Wednesday, 31 May 2017
Report on Use of Section 12 of Child Care Act by An Garda Síochána: Statements
I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important matter with Members of the Seanad and to set out the actions that are being taken. Following a recommendation by the Ombudsman for Children concerning the removal of two Roma children from their families, a report of the audit of the emergency removal of children from their families was commissioned by An Garda Síochána to review its handling of section 12 cases. While the report’s focus and recommendations are based on an examination of Garda records and are primarily directed at An Garda Síochána, Dr. Shannon also considers and makes recommendations regarding Tusla and the broader child protection system.
Before I address the report itself, it is important to have a clear understanding of when section 12 is invoked. An Garda Síochána has the power, under section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991, to remove a child urgently from a situation for his or her safety and welfare. This includes a power to enter any premises without a warrant under certain conditions and the child, once removed, is to be delivered to Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. Tusla social workers have no powers to enter a home or to remove a child from a dangerous situation in an emergency. The main issues for Tusla raised in Dr. Shannon’s report can be summarised under the following headings: interagency co-operation and communication; the repeated application of section 12; section 12 and out-of-hours services; and the lack of suitable emergency accommodation leading to young people being admitted to hospital or kept safe at Garda stations. Work has been ongoing and is already under way on these issues.
With regard interagency cooperation and communication, Dr. Shannon’s review looked at PULSE data from 2008 to 2015, all Garda cases where section 12 was applied by An Garda Síochána in 2014 and a sample of Garda cases where it was applied in 2015. Since this time, Tusla has been fully established and has set up processes to enhance interagency working. Both An Garda Síochána and Tusla confirm that there is excellent communication and co-operation at senior management level, both formally through regular meetings of the strategic liaison committee and informally through regular communication. It is recognised that there is always a need to ensure that this is realised on a consistent basis at a local level. In order to address this, both organisations have recently developed a joint protocol on the use of section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991 which, I am assured, will be signed off by the two organisations very shortly.
This joint protocol was developed in line with the new Children First guidance and the Children First Act 2015. It covers: the application of section 12; the process to be adopted during office hours and out-of-office hours as emergencies arise; Garda notifications to Tusla; the medical history of the child; and the follow-up action required. The Garda national child protection unit, in co-operation with Tusla, will carry out a review at local level of the child protection operations between Tusla and An Garda Síochána.
Further noteworthy actions to enhance interagency communication and co-operation have been in planning and will be completed shortly. First, a dedicated Tusla official will be assigned to and co-located at the Garda national child protection unit in the coming days. Divisional protective services units are being established in all 28 Garda divisions and effective liaison with Tusla will be a feature of these units. Where local operational difficulties cannot be resolved through these units, the strategic liaison committee will act as a forum where any significant operational issues can be addressed. Ongoing development of Tusla’s national child care information system is progressing well which, when finalised, will greatly improve the information available both to Tusla and to its partners in child welfare and protection. These actions should facilitate continuously enhancing and improving interagency working between the two agencies with statutory responsibility for child protection.
In addition to the high-level Garda and Tusla strategic liaison committee, Tusla has put in place dedicated intake teams which monitor and manage section 12 cases, including consideration of repeated use of section 12. In response to Dr. Shannon’s report, Tusla has set up a team to review the contextual and situational factors and their actions around the 91 cases cited in Dr. Shannon’s report to clarify the number and reasons for repeat applications of section 12 in the cases examined in the report and to consider the common themes emerging. In order to allow Tusla to identify the specific cases referenced in the report, An Garda Síochána has agreed to provide details of these cases by Friday of this week and I am assured that this work will be completed by the end of June.
Regarding the out-of-hours social work service, a significant enhancement of the service took place in November 2015, the period after which is not covered by the report. Tusla now provides a national service which facilitates 24-hour Garda contact with a social worker in cases where removal of a child under section 12 is being contemplated.The services provided by the emergency out-of-hours service include: a national call centre where social workers consult with and provide advice to An Garda Síochána; the arrangement of emergency foster and residential care placements for children under section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991 and access by An Garda Síochána to the national child protection notification system. Through this service, social workers are available on the ground at night, over weekends and bank holidays to assist An Garda Síochána in the busiest areas of Dublin, Cork city, Kildare and Wicklow. The call centre is contactable for advice and placement support from all locations in Ireland. In light of Dr. Shannon’s report, I have asked Tusla to look at the current demand for a similar on-the-ground service for the rest of the country and Tusla will report back to me on this matter.
