Protections for Persons Reporting Child Abuse Bill, 1998 changed from Children (Reporting of Alleged Abuse) Bill, 1998: Second Stage.

Wednesday, 4 November 1998

Seanad Éireann Debate
Vol. 156 No. 17

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An Cathaoirleach: Information on Brian Mullooly Zoom on Brian Mullooly This Bill has been changed from “Children (Reporting of Alleged Abuse) Bill, 1998”. The question is, “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.” I call Senator Jackman.

Mrs. Jackman: Information on Mary Jackman Zoom on Mary Jackman I welcome the Minister of State. When this Bill was first introduced as a Private Members' Bill by Deputy Shatter it was entitled “Children (Reporting of Alleged Abuse) Bill”, but has now been changed. The Bill had a rather [1349] turbulent passage through the Select Committee on Health and Children and there was a lack of acceptance for some of Deputy Shatter's amendments. An article in last Monday's Irish Independent by Brian McDonald entitled “Scandal of Abused Children Revealed” showed the real picture of abuse and neglect. It stated that a staggering 3,700 children are in care and over 100 appear before the children's court in Dublin every week, let alone what one might find in other health board areas. The Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, referred to the care system being “over-run” with neglected children.

If Deputy Shatter were here today he would say that he sounded a warning throughout the passage of this Bill, which was first introduced in February 1998. Since then there have been more cases of abuse reported in the media, particularly from adults who now feel free to shed the burden of abuse. It is extremely important that this Bill passes as quickly as possible and that it be enacted very soon. We cannot afford to neglect these problems any more.

Nobody can say that there will be an immediate solution. It may seem strange when one sees Ireland described as the Celtic tiger and as one of the most prosperous member states of the EU but, as stated in the Irish Independent article there are many other social problems, such as unemployment, alcohol and drug abuse, ignorance and poor parenting. It is also clear that support structures are inadequate. The article listed black spot areas, such as north Clondalkin in Dublin, where there is no post office or health care centre. Limerick was also described as a disadvantaged area.

This Bill does not demand any finance from the Department of Health and Children. It is a vehicle for improving the legal position of those who wish to report alleged cases of abuse. In that sense it only needs our co-operation to ensure it is passed as quickly as possible.

Children must be a priority when the forthcoming budget is being prepared. Many Departments are involved in this area — Education and Science, Health and Children, Social, Community and Family Affairs — but anybody asked for an opinion on a priority area would surely choose children in order to give them a fair chance and to give them adequate support to ensure they do not have a bleak future. We do not have hearts of stone in this regard.

Deputy Shatter when introducing his Bill stated that it facilitated the reporting of child abuse by any person who has reasonable grounds for believing that a child is at risk, and that it addressed an area of law which has been ignored for too long. There are many issues relating to the implementation of the Child Care Act that need to be addressed and which need funding.

Some changes have been made to this Bill since Deputy Shatter introduced his Bill in February. Amendments were accepted in the area of interpretation, and Deputy Shatter accepted that it was necessary that an “appropriate person”[1350] meant a designated officer or a member of the Garda. Initially he had a broader reference but he accepted that a designated officer would be “ . an officer of a health board appointed under section 2 of this Act for the purposes of this Act”. The other areas are fairly straightforward.

Section 2 refers to the chief executive officer of each health board. When the Bill is enacted, an officer or officers of the board will be a designated officer or officers for the purpose of the Act. I read the Official Report on the Bill and Deputy Shatter and others, such as Deputy Shortall, would have preferred to have a more specific provision in certain sections. However, in this case the chief executive officer or the deputy chief executive officer of each of the eight health boards, in accordance with the section of the Health Act, will be the person who will appoint one or more officers as designated officers.

Section 3 deals with the protection from civil liability of persons who have reported child abuse. The Bill was amended to eliminate the reference in the Bill as initiated by Deputy Shatter to a child's health, development or welfare which was likely to be avoidably impaired or neglected. Section 3(2) states the reference to liability in damages “shall be construed as including a reference to liability to be the subject of an order providing for any other form of relief”, which is straightforward.

Section 4 created a great deal of grief during its passage through the Select Committee and Report Stage in the Dáil, where it was considerably lengthened in regard to the protection of employees from penalisation for having reported child abuse. The debate referred to the meaning of the reference to the Unfair Dismissals Acts, 1977 to 1993.

The section gives protection to employees and provide that “an employer shall not penalise an employee for having formed an opinion of the kind referred to in section 3 and communicated it, whether in writing or otherwise, to an appropriate person if the employee has acted reasonably and in good faith in forming that opinion and communicating it to the appropriate person”. The provision that the person must have acted reasonably and in good faith goes right through the Bill as initiated by Deputy Shatter.

There is quite an amount of detail in section 4 in regard to the decision of a rights commissioner. It states that a decision shall do one or more of the following:

(a) declare that the complaint was or, as the case may be, was not well founded,

(b) require the employer to comply with subsection (1) of this section, and, for that purpose, require the employer to take specified steps,

(c) require the employer to pay to the employee compensation of such amount (if any) as is just and equitable having regard to all the circumstances, but not exceeding 104 weeks remuneration in respect of the employee's [1351] employment calculated in accordance with regulations under section 17 of the Unfair Dismissals Act, 1977.

This section was amended by the Select Committee and on Report Stage in the Dáil.

The section also refers to the tribunal. It states that if it is necessary to make an application to the Circuit Court, such an application should be made to “the judge of the Circuit Court for the circuit in which the employer concerned ordinarily resides or carries on any profession, trade or business”. The section further states that nothing in the section “operates to confer on the Minister for Health and Children any of the functions of the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment under the Act of 1994 and those functions shall be performable by the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment for the purposes of the provisions of the Act of 1994”.

Section 5 deals with the issue of false reporting of child abuse, which we hope would not be very common. The section states that a person who states to an appropriate person that a child has been assaulted or ill-treated or that a child's health has been impaired, knowing that statement to be false — which is an addition to the Bill as initiated by Deputy Shatter — shall be guilty of an offence. Such a person shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £1,500 or to imprisonment.

Therefore, there are quite strict penalties for nosy parkers or busy bodies who would seek to cause problems for someone because of a vendetta or a family disagreement — we cannot know who might decide to make such a vindictive statement. A person guilty of such an offence shall be liable on conviction or indictment to a fine not exceeding £15,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years, or to both. It is important to have large fines for muddying a person's good name by making a false claim. The section further states that “notwithstanding section 10(4) of the Petty Sessions (Ireland) Act, 1851, summary proceedings for an offence under this Act may be instituted within 12 months from the date of the offence”.

Reference is then made in the Bill to saving and the new Short Title, which it states may be cited as the “Protections for Persons Reporting Child Abuse Act, 1998”. The Bill states finally that the Act shall come into operation one month after its passing. It is unusual to go through the various sections of a Bill, but it was necessary for me to do so in this case because it is a Private Members' Bill.

I had hoped to have more time to discuss the support structures for health boards in the whole area of child abuse. I ask the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy Cowen, to ensure the Child Care Act is implemented. I had the privilege of being a Member of the Seanad from 1989 to 1992, during which time that Act was debated. It is extremely essential in the forthcoming budget, and in subsequent ones, for the necessary [1352] finances to be allocated to ensure that Act is totally implemented and monitored by health boards — the buck stops eventually with the Minister for Health and Children — rather than paying lip service to our supposed love of children in this country and our supposed protection of them.

When I ask members of the Mid-Western Health Board for support for the cases which are brought to my attention, I am always told they do not have the money or personnel to implement sections of the Act. They do not even have money to train social workers to deal with this particular issue, apart from all the other areas which cause tremendous grief in terms of the protection of children. I appeal to the Minister of State to fight with the Minister, Deputy Cowen, and the Minister for Finance to ensure a proper allocation is made for the implementation of that Act.

We have been given the impression over recent years that this issue will be addressed and that more money will be provided for child care. However, the Irish Independent printed devastating statistics in this regard, and newspapers only print facts. Every time we think the lid has been put on paedophilia, whether in sports organisations or the Church, we then read in the newspapers about more instances of abuse and more people coming forward.

For such a civilised and “Christian” country, it is appalling that we are still fighting here for the Child Care Act to be implemented. The only way we can say we have done our job is by prioritising the essential funding for this. If I were asked my priority for this budget, I would say it was the full implementation of that Act on a phased basis — I would not expect all the money to be provided in 1998 — and not just because I am my party's spokesperson on health and children. I read one report that £100 million is available, and I am sure there is far more. If we could ensure that money was spent over a three year period on ensuring our children were protected there would be no backlash for the Government in regard to the budget.

I thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for the latitude you gave me and I hope this Bill will pass through the Seanad quickly to ensure that people are not frightened of reporting cases of child abuse and neglect to the appropriate authorities, which in this case are the Garda Síochána and the eight health boards.

Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Mr. Fahey): Information on Frank Fahey Zoom on Frank Fahey I thank Senator Jackman for her introduction to the Bill and I would like to say how pleased I am to be back in the Seanad where I spent five very enjoyable years. I agree with all Senator Jackman said as regards the urgency of dealing with the child care area. She was right to say that there are no instant solutions and that it is one of the difficulties given the magnitude and, indeed, complexities of the problems. While we are not here to discuss that [1353] today, I appreciate her support in trying to get extra money for which there is a need.

All Governments in the past have neglected this area. As a result of the tragedies of the 1980s, the Kilkenny incest case, the Madonna House case and so on, there was a considerable increase in resources. While I wish to remain non-political about this issue, the last Government in its last year in office reduced the allocation from £10 million to £5 million. Last year we increased the amount to £13 million, although there is no doubt that there is a need for a greater amount of resources in this area and we must all fight to get those resources and the type of action we now plan.

As you are aware, a Chathaoirligh, this is a Private Members' Bill introduced by Deputy Shatter, which the Government accepted in principle in February of this year. We amended the Bill substantially during its passage through the Dáil. However, before dealing with the content of the Bill I would like at the outset to outline a number of important developments in our child care services for the information of the Seanad to which I alluded. In our programme for Government, An Action Plan for the Millennium, we committed ourselves to the introduction of the mandatory reporting of child abuse and the Government has approved the preparation of a White Paper on this issue. This is not a policy which is to be lightly entered into and we are all aware that it is highly complex and arouses very strong emotions, particularly in those who expect that they will be charged with the implementation of the legislation once enacted.

Everyone knows that legislation can seem fine and workable in the abstract. However, we must ensure that in an area such as child care and protection we are very clear and careful about what it is that we expect our legislation to achieve. We must not make the difficult tasks which our excellent child care staff carry out, often under the most trying of circumstances, any more problematical when they come to implement the legislation.

For these reasons, I am proceeding on a number of fronts to review current practices and procedures with a view to implementing our commitment to mandatory reporting in a cohesive manner which will have the broad support of those who will have to put the policy into practice. One of my priorities on my appointment as Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children last year was to begin a comprehensive review of child care practices and procedures. This was necessary because of the rapid way in which child care services have developed over the years. This, of course, is a reflection of the increases in resources which have been approved for services for children and families since the publication of the pivotal Kilkenny incest investigation report in 1993 in order to provide for the full implementation of the Child Care Act, 1991.

I was also conscious of the urgent need to expand family support and preventative services [1354] and to try to prevent the types of cases with which we are all too familiar from recurring. One of my key priorities, therefore, has been to ensure that there are up to date national child abuse guidelines in place which all health boards can use. In February I established a working group to review the child abuse guidelines. I asked the group, to which I appointed an independent chair, Ms Maureen Lynott, the director of provider affairs at BUPA Ireland, to report to me with revised guidelines by February 1999. The group is very representative and includes members of the social work and medical professions along with representatives of the health boards, voluntary organisations, unions, the Garda and relevant Departments.

I have kept myself informed of the progress of the working group which has had a fairly tight schedule of meetings and presentations due to the complexities of the issues upon which it must agree. I am happy to be able to tell the Seanad that the group is on schedule and hope to be in a position to report to me with revised guidelines in accordance with its deadline of February next.

In recognition of the proposed status of the revised guidelines as national guidelines, I am anxious to ensure that other guidelines and codes which relate to the care, welfare and protection of children should follow the key elements of the national guidelines. In other words, the national guidelines will set down agreed definitions and principles which should apply to all. Individual health boards and other agencies, statutory and voluntary, can then develop their own protocols based on the national guidelines. It is, of course, obvious that such over-arching guidelines are a prerequisite for the guidance of the many disparate groups involved with children.

To ensure consistency of approach, I authorised officials of the Department of Health and Children to meet with officials and persons charged with the review of the guidelines relating to children in schools and the code of ethics and good practice for children's sport in Ireland. I am pleased to be able to report to this House that both groups have decided to postpone publication of their documents pending finalisation of the national guidelines.

The second course of action I wish to highlight is the creation of a social services inspectorate. The inspectorate, which will concentrate on the child care services initially, is being established on an administrative basis for the present and will be located in the Department of Health and Children. I am pleased to inform Senators that advertisements for the position of chief inspector were placed in local papers by the Department of Health and Children in July of this year and the interviews for the post will be held this month.

The main function of the inspectorate will be the promotion of good practice and the development of quality standards in child care services. The inspectorate's key tasks will include inspection of health board residential homes for children under the Child Care Act, 1991; management [1355] of the organisation, operation and management of child care services; evaluation of the quality and responsiveness of services as experienced by users and carers and to improve standards; provision of professional advice and expertise to Departments on the formulation, implementation and review of child care policy and the effective and efficient delivery of services; development of strategies to give effect to recommendations of relevant inquiry and review reports and other such tasks as may be assigned.

The post of chief inspector is a key post in the ongoing development of our child care services and I look forward to the appointment of a dynamic, caring professional who will be a force for real change and improvement of services to the vulnerable children in our community. Recruitment of the three additional inspectors will proceed as quickly as possible after the appointment of the chief inspector together with the appointment of administrative support staff.

This brings me to the Bill before us, having passed all Stages in the Dáil prior to the summer recess. As I mentioned, this Bill was initially presented in the Dáil by Deputy Shatter in Private Members' time in February of this year. In recognition of the intention of the Government to deal with the issue of immunity from civil liability in the context of comprehensive legislation on mandatory reporting, it was agreed to accept Deputy Shatter's Bill in principle and to refer it immediately to the appropriate committee of the House to allow for the revised drafting of the Bill.

I was pleased the Government took this decision and I complimented Deputy Shatter at that time and subsequently on his initiative in bringing forward this legislation. I have no hesitation in doing so again today. He has a proud record of bringing forward legislation in the general child care area which has had a lasting impact on our legislative framework and on our services.

After Second Stage of the Bill was taken in the Dáil, I and my officials had a number of constructive meetings with Deputy Shatter at which we managed to achieve a large measure of agreement. I wanted our discussions to reflect a spirit of co-operation and goodwill which would ensure that the best legislative proposals were brought forward so that people would be encouraged to report child abuse. I consider that the amendments which I proposed and which were in the main acceptable to the Deputy, bar one important provision, strengthen and improve the Bill and ensure that it provides a comprehensive protection for persons reporting allegations and neglect. Deputy Shatter did not agree with the creation of a new criminal offence of malicious reporting of child abuse. However, this, in my opinion, acts as a safeguard against false allegations.

I do not propose to go over old ground so I will not detail the provisions of the Bill before amendment, rather I will outline the main provisions [1356] of the Bill as it stands. Section 1 gives a list of the definitions used throughout the Bill and is standard in such legislation.

Section 2 provides for the chief executive officer of a health board to appoint specific personnel as designated officers to receive reports under the Act. This is to ensure that reports are channelled to the appropriate officers of the health boards rather than, for example, to any officer of the health board which would be inappropriate. I point out that there was considerable discussion on this subject during the progress of the Bill through the various Stages in the other House. I accepted an Opposition amendment at very short notice which I have been subsequently advised could present a difficulty in the future in that the appointment of such officers might be regarded as questionable.

The wording in question is in section 2(1) and I will bring forward an amendment on Committee Stage. I will also address in the same amendment one of the other principal concerns of Deputies who spoke on Committee and Report Stages that I be more prescriptive in terms of the types of persons to be appointed as designated officers. In effect this will mean that the Minister will have the power to direct health boards to appoint particular categories of staff and that each member of their staff within these categories will be a designated officer for the purposes of the Act. This will help to ensure uniformity of approach by the boards which is essential for the efficient operation of the legislation.

Section 3 deals with the protection from civil liability of persons who have reported child abuse. In effect the section ensures that a person reporting under the Bill will not be liable for any relief or damages. This means that it will provide full civil protection to a person who reports child abuse “reasonably and in good faith”.

Section 4 deals with the protection of employees from penalisation for having reported child abuse. The section puts in place protections for employees who report child abuse in good faith from all discrimination in their employment up to and including dismissal. The section provides an avenue of redress for such an employee by way of a complaint to a rights commissioner. In proceedings before a commissioner or the Employment Appeals Tribunal, it shall be presumed, unless the contrary is proven, that the employee concerned acted reasonably and in good faith in forming the opinion and in making the communication involved.

