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Other Questions - Child Abuse

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 765 No. 3

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 94.  Deputy Mick Wallace Information on Mick Wallace Zoom on Mick Wallace  asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Information on Frances Fitzgerald Zoom on Frances Fitzgerald  her views on whether the statutory responsibility to report suspicions and allegations of child abuse contained in the proposed Children First Bill and the possibility of sanctions for those who fail to report same may have unintended consequences which will result in resources being diverted away from front line child protection services; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24033/12]

 96.  Deputy Mick Wallace Information on Mick Wallace Zoom on Mick Wallace  asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Information on Frances Fitzgerald Zoom on Frances Fitzgerald  if she has carried out a cost-benefit analysis of the proposal to introduce mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse contained in the current version of the Children First Bill; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [24034/12]

Deputy Frances Fitzgerald: Information on Frances Fitzgerald Zoom on Frances Fitzgerald I propose to take Questions Nos. 94 and 96 together.

The Children First National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children, which I published in 2011, provides for clarity and guidance for individuals and organisations in identifying and responding appropriately to child abuse and neglect. It also sets out what organisations which care for or work with children should do to ensure they are safe while in the care of such organisations. The Government has committed, as a priority, to the introduction of legislation to underpin the Children First guidelines and the heads of a Bill have been prepared and submitted to the Joint Committee for Health and Children for its consideration. Quite a number of the organisations which work directly with children have given evidence to the committee in recent weeks. I understand the committee plans to hold further hearings. While the draft heads of the Bill have been prepared, they will only be finalised when the committee has concluded its deliberations. A very broad consultation process is taking place across Departments and agencies. Aspects of the details of the draft heads of the Bill may change and I am open to listening to what the committee and the organisations which either have already or will come before it have to say in this regard. As is the case with all legislation and as part of the preparatory process relating to the Bill, we will be carrying out a regulatory impact analysis which will further quantify the potential costs associated with compliance and enforcement. This will be submitted to the Government when I am seeking approval to draft the Bill.

[239]Experience in other countries indicates that guidance for those responsible for reporting and the effective screening of all reports are important in designing an effective filtering system which deploys resources appropriately, based on child protection criteria. In that context, I will be developing guidance for reporting abuse to assist organisations to deal with issues such as definitions, thresholds and appropriate channels for the reporting of abuse. The guidance will require the designated officers and professionals named in the legislation to consider a number of factors in order to determine whether the concern reaches the threshold of a report under the legislation. It is important to state I have been previously been assured by Mr. Gordon Jeyes, the HSE’s national director for children and family services, that all referrals, when initially received, are assessed and that the action taken is prioritised by risk.

  3 o’clock

Huge resources have been put in place in the past ten years in respect of Children First. Massive developments have taken place and the HSE and the Garda Síochána work closely together on this matter. The HSE has provided a great deal of training, information and advice on the implementation of Children First. I pay tribute to the organisations — representatives from many of which I have met — which work directly with children and have taken the Children First guidelines so seriously since their introduction. I refer, for example, to the Irish Sports Council, the GAA, groups representing teachers, etc., have all taken the guidelines on board and examined how they apply to their organisations. I recently attended a meeting held in Croke Park when over 200 volunteers from the GAA came together in order to discuss their work on this matter and how they might develop it in the future. The position in this regard in the context of a range of other voluntary organisations is the same. A great deal of work has been done and much experience has been gained during the period in which the Children First guidelines have been in place.

In addition to the existing structures in place to support Children First, there has been an increase in the number of social workers operating in the child welfare and protection area. The recruitment of these additional social workers was recommended in the Ryan report implementation plan and some 220 were taken on.

Along with the Government and other parties in this House, I gave a commitment over the years to put the Children First guidelines on a statutory basis. It was felt it was important to change the culture of ambivalence regarding the reporting of child abuse, one which was most recently seen when the Cloyne report was published. We decided the important thing to do was to be very clear that if someone was concerned about abuse, it should be reported. That is why we have decided it should be placed on a statutory basis.