In line with best child care practice, most emergency accommodation is provided with family foster carers. This meets the needs of the majority of children admitted in an emergency situation. There are some situations where family care is not suitable, including where the young person is under the influence of alcohol and or drugs, or is exhibiting suicidal ideation, and may require medical assessment or treatment in hospital. In 2016, there were 41 incidents where a request was made for a social-medical admission to hospital. These occurred, following a discussion between the Tusla out-of-hours service and the Garda, where it was deemed that the child was unsuitable for a foster care placement. There were no social admission cases in the Dublin-Kildare-Wicklow area, as a residential service is available. In the midlands area, Tusla now has access to residential emergency placements and is about to commission additional emergency residential places in the south of the country.
In 2016, there were 12 incidents of children staying in a Garda station instead of an alternative placement. I have been told that this was due to circumstances other than a lack of foster care placement. It may be, for example, that the young person arrives there at 5 a.m. and it is thought better to keep him or her there rather than travel some distance to an alternative placement. It may be that the young person is very aggressive or has been arrested. I have been assured that social admission to hospital only takes place in exceptional cases, and only where such a placement is for the safety of the young person.
The national out-of-hours service is continuing to review demands for different placement types and is considering the need for the development of additional residential placements. Senators will be aware that HIQA inspects and publishes reports on Tusla’s child protection services. This work includes how Tusla handles referrals from the Garda under section 12. We are looking closely at HIQA’s observations and findings in respect of Tusla’s handling of emergency placements.
I look forward to meeting with Dr. Shannon in the coming days to discuss his report and the recommendations regarding Tusla. I also intend to talk to the Tánaiste about a joint monitoring of implementation by An Garda Síochána and Tusla of the actions recommended for both organisations in Dr. Shannon’s report. While I note that Dr. Shannon has expressed full confidence in Tusla’s child protection framework, I am absolutely committed to ensuring that all reasonable action is taken quickly to provide for the safety and welfare of children in Ireland. As a result of the various meetings I will be indicating clearly what those actions will be, in addition to the ones I have already indicated.
I thank the Minister for addressing us today. This recently-published audit reveals a shocking lack of consistency and resourcing in how we treat our most vulnerable children. It demonstrates very poor level of co-operation between the agencies of the State. It reveals several cases where children were placed back into extremely abusive and dangerous situations because of poor co-operation between State agencies. The audit covers the use of section 12 of the Child Care Act, which refers to An Garda Síochána. It provides for a Garda member to remove a child from the care of his or her family or persons acting, in a case where the Garda member believes there is an immediate or serious risk to the child. I feel that this is very serious. I acknowledge the Minister has spoken of addressing different issues, but after the "Claire Byrne Live" programme, everybody was heartbroken. It is very emotional to even talk about it today in the Seanad. The audit found that gardaí are often forced to repeatedly use the provision in section 12 with very little or no existing support from Tusla or other State agencies.
In 2012 Ireland voted to place the rights of the child on a constitutional footing but this audit demonstrates how little the Government is doing to actually deliver these rights. Clearly, all State agencies should work together to ensure that vulnerable children are protected. The Minister announced recently that a Tusla official should be co-located in the national Garda unit within the next week or so. I seek clarification on that. A measure such as this is akin to putting a sticking plaster on the situation and surely there are other measures we can take. Our children are our future and it is not enough to just open the lines of communication between the Garda and Tusla, we must learn from the harrowing lessons of the past.
In the report on "Claire Byrne Live", we saw that children were removed from their families by gardaí on numerous occasions. They were returned back to the families within 48 hours, yet no risk assessments were done. This is unacceptable. How can a child go back in to the same family within 48 hours with no risk assessment? Tusla was established in 2014. It was obvious that a huge amount of work needed to be done to improve our child protection systems. According to the report on "Claire Byrne Live", gardaí have removed two children per day in such situations, which is 680 children per year, under the section 12 provision. It is unacceptable.
After the report on the "Claire Byrne Live" programme, I wish to highlight the need for more investigations into the current child protection systems in Ireland to look at where the failings are today and what are the barriers to effective protection for these children. I know the Minister's announcement is only the start but Senators need to be part of the solution. We need to find it, we need to be brave and we need to ask the hard questions. The most vulnerable people are our children and we must make sure that we give them the proper upbringing and service and help with their need for a family for which they cry out but are not getting at present. The Minister will address all these issues for me and I thank her again for coming in to the House today.