This section also provides that, in respect of an unfair dismissal within the meaning of the Unfair Dismissals Acts, 1977 to 1993, relief may not be granted to an employee in respect of that penalisation both under this section and under those Acts. The rights commissioner shall give the parties an opportunity to be heard by the commissioner, to present any evidence relevant to the complaint and shall give a decision in writing which shall be communicated to all the parties. The rights commissioner may direct specific [1357] action to be taken by an employer who has contravened this provision, for example, he or she may direct the employer to reinstate or re-engage or pay compensation to an employee who was penalised by way of dismissal.

I have provided for a total time limit of 18 months for the lodging of a complaint. There is an initial time limit of 12 months from the date of a contravention followed by an extension of a further six months where the rights commissioner is satisfied that exceptional circumstances prevented the presentation of the complaint within the shorter period. I have also made provision in this section for the hearings of the rights commissioner and the Employment Appeals Tribunal to be held in private.

I consider that these are significant protections for persons who might fear victimisation by their employer up to and including dismissal if they were to report child abuse. I compliment my colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Harney, and her officials in the Department for their co-operation in drafting this section of the Bill.

Section 5 relates to the false reporting of child abuse. In our response to the Bill in February on Second Stage in Dáil Éireann, both the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Cowen, and I were most anxious that the Bill when finally enacted would not become a “whistle-blowers charter”. To this end in framing our amendments subsequently, we were determined to ensure that there was an essential element of balance in the Bill. As a society in recent years we have become aware of more and more horrific stories of abuse and neglect. The terrible deeds recounted in various court cases, inquiry reports and elsewhere have contributed to the opprobrium in which child abusers are held.

There can be few more damaging accusations against anyone in our society than that he or she abused or abuses children. Under our Constitution, a person is entitled to the protection of his or her good name. Article 40.3.2 provides that:

The State shall, in particular, by its laws protect as best it may from unjust attack and, in the case of injustice done, vindicate the life, person, good name, and property rights of every citizen.

The Supreme Court has held that the State has a duty under this Article by its laws to prevent the infringement of personal rights. While I have said from my first day in office that the interests of the child are paramount, it is obvious that it is also vital to protect the personal rights of others, including, for example, parents, from unsubstantiated attack.

Can one even begin to imagine the trauma suffered by a child's parent if an unfounded accusation is made against them? We must strike the right balance in this Bill between the need to protect those who report child abuse with due care and in good faith and the need to protect the good name of citizens. In introducing this amendment [1358] to the Bill and thereby creating a new offence of malicious reporting, I sought to protect the innocent from such attacks. The section makes the malicious reporting of child abuse a criminal offence punishable by a fine or imprisonment. I stress that it will be necessary for the prosecutor to show that a person made a report of child abuse “knowing that statement to be false”. In other words, a high standard of proof is required to establish that an offence has been committed. This is a necessary balance.

I do not think it will in any way curtail or restrict right minded individuals from reporting genuine concerns about child abuse or neglect. It will, however, give some redress to individuals who at present are reliant on their own resources to seek redress through the civil courts when they have been accused maliciously. Thankfully, this does not happen very often, but I am aware of a number of serious instances. I hope that this provision will act as a deterrent to individuals who might be maliciously motivated to make such allegations in the future.

Section 6 emphasises that the statutory immunity provided for in the Bill does not change in any way the defences already available under common law. The section allows a person to use whichever defence would be most appropriate and beneficial taking account of the circumstances of each individual case. In other words, the statutory immunity provided in the Bill does not limit people in any way in regard to defences already available under common law. Section 7 deals with the Title of the Act and when it will come into operation.

I wish to emphasise that the objective of this legislation is to enhance the protection of children by encouraging all members of the public to act responsibly in reporting child abuse. During 1996 the Department of Health and Children carried out an extensive consultation process on the mandatory reporting of child abuse. There was a wide divergence of views on this issue and on the detailed questions raised in the discussion document.

However, one issue on which there was almost unanimous agreement was that irrespective of the introduction of mandatory reporting, immunity should be granted to all professionals reporting in good faith. We will go further in this legislation by providing civil immunity to all persons who, acting reasonably and in good faith, report child abuse to the statutory authorities.

Unfortunately, child abuse has come to be understood by many people as sexual abuse and, while this is a serious problem, the extent of physical and emotional abuse and neglect is much more serious. I emphasise that we are dealing with physical and emotional abuse and neglect as well as sexual abuse when we refer to child abuse.

I already referred to the work in progress in my Department on reviewing the child abuse guidelines and the imminent establishment of the social services inspectorate. I am confident that these measures together with this Bill will have a [1359] major impact in further strengthening our ability as a society to protect children at risk.

Dr. Henry: Information on Mary E.F. Henry Zoom on Mary E.F. Henry I welcome the Minister of State to the House and, as other Members remarked, I wish he could get more money to implement all the provisions of the Child Care Act, 1991. I also wish child care facilities were given more positive promotion in other Acts. For example, when the divorce legislation was going through this House I recall there was constant reference to the importance of the welfare of children, yet in the family law courts there are still no facilities for judges to obtain independent reports on families as required by many family law Acts and the divorce Act.

I hope this is one of the first areas addressed by the Minister for State. One judge told me that she felt she was involved in child abuse by not being able to get such reports on families because it is of great importance in family cases that an independent and objective report should be placed before the courts. The practice of a judge visiting families to assess the situation themselves or having children visit them in their chambers is not desirable. It is much better if an objective professional, such as someone from the Probation Service, prepares reports so that the court will benefit from them. I hope this will be one of the Minister's priorities.

I welcome the Bill. A number of months ago we welcomed the Murphy report on the Protection of Children in Sport. Sections of the Bill do not take account of the report because it suggested that complaints would be made within the swimming fraternity to people in the association, branch or clubs. For example, chapter 12.6.1 states:

The Association, Branch and affiliated clubs should follow guidelines and procedures for reporting suspected or revealed abuse. Children, parents, teachers, coaches, officers and officials should be reminded that reporting suspected child abuse or an allegation of abuse is not the same as making an accusation. Reporting is not accusing.

If these guidelines are followed, I do not see how the person reporting the suspicion of sexual, physical or emotional abuse will be protected.

Chapter 12.6.2 states:

Where there are grounds for an allegation or complaint of child sexual abuse, the procedures indicated at 3.5 above should be followed.

Since there is no chapter 5 in this report I presume this is a reference to chapter 12.3.26 and 12.3.27.

Chapter 12.3.26 states:

Where complaints of child sexual abuse are made to any committee member that member should inform the officers of the club who should ask the coach to stand down (see 4.10 and 4.11 below) and should report the complaint [1360] to the IASA Child Protection Officer and to the health boards and/or Gardaí.

That person or the members of the committee will not be protected by this Bill.

Chapter 12.3.27 states:

Club Committees should ask persons in respect of whom complaints of sexual abuse have been made to step down pending examination of the complaint. When a Garda investigation is initiated the person being investigated should be suspended (see 4.10 and 4.11 below). The affiliated clubs should consider and decide whether, in the interests of children, the coach should be dismissed.

These are serious matters but I do not see how people who bring such complaints will be protected by the Bill. I realise we do not want a whistle-blower's charter but, on the other hand, if the welfare of the child is paramount, we must make sure we are protecting people if they bring forward what they feel is a suspicion of child sexual abuse.

At the back of this report the bibliography of publications and reports on child sexual abuse in Ireland over the past number of years is amazing and these are only the cases which have received major public attention including the Kilkenny incest investigation; the report on the Inquiry into the operation of Madonna House; the report of the Independent Review Group on the International Missionary Training Hospital, Drogheda; the report of the Working Party on the Legal and Judicial Process for Victims of Sexual and Other Crimes of Violence against Women and Children; the report of the Irish Catholic Bishops Advisory Committee on Sexual Abuse by Priests and Religious; the report of the Law Reform Commission, Preventing Child Abuse Supporting Healthy Families, a submission to Government by the ISPCC, and the list goes on.

In many of these cases, I do not know how the person who initially brings forward the report will be protected. I wish the provision had been broader. I often wonder how many cases of malicious reporting take place. Currently, if the person specified by a health board receives a complaint, it is mandatory for him to report it to the Garda. Consequently, people may report a suspicion to the health board in order to get the Garda sent to a person's house, for example, a neighbour they dislike. These cases are thin on the ground and I wish at least the Garda had been included. It is heavy weather that a person must go to the health board to complain. Are people involved in sport to refer to the recommendations in the Murphy report? Are they not to report anything unless they go to a health board?

Mr. Fahey: Information on Frank Fahey Zoom on Frank Fahey Where else do they report to other than the appropriate authorities?

Dr. Henry: Information on Mary E.F. Henry Zoom on Mary E.F. Henry I am referring to the reporting to the committees recommended in the report —[1361] the person who reports what they see at the side of the swimming pool as recommended in the report. If he or she reports to the chairman of the club, is he or she still liable to criminal prosecution? Under the Bill, I believe he or she is, yet within a club this facility is worth putting in place where a suspicion that something is going on could be reported.