This is only one part of a wider reform agenda in this area. We also have a range of other actions such as the setting up a new child and family support agency which will be a key element of the reform of this area.

Deputy Mick Wallace: Information on Mick Wallace Zoom on Mick Wallace I can assure the Minister the Football Association of Ireland, FAI, has been strongly involved in this and it is the largest participant sport in the country.

Deputy Frances Fitzgerald: Information on Frances Fitzgerald Zoom on Frances Fitzgerald I have to support the Deputy on that.

Deputy Mick Wallace: Information on Mick Wallace Zoom on Mick Wallace I do not understand this area as well as the Minister does. I note, however, Professor Eileen Munro of the London School of Economics has warned that it may end up draining resources from front line protection services. Dr. Helen Buckley, Trinity College Dublin, made several points in correspondence with me. For example, the claim that the harm and misery experienced by some of the children who featured in recent high-profile cases were as a result of a failure to report is a misperception. In fact, she points out the majority of these cases had been reported many times to the Health Service Executive social workers but too often there was a failure to respond adequately which is a different issue. She [240]also points out the proposed legislation will not address some of the systemic weaknesses in child protection practices identified by the research review of recent child abuse inquires and the national review panel reports which include inadequate management oversight, lack of strategic multidisciplinary planning, absence of child-mindedness on the part of adult health and related services and a general dearth of joined-up work between the sectors serving children and families. Reviews have also demonstrated a dearth of local policy on assessment and planning for children in out-of-home care——

Acting Chairman (Deputy Olivia Mitchell): Information on Olivia Mitchell Zoom on Olivia Mitchell Would the Deputy like to put his question?

Deputy Mick Wallace: Information on Mick Wallace Zoom on Mick Wallace ——and the community which leads to a substandard practice.

I am not pretending to be an expert on the matter but is the Department taking the concerns of these two notable individuals on board?

Deputy Frances Fitzgerald: Information on Frances Fitzgerald Zoom on Frances Fitzgerald I thank the Deputy for raising this question. I have said all along that reporting is just one aspect of this area. The Children First guidelines, which have been in place for ten years, and the proposed legislation are about working effectively with other agencies, having good quality interagency work and sharing information. That is the kind of culture to which we need to move to provide the best services for children at risk.

Professor Eileen Munro has done interesting work in the UK. I have worked in this area in the UK but it is a different situation to here. I accept the work in this area is very stressful as was highlighted in the report published yesterday. However, what has been missing to some degree in the management of social work services in this country is a clear national policy, the gathering of consistent information and an ability to compare what is happening in one part of the country with another because the data is not consistent or standardised. A significant amount of reform of management has to be done. That is one of the reasons we decided to take child and family services from the HSE and have a separate child and family support agency to deal with this difficult area.

We are also examining how we provide services for children and families. We sometimes forget the large amount of funding the State gives to a variety of agencies which work with children and families. We want to arrive at a position where those working in the HSE on child protection are also being supported by and work with those providing family support.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Olivia Mitchell): Information on Olivia Mitchell Zoom on Olivia Mitchell Thank you, Minister.

Deputy Frances Fitzgerald: Information on Frances Fitzgerald Zoom on Frances Fitzgerald We want to prevent children coming into care. That is the key approach.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Olivia Mitchell): Information on Olivia Mitchell Zoom on Olivia Mitchell I call Deputy Ó Caoláin for a brief question because I want to go back to the main questioner.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin Has the Minister had any cross-departmental engagement on the critical need to increase additional funding support for the implementation of this legislation? There is an across-the-board recognition that there will be an upsurge in reporting. Some spell all sorts of calamitous situations but we all have to be realistic that there will be an increase. The services are already under significant strain. The legislation of itself——

Acting Chairman (Deputy Olivia Mitchell): Information on Olivia Mitchell Zoom on Olivia Mitchell In fairness to the main questioner, could Deputy Ó Caoláin conclude?

[241]Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin ——without adequate resourcing will not suffice. Will the Minister please comment on this?

Acting Chairman (Deputy Olivia Mitchell): Information on Olivia Mitchell Zoom on Olivia Mitchell Deputy McConalogue has a question as well. I ask him to be brief.