I warmly welcome the Minister to the House. I acknowledge her three-page report but I have heard all of this. I do not mean to be rude when I say that as politicians of both Houses, we are tired of having history lessons about An Garda Síochána and history lessons about child protection. The previous Minister who came into the Seanad was speaking about the protection of women and domestic violence in families, issues which dovetail in many ways with the issues we are discussing now. There are many similarities between the two. What is striking about all the issues is that the NGOs and the other organisations outside feed in so much to us through those who share their personal experiences. This is no easy thing to do especially if it is around domestic violence, family breakdown, abuse within the family by members of the family or the possible question of children being taken in to care.
Over the last few weeks I have been touched by these people as they bring their situations home to us. They have experienced these issues on a day-to-day basis. When one is involved in legislation, the problem can be that one can become quite cold. I have seen some letters - the detail of which I shall not go into here - relating to cases that have been made of complaints, be it by Departments or State agencies. The letters are cold or they have no regard to the particular circumstances of the people and in many cases they are not even child-centred. It is an appalling way to treat people who have particular difficulties.
I want to stay focused on the audit by Dr. Shannon. It really highlights grave failings in Ireland's child protection system. We can talk all day and reports can keep gathering dust on shelves but nothing seems to happen. Let us be clear, however, on what Dr. Shannon's report tells us. The report tells us there is a lack of adequate out-of-hours social work services. Let us deal in the facts. There is a "lack of access to case files" to enable effective assessment and decision making in respect of child safety. That is what the report says and I am quoting directly from it. There is a lack of "reliable data" on the Garda Síochána's PULSE system. We know all about the lack of data in other areas but this is the lack of accurate data on the PULSE system in respect of section 12 removals. The audit also states there is a lack of training, resources and support for gardaí when they exercise their powers to remove a child at risk, pursuant to section 12. The audit found a lack of clarity around the responsibilities of Tusla. I have had Tusla up to here at this point. Everybody says that Tusla is fit for purpose but I say it is not fit for purpose. Why do I say this? It is because I am meeting people every week who have horrendous experiences of this organisation.The Minister herself has commissioned a number of inquiries into Tusla, on which she has elaborated here. There were serious concerns about this organisation and I do not believe it has the capacity needed. I accept that Dr. Shannon, in fairness, seems to have a different view and I acknowledge that he is the expert. Maybe all the experts, doctors, professors and professionals are slightly removed from it all. People on the ground tell a different story. There is some disconnect there and it is important to ask why this is the case.
The use of Garda stations as safe places for children to be held is of real concern. I do not care if it is for an hour or ten minutes; it is against best international practice, as the Minister knows. The Shannon report clearly says so. The report also expresses concerns about the use of some private fostering services. While I do not want to go into that in any detail, the Minister will be aware of the media coverage of inappropriate behaviour over the past two weeks. Children have been left exposed in foster care situations. That is the reality. There are not too many cases, but they are there and they are alarming. Some of them are mentioned by Carol Coulter in today's edition of The Irish Times. These are serious matters.
At the end of the day, what can we do to find solutions? There are 17 recommendations in the Shannon report, which I believe should be implemented. I call on the Minister, the Government, An Garda Síochána and Tusla to commit to implementing in full all of the recommendations without any excuse. I am calling on the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs - their roles dovetail in respect of this issue - to present an action plan to Seanad Éireann within three weeks. That is not unreasonable. I ask respectfully for this to be done. If it does not happen, it is my intention to table a motion in the Seanad. I will lobby hard to bring one or both of those Ministers back to the House to set out an action plan and a timeframe for implementing the 17 recommendations. I would like the Minister's response on that. I am looking for a full plan and a detailed implementation strategy addressing all of the recommendations in the report to be brought before the Seanad within three months. Otherwise we are wasting our time. Hopefully we will all still be here or somewhere nearby.
Ultimately, recommendations are meaningless unless we are going to action them. Every time we have a report it is because we have been dragged into a situation. The Minister has to come in and we have to have a report because that eases everything and calms us down. That criticism is not directed at the Minister, Deputy Zappone. I have an awful lot of time for her and acknowledge the enormous amount of work she has done. However, honeymoons are now over and the Government is well established, having been in power for over a year. It does not have a lot of time and time is precious. Most important, the children and families have no more time to wait for action. I want to hear the Minister tell us how she intends to deal with the 17 recommendations. Does she think it is reasonable to have a plan for us in three weeks? If not I intend to come back to the matter in three weeks. Certainly I would like to think we could have a very detailed map of the way forward within three months, in terms of addressing the issues that Dr. Shannon has identified in his report.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House so quickly when Senators asked to discuss this issue. There is no disputing that Dr. Geoffrey Shannon's recent report has given rise to grave and understandable concerns. I join with other speakers in their comments. There are a number of criticisms of Tusla in the audit. We have all heard about it in the media in the last few days. In particular, some of these criticisms concern the out-of-hours social work service and effective communication between Tusla and An Garda Síochána.
