator Leyden referred to the number of women in the House versus men. The gender ratio has improved since we started. At that point Senator Leyden was the only man in the Chamber, and I was saying to myself, "Terry, blessed art thou among women," and asking myself if children and family are still the women's prerogative. Hopefully not. We were talking about women in politics. The emphasis needs to change to joint participation and I am delighted to see the gender balance has improved in the Seanad since we started, because when we first examined it the balance was 75:25 and decreasing.

I sincerely commend the Minister, her backroom staff and the Department for introducing the Bill and for the most comprehensive approach taken to drafting it. I understand the scale of the work which has gone into the unification of the various agencies and Departments involved with families and children. It is a highly positive step in streamlining accessibility to the services. We are all very aware of the failures which have occurred in child protection services in the past. I know from experience that it is a very complex area to monitor and that a huge number of groups work with families and children. The legislation and the agency will streamline them and get them talking to one another. The Minister has outlined her philosophy which involves communication, integration, bringing people together, assessment, intervention, co-operation and the relationship between and responsibilities of the various agencies involved. This was very badly needed. We will now know who is doing what, who is responsible for what, when, where and how.

The inclusion in the programme for Government of the establishment of Ireland's first dedicated child and family agency was very important and the Minister recognised its urgency. The legislation addresses the issue of gaining public confidence and trust in the protection and esteem we afford children. The aims and objectives of all child protection legislation must have the welfare and best interests of the child at heart. I disagree with Senator Terry Leyden who stated it was all about the agency. The legislation is not all about the agency; it is all about the child and getting agencies and groups working in the best interests of the child, as evidenced by the regulations and provisions, with the best interests and views of the child being taken into account throughout.

The establishment of the agency places a direct focus on child protection and other linked agencies. It is the first time in our history that such a unified approach is being taken, enacting into law real political action and change, for which I commend the Minister. It is clear that the process involved and the project in general are highly ambitious and the end product is something in which we can take pride. The structure of the authority is transparent and easily traceable, from the area manager to the CEO. If there is a breach or issues arise, the structure allows for a clear line of responsibility and accountability for the various factors involved. It aims to ensure no child will slip through the net or system or be neglected by the State. We should have this structure in every Department and I say "Well done" to the Minister for taking this route.

I welcome the composition of the board which is not based on a prescriptive approach. A multidisciplinary approach is needed for a huge organisation such as the new agency. It must be a big agency to co-operate with all of the various facets involved. The budget of more than €500 million is welcome, but given the importance of this area, we could obviously do with more.

It is clear various experts and expertise are vital to ensure the efficiency of the agency. I welcome the expertise in the areas of finance, communications and human resources. This process needs strong leadership and a comprehensive approach to enable the best decisions to be made. Listening to the voice of the child and giving it due weight according to age are provided for in the legislation, which is welcome, as all too often children are to be seen and not heard. I hope we will achieve optimum results for the capital invested in child welfare services, which is what we strive for. There has always been a contentious debate about the balance between keeping children within the family and keeping them from the home. The Minister has highlighted the importance of early intervention to ensure the child is kept and that the family is helped in the home. This is her philosophy which she has outlined many times in the House. I have also outlined it.

I welcome the dialogue on performance in managing and awarding funding, as the task force on the legislation recommended. It allows for the prioritisation of certain key areas and the Minister to keep the structure in line with other Government policies. This is based on the OECD approach whereby multi-annual budgets are seen to be more valuable to services.

The issues involved are very sensitive and I have seen those who work in the area. I highlight the need for minimum qualifications and welcome the training aspect. Will the Minister consider providing assistance for the training and upskilling of some of the very good staff who have been working for years in playschools and preschools, including those which use the Montessori method? People with experience working with children must be recognised. I ask the Minister to comment on this issue, on which she and her team have carried out hugely significant operational and logistical work. A previous speaker mentioned informal child care services. I welcome the continuation of area-based childhood services and the CDI in Tallaght, with which the Minister is familiar. I also welcome the eight new projects announced today, on which I congratulate the Minister.

