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Adjournment Debate. - Institutional Care of Disabled Children.

Thursday, 28 March 1996

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 463 No. 5

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Ms Keogh: Information on Helen Catherine Anne Keogh Zoom on Helen Catherine Anne Keogh I am glad to have the opportunity of raising the important issue of the care of disabled children in institutions. There is no statutory code of practice governing those who look after children with disabilities. The Child Care Act, 1991 excludes children with disabilities from its remit. Under section 59 (c) of the Child Care Act these children are further excluded from protection. Residential centres for physically and mentally handicapped children are precluded from registration with health boards. This means in effect that health boards are not required to inspect and register residential centres for children with disabilities or to check staff volunteers with substantial access to children. We are all too well aware of the cases of abuse of children that have occurred and it must be recognised that children with disability are more vulnerable to abuse whether at home, in the wider community or in institutions. Therefore they need greater, not less, protection.

The Disability Federation of Ireland has taken the initiative by issuing a voluntary code of practice. It knows that principles must be established to promote a safe environment for those most vulnerable. Children are children, disabled or not. We should review the Child Care Act to include all of our children. Anyone who has substantial access to children with disabilities should operate under a code of practice. [1481] The guidelines that have been issued by the Disability Federation of Ireland, which represents nearly 60 voluntary organisations working with children with disabilities, offer such a voluntary code of practice. However, it should not be left to the goodwill of voluntary bodies to ensure the operation of a code of practice for working with vulnerable children. These children must be offered the protection of the Child Care Act as a matter of urgency. I congratulate the Disability Federation of Ireland for bringing this matter to my attention. It has issued a comprehensive set of guidelines but the organisation is concerned that it should have been left to a voluntary body and is not within the remit of the legislation.

Mr. O'Shea: Information on Brian O'Shea Zoom on Brian O'Shea I am grateful to Deputy Keogh for raising this important matter and I welcome the opportunity to clarify the issues involved. I wish to correct the mistaken impression that the provisions of the Child Care Act, 1991, do not apply to children with disabilities. This is not the case and statements to this effect can only cause unnecessary anxiety to the parents of these particularly vulnerable children as well as creating confusion among staff working in services for the disabled. The provisions of the Act apply to all children wherever they reside.

It is important to emphasise that the statutory powers of the health boards enshrined in the Act in relation to the investigation and management of suspected cases of child abuse or neglect apply equally to children with a disability regardless of their location. The majority of children with a disability live at home with their parents or in foster care and there are only a small number of such children in residential care. Part VIII of the Child Care Act, 1991, provides for the making of regulations to provide for the registration and inspection of children's residential centres.

Under this Part of the Act a “children's residential centre” excludes, inter alia,“an institution for the care and maintenance of physically or mentally [1482] handicapped children”. It was considered at the time that registration of the small number of such homes should be provided for under separate disabilities legislation. The current situation is that the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities is considering a recommendation on the provision of an inspectorate of disabilities services. Its report is expected in April and I will review this issue in the light of any recommendations made by the commission.

My Department's guidelines on child abuse equally apply to all children. These were circulated, via the health boards, to all residential and day centres catering for persons with a disability when they were published.

In addition, most of the individual voluntary agencies have developed their own procedures for investigating abuse based on the Department's guidelines. These procedures include the involvement of the health boards, as independent adjudicators, in investigating alleged incidences of abuse. Most recently, there have been discussions between officials of my Department and the voluntary agencies involved in providing mental handicap services as part of a review of existing institutional procedures to ensure that all agencies have kept their procedures up-to-date. My officials have also met the Cheshire Foundation to offer, inter alia, assistance in relation to the preparation of the foundation's new draft guidelines on investigating abuse.

I am glad to report a commendable initiative by the Disability Federation of Ireland in issuing a code of practice for all voluntary agencies working with children with a disability. This complements my Department's guidelines on child abuse and should help to ensure best practice by staff providing services for children with a disability. Unfortunately, I have to say that the code is inaccurate when it says that the Child Care Act, 1991, excludes children with a disability. Officials of my Department will shortly be meeting DFI to discuss [1483] how this misunderstanding can be clarified for the agencies which have received the code so that this important DFI initiative fully achieves its aim of strengthening child care safeguards, an aim which this Government fully supports.

The Child Care Act, 1991, contains a comprehensive statutory framework for the development of services and supports for the care and protection of children, including children who have suffered abuse. The Act is being implemented on a phased basis. Sixty-one of the 79 sections of the Act are now in force. The remaining 18 sections dealing with the supervision and inspection of pre-school services and the registration of children's residential centres will be brought into operation later this year.

Substantial additional funding has been made available for the development of the infrastructure required to support the legislation. Since 1993 the Minister for Health has approved a range of new child care developments costing £35 million in a full year. Over 850 new posts have been created for the child care services and a range of new services and facilities have been put in place in each health board area.

In conclusion, children with a disability are covered both by the Child Care Act and by the Department's guidelines and the existing codes of practice of the voluntary agencies.

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