As the overall issues raised in the report were summarised by the Minister, I do not propose to repeat them. In respect of the out-of-hours social work service, a significant enhancement of the service took place, I understand, in November 2015. A national service now exists which facilitates 24-hour Garda contact with a social worker in cases where removal of a child under section 12 is being contemplated, and which provides emergency foster and residential care for a child who is removed from his or her family under this provision. As part of this service, social workers are available on the ground at night, over weekends and bank holidays to assist An Garda Síochána in the busiest areas of Dublin, Cork city, Kildare and Wicklow. I would like to hear more from the Minister on her view of what is actually happening as regards the out-of-hours service. This begs the question about service provision in the remaining 22 counties as well. Statistics show that the period in which most of these calls are made is between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. I have been assured that the volume of calls in these counties indicates that contact with Tusla social workers by telephone is sufficient. Nevertheless I am encouraged that the Minister has confirmed that this matter is specifically under review.
There is also a need to ensure that this is realised at local level. In order to address the matter, I understand that both organisations have recently developed a joint protocol on the use of section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991, on which they are due to sign off shortly. The joint protocol covers the application of section 12 and the process to be adopted during and outside office hours as emergencies arise, in addition to notifications to Tusla. It must be noted also that at the launch of the report on Monday, 29 May, Dr. Shannon expressed his full confidence in Tusla's child protection framework which, I suppose, is some comfort in the context of what is quite a stark and grave report overall.
Some additional concerns have been expressed about the placement of children in Garda stations and hospitals. It is my understanding that social admissions to hospitals take place only in exceptional circumstances and only where such a placement is for the child's own safety. Tusla apparently does not request for the Garda to keep a child over part of the night. That is a Garda decision. While the report is very complimentary about the Garda and how empathetic and understanding and kind gardaí have been to children, I do not think it should fall to them to be involved in the first place.
I would like to summarise the actions taken to address the findings of the report so far. Although I obviously have serious concerns, from what I gather, as outlined earlier, work is already well under way in respect of many issues identified in Dr. Shannon's audit. Tusla will continue to work on rolling out its national child care information system which will significantly improve the information available in respect of vulnerable children. The Garda national child protection unit will carry out an audit at local level of the child protection operations between Tusla and An Garda Síochána. Divisional protective services units are being established in all 28 Garda divisions. A joint protocol is being finalised between Tusla and the Garda on the operation of section 12. What remains outstanding, however, is a full audit of child protection services throughout the State. I commend Senator Boyhan's suggestion of an action plan. I am sure it is something that is in the Minister's mind in any case. There is good reason to have an organised review with a time frame set out, given that there is a report with identifiable issues. I support the Senator's positive and constructive suggestion in that respect. While I am encouraged that the Minister has committed to taking a review in a year's time, we need to keep an eye on this. I do not mean to be patronising in any way. It is something that she will be actively watching over the coming weeks and months. Looking at child protection in its entirety, however, and taking into account recent cases such as the Grace and Mary cases, I believe a thorough overhaul of the current system needs to take place. As such I am very much encouraged that the Minister will be meeting Dr. Shannon within the coming weeks to discuss further the matters raised. He will be an excellent person to have on board to review services throughout the country.
I wish to raise an issue that I have been working on in recent times. It is in respect of a statutory provision to seize mobile phones suspected of containing child sexual exploitation images. Currently, gardaí who have reasonable suspicion about an individual do not have the power to seize his or her mobile phone. The law as it stands does not reflect the gravity of the fact that mobile phones are just as powerful as desktop computers.I hardly ever go near a desktop computer now. I use one of the slightly bigger iPhones. Maybe I am damaging my eyesight over time. We are not up to speed with the fact that most modern mobile phones have the memory capability to store thousands of images. I have thousands of images on my phone. Much of the child pornography is being kept on phones now. This is in addition to the capacity to store texts and visual evidence of grooming, solicitation and sexual exploitation. According to the special rapporteur on children, the author of the most recent audit, mobile phones with sexual exploitation images or evidence of grooming should be treated as a crime scene and I do not believe our law is up to speed with that. In fairness, what one can do online is evolving so quickly that it is difficult for legislators to keep up with it. However, we will need to step up the pace in this area.
I also echo Dr. Shannon's call for new powers to request information from technology companies, such as Facebook and Google, with offices in Ireland. An Garda Síochána should be afforded powers to obtain a production order in respect of data that are either held or accessible by content providers based in Ireland. New legislation dealing with the capabilities of the latest technology must be introduced as a matter of urgency. The protection of vulnerable children should always be our top priority and we should drop other things to ensure those matters are addressed. As it may be a matter that applies to the Minister's Department and to the Department of Justice and Equality, I may also need to speak to the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, about it.