Perhaps when the Minister of State replies he will say that my concerns are unfounded. People may not feel they have a legal obligation to report but a moral obligation, and I like to think we are protecting those who are in the close confines of a swimming club and feel that a committee member should be told. Under the Bill, it looks as if such people will not have any protection.

The role of the State is discussed in Strengthening Families for Life and there is a good section on how important it is that the State should have a strong role in promoting certain models of family life. The commission states that while the role is limited by the principles of family and personal privacy and autonomy, by practical limits as to what the State can achieve as far as certain difficult aspects of family life are concerned and by public expenditure constraints, there is scope for the State to have an active role in the life of the family. Remembering how seriously and rightly we, in Ireland, take family privacy, the Minister rightly stated that we should not just think about sexual abuse; we should think of physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect. I am sorry that the gardaí are left out because fortunately they are quite close to most people in Ireland.

Mr. Fahey: Information on Frank Fahey Zoom on Frank Fahey There is a protocol between the Garda and the health boards, and there is a mechanism for that protocol to come into place.

Dr. Henry: Information on Mary E.F. Henry Zoom on Mary E.F. Henry My concern is that if the complaint is made to the Garda first, is the person protected under this Bill?

Mr. Fahey: Information on Frank Fahey Zoom on Frank Fahey Yes.

Dr. Henry: Information on Mary E.F. Henry Zoom on Mary E.F. Henry That certainly is a great relief to me because I did not think they were when I read the Bill. I thought it applied only to the designated officer.

Mrs. Jackman: Information on Mary Jackman Zoom on Mary Jackman The Bill states “or a member of the Garda Síochána”.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Brian Mullooly Zoom on Brian Mullooly These are matters which can be teased out in greater detail on Committee Stage.

Dr. Henry: Information on Mary E.F. Henry Zoom on Mary E.F. Henry That was one of my main concerns with the Bill. If that reporting is covered also, it is certainly a great relief to me.

One thing I would ask the Minister to clarify when he replies is when emergency care orders come into place for these children, how long in general — I know it will depend on the circumstances — will it be before an investigation takes place? I have not been able to find out this or, [1362] indeed, how many cases are reported annually. This must make an enormous difference on how much social workers will be able adequately to undertake to do. I realise it is an area where it is difficult to get a continuity of social work care because the work is extremely stressful. No matter how much one provides by way of finance, it is hard to build up a good corps of people who are prepared to stay in it for long enough. One of the things I have found which is unfortunate is that by the time people have got adequate expertise in this area, it is time for them to be promoted, often to an administrative position. Therefore, they are not there to do the ground work. Perhaps the Minister will tell me a little about that.

An Cathaoirleach: Information on Brian Mullooly Zoom on Brian Mullooly For the information of Senator Henry, the Minister will not be replying on Second Stage. The concluding speaker will be Senator Jackman. However, I am sure the Minister will respond to the queries raised by Senator Henry on the appropriate sections on Committee Stage.

Dr. Henry: Information on Mary E.F. Henry Zoom on Mary E.F. Henry Thank you, a Chathaoirligh, for your instructions. On Committee Stage I will be able to ask the Minister about these matters. I welcome the introduction of these measures and congratulate Senator Jackman and Deputy Shatter on tabling the Bill.

Dr. Fitzpatrick: Information on Dermot Fitzpatrick Zoom on Dermot Fitzpatrick I welcome the Minister back to his old stomping ground in the Seanad where he left his mark in more ways than one. I welcome the Bill for the protection of people who report child abuse because this affects a great number of people, not just the professionals but people who deal with children. I am talking about teachers and people working in cre ches. It is to give them some protection when they feel that a child in their care is under threat.

The history of child care Bills in Ireland has been poor to put it mildly. We operated until 1991 or 1992 under the old British 1908 Act, which was well out of date even in the 1950s and 1960s. If I remember rightly, Second Stage of the 1991 Act lay on the Dáil table for about eight years before it could be broached. It shows the attitudes in those days which is still evident towards legislating for the family and for the care of children in Ireland. As the Minister said, it has taken a succession of horrific cases to move us along. In fact, since 1991 we, the legislators and people in the general child care area, have embarked on an educational odyssey about the upbringing, care and education of children.

I would not consider myself to be an elderly gent but looking back on my textbooks in medical school little — perhaps only a few lines or paragraphs — was devoted in the ones which dealt with paediatrics to the emotional development of children or to child abuse outside the major traumas which were dealt with in the pathology textbooks. These did not feature in the classes [1363] which we were given in child care and child development.

It was not as if this knowledge was not in the public domain. If one looks back to the middle of the last century when Oliver Twist was written by Charles Dickens, on one level that book can be read as a horrific catalogue of child abuse but because it was accepted as a novel, it was written off and nothing was ever done about it. People who were working in the child care area then were marginalised and no notice was taken of them. Children who were troublesome or difficult were put into the large institutions. It is not that many of those institutions did not do good work but, when one thinks that there were over 800 boys under one roof in Artane at any one time, with minimal numbers of people, many of whom were poorly trained or untrained, to look after them, it is no wonder that we are reaping in the 1990s what happened in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. These things are beginning to come to the surface. We are beginning to lift the stones of the neglect by other generations.

I am not going to stand here looking back because hindsight is 20/20 vision. We are now in a different era and we are dealing with things in a different context, but it behoves us to learn from the mistakes of those who went before us and to deal with them appropriately.

This is a Bill to protect people who report child abuse. I was glad that the Minister expanded on what he meant by child abuse because the abuse of children which gets the headlines is sexual abuse followed by physical abuse. In my experience, the worst abuse of children is emotional abuse, where children are spoken down to and denigrated from the time they are born, and normally within the close family setting. Their self-esteem and self-confidence is broken and taken away from them at every hand's turn. It is no wonder there are problems in this generation. I am speaking not about all children but about some, a small proportion who you, a Chathaoirligh, as a teacher, have seen under your care. Anybody working in the child care area would have seen these cases and asked “what do we do about that?” This is where we have embarked on an educational odyssey not just for the legislators and teachers but for the parents and those who are charged with the care of children.

The Bill is welcome and long overdue. Nobody could find much fault with it although there may be the odd quibble with the detail. I am glad the Minister is approaching mandatory reporting with extreme caution because this is an area which is fraught with difficulties. I do not know how we are going to surmount these difficulties. On one side are the people at the coalface who are dealing with child care and child abuse on a daily basis. They oppose mandatory reporting. Should we listen to them? On the other side are people in the public eye who have a high profile and who deal with child care and child abuse at one or two steps remove. On radio and television news [1364] programmes calls are made, often in soundbites, for mandatory reporting. Will mandatory reporting achieve anything? The jury is out on this and even after so many years of dealing with children, I cannot decide which is the best option.

I welcome the introduction of designated officers. Child abuse is so important, difficult and urgent to treat, that there must be specially trained officers whose only remit is to deal with it. They will be able to expedite treatment. If they are taken into the general maw of the health boards, they will get lost or become part of the machine and cases will only slowly reach the surface. It is only when something really horrific happens that a fast track approach will be taken to such cases.

I welcome the establishment of a social services inspectorate. This is long overdue and should have been introduced 30 years ago. The provisions in this regard will be dealt with in detail on Committee Stage. However, I urge the Minister to consider, before Committee Stage, the inclusion of the Dublin Corporation school attendance department under the wing of the social services inspectorate.

In Dublin, school attendance is treated differently from the way it is treated in other health board areas. Children who mitch from school tend to have multiple problems themselves and tend to come from families which are dysfunctional or which also have multiple problems. These children need to be treated in a holistic manner. The health board or the inspectorate would have the expertise to provide continuity of care to these children from childhood through to adulthood.

Proving malicious reporting can be difficult under either civil or criminal law. This provision in the Bill seeks to balance the good name of the accused with the rights of the child. At the end of the day, when the law and family or individual rights collide, the law often wins to the detriment of the other. This area must be examined carefully on Committee Stage.

I welcome the introduction of this Bill. It will be one of the building blocks for the future development of child care.

Miss Quill: Information on Máirín Quill Zoom on Máirín Quill I congratulate Deputy Shatter for initiating this Bill, Senator Jackman for introducing it in the Seanad and the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, for accepting it in the Dáil and making improvements in a number of key areas. That is the way politicians ought to approach their work when dealing with child abuse or any other issue relating to children,

The one development in recent Irish politics of which I was extremely proud — unfortunately, it died an early death — was the concept of the Tallaght strategy. Under this strategy, parties united on certain issues that were fundamental to the wellbeing of our country. If ever there was an issue on which there ought to be a Tallaght strategy, mark II, it is the issue of how to deal with child abuse and neglect. There ought not to be [1365] party political point scoring on this issue. It is one to which all politicians should direct their greatest expertise in order to put in place the best possible legislation. In addition, the best possible provision should be made to ensure the legislation has the intended effect. That effect is to give maximum protection to our children from abuse and neglect of all types.