We could speak about this issue forever and it would be no harm to do so because family, child care and elder care services are very important.

1:15 pm

Photo of Mary MoranMary Moran (Labour)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister to discuss this important legislation. The Child and Family Agency Bill is lengthy and presented a very difficult task which involved a long consultation process and the amalgamation of services, while trying and succeeding on paper to develop an innovative service. I hope this will remain true in practice. The Bill has many aspects which I welcome, including providing for the guidance and powers of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, to whom the agency will report. The Minister has a large role to play in securing funding and setting the guidelines which will set out goals for the agency. Each year ahead of allocating funding she may set out important recommendations and guidelines for the agency which will respond with these goals and recommendations in mind in its annual submission. Unfortunately, funding can only be approved on an annual basis, which is to the detriment of public services but is in no way specific to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. It is a problem for every Department. We must address the need for multi-annual funding, a point on which many of my colleagues will agree. I understand the current constraints, but service providers accessing funds from the new agency will need certainty and long-term thinking to address all of the issues associated with their work.

When watching the Bill pass through Committee Stage in the Dáil, I was delighted to see the Minister taking an open-minded approach to amendments and concerns raised. She accepted as many amendments as was reasonably possible. Prior to publishing the Bill, she engaged proactively with the sector and for the past 18 months has worked in conjunction with sector partners to bring the agency to fruition. Through my research on the Bill I have learned that the Minister carried out immense work in the area, for which she should be highly commended.

Departmental officials and the Minister did the right thing when it came to the structure of the board. It will be expected to provide for oversight and overall guidance. It will include not only those knowledgeable in the field but also those with a background in governance, human resources and financial management, which is very important. State bodies should look towards providing for a broad range of expertise in accordance with the Government's decision to widen the opportunity for board membership. They cannot be run as effectively and efficiently as possible if we do not provide for this broader range of expertise. It is imperative for this issue to be considered as all State bodies should be fit for purpose.

I greatly welcome the fact that the agency will operate on a commission basis with services providers, but, unfortunately, this will involve an annual funding operation. We need to think long term. Most importantly, the Bill reiterates the importance of considering what is best for the child which can often be lost in legislation or when we speak about structures and agencies. I am sure the agency will ensure a more cohesive and efficient approach for families and, most importantly, provide the best outcomes for the children who, unfortunately, will come into contact with children's services. Many social workers and non-governmental organisations do their utmost to provide security and protect the well-being of the child and through this agency I hope we can further improve on the great work they do.

From my experience - I recently raised a matter on the Adjournment regarding child protection services - social workers in County Louth do fantastic work, but they are short-staffed and stretched thinly, like so many others throughout the country.

We need to ensure through this new agency that the children are the No. 1 priority and that the second priority is to create the conditions for good staff morale. If anything is to be successful, staff need to be happy in their jobs. Social workers and staff in this sector do tremendous and often selfless work. They need to have the appropriate conditions and staffing levels to continue to provide this vital service to the community.

On a personal note, I would like to welcome the Minister's announcement with the Tánaiste this morning of funding of €30 million for the ABC project, and I am particularly delighted that my own county of Louth has a project, which I have supported long and hard and which has been included as well. I know they do outstanding work and the Minister will be delighted with it. Without being biased, I think she made a great decision to ensure that they are on it as well.

I look forward to the implementation of the agency in the new year, and I would like to wish the Minister the best of luck as I know it will be a busy few months. Fortunately, it appears she has laid very strong groundwork upon which to build.

1:25 pm

Photo of David CullinaneDavid Cullinane (Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister to the House. I welcome the Bill and the establishment of the Child and Family Agency. Sinn Féin has called for such a Bill for many years. We also welcomed the appointment of a Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, and the establishment of a new Department. In the referendum last year, the people endorsed a constitutional amendment to strengthen the rights of children. I was very pleased to support that referendum and was pleased with the outcome. At the time, our party spokesperson on health and children, Deputy Ó Caoláin, said it was imperative the amendment be followed up by robust legislation and by the allocation of resources to vindicate the rights of children. Sinn Féin believes this Bill is a step forward, although we also believe there is a very long way to go.