I again thank the Minister for coming to the House so expeditiously to discuss this matter.
I again welcome the Minister. It is a case of déjà vu. Here we go again. So many things seem to be rotten in our State and we uncover layer after layer. What do we do with it? Section 12 was exercised about 680 times a year. The report was commissioned by the Garda following the removal of two children - quite a racist incident at the time. Internationally the media was over it because of the Maria case in Greece, and the Garda seemed to jump on that far too quickly.
We are dealing with the section 12 report by Dr. Geoffrey Shannon. He found chronic systematic failures in child protection structures along with superficial and inadequate co-operation between the Garda and Tusla. That speaks for itself and is very disheartening. It is depressing for Senator Boyhan and me to talk almost every week about failures such as the horrors Dr. Shannon has uncovered and the horrors that have been uncovered previously, including the cases of Grace and Mary.
Do we ever get it right? I think we do, but this sort of stuff would make one wonder how right we get it and what is swept under the carpet and ignored as well as how wrong we get it. Among the most shocking findings is the repeated removal of children under the provisions of section 12 and the repeated placing of them back where they came to harm physically, sexually and emotionally.
Overall Dr. Shannon was very positive about the attitude and commitment of gardaí and the detailing of the cases where they walked into unbelievable circumstances where small children and young people were subjected to so much daily horror, never allowed to be nurtured, never loved and never hugged. It is extremely upsetting for the entire community. We have that social sense of belonging and a sense that our children are precious and should enjoy their childhood. Some of them from the moment they are born or even prior to being born have never experienced happiness or laughter. That is an awful indictment of what the State allows to go on.
I find this very emotional. Looking after our children was the most glorious, happiest, greatest work I have done as a mother in my life. I hope I did it reasonably well. I feel great sadness about how we get it wrong repeatedly for this cohort of damaged children. They continue to be damaged.
There are 19 records under PULSE where section 12 was exercised where no details could be found for the child. What happened to the child? The child disappeared. Child protection training is totally inadequate for gardaí. There is little evidence of training for gardaí and they seem to do on-the-job training rather than formal training, which must change.
Dr. Shannon pointed to the lack of co-operation and communication between agencies and the lack of out-of-hours social work services. I know we have talked about the hubs of Dublin and other urban areas where there is a nod to out-of-hours services. This morning, representatives of the Irish Foster Care Association and EPIC, which represents the voice for children from residential or foster home placements, appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs. They have repeatedly said that, even where an out-of-hours service is supposed to exist, it is inadequate. Outside of the hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., foster carers have no access to social workers, which is an indictment because problems occur. Just as with our mental health services, problems happen after 5 o'clock and at the weekend. They are crying out because they do not know where to go. In the end, friends help them and, at times, gardaí.
The use of private fostering services as a de facto official out-of-hours child protection service is a concern. The reliance on private agencies is considerable. Tusla commenced an out-of-hours emergency social work services which co-operated with An Garda Síochána in 2015, but there is no comprehensive social work service that is directly accessible to children or families at risk outside of hours. Several difficulties arise as a result. In several cases a child has been refused placement or one could not be arranged. In those cases the child ended up siting in the most unsuitable place imaginable, incarcerated as they would see it in a Garda station. On the issue of child care settings, one child had to be placed 112 km away, giving the gardaí round trips of almost 250 km.
What can we do? We must digest the failures again and again and then come up with resolutions. That is our job. However, we have failed. Tusla is the head of a broken and dysfunctional child protection system. Children are being put at risk and left in situations of risk every day. Yet again the most vulnerable are being failed. Tusla's honeymoon is over. We need Tusla to react and be proactive in protecting our children and doing the job it should be doing. The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs has invited representatives of Tusla to appear before it. I believe the Minister will also be invited at that stage.
We need to establish a commission, independently chaired by an appropriate expert. If we can do it with the commission investigating the future of the Garda and with commissions on taxation, why can we not do it for our children? We need a wide-ranging brief that covers every aspect of child protection structures, including those relating to accountability, leadership, management capacity, policies and, most important, the culture of Tusla's child protection structures. It should make recommendations within 12 months of its establishment.I will work alongside Senator Boyhan and others within the three-month timeframe to bring this back to the Seanad.
I want to conclude by extending my grateful thanks to Dr. Geoffrey Shannon. Our children need and depend on people like him. Children deserve that his 17 recommendations are implemented as soon as possible without further deliberate procrastination.