Deputy Charlie McConalogue: Information on Charlie McConalogue Zoom on Charlie McConalogue I commend Deputy Wallace for these two very important questions. They really go to the nub of what is important in improving our child protection system. I am concerned the Minister’s priority is about giving the appearance of improving the system when, in reality, we may be putting more pressure on it and draining resources away from where they are needed. I think it is time for the Minister to give up the charade.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Olivia Mitchell): Information on Olivia Mitchell Zoom on Olivia Mitchell Have you a question, Deputy?

Deputy Charlie McConalogue: Information on Charlie McConalogue Zoom on Charlie McConalogue Yes. It is time for the Minister to give up the charade that social work numbers have increased. The figures she gave today show they have definitely not.

Acting Chairman (Deputy Olivia Mitchell): Information on Olivia Mitchell Zoom on Olivia Mitchell Deputy, you are taking someone else’s time.

Deputy Charlie McConalogue: Information on Charlie McConalogue Zoom on Charlie McConalogue There is mounting evidence that mandatory reporting will put an additional burden on resources. The Minister needs to ensure those resources are made available so an effective child protection system is in place. As Deputy Wallace said, in the serious cases we have experienced in the past, reporting——

Acting Chairman (Deputy Olivia Mitchell): Information on Olivia Mitchell Zoom on Olivia Mitchell I must stop the Deputy now. I call on Deputy Wallace.

Deputy Charlie McConalogue: Information on Charlie McConalogue Zoom on Charlie McConalogue ——has not been the issue.

Deputy Mick Wallace: Information on Mick Wallace Zoom on Mick Wallace In the case of the new measures creating extra workloads, will additional funding be made available? I know it is a hypothetical question. However, looking at recent statistics from the HSE’s children and family service, of the 29,000 plus reports in 2010, only 5% recorded an outcome of confirmed abuse which is way below the European average. We all realise that adequate funding will be required if we are going to be serious about this.

I compliment the Minister for giving us an answer without reading a script. I can see she is passionate about what she does and she should be complimented for that.

Deputy Frances Fitzgerald: Information on Frances Fitzgerald Zoom on Frances Fitzgerald I thank Deputy Ó Caoláin for his comments on this legislation at committee recently. I can assure Deputy McConalogue there is no charade going on. It is far from that. There is actually action for a change on this issue.

Cross-departmental discussions are taking place on additional funding for training. It is one of the issues that will be addressed. Quite a bit of money has been put aside by the HSE for training over the years, as well as by the organisations involved themselves which we expect. If they are providing a service for children, we expect them to contribute to the training and the supports required to make their services safe for the children who use them. I compliment the GAA, FAI and other groups which have put money into this area and trained their staff. We will continue in the interdepartmental group to assess this issue and see what implications may arise.

I do not believe the introduction of legislation to underpin Children First will divert resources. At the end of the day, what is more important? We must ensure that those referrals of children who are at risk, abused, raped or neglected are made and dealt with adequately. [242] That is the point of Children First — to remove any ambivalence about reporting. When would one not want to report such a situation? The committee has the opportunity, in discussions with the different organisations, to get their views on resources. I am struck reading the reports of the committee so far at how supportive the organisations are about moving in this direction. They are the ones who have had front line experience for ten years and know the issue of resources. I accept it is a difficult time for everyone when it comes to resources but we must examine the resources available and ensure they are used as effectively as possible. For example, family resource centres should function with front line child protection workers in a unified approach in assessing these cases and getting the best services to them. There is still scope for more effective inter-agency work.

Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Information on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin Zoom on Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin As a point of information, the Minister is correct in that the committee is doing good work, with excellent groups coming before it. The structuring of these Houses means that while we are dealing with the Minister in Question Time today, the committee is having further deliberations on the Children First guidelines in the basement, meeting groups coming before it. We have not got the gift of bi-location so that practice should be avoided.

Deputy Frances Fitzgerald: Information on Frances Fitzgerald Zoom on Frances Fitzgerald I agree completely with the Deputy.


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