The appointment of a Minister and the establishment of the Department arguably came at the worst possible time economically. However, it could be argued that in economically harsh times, children need even greater protection and enhanced representation more than ever. In that context, the allocation of a budget of €439 million to the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs in 2013 is modest to say the least, albeit an increase on 2012. The fact of the matter is that this Government pumped billions of euro of public money into Anglo Irish Bank, while only allocating less than €500 million this year to the Department responsible for the children of Ireland. Even worse is that one of the smallest allocations in the Revised Estimates for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs is a €2.5 million State contribution for the area-based response to child poverty. I note the Minister stated the bulk of the funding for this programme, €29 million, comes from Atlantic Philanthropies. This covers just three disadvantaged areas in this State and the Minister hopes another three will be added next year. There is a bitter irony in this. The Government is topping up a grant from an international charity to address child poverty, while the same Government is increasing child poverty through its futile austerity policies. This is an indisputable fact, as we need only point to the cut to child benefit, which represents the single worst assault in many years on the incomes of families with children and which hits low to middle-income families worst of all. Moreover, this occurred in the wake of the children’s referendum.

While a total of €2.5 million is going to a handful of areas to address child poverty - any funding to address child poverty is to be welcomed - in budget 2013 a full-year cut of €142 million was made to child benefit and Members should stop to think about the contrast between these two figures. All cuts to budgets that affect children will undermine the positive work and the future plans of this Department, including the plans for the Child and Family Agency.

While the explanatory memorandum states that the new agency on its establishment will assume responsibility for child welfare and protection, including services relating to the psychological welfare of children, it does not require the new agency to take into account the views of children in matters pertaining to their lives and welfare. This is something I had understood to have been established clearly, certainly in the spirit if not the letter, on foot of the children's referendum. I believe the Minister should strengthen the commitment in this legislation on Committee Stage. The new Child and Family Agency was of course initially intended to be called the child and family support agency. Sinn Féin has raised the matter of the dropping of the word "support" from the title of the new body previously, but the Minister has not adequately replied to our questions. I am in no way assured there is not an ulterior reason for so doing. In replying to Second Stage contributions, will the Minister expand on whatever she has already said on this matter?

The Family Support Agency has been a key player in addressing a range of challenges that present in the lives of families. It had a board that included representation from the Family Resource Centre National Forum and again, despite repeated questioning, the Minister has avoided clarity on the make-up of the interim or transition board and the board of the new Child and Family Agency. Will the Minister take the opportunity today to explain the reasons for the disbandment of the Family Support Agency board and why she has not appointed an interim board since then? Will the Family Resource Centre National Forum have direct representation on the new Child and Family Agency board and, if not, why not? There is considerable concern among those involved across the network of family resource centres that without critical representation, their character, ethos and long-established focus will be placed at risk. Surely the access that has served the sector so well should be maintained and the Family Resource Centre National Forum should have board representation on the new agency.

There is also serious concern about current child protection services and the real position relating to social worker numbers. The Minister was at pains, over several months last year and earlier this year, to assure the House that the promised recruitment had been progressed and, if not complete, was nearly completed. However, we learn from the recently published report that addresses child protection service in Waterford, Roscommon and in south-east Dublin, that in 96 cases brought to the attention of the HSE child protection services, less than half were adequately addressed. The report states that there were "many families in which the circumstances for children did not improve despite the involvement of statutory services." Perhaps the Minister might respond to those reports as well.

I support the Bill, but we have a long way to go in this State to address child poverty. Nobody wants to see any citizen living in poverty, but unfortunately we have far too many in this State living in poverty and to see children living in poverty has to be a motivation for all of us to do more and provide as much resources as we can to deal with that issue.

Photo of Colm BurkeColm Burke (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister for being with us and for bringing forward this Bill, which is very welcome. I thank her for her announcement this morning of €30 million for nine projects around the country. One of those projects is in my old local electoral area of Knocknaheeny in Cork. I think €1.8 million is going in there and it is very welcome news for the area to give that support to parents and young children, and to give them that start that they need. It is a very good decision. It also provides an indication of the reform that she is bringing about, and this Bill is very much in that spirit, and we are now setting up new structures to deal with a very complex area.