I warmly welcome the Minister to the Chamber. I am aware that this is as devastating for her as it is for the rest of us. I know she is a very compassionate person who cares a lot about children. I have no doubt she is doing her best to change the situation, particularly in regard to this report.
It is devastating. Like my colleague, I am deeply saddened by what I have heard. In fact, it is hard to read in the report what has gone on. I noted on the Order of Business yesterday that, when reading the report, I was struck by the clear focus on alcohol abuse and how big an impact this is having on child welfare. The report states that in a significant number of the 90 cases reviewed as part of the audit, it was evident that drug and-or alcohol abuse by parents was compromising their ability to care for their child. In one instance, a one year old child was found wandering alone in a housing estate because the mother was under the influence of alcohol. This is an awful situation and it will not stop unless we really start to address the root causes.
Again, I want to quote Dr. Shannon on the role alcohol plays. He said the biggest challenge facing society is the adverse consequences for the welfare of many children posed by alcohol. Drug and alcohol abuse are a key feature of the report and have a very damaging effect on children. The failure by society to address alcohol is a fundamental problem and places insurmountable problems on the child protection system. It is not just about Tusla or the Garda; it is about society and our ambivalence to alcohol and substance misuse.
I totally agree with Dr. Shannon. Sadly, it is no real surprise to me, given my own background in working with people suffering from alcohol abuse, that several such cases have been cited. I believe we are a nation in denial around this issue. I am very concerned. As the Minister knows, I set up an organisation for families because I know the devastation involved and see it every single day.
Some years ago, a young woman came to me and told me the story of what had happened to her eight year old niece, who came to her and said, "Please take me out of the home I am in because I cannot live any more." She started to tell her aunt about the alcohol misuse and fighting that was going on. This young woman went everywhere. She went to local organisations, to the local community, to local gardaí and even to a lawyer. She wanted to take this child under her own wing and take her out of the home where there was severe alcohol misuse. Even though it was her own family member who was misusing the alcohol, she wanted to protect the child. At one point she just took the child and kept her, but the Garda came and took the child back to the home. It was devastating. Whether it was because of the legislation, I do not know, but the reality is the child was brought back. That was a good few years ago. I am concerned about where that child is now, given she is probably 13 or 14. Is that child going to end up in alcohol misuse?
I am just giving the Minister examples of an issue I deal with every day. I worked with another family where there was a three year old daughter. When the mother put her head in her hands, the child knew automatically to go to the press to get wine for mammy because the child thought that was what fixed mammy's headaches. When the child went into a local shop, she would go straight over to the alcohol part of the shop and get a bottle of wine for mammy.
That is the reality. That is what we are dealing with. I know I keep harping on about the alcohol issue but I am dealing with it every day. The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill needs to be addressed. There is no doubt this is about changing our culture, so it is a long-term strategy. The Minister knows I work with the RISE Foundation. I believe we can educate families about the impact of alcohol misuse. Alcohol is in our souls; that is the reality. It is devastating families. If there is one family member who is misusing alcohol and there is a young family, the partner is so preoccupied trying to look after that person or trying to stop the arguments, he or she cannot be present for their children. If we can get to one family member, it will break the cycle. It does not have to be the one who has the alcohol misuse problem. If we can educate the other parent or partner, I believe we can stop the legacy of alcohol misuse. We need to educate the family members, and that is what RISE does.
I am only talking about this because I am very passionate about it. I see it daily. I see families and children's lives being devastated. Here we have a report that is at last highlighting it. I feel that at last someone is speaking on behalf of these families. I want also to be a voice for those families. We need to change our culture. We need to highlight and address this issue. I sincerely thank Dr. Shannon for what he has done. I am deeply grateful, as are all the families I represent here who have someone they love with an alcohol, drug or gambling problem. Go raibh míle maith agat. I wish the Minister well.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy Zappone, and thank her for coming to the House. I welcome the opportunity to debate this important report and I thank the Leader for giving us the opportunity to do so at such short notice. Like others, I acknowledge the tremendous work of Dr. Geoffrey Shannon in carrying out this audit. I acknowledge also that what prompted it was, of course, the report of the then Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan, in 2014. She had been asked to inquire into the exercise by the Garda of the section 12 power in respect of a number of children in Roma families, a case which, as we are all aware, gave rise to a huge outcry.
