Seanad debates

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Commencement Matters

Family Support Services

10:30 am

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy Zappone, to the House. As Leader, I congratulate her on her Galas success. Grove Cottage, the Togher family support service, is an important community facility that gives access to families who need its services. Some 77 children and families availed of the service last year. This group of people fall between private and public funding and cannot afford a service at the prices being asked but are accommodated by the Togher family support service. The centre is hugely important in the area of family law and child care and caters for estranged parents in a variety of different relationships.

I received an email from a mother who said:

I have been availing of their child contact service which allows me to see and build a relationship with my daughter, ... which I would otherwise not have been able to do without this service.

There are other private organisations that provide a child contact service in the Cork area, but as I am in receipt of social welfare I am unable to avail of their services due to the much higher cost per visit.

If this service closes as planned then I will have a real struggle maintaining a relationship with my 4 year old daughter.

I received another email from a person with whom I am well acquainted, who wrote:

Seeing my child is the hope that was given to me when I needed it. I am secure in the knowledge that they work directly with "Children First" in mind at all times.

It is tragic that the one and only place that can offer this support in Cork is being closed due to lack of funds. I have no doubt that I would have been at the very least feeling suicidal by now had I still not seen my child. I dread to think of her growing up without her mother.

These are emotional emails. The Minister has met with representatives of the Togher family centre and I commend her on her proactivity in this regard. She has a child-centred brief and is very much in control of it and if she visited the centre she would see the quality of the people who work there. If she went into Grove Cottage she would see the environment - the toys, the furnishings, the care, the support and the safe, child-friendly environment, which are testimony to Jackie Costello and the people who work there. The centre ensures there is an environment where relationships can be rebuilt, advice and support are offered and professional supervision is provided for our most vulnerable at a critical time in their lives, whether they are recovering from addiction or coming out of domestic abuse or sexual violence.

The Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs will be aware of issues with the courts referring people to this service in Togher, which is happening more a more and is further testimony to the work being done at the centre at Grove Cottage. This is about children and families. I recognise that Tusla provides funding to Togher family centre in the area of access, but we must look at the people who fall through the cracks. I appeal to the Ministers in the Department of Justice Equality and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to come to an understanding that intervention in the form of provision of extra funding is needed, or perhaps new funding is needed, because this is a very important service.

I was the Chairman of the committee involved in the pre-legislative scrutiny of Children First and which recognised the importance of the children's referendum. I do not mean to be patronising but the Minister is bringing a certain and a different emphasis that was not, perhaps, in the role before. This is about children and their right to have a relationship with their families.

I would hope that the work of Grove Cottage, which has developed and evolved beyond what was envisaged on day one, will continue. It provides quality affordable child contact, and I know from going there and meeting with parents and staff that this is an issue that is going arise in other parts of the country, because more referrals are taking place. The request for funding to expand the service was unsuccessful in the past, but I hope that now, at a time when we have seen an increase in budgets, an accommodation can be found.

I commend the work that is being done, which the Minister knows about because she has met with the staff there, and I hope that we can find extra funding. I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach for choosing this matter. He knows that as Leader I rarely put in Commencement matters, but this is one I feel very passionate about. Go raibh maith agat.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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I accept that. Thank you, Senator. I call on the Minister.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Dublin South West, Independent)
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Thank you. I love to hear the call of the Seanad each morning, and I am delighted to come here to address and respond to the issue raised by Senator Buttimer, a very special colleague whose legacy on marriage equality hit the shores of Australia last night, so I congratulate him.

To the matter at hand, the Togher family centre operates as an independent organisation and is governed by a board of management that is representative of the local community. As Senator Buttimer noted, I have had the opportunity to meet the staff. I acknowledge that it is a voluntary, community-based service located in the heart of Deanrock Estate, Togher, Cork city, and it provides a range of services, including early years education; integrated support and early identification of need; family support services; family access services; adult education; and early intervention youth work.

It was not immediately clear from the question if the Senator had a particular service in mind, although it may be clear in light of his contribution this morning. The centre receives funding from my Department under the early childhood care and education, ECCE, scheme and the community childcare subvention, CCS, scheme. Funding to Togher family centre under both schemes to date in 2017 comes to a total of just over €295,000. In 2017, funding of more than €30,000 was also provided by my Department, through the Cork Education and Training Board, for the Togher youth resilience project, which is based in Togher family centre. Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, has advised that it provided funding of approximately €144,000 to the centre this year. An additional €26,000 was also provided by Tusla to the centre in recent months, bringing the total funding allocation to more than €170,000 in 2017. This is an increase of almost €33,000 over 2016. I understand the centre also receives funding from the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection under the school meals programme, and from various other sources.

The Togher family centre provides a service in line with the principles of Tusla’s prevention, partnership and family support programme. The main focus of services is on early intervention to promote and protect the health and well-being of children, young people and their families. The centre, as the Senator has referred to, has also developed an access centre which provides services to children in care and their families. This provides a safe, neutral and child-focused setting for children to visit with their non-custodial parent. All visits and exchanges take place under the supervision of trained staff. Togher family centre can arrange for supervised access through referrals from Tusla. Supported or fully supervised access is also offered depending on the needs of the particular family.

I understand that in recent times the access centre has experienced considerable demand from the family law courts, guardians ad litemand other parties, and has provided, where possible, supervised access for referrals from these parties. It is important to reiterate that the core work of the centre is focused on referrals from Tusla, and it is not always possible for the access centre to satisfy the increased demand from other sources. I say this while being cognisant of the emails Senator Buttimer shared with us this morning.

My Department has also received an application from the centre for community employment sustainability funding in the early years sector. Financial reserves were identified in that process, and my officials requested clarification on the use of these reserves and their relevance to child care funding. Following a response from the centre, the position is under review, and my officials will revert to the centre in due course. In situations such as this, decisions with regard to future funding levels for individual service providers are informed by the business case put forward by the provider in question and an assessment of service need in the locality in question undertaken by the relevant funding authorities. It is important that this process is undertaken and completed in order to allow for an informed assessment to be made on the funding issue raised, having regard to the available resources and competing priorities.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister. Would the Senator like to respond?

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for her reply. I hope that we can bring a resolution to the issue. The Minister is also working with the Department of Justice and Equality in this area. It is a matter that is ongoing in other parts of the country as well. The work being done here, and the emails I read out, are testimonials from people. The amount of money involved is relatively small in the overall scheme of things, and I look forward to working with the Department and with the Minister in ensuring that we can continue the service. There is a fear that the service will close in January, which I think all of us would want to see averted because this is about ensuring that family access continues. I thank the Minister for her reply and I hope that we can overcome any obstacle to ensure the service continues.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Dublin South West, Independent)
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The case was put forward very strongly by the Senator, resulting from his ongoing commitment to and engagement with the centre. I reiterate the importance of a strong business case when the funding is being sought, and note that at least one application for funding from the centre is still under review in my Department.