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Priority Questions - Child Care Services

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 765 No. 3

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 89.  Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin  asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Information on Frances Fitzgerald Zoom on Frances Fitzgerald  if her attention has been drawn to the fact that the absence of a comprehensive 24 hour child protection service has left gardaí as front line protectors of children in emergency; her plans to rectify this deficiency in the State’s response mechanism; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24236/12]

Deputy Frances Fitzgerald: Information on Frances Fitzgerald Zoom on Frances Fitzgerald As part of the ongoing change agenda in child and family services, I am committed to developing the capacity of our child protection services to address appropriately and effectively the needs of children who present in emergencies outside of normal working hours. At present, the Health Service Executive provides out-of-hours emergency services for children at risk in the greater Dublin area through the crisis intervention service, and outside the greater Dublin area through the emergency place of safety service. The crisis intervention service provides an out-of-hours emergency social work service to young people aged under 18 years who are in crisis. The service operates across the greater Dublin area — counties Dublin, Kildare and Wicklow — and referrals are made outside of normal working hours by service providers, that is, gardaí and hospital and ambulance service personnel.

Outside the greater Dublin area, the HSE operates an emergency place of safety service whereby gardaí can access an emergency placement for children found to be at risk out of hours. This service involves the out-of-hours placement of a child in a family setting until the next working day when the local social work service assumes responsibility for the case. As part of this service, gardaí have access to advice and information from a non-HSE social work off-site resource which is provided on a contract basis.

I am acutely aware of and share many of the ongoing concerns regarding the need to develop these services further and I am committed to implementing service developments in this area. I informed the House on the previous occasion I contributed on Question Time that the HSE had piloted and is currently evaluating two out-of-hours pilot projects, one in County Donegal and the other in County Cork. The former project commenced in mid-2011 while the latter commenced in the third quarter of last year. Both projects involve the provision by local HSE staff of social work support out-of-hours where deemed necessary by gardaí. HSE social workers are on call out of hours to respond to referrals. I am informed by the HSE that having undertaken an initial internal evaluation, it commissioned an independent external assessment of the projects. This evaluation, which is being undertaken by Trinity College, is expected to be completed in the near future and the HSE hopes to receive the report in the coming days. A decision on progression to a national roll-out will be made following evaluation of the two pilot projects and other relevant data.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin It was in November, in the course of a response on the review of serious incidents in care services, including the deaths of children in care, that the Minister referred in the House to the Cork and Donegal pilot projects. All of this was in the [228]context of a progress report on the Ryan report implementation group which was placed before the Houses in July last. There is also an implementation group to oversee the roll-out of a national out-of-hours service. In the absence of a State-wide out-of-hours service, children in distress or in need of emergency accommodation are either brought to or obliged to present at a Garda station, where they must await the arrival of a social worker or other service supports. A report by the Ombudsman for Children on homeless children cited children’s own experiences of being obliged to present at or be brought to a Garda station and what this exposed them to. There is no question about the understanding and responsible attitude of the Garda which would be dealing with cases as they present; that is not the focus of my question, rather it concerns the impact of what actually can occur in a Garda station. Let us be clear about this. A great number of these sad incidents will occur during the evening or at weekends. Many other things also happen in Garda stations and I do not believe it is appropriate that children are placed in these environments.

How many times has the implementation group met? Are we any closer — I note what the Minister said — to having a comprehensive out-of-hours service rolled out? Has any consideration been given to co-operation on a North-South basis, particularly where there are communities straddling the Border for which an out-of-hours service could be provided on a shared basis between authorities North and South?

Deputy Frances Fitzgerald: Information on Frances Fitzgerald Zoom on Frances Fitzgerald I absolutely agree that Garda stations are not the place for young children in need of care. However, I wish to pay tribute to the work done by gardaí who are dealing with this issue. I have met their representatives who have expressed their concerns to me. That is why it is important we had two pilot projects last year. We had different models in Cork and Donegal, with a different response. We are awaiting the evaluation of these responses which we will have shortly. I hope the next time we discuss this issue on the floor of the House I will be in a position to get back to the Deputy with the national model we will use for the roll-out of services throughout the country, for which I have allowed funding in this year’s budget.

This is an extremely important issue which has gone on for far too long. I pay tribute to the emergency place of safety service which the Garda can access. Most of the young children being brought to its attention receive a place in a foster family, which is really important. It is happening quickly, but nevertheless, young children can have the experience of having to spend some hours in a Garda station inappropriately in these circumstances. We want to stop this practice as quickly as we can. It has gone on for years, but we are now at a point where we are waiting for the reports on the pilot projects. We will figure out the best model to use because clearly there are resource implications of which we have to be conscious, depending on which model is used to develop the service. That issue will have to be addressed also.

We have a service available in Dublin, to which approximately 800 children were referred in 2010. They were placed in a variety of settings. That is an emergency out-of-hours social work service. We have the model of the emergency place of safety service where gardaí seek a foster family to look after a child. We also have the two pilot projects. We have to bring all of this experience together and decide how we should move forward within the available resources.


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