The ombudsman's report in 2014 called for an independent audit of the exercise by the Garda of the section 12 power. One of the points Dr. Shannon makes in his report is that no study into the use of section 12, the frequency with which it is employed and the nature of the cases in which it arises had ever been carried out in this jurisdiction, and section 12 had been in place for a long time, given it is a section of the Child Care Act 1991. The audit itself is hugely important in adding to our level of information and knowledge about how section 12 is exercised. The ombudsman also recommended further research, which Dr. Shannon said is beyond the scope of his report. Will the Minister explain whether it is envisaged that the further research sought by Emily Logan will be carried out, in particular where she asked for a comparison of the number of successful applications for emergency care orders flowing from section 12 removals and a comprehensive examination of the length of time children were deprived of their family environment where section 12 had been exercised? That further research would also be extremely useful in giving us a more comprehensive picture of the exercise of powers by An Garda Síochána.
We are all well aware of the section 12 power. A high threshold is required by gardaí before they may exercise their power of removing a child to safety, and that is where they consider there to be an immediate and serious risk to the health or welfare of a child in a situation where it would not be sufficient to await the application for the making of an emergency care order. It is a high threshold. Dr. Shannon acknowledges the work of gardaí and notes they are first responders. As others have commented, he is in general very positive about the exercise by front-line gardaí of their section 12 powers.He says that removal in all of the instances he reviewed was well within the subjective risk threshold under section 12 and that there was no evidence of an over-zealous use of section 12 powers by An Garda Síochána. That must be acknowledged. I should declare my own interest in this, having worked for some years in child protection cases in Dolphin House, a setting which was rightly criticised by Senator Ardagh in our earlier debate on domestic violence. The Minister for Justice and Equality in response pointed out that there is a move planned to a building in Hammond Lane. I understand a building has been purchased and work is beginning on a new child protection court complex. Dolphin House is entirely inadequate. Anyone who has ever had the occasion to go in there, including lawyers, social workers, gardaí and the individuals before the courts, will be aware it is a difficult working environment for people dealing with such highly traumatic cases in terms of taking instructions in crowded corridors and inadequate consultation rooms. That also must be acknowledged. There are resources that need to be spent on that very physical infrastructure too. All of those acknowledgements must be made.
Another key issue, based on my own experience and on what social workers have told me in the years I was involved in this area, is the lack of intervention in situations where social workers and gardaí were aware of abuse. Senator Black illustrated this very eloquently. There have been situations where the Garda felt the threshold was not sufficient for a section 12 or section 13 order, or there were not enough resources to enable social workers to investigate fully. These issues and concerns around the legal entitlement to intervene, given the very strong protections for the family under Article 41, have provided a context where we have seen children being abused in private and family settings and the State failing in its duty to protect children by failing to intervene. That is an important point. Of course, it is vital that we look at how section 12 powers are exercised and that we ensure there is no abuse by gardaí in their powers to intervene but we must also be conscious that the State has been criticised in the past, and rightly so, for failures to intervene and failures to remove children to safety. It is important to say that.
I will speak briefly to four points that jumped out to me from Dr. Shannon's report. The first point is the difficulties with data and flaws in the PULSE system, which was also mentioned by other speakers. Dr. Shannon noted he could not be sure that he had access to full data from PULSE. He also conducted qualitative interviews and focus groups in an effort to address those problems. Dr. Shannon has made recommendations on the need for greater consistency in reporting of allegations of sex abuse and, in particular, consistency in reporting section 12 removals, in respect of which he points out the numbers annually are not great and that it should be possible to enable clear and coherent reporting through the PULSE system of the exercise of section 12 powers. That is very important. Dr. Shannon also calls in his final recommendation No. 17 for a report by the Garda in a year's time on the recommendations of the audit and whether they have been implemented. As part of that, in recommendation No. 17, he also says that the Garda should publish statistics on an annual basis on the invocation of section 12 in the preceding year and report on any challenges or difficulties experienced in the exercise of this power. This, again, would greatly add to our knowledge. It is an important recommendation to address.
The second point, also picked up on by many other speakers, is the issue of training, which the Minister also spoke about in her opening statement. Dr. Shannon has very concerning findings about the lack of formal training of new Garda recruits in child protection, the emphasis being on-the-job training. This is an issue that was also highlighted in other reports. The Garda Inspectorate made similar criticisms of the PULSE system and of lack of formal training within the Garda Síochána. We know then that not only in regard to child protection and section 12 but more generally we need to ensure greater emphasis on training, in particular training on ethno-diversity and how to deal with children from different and diverse backgrounds. Concern was expressed by Dr. Shannon that there is no training or strategic policy direction from the Garda Síochána in this regard. I note the Minister addressed that issue in her opening statement but perhaps she would comment specifically on training on ethno-diversity. There is a very worrying report in today's The Irish Timeswhich focuses on poor garda training. It concerns a failure in the State system of child protection in the case of a child who was interviewed extensively by the Garda about allegations she had made of child sex abuse within her home, those interviews having been carried out in a way that the District Court has described as abusive and relentless. The garda involved in the interviewing process is severely criticised, as is the lack of interagency co-ordination and the very troubling outcome, whereby seven men who had been identified by the child will not be prosecuted because of the flaws in the interviewing process of the child. This is very clear evidence of the difficulties around training.