There has been a very good debate on all aspects of the Bill. I would like to focus on one aspect under sections 56, 57 and 58 of the Bill in respect of the scrutiny of the engagement of services that are not under the control of the Department or the HSE, but which are independent agencies. I welcome the way this is drafted in section 56. I think it is very comprehensive in that it vests in the Minister the powers to make sure that there is adequate accountability. I have been dealing with this area over the last three months. Out of the health budget of €13.3 billion, €3.27 billion is paid out to 2,680 organisations. It is interesting to look at the appendix to the annual report of the HSE, where those 2,680 organisations are listed. It raises the question about the level of scrutiny, something that has already been raised recently, and whether there could more incidences of organisations working together.

Once the legislation goes through, the Minister will take over responsibility for funding a large number of the agencies. I read the appendix and noticed that 2,311 agencies receive less than €100,000 but that still adds up to a lot of money. A lot of agencies receive various amounts of funding ranging from the highest at €238 million down to €100,000. Each agency has an administrative structure and people who work on the ground.

I shall outline an issue regarding State agencies and quangos that arose in the lead-up to the last election. In the pursuit of reform, and I am not saying one can do so with legislation, we should encourage agencies to work together. To be fair, every one of the agencies have very dedicated and committed people who do a very good job. An awful lot of the people who work in the agencies work way beyond their call of duty in terms of service and quality of work. I do not in any way question their commitment. I just wonder whether we can achieve greater efficiency by encouraging people to work together, both the State and voluntary agencies. At the same time we could get better value for money and provide a more comprehensive service. That is what we should work towards which will not be easy to achieve.

I wish to extend my compliments to the people who drafted the Bill. I have gone through it with a fine tooth comb, particularly sections 56 to 59. The Department's level of scrutiny is welcome. The legislation is about accountability. It means that when the Department gets funding it will make sure that it delivers the service that it has been contracted to provide. I welcome the Bill and look forward to it being enacted. Reform is needed right across the board in the area and the legislation is just one of a number of steps that will be taken by the Minister. I thank her for the work she is doing. I thank her for announcing funding this morning which is important for the area and all of the other areas. I thank her for bringing forward the legislation.

1:35 pm

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank all of the Senators for their contributions and their general support for the Child and Family Agency Bill. As every Senator has said, the legislation is about delivering more effective services and better inter-agency work.

I thank Senator Leyden for his comments. I take his point about the future development of the agency. The task force did recommend engagement with the public health nurses under its remit and the mental health services. In the first instance, quite a number of agencies will be joined so there will be a lot of personnel and a lot of management and legislation will be needed. Developing the agency will be discussed in the months ahead. In the first place, we will try to see how effectively we can link up with the agencies and the professionals outside of the agency. Equally, we will consider more involvement and engagement within the agency by some of the professionals. We need to have very good inter-agency work with the child and adolescent psychiatry services and public health nurses. A number of Senators made the same point. All of the evidence that we have proves that we are fortunate to have public health nurses in Ireland and that early intervention is very dependent on them. Many public health nurses have expressed a great interest in getting involved in the agency's work and I would like to see that option developed.

We will examine the other recommendations made by the task force as times goes on. Obviously we had to take an incremental approach to the organisations, agencies and professionals moving into the agency. I am very conscious of the task force report. The Senator referred to the initiatives taken by previous Governments along with the ones stated in the Bill.

I accept that the free preschool year is extremely valuable. This morning I attended a conference to launch the Growing Up in Ireland study where I heard more evidence of how the scheme helps a child cope with his or her transition to primary school. The study was conducted on a cohort of children aged 5. This is the first time that we have evidence on young people who had the benefit of a free preschool year and their transition into primary school. It is great to have evidence that proves they have made a very good transition to primary school despite the economic situation that some of their parents must face. Part of today's legislation builds towards a second year because it deals with quality in the sector.