The legislation before the House deals with a single issue. It is a small measure but it is highly significant. Its enactment is pivotal to improving our child care services and to providing the type of protection children need, particularly at this stage of society's evolution.

This legislation is a major milestone on the road to the introduction of mandatory reporting. Mandatory reporting is a subject on which the majority of politicians have agonised long and hard. There are strong arguments for and against its introduction. However, if we as adults and responsible legislators must err, we must do so on the side of giving maximum protection to children.

It is an outrageous indictment on our civilisation, based as it is on Christian principles which we profess and proclaim loudly, that child abuse and neglect is as rampant as it currently is. We hear a great deal about high profile cases. They are horrific and we shudder to hear the details. However, there are dozens of cases of horrendous, persistent child abuse and neglect about which we hear nothing. One of the reasons we hear nothing is that people who are aware of its existence are afraid to come forward. That fear has been a barrier to reporting. The essence of this Bill is to remove that fear and to give conscientious citizens legal protection so they can report abuse to the appropriate authorities with a view to stopping it and providing proper care for children. For that reason, I am particularly pleased to welcome this legislation.

I am also pleased that the provisions of the Bill apply to all persons and not just to professionals in specific areas. The civil immunity provided by the Bill extends to everybody who wishes to make a complaint or who makes a complaint in good faith and with valid and reasonable grounds for so doing. That is how it ought to be. Sometimes a family member might wish to make such a report. Sadly, child neglect and abuse happens in the home and often only family members who are non-professionals are aware of it. Given the provision of immunity under this legislation, it is hoped that such people will have the courage to report such abuse to the appropriate authorities. The person who reports might also be a neighbour. Whoever reports child abuse deserves to have the protections in this legislation extended to them.

I am also pleased that the Minister of State has included a provision to deal with malicious reporting. Such reporting could be devastating. In a way it could undermine the ultimate objective of the Bill. It is important that there is a provision in the legislation which would act as a deterrent [1366] to malicious reporting. There is often a desire for revenge or retribution in society and this must not be allowed. I commend the Minister for ensuring that there is a provision in the Bill to prevent this happening.

I wish to raise a matter which is causing me some concern and, if need be, my party and I will raise it later by way of amendment. I am concerned that this Bill was drafted before the publication of the Murphy report on the swimming scandal. My party and I are concerned that matters that emerged in the context of this report are not covered adequately, or at all, in this Bill. If this is so, the Bill is fatally flawed from the outset because persons who report abuse deserve to have the immunity envisaged in this Bill extended to them. If it emerges that such persons are not covered by this legislation, my party and I will be submitting a relevant amendment to ensure the Bill provides for such exigencies. My party and I want to ensure that the people whose behaviour was outlined in the Murphy report are brought to justice and that the type of immunity required to ensure they are reported are brought to justice is extended to those who report such cases. I await the Minister's response in this regard.

Whenever we discuss a Bill of this nature we inevitably broaden it a little. Mostly we talk about child sex abuse but there are other types of abuse which are equally insidious and equally devastating in their long-term effects. Our aim must always be to put in place the type of law and provision that will act as a deterrent to this sort of behaviour. It is not enough to punish the perpetrator when the damage is done. Damage done to young people by way of sex abuse or other abuse is almost always irreversible. An abused child can be a damaged and wounded person for the rest of his or her life. Our aim must always be to attempt to put in place the type of deterrent and culture that will provide proper protection for our children.

I welcome the decision to provide dedicated officers to carry out this task. Dealing with such a matter demands a particular kind of professional skill that must be in-built in in-service training for health board personnel. It also demands a certain aptitude and personality. It is important that dedicated people are appointed to ensure the best possible quality and continuity of care. People who report abuse should not be sent from A to B to C with no developments and no proper continuity of care. I commend the Minister on his efforts in this regard.

I also commend the Minister's decision to set up a social services inspectorate. Yesterday the principals of vocational and community schools published a devastating report on the numbers of young people not attending school on a regular basis. This is happening because there is no tracking system. There is no Department or State agency with responsibility for the welfare of these children. Therefore, they are left crying in the wilderness, crying for help but no help is forthcoming. If there is to be coherence and continuity [1367] it is important that there be dedicated people in pivotal positions in the health boards with responsibility for the well-being of all children at risk; I include the eight and nine year old girls and boys who are and will be begging on the bridges of our cities between now and Christmas. That practice is appalling neglect and a dreadful indictment on society. There must be a dedicated person in each health board region with the sole responsibility for putting in place a system to bring these young people into formal education and rescue them from the horrendous neglect to which they are being exposed. The putting in place of a social services inspectorate is very important.

I chaired a committee which published a report on juvenile justice. We examined the position of children living in areas of great economic and social disadvantage and discovered that there were houses in this city and other cities to which at least eight different groups called on a weekly basis to provide assistance for the families — St. Vincent de Paul, social welfare and so on. No group knew what the other was doing. This meant there was no growth, no development and no improvement in the family circumstances. This was very wasteful and resulted in a total lack of a coherent approach. Therefore, the appointment of a social services inspectorate will bring a coherence to the designing and delivery of services.

The enactment of this Bill will be a very minor but pivotal building block in putting in place a proper child protection system. The Bill must also provide for the sufficiency of personnel in the health boards to deal speedily with reports of abuse. Sometimes delays between the reporting of abuse and action being taken can be devastating and do nothing to encourage people to do the honourable thing. These issues must be dealt with speedily.

I hope the Government will not delay much longer in introducing a juvenile justice Bill and that by the time they ask the electorate to take account of their stewardship this generation will be seen to have made much better provision for all our children.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris Zoom on David P.B. Norris I want to concentrate on the problem of malicious reporting, in particular the area of sexual abuse allegations in divorce and separation cases. I have received briefing material from people interested in this area. I understand this material was made available to the working group but no response was received. There seems to be no reference to it in the documentation and for that reason I propose to put as much as I can into the Official Report because it appears to be the case that approximately two thirds of allegations of sexual abuse of children made in the circumstances of divorce or custody cases prove to be false. That is not just the situation in Ireland, it is supported by statistics from Canada.

[1368]Mr. Fahey: Information on Frank Fahey Zoom on Frank Fahey Could I clarify this? Which working group?

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris Zoom on David P.B. Norris The review group. The submission was made to the review group and was entitled “Submission to the Working Group to Review the Child Abuse Guidelines, July 1998”.

Mr. Fahey: Information on Frank Fahey Zoom on Frank Fahey I am surprised. The working group is taking all submissions into account and we will ensure it does respond.

Mr. Norris: Information on David P.B. Norris Zoom on David P.B. Norris I may have taken it up incorrectly. I do not want to make any allegations. It may have gone astray or there may have been an interchange of which I was unaware. That, however, does not matter. What matters is that the issue itself is so serious.

I agree with the Minister that the primary function of all this legislation is to protect children. I have no difficulty with that. The Minister wishes to protect professionals which I also find reasonable, but the balance struck is not quite right. There should be protection for those persons who are the subject of allegations which appear to be incorrect, particularly where these are used as part of a balancing argument in cases of separation or divorce which have a custody implication. They are frequently made by one or both parties. In these circumstances the right of a person to be protected against the negative impact of false allegations should be copper-fastened, particularly when there is such a high degree of such allegations.

After the publication of the Kilkenny incest report it was suggested that lists should be kept of people suspected of child abuse. This is a dangerous area. How long are these lists kept? Should they not be categorised under a much more neutral heading such as people under investigation? To put down that someone is suspected of abusing their own child is a terrible accusation, especially if it is not subsequently shown to be true. There are sufficient grounds to suggest that a fair number of these allegations are not true.

I start from the premise that the child is always the victim of any report of sexual abuse, whether it subsequently turns out to be true or not. The child is penalised because they may have one parent removed from them. That parent may be a decent and good parent if the allegation is false. The Dáil passed this Bill on 1 July 1998 and indicated that a malicious report will, of itself, lead to what could be described as child abuse where access or custody is denied to a child on foot of an accusation which may prove to be incorrect. The removal of one parent from the life of the child on foot of a malicious allegation constitutes child abuse as defined in section 5 (1)(b) and section 1 (1) of the interpretation of welfare, where it states that child abuse is defined as, among other things, impairing or neglecting the development or welfare of the child by compromising his or her emotional welfare. I would argue that if a false allegation is made and the child is [1369] deprived of access to its parent, it is being impaired in a way which fits in with the description of child abuse.