The third point is on interagency co-operation, which the Minister also addressed. She made the point that this has improved since 2015. Dr. Shannon's audit is in respect of the period up to 2015. I am glad to hear that interagency co-operation has improved but there is still much comment in regard to difficulties with Tusla, in particular, and around the lack of co-ordination between agencies. This is a key issue that needs to be addressed. There are some very damning findings by Dr. Shannon in this regard, including that there continually are poor and limited levels of interagency co-operation between the Garda Síochána, Tusla and the broader child protection framework. That is a very stark finding.
The fourth point is out-of-hours services and the lack of availability of a 24-hour social work service for children at risk. The report references the farming out of children to private agencies, one of which is named. Dr. Shannon states that he is very concerned about the lack of co-ordination, supervision and monitoring of the contracting out of powers and responsibilities to external and private bodies. The Minister has referenced the need to address these issues. Senator Boyhan made the sensible suggestion that we might assist and support her in assessing how these recommendations are being implemented. Dr. Shannon has called for a report from An Garda Síochána in one year but as suggested by Senator Boyhan, it would be helpful if were to revisit this issue in this House with the Minister, with her permission, in a shorter timeframe.
I thank Senators for their reflections, all of which I will not have time to respond to today. Many Senators have referred to this as an emotional issue. It is emotional. The emotions are anger, disappointment and distress. If this about feelings and emotions, what do we do and how do we move forward? Senator Devine is correct that failings on the part of the State to protect our most vulnerable children is an issue that has been raised before and there are examples of that.
I welcome the audit. It provides us with comprehensive information that is critical to enable us to move forward and to get more things right. Like Senators, I only recently received the audit. In terms of a response, I have similar deep feelings. I acknowledge it is up to me as Minister to lead the action in this area. I agree with Senator Boyhan that it is a good idea to put together an action plan. I appreciate the Senator's offer of support to me in doing that. I do intend to do that. I ask Senators for a little time in that regard.
As I said, I welcome the audit. I reappointed Dr. Shannon as special rapporteur. He has extraordinary expertise in this area, which he brought to the audit. Dr. Shannon has made recommendations and damning findings in regard to the Garda Síochána, Tusla and society as a whole. I take on board Senator Black's comments in terms of the great work being done by the RISE organisation on the alcohol issue, which is critical in all of this.
Senator Devine said that we have failed. I agree, we have failed. Parents, the HSE, An Garda Síochána, Tusla and the Department have failed in respect of our most vulnerable children. As for what we need to do, we need to support preventative work in my Department such as that undertaken by the Department itself and by the RISE Foundation.
Many Senators raised the issue of out-of-hours services. I have indicated and Senators have acknowledged that there has been some change since 2015 and this audit. In regard to whether there should be more change, full services are available in the four towns mentioned and 22 counties are covered by emergency out-of-hours services.In a small number of cases, the service was required outside of these busy areas. In 2016, there were ten cases of social workers being called to rural areas. I am sure that Dr. Shannon is aware of this as well. He is calling for more. I have asked Tusla to review the situation again. I will put that analysis together with Dr. Shannon's perspective on the matter. We will consider international best practice so that vulnerable children do not fall through the cracks.
I have called for more reflection. If additional change is required, I intend to ensure that that happens. It is important to point out that, with all of the expertise that Dr. Shannon brings to the audit, he has indicated his confidence in Tusla in terms of the national child protection framework. Tusla launched its national child protection and welfare strategy last week. The action plan is in development, so there is a great deal of room to incorporate some of our learnings from the issues being raised by the Senators. That is critical.
Regarding repeat removals and placing young people back with their families, it appears from some of the stories that we have been reading about and watching on RTE that there are instances in which doing that is not good for the children. At other times, it might be good. I have asked Tusla to examine the 91 cases covered by Dr. Shannon's audit, drill down and see whether what happened was right and appropriate in those circumstances. In light of my various requests to Tusla and the meetings that I will have with the Tánaiste, Dr. Shannon and others, as well as the meetings that I have already had with Tusla, we will put together an action plan relatively quickly on how to proceed. I am determined and committed to doing that.