A number of Senators asked about training. I can inform them that there is a training fund of €3 million for next year that will deliver subsidised training to the sector. It is a very low paid sector so the funding will help child care services in the early years.

I thank Senator van Turnhout for generally supporting the Bill and take her point about the importance of a budget. Like every other Minister I must fight for the budget. Recently I was told at a meeting that I should remind Ministers Noonan, Howlin and the remainder of the Cabinet that they were children once. Yes, they were. As I said, other Ministers will remind the entire Cabinet about the need for health services, roads and everything else. We all try to get the best budget for our respective Departments. I am fighting for the best possible budget for the Child and Family Agency but there are ongoing challenges in the area. As the economy improves the area is ripe for investment.

With regard to the Senator's points on children in need of special care, I wish to inform the House about the latest figures. Earlier this month there were 17 children in secure special care and five children in high support facilities. We propose to increase the number of special care places from 17 at present to 35 places. Those places are needed. Nine places are due to come on stream next year and the remainder will follow in 2015 and 2016. A number of units will also have increased capacity. I take her point about a waiting list for special care. Obviously we must try to avoid a waiting list.

The new Assessment, Consultation and Therapy Service, ACTS, has also been developed in the past year and is in place. It provides a specialist assessment and intervention for children in special care or detention. It is extremely important to have such a service.

A number of Senators made the point, and I have picked it out of some of the contributions here today, that the agency should have the appropriate culture and response to individuals in place. That is extremely important because we have all heard individual stories where there was not a good response. A positive culture involves training, resources, management and style of leadership. We have made changes. We have a new management team. We have built a greater and closer relationship between management and front line staff so we do not have as many levels of management in between. The initiative should make a difference.

We must examine various ways to provide support to workers. We must ensure that the new agency is viewed as an exciting and challenging opportunity. That is not easy to achieve whether one has worked in commerce, like Senator Quinn, or social services. A lot of demands are placed on staff and we must support morale, build teamwork and offer training. All of those elements will make a difference.

I wish to inform the House about social worker recruitment. The current number of child and family social workers in post is 1,385 whole-time equivalents. All 270 posts recommended by the Ryan report have been filled. I shall outline one of the problems. Due to age and gender profile and budgets social worker numbers are constantly in flux. At present there are 250 vacancies with approximately 110 arising from maternity leave. Recently we have filled 114 vacancies and a further 136 posts are being filled, of which 51 have been accepted by candidates. I obtained a budget increase of €6.7 million that will rise to €12 million in a full year to support further child protection reforms, including additional recruitment.

Clearly, Mr. Gordon Jeyes and his managers must operate in an environment where we have asked them, not only to establish a new agency, but manage within a defined budget which they will have to do next year and at a time of increased demand. Senator Hayden talked about the 10% increase in population.

Clearly, that has implications for early years services, primary schools and a new agency dealing with early intervention, children and families. We need to ensure the budgets reflect the increases appropriately. That is a challenge because, with primary schools, the budget must reflect the increase per capita. However, we need to think all the time about the other services the children use and the proportionate budgetary demands that a population increase makes on them.

Quite a number of Senators have spoken about inter-agency work and its importance. I can only agree. We have provided for this in the legislation for the first time. There has to be inter-agency work. There is no question but that it is all in the implementation.

Senator Feargal Quinn spoke about the resources challenge and the need for child care inspections. The changes I am making in this Bill to the child care legislation will mean higher standards and tougher penalties, as the Senator suggested. It is appropriate that there be tougher penalties. Under the legislation, there will be better mandatory training for staff. The training fund and mentoring programme we announced in the budget will make a difference in ensuring higher standards.

Many parents have been very surprised and shocked at what they saw on "Prime Time". People have known for a long time that we have needed to invest in quality but there was insufficient investment in the training and mentoring of the staff. The wages are low. I introduced subsidised training this year to ensure people will have, at a minimum, qualifications at FETAC levels 5 and 6. This is essential if we want to ensure children in early years services receive the kinds of support they need. It is unquestionable that there are many great providers but if one wants to improve standards one must invest in training and supports for workers.