Access and custody cases where couples separate are particularly problematic because, by their very nature, people are looking for the best argument and may be tempted to fling false accusations. They can be made from the mother's side against the father or from the father's side against the mother's new partner or her family members. In many cases the threat to make an allegation of child abuse is sufficient to control the non-custodial parent, deterring him or her through fear from applying to the courts for access or custody. By their very nature such cases seldom come to the attention of the courts or the health boards subsequently.

I have just emerged from a legal case in which there was a certain amount of legal blackmail. I was told I would be dosed with publicity if I did not cough up. It worked out that having paid all the legal fees it would have been worth my while to cough up. This just concerned property not children, but there is always this bargaining. That is dangerous if there are going to be these sorts of allegations.

These allegations are on the increase worldwide. I ask the Minister to contemplate their impact on the relationship between the child and parent if they turn out to be false. In Ireland when parents separate, does the Minister have any information about the statistics involved? Is there a statistical link between court applications for access or custody of children by one parent and the emergence of a subsequent allegation of sexual abuse from the other parent? Do the health boards have such statistics? Do they record specific statistics? I point to the fact that in Canada they do have this information and it is very worrying.

In a report from Ottawa, a member of parliament, Mr. Galloway, said that the Ottowa-Carleton Children's Aid Society conceded that of the 1,500 complaints received, 900 involved custody and access and, of these, 600 subsequently proved to be false. That is something we should bear in mind. There is widespread anecdotal evidence in the Irish circumstance that this is repeated here. We do not know unless the Minister is able to give us the information and statistics.

Procedural safeguards are necessary to protect an innocent parent. There are innocent parents — we know this. The person making the allegation or report ought to be asked to sign the allegation after it has been written down by the official receiving it. The reason for any refusal to sign should be duly noted in the report. To my grief we are removing the right to silence from accused people but people who make these allegations do not even have to sign the report. They must be asked to sign and if they do not, it should be noted and a reason sought. At the moment the social worker compiles a written statement when meeting the person. The person is not asked to sign the statement and, if subsequently pursued [1370] for making a false report, the person can claim that he or she did not say that, the person who wrote it down got it wrong. That is not fair.

Any person who is accused should be informed as soon as possible. They should be the first person after the accuser and the alleged victim to know they are being accused. Any person confronted by a health board with such an allegation should be given a booklet which explains the situation and gives specific details of the procedures which will be followed in the investigation and explains the safeguards in place to protect the rights of the accused, who must be presumed innocent while acting in the best interests of the child.

The person so accused should also be given a written copy of the allegations. When a report is made to several different agencies, the health board, Garda Síochána, social workers, family doctors and so on, a copy of each such allegation report should be furnished to the accused person.

Where the accused person is summoned to any meeting or assessment interview, he or she should be advised beforehand of the specific nature of the proposed meeting. He or she should be entitled to be accompanied to such meetings, make and retain a record, written or taped, and he or she should be advised of rights beforehand. Such interviews and assessments are the initial stages of a criminal investigation and will be used if a prosecution is taken against a person interviewed. The findings of any such assessment or interview carry overpowering weight in a subsequent criminal investigation and for that reason the steps I suggest should be taken. All these reports should be made available.

There is also the issue of the list of suspected persons which refers back to the Kilkenny incest case and the Child Care Act. This points to an extraordinary state of affairs. We need to examine the maintaining of lists of suspected persons, the precise system of clarification of the outcome of cases and procedures for the removal of names from the list.

The timescale for investigations should be given. I refer the Minister of State to an article in The Irish Times in March 1998 in which Deputy Batt O'Keeffe criticised the delay in handling sex abuse cases, particularly as they impact on people who are wrongly accused.

I welcome the new criminal offence of making a malicious report, but it will probably be rarely used. It will be almost impossible to prove any report as malicious in court unless the health board issues a forthright finding. For obvious reasons, health boards have steadfastly avoided issuing such statements, opting instead for weak general statements to the effect that sufficient evidence could not be found to support the report of an allegation of child abuse. This leaves the status of the accused as not proven rather than as innocent.

If this occurs in custody cases involving divorced or separated couples, a more effective [1371] approach would be for health boards to give a commitment to speak in such terms in a subsequent hearing regarding access and custody and for the courts to take cognisance of such statements. In other words, if an allegation is seen or felt to be spurious, instead of suggesting that they may possibly go after an individual in the long term on some criminal charge, the evidence should be introduced as part of the pleadings in the custody case so that it can be taken into account when assessing the suitability of a parent or guardian. If someone makes wild allegations of sexual abuse simply to maintain custody of children, that should be taken into account when judging whether or not people are suitable. The 12 month rule will not work and I will be proposing an amendment on this issue.

Mr. Glynn: Information on Camillus Glynn Zoom on Camillus Glynn I am privileged to speak on this important legislation. I wish to refer to some comments made by previous speakers. Senator Quill stated that this should not become a political issue. It is not a political issue. If anything, it highlights the statesmanship of Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, in taking on this Bill and inserting important amendments.

To a point I agree with the matters articulated ad nauseam by Senator Norris. This is one of the reasons the Minister of State inserted the provision regarding malicious reporting. It was important that he took this situation on board. This amendment was not accepted by Deputy Shatter but is now part of the Bill and I welcome that fact. The abuser could become the accuser. If this provision was not included, someone who is guilty of abuse could say: “I am not guilty and you cannot prove it. It is a malicious allegation”. There are welcome safeguards in the Bill for everyone.

Senator Fitzpatrick referred to Dickens' great work “Oliver Twist” and how it was regarded as just a novel. However, every day in every town and village situations exist which resemble the story of “Oliver Twist”. Fact is stranger than fiction and we are all aware of drug pushers who use young children as couriers. We are also aware of the character of Fagan who exhorted young children to “pick a pocket or two”. That is happening in reality. At local authority level I have raised the fact that juveniles are on the streets at night. They are young, impressionable people who are moulded when they fall into the clutches of Fagan-like characters and are easily exhorted to carry out illegal practices. We all know what those practices can involve.

Reference was made to the different types of child abuse. There is a misconception about child abuse. People accept that it usually involves sexual abuse. However, there is also physical, emotional and other kinds of abuse. There are also abuses involving children arriving home from school with no one in the house to meet them, or situations in which children are on the streets at night when their parents are in the pub.

[1372] I wish to deal with the inspectorate which will be established. This is a marvellous step forward. I will not go into it in any detail as it has been effectively dealt with by previous speakers. The Minister of State also outlined the inspectorate's objectives. When I attended Coralstown school, County Westmeath, it was a regular feature of school life for the local garda to inspect the roll. I am not saying that this practice should continue as this matter should be dealt with by the child care system rather than the justice system. However, there should be regular inspections of school rolls to ascertain the level of absenteeism. I recall children who brought notes to school which had allegedly been written by their parents, but there was a follow up system. This should not be done under the auspices of the justice system but by the health boards.

There should be no hiding place for abusers. It is important to note that children who are abused often go on to be abusers themselves. Children who are abused are often unaware of what is going on. They know something is wrong and feel guilty as they believe they, and not the abuser, are responsible. I have dealt with many such people in a professional capacity.

I recall a lady who was admitted to our institution suffering from depression. No causal factor could be established until it transpired that she had been abused by her father for a long number of years. While on holiday in England, I met a care worker who was also abused for a long time by her father. Her mother was aware of the abuse but was afraid to do anything. The entire household lived in fear of the abuser. That is something the Bill will tackle.

I am delighted that the health boards and the Garda have been designated to deal with this issue. Initially, a number of organisations were outlined which, in my opinion, reflected the adage that “too many cooks spoil the broth”. The health boards possess the necessary medical, nursing, social work, community welfare, psychological and child care staff to deal with these matters. It is important that the agencies best equipped to deal with them are given the responsibility to do so.

The Bill provides for a full range of employment appeals where someone who reports abuse is victimised by his or her employer. That is comprehensively covered in the Bill. The title of the Bill has been changed to read “Protections of Persons Reporting Child Abuse” which clearly reflects what the Bill endeavours to do. I welcome the Bill and commend Deputy Shatter for introducing it. Society needs this kind of legislation.

Nothing arouses greater anger and emotion than a child abuser but we must remember that a malicious individual who falsely accuses someone of committing child abuse is equally, if not more guilty than a person who perpetrates such horrendous acts. This is one of the most important Bills to come before the House during my short time here and I commend all concerned. I hope the [1373] Minister will take on board the observations made by Members.