Senator Quinn made a point about elder abuse. The protection of disclosure regarding children and vulnerable persons may cover a certain amount of what the Senator is saying. With regard to children, we will obviously be introducing effectively mandatory reporting for certain professional groups. It was interesting to hear the Californian example with regard to elder abuse. We need to be reporting the issue in the same way as child protection concerns have been reported. There is much greater awareness of the need to report to child protection issues than there was heretofore.

Senator Aideen Hayden spoke about the workload. I take her point on social workers and the need for our teams to be operating at the highest capacity possible. If they are not, it is extremely difficult for them. There is a role for the universities that has not yet been explored in terms of training social workers such that they can work on the front line in child protection. There is room for a more co-ordinated approach by the universities to support front-line workers. I would like to see more initiatives in this area. It is an area in which I would like to get involved myself, and I intend to do so.

Senator Hayden spoke about the culture needing to change. I certainly agree with that. The Senator highlighted the issue of poverty.

A number of Senators mentioned the ABC programme, which involves a €30 million investment. Approximately €15 million is provided by the Government and approximately €15 million by Atlantic Philanthropies. It will operating in 13 areas and it is obviously an important initiative. What solves the poverty problem primarily is creating jobs and getting the economy right. There is no question but that this will make the biggest difference for children and the more vulnerable families. That is why the increase in the number employed is so critical. As we get the economy right, it is important that we secure the intervention that will support vulnerable families.

With regard to the ABC programme, we have identified 12 areas that will not get funding at this stage but which have been identified for mentoring work. Perhaps at a later point, with further investment, they, too, will be in a position to get funding and deliver more services. A very important point on the ABC programme is that it involves an inter-agency arrangement. The Tánaiste and I launched it this morning. The Docklands, an area receiving over €1 million in funding, has 48 agencies. This indicates the number of agencies overall. We all know about this from the areas we represent. The Docklands has 48 agencies working together to deliver services. They applied as a consortium of 48, which is really to be welcomed because it means people are pooling their resources, their thinking and means of implementation. This should lead to better services for children.

Senator Cáit Keane talked about inter-agency work and integration. She referred to identifying who is responsible, when, where and how. On a recent visit to Washington to examine services for children at risk of coming into contact with the law and who are in detention, a key recommendation made by the service providers was that there be a lead person working with each child, and that the other agencies would work with that child also. A lead person should be identified, and we need to be much more conscious of that. The Senator also asked about training. We will certainly invest more in that.

Senator Moran talked about morale. Senator David Cullinane made some comments on poverty. I agree with him that we need to tackle it. The policies of the Government are targeted at improving the standard of living of everyone but we have obviously taken on a huge challenge in that regard. I have outlined the figures on social work numbers.

Senator Burke talked about the groups that will be providing services and the need to have proper accountability. This is spelt out very clearly. It is a matter of partnership with the voluntary organisations but accountability applies to everyone. That is clearly articulated in the legislation.

I hope I have addressed most of the issues that Senators have raised. Senator Henry raised the issue of alcohol, as did a number of others, including Senator van Turnhout. Alcohol is featuring very heavily as a precipitator of referrals to child protection services and of children entering care. We really do need to highlight the critical public health issues. Fairly shortly, the Minister of State Deputy Alex White will be bringing forward for the first time a public health Bill in this regard. It will really make a difference because it will address the problem. Senator Aideen Hayden referred to the pricing and availability of alcohol and the public health problems it causes, particularly among young people. These factors will be dealt with in the legislation.

I thank all Senators for their contributions to the debate today. This is the beginning of a new part to the work. The legislation is a good foundation but it is very challenging. There are many connections with economic circumstances because, as the economy improves and as more employment is created, circumstances for children and families will improve and there will be less pressure on families. It is important today to talk about how well so many children are doing. We are data-rich at present in respect of our children. The vast majority are doing extremely well but the legislation is to ensure we react in the best way possible to the benefit of the more vulnerable children and change our inherited legacy of fragmented services and poor response. I thank all Senators for their contributions on the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

1:45 pm

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?

Photo of Imelda HenryImelda Henry (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

Next Tuesday.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 3 December 2013.