Mr. Gallagher: Information on Pat Gallagher Zoom on Pat Gallagher This Bill is welcome both in the manner in which it was proposed by Deputy Shatter in the other House and the manner in which the Minister responded to it. It is an example of the way in which we should co-operate to ensure we serve our public to the best of our ability. I thank Senator Jackman for introducing the Bill in this House.

Legislation we pass in these Houses will never undo the damage, hurt or pain caused to the victims of any type of child abuse. Our efforts are directed at ensuring that the number of dreadful experiences people have had will lessen in the future in so far as it is possible to reduce the opportunities for them. If suspected or proven abuses occur, procedures will be in place to ensure they are dealt with quickly and effectively. I am conscious that this Bill deals with only one aspect of the issue and that there are wider implications involved. I hope we will have an opportunity to comment on the various measures underway in the Department to address those at a future date. I will confine my comments to the subject matter of this Bill.

First, I wish to express my personal thanks, admiration and gratitude to those people who have been brave enough to speak out on this issue to heighten awareness of the terrible deeds which have been committed against children in our society in the recent and distant past. These people have had the courage to have their photographs published in the newspapers, speak on television and radio and write books. This not alone increases our awareness of the problem but also encourages other victims to speak out and ensure that abusers are taken out of circulation in so far as it is possible to do that. Legislation alone will not solve the problem but we must provide political responses to the issues which have been brought to our attention and this Bill is an important part of that process.

The Bill's general provisions were recommended as long ago as 1990. I compliment Deputy Shatter on his initiative in putting those recommendations into effect in this legislation. We can all comment on mandatory reporting but the Minister is proceeding in the correct fashion in dealing with the issue and I compliment him on that. I am confident that when the relevant consultation processes have been undergone, we will have a workable system which will stand to benefit the children in our society. Some months ago, the Minister participated in a debate on “Prime Time” with Senator Joe O'Toole and others. While people may have had different understandings of what was meant by mandatory reporting at the end of the programme, everyone was agreed on the general objective. I hope the measures currently in train will result in procedures and practices which child care professionals and others concerned with the welfare of children can agree on.

[1374] It is important we ensure that people who have reason to suspect children are being abused report their concerns to the appropriate authority. There is a greater willingness now than in the past to do that but the fear of possible litigation may still discourage some people. When this Bill is enacted, it will do away with such concerns. It is traumatic for an individual who suspects or realises abuse is occurring as they are often unaware of what to do or who to turn to. It is imperative that such people can make their reports to the appropriate body in the full knowledge they will be immune from legal action after making the report.

The Bill will have two meaningful and constructive effects. It will protect people who report alleged abuse or ill treatment from legal action and will convey a clear message to the public that we are serious about protecting our children from the perpetrators of evil and damaging acts. We need to create an entire culture in our society where the safety and protection of children is of paramount concern and where citizens feel safe if they report fears and concerns to the appropriate authorities. This Bill will help to create that culture of openness.

I followed closely the debate on this Bill in the Dáil and, notwithstanding my concern and that of other Members to provide protection to people who reported alleged abuse in good faith, I was very concerned about the entire area of malicious reporting. I welcome the discussion which took place and I welcome the amendments introduced by the Minister. However, I wish to raise some questions as to how this might proceed in practice.

Like Senator Norris, I have been made aware of an individual submission which I understand was made to the departmental working group reviewing child abuse guidelines. I was not told the submission had not been responded to. There are some good points in it and I wish to address some of those which were not addressed in detail by Senator Norris. Equally, I am using my own experience as a public representative in judging there is an increase in malicious reporting.

The heightened awareness of child abuse in society has heightened readiness to make malicious reports. We must always treat reports as if they are made in good faith and with the interest of the child at heart. However, if it is subsequently found that reports were made for any other purpose we need make no apology for allowing redress to protect the good name of the person. I welcome the Minister's comments in his opening speech in this regard. However, it may be necessary to re-examine in our consideration of the Bill the provisions of section 5. Notwithstanding the section as proposed it will be very difficult for somebody against whom a malicious report is made to defend their good name in court. I will discuss this further and may propose further amendments on Committee Stage.

In my experience of dealing with constituents on an everyday basis I increasingly see in family [1375] disputes, discord and breakdown, custody disputes over children and separation and divorce cases reports which are found to be malicious, unfounded, incorrect, made for the wrong reason or in the heat of an emotional moment, which cause great distress and difficulty even prior to the allegation being made. The majority of allegations are unsubstantiated. Some are marked “suspected but not yet proven” while others are marked “still under investigation”. There are thousands of people who are still “under notice”, to use a Garda term. We should first try to quantify the problem and then take measures to deal with it where malicious accusations are made in family discord, separation and divorce cases and where custody is being sought.

I have a query concerning the time limit of 12 months proposed in the section. How will the person who may be the subject of an unfounded, malicious or vexatious allegation be able to seek redress in circumstances where the health board investigation can take longer than 12 months and perhaps two or three years? I would like this issue to be re-examined.

I am fed up hearing the term “closure” in public debate — we are adopting more and more Americanisms in public debate in Ireland — but the issue of closure is very important in terms of investigating child abuse, particularly from the point of view of the person against whom the allegation is made. Last year I dealt with a case where parents came to me in a very distressed state. They had been involved in disputes with neighbours in a housing estate. One set of neighbours made in my view a malicious report to the health board which, under the relevant procedures, had to report it to the Garda. Therefore, two investigations took place. To its credit the health board conducted its investigation speedily, sensitively and informed the parents that from its point of view there was no need to take further action. Unfortunately, the Garda investigation went on for quite a long time. Senior officers had to be contacted to remind the officer assigned to the case to deal with it. The officer concerned pleaded pressure of work and the family suffered tremendous stress for months. This, in turn, caused further problems both in terms of the relationship between the parents and the relationship between them and their children. This underpins the importance of the issue.

Regarding the child abuse register, I would like clarification in respect of some recommendations in the Kilkenny report. It recommended a precise standardised system of clarification of outcome in every health board area in the country. I would like to know if this is in place. It also said that, in fairness to people against whom allegations would be proven to be untrue or unfounded, procedures should be put in place for the removal of names from the register of suspected or established child abusers. I would like the Minister to clarify the progress which has been made in terms of these recommendations.

[1376] Other speakers have referred to resources. I know the Minister cannot address this matter on his own as he must get approval from the Minister for Finance and the Government. However, it is important to point out to the public that, over the past number of years, there has been a huge investment of resources in child welfare. I do not say that by way of complimenting any Government because for a long time there was a lacuna and we are still only catching up.

It is important to realise that the extra workload which will be put on professionals in the health services through the passage of this Bill and the culture of openness we are seeking to create must be met with extra resources. A person making a report must be confident that somebody will deal with it quickly. The person to whom the report is made must be confident that back-up resources exist in their organisation to deal with it quickly and effectively. Whether the allegation is proven or unproven, the person against whom the allegation is made has a right to know the outcome as soon as possible. In the Midland Health Board region there does not seem to be any undue delay, but I am aware of complaints in the Eastern Health Board area in this regard and I expect them to be addressed as soon as possible.

In terms of resources we must also look after the personnel in this area. It is a very demanding and stressful area of work and takes a lot out of people. I am concerned about staff turnover. Many resources are invested in training people, inducting them and placing them in health boards. However, there is evidence that within a short number of months people appointed in this area move on very quickly as other opportunities are opening up in the voluntary and statutory sectors. It is necessary to put in place measures which ensure supports and rewards exist for people working in this very difficult area to ensure that when expertise has been established and put in place, it can be availed of for many years in the future.

For many years we ignored the growing problems in the area of child welfare. The Government, like its predecessors, has been trying to catch up to put in place vitally needed services which were not provided when they should have been. In some areas there are problems which are now close to being out of control. In the process of catching up we are discovering increased demands in the various areas which we are not capable of meeting from current resources. We must begin providing important new services and the significant resources I mentioned. I am seriously concerned that we are not meeting the existing demand.

Neglect is a huge and often unrecognised problem in regard to children in society. In this context there is a need for adequate support for parents. We are doing very little in this area and we are faced with serious problems at a later stage. There is a danger of concentrating on a fire brigade type service and not doing enough in terms [1377] of prevention. I hope to return to some of these issues during later consideration of the Bill.

Mr. Kett: Information on Tony Kett Zoom on Tony Kett In complimenting Deputy Shatter on bringing this Bill to the House, I congratulate the Minister on giving his total commitment and bringing the legislation to this stage. This is an important Bill designed to add additional elements to current legislation, thereby giving greater protection to children at risk of abuse or neglect. The objective of the Bill is to ensure no barrier exists which might prevent the reporting of child abuse or neglect to an appropriate authority. People in regular contact with children may, in certain circumstances, conclude that a child is at risk of or suffering abuse. Many cases are brought to light by nurses, doctors, social workers and teachers, people whose professional work brings them into daily contact with children who may be at risk.

It should be the objective of all of us to improve co-operation between agencies in helping to identify and respond to the needs of children at risk. We have been shocked in the past by horrific reports of child abuse; many involve incidents from years ago, while other incidents took place in the recent past. The most horrific element was the fact that many of those who committed these abuses were people in society we would have looked up to. A great deal of bridge building will have to be done if we are to regain those people's confidence.

Abusers are not a regular type of criminal. One can deal with them daily without knowing they are evil. I applaud the courage shown by those who have suffered these crimes and brought their pain into the open. There is overwhelming concern to ensure that those types of abuses will never happen again.

We must ask ourselves what we are trying to achieve in this Bill. We recognise the objective of the Bill and the Government's commitment that every case of child abuse should be reported to an appropriate authority. We must be sure that the health boards and other agencies have the necessary resources to deal with the problem. An individual who is worried about the welfare of a child needs to know that the resources and services will be put in place to deal with the situation.

The public is deeply concerned about this matter and wants the Government, health boards and other agencies to implement policies to protect their children and to convict those guilty of perpetrating crimes against children. This Bill will assist this process. It does not give protection to those who might make malicious or false allegations of abuse, and that is very important. The Bill will also protect people who genuinely report alleged abuse or ill treatment in good faith, and if it is to be successful the Bill must gain the confidence of the professionals who will be charged with responsibility for its implementation when it is set in stone. If we do not have the confidence of doctors, nurses and others at the coalface, the [1378] Bill could fall flat. We need to create a culture in our society where the safety and protection of our children is of paramount concern, as the Minister of State said. Citizens must also feel that fears and concerns they report will not fall on deaf ears and that the appropriate body will deal with the situation.

A great deal more needs to be done following the enactment of this Bill if we are to have a comprehensive child care system which is responsive to all the needs of children and which provides children at risk with the protection to which they are rightfully entitled. Successive Governments have failed for decades in their responsibilities in this area, primarily due to the fragmentation of political responsibility among a number of Departments which were dealing with this issue. That led to a piecemeal, fire brigade response rather than a comprehensive approach. Thankfully, children now have rights. It is time we moved away from the mindset of children being seen and not heard and the adult always being right. We must make the necessary resources available to make the passing of this Bill worthwhile.

Ms Leonard: Information on Ann Leonard Zoom on Ann Leonard This Bill will facilitate the reporting of child abuse by any person who believes that a child is at risk of neglect or physical, sexual or mental abuse. I have great admiration for those victims of abuse who have come forward and exposed themselves to public scrutiny. They do more to prevent abuse taking place and to encourage others to report abuse than any legislation we pass.

Abuse in recent years has been highlighted by these cases, and we would all like to believe there will never again be any abuse of children. I compliment the Minister of State on his handling of the mandatory reporting issue. That was a buzz word over the last 12 months, and it causes great division among medical personnel, health board workers and others in this area. The consultative route is the right approach and I wish the Minister of State luck. I am not sure which side I favour as this is a very complex subject.

My one worry about this Bill is the fear of reporting abuse, particularly in small rural areas. That is not the fear of a civil case so much as the fear of being isolated and ostracised in one's own community. Many of these cases have taken place in small communities where the abuser is respected and well known. Often the person who takes a case can feel very isolated, and reporting one's suspicions can result in closed doors.

I feel very sorry for those who feel they have no options. They do not want to go to a health board because everything must be put in writing and more damage can be caused to the individual being abused in the short term. I am aware of cases in my area where individuals do not want to go to the authorities and would prefer to deal with matters on their own. I do not know how that will affect them later. This is still the case despite the media hype about abuse. Any [1379] instance where there is concrete evidence that a child is being abused should be reported; that goes without saying.

I compliment the Minister of State on introducing the offence of falsely reporting child abuse. It appears that in cases of marital discord children are being used in a tug of war between parents, if not a tug of love. One parent will make unsubstantiated allegations of abuse against the other. I presume such parents are very distressed and do not realise the damage they are doing to their child. Parents distress their children by their marital breakdown but insinuating that the other parent is abusing a child is an even greater abuse. I wholeheartedly welcome this addition to the Bill.

I hope the necessary funding will be provided for the improvement of the child care services to ensure other cases of abuse do not take place or, if they do, that they are investigated speedily and that the proper support and counselling are provided for victims, their siblings and parents who were not involved in the abuse.

I congratulate the Minister of State on what he has done so far and I wish him luck in his further deliberations on the child care services.

Mrs. Jackman: Information on Mary Jackman Zoom on Mary Jackman I thank the Minister of State for staying for the whole debate. The Bill was welcomed by all who spoke but every speaker expressed concern about the need for finance for the implementation of the Child Care Act.

I did not refer to the United Nations because I was restricted by the time available. However, I understand from a recent visit to Geneva that the UN is not too happy with our overall strategy for child care. I ask again for the implementation of the recommendation for an ombudsman for children; this is extremely necessary in the context of everything we debated today.

Deputy Shatter was very disappointed that some of his amendments were not accepted. Some of them were reincarnated today in requests by various Senators. I think Senator Henry's concern that the Bill had not taken into account the Murphy report would have been satisfied by an amendment tabled by Deputy Shatter in this regard. His amendment stated:

A person, who, apart from this section, would be so liable shall not be liable in damages in respect of the communication whether in writing or otherwise, by him or her to a member or members of the governing body of a sport or of the committee of a sports club of his or her opinion that a child has been or is being assaulted, ill-treated or sexually abused by a member of or an employee of such governing body or sports club unless it is proved that he or she has not acted reasonably and in good faith in forming that opinion and so communicating it.

If it had been accepted that amendment would have covered the point made by Senator Henry [1380] in regard to the Murphy report and which was alluded to by several Senators this afternoon.

Deputy Shatter's concern about the amendment made by the Government in regard to penalties was that he saw it might be a deterrent, in terms of people worrying about which side of the law they might find themselves if cases were taken against them.

Senator Fitzpatrick, who is a practitioner, made a very interesting point about the social services inspectorate. I hope the Minister of State will get plenty of replies to the advertisement — I think he said the interviews were ongoing. The Senator suggested that school attendance in the Dublin area should be placed under the auspices of the social services inspectorate, and he ought to know what he is talking about as he is a practitioner. It is important for that point to be taken on board.

Senator Norris showed the importance of having a Seanad by drawing attention to the working group which is reviewing the guidelines on child abuse. Senator Leonard referred to the fact that the children of parents of unhappy marriages or who are divorcing can be used in a tug of war rather than a tug of love, as the Senator eloquently described it. The Minister of State should take up that issue. He stated that the allegations in 600 out of 900 cases in New Zealand relating to such a tug-of-war were found to be false.

Divorce has only been recently introduced in this country and we will have to watch this area very carefully and ensure children are not “used” in such situations. The whole emphasis of the Child Care Act and this Bill is child centred. Perhaps the Minister of State could find the relevant statistics for this country of reports of alleged child abuse by separating or divorcing partners. I received many representations in this regard, even before the Child Care Act was enacted in 1991.

Senator Norris also made the important point that a person who has been accused should be notified immediately. He was also concerned about the 12 months issue. Senator Gallagher said that not all health boards might be able to act expediently, not because they lack the will to do so but because they lack the necessary resources and personnel. It is important to look at that point.

Senator Glynn referred to the importance of consensus, as did Senator Quill who made the point very emotionally that it is extremely important for all sides of the House to unite on issues concerning children. That was borne out by the flavour of the debate today. There was no acrimony and Members made suggestions, not from any political motive but purely for the protection of children and those who have the sensitivity, concern and humanity to put the problems of others before themselves by reporting abuse. As Senator Leonard said, such people might be isolated in rural communities. I understand what she said in that regard because the abuser might be the most respected member of the community or of a family.

[1381] Tremendous credit must be given to people who report abuse. It would be easy for them to turn the other cheek and mind their own business, but they are so concerned about cases of emotional, psychological, physical or sexual abuse that they do not want to walk away from the issue but instead put their reputations at risk, particularly in small communities where they might be just seen as busybodies, isolated and ignored.

If Deputy Shatter were here he would be very pleased with the attention the Bill received today and the Minister of State's efforts. This Bill is one of many issues which must be addressed but it will need a tremendous amount of funding for the health boards and for the training of personnel. We must provide funding to ensure we do not have to raise these same issues in the new millennium.

Several amendments have been suggested. I look forward to the Minister attending Committee Stage; whatever amendments are tabled then can only perfect the Bill, as happened in the Dáil. I thank the Senators who contributed and the Minister of State for his comments.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee Stage ordered for Tuesday, 10 November 1998.

Sitting suspended at 4.50 p.m. and resumed at 6 p.m.

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