Thursday, 19 September 2013
Dáil Éireann Debate
8. Deputy Niall Collins asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she is satisfied that there are adequate supports in place for social workers in child welfare; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38701/13]
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald): The provision of appropriate training and support for social work staff is a matter of critical importance to ensuring quality and capacity in child protection and welfare services, in particular given the challenging environments within which social workers operate.
As Minister, I have overseen the introduction, for the first time, of new National Standard for child protection and welfare services and the commencement of independent inspections by HIQA. The first inspection report, along with recent inspection reports into fostering services have indicated the pressures faced by social work staff and need for ongoing training, support and supervision.
In 2012, of the part of the ongoing reform programme, HSE Children and Family Services established a national structure to manage the work of Workforce Development. This has provided, for the first time, a common national approach to ensuring consistency and quality assurance.
As part of this systematic training needs analysis has being undertaken and a National Training Plan has been prepared. In accordance with this a prioritised programme of standardised training courses and complementary training modules is now being provided nationwide. Further specific courses have also been introduced to support the implementation of the Staff Supervision Policy 2013.
Social workers are also assisted in their work by team leaders, principal social workers and other levels of management. There is also a range of guidance available to social workers, most recently the very comprehensive HSE Child Protection and Welfare Practice Handbook.
An induction process involving full briefing and introduction of new staff under the supervision of line management has been introduced within the HSE. As well as the ongoing filling of replacement posts some 270 additional social worker posts have been filled as part of the implementation plan in response to the recommendations of the Ryan Report.
In addition, the Health and Social Care Professionals Act, 2005 provided for the establishment of a Social Workers Registration Board, which was appointed in 2010. One of the functions of the Board is to set and enforce standards of education and training for the purposes of registration. These standards were developed in consultation with relevant stake-holders including employers, professional bodies, education and public representatives.
The object of the Social Work Registration Board is to protect the public by fostering high standards of professional conduct and professional education, training and competence among social work registrants. The registration requirements will include a Continual Professional Development element and my officials will continue to liaise with the Health and Social Care Professionals Council (CORU), regarding emerging needs and priorities in this regard.
9. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans to ban corporal punishment within the home and alternative care settings; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38705/13]
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald): Considerable progress has been made to restrict the use of corporal punishment in Ireland. Corporal punishment in schools is banned, and regulations for creches, foster care and residential settings address the use of appropriate discipline. Corporal punishment in the home, while not specifically outlawed, is governed by the provisions of section 246 of the Children Act, 2001. Section 246 makes it an offence to assault, ill-treat, neglect, abandon or expose a child in a manner likely to cause unnecessary suffering or injury to the child's health or seriously affect his or her wellbeing. A limited defence of reasonable chastisement exists in common law for parents and persons acting in loco parentis, but successful high profile prosecutions have been taken by the State under section 246 where parents are deemed to have used excessive or unreasonable force in disciplining children.
My Department is reviewing the complex policy, legal and constitutional issues involved and is also currently engaged with the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Attorney General's Office to respond formally to the European Committee of Social Rights of the Council of Europe (CoE) in respect of matters raised through the committee around the banning of corporal punishment in all settings. The Government has been invited to make a submission to the Committee on the merit of the complaint and it is my intention to do so. In responding, the submission will allude to the significant progress which continues to be made in relation to the Government’s commitment to protect the rights of children, including the proposal to amend the Constitution in relation to children’s rights, the enactment of a suite of relevant DCYA and Justice legislation, and progress in relation to fundamental reform of the child protection services, the establishment of the Child and Family Agency, and drafting legislation in relation to putting Children First on a statutory basis. I will be keeping my Cabinet colleagues fully updated in this matter and will be discussing with them the full range of policy options available.
There is a balance to be found between supporting parents in effective parenting, in particular, in use of non-violent forms of discipline, and the use of criminal law to impose criminal sanctions on parents who do not adhere to best practice in parenting. It is important to note that the general development of norms within Ireland and positive support and encouragement to parents has brought about a situation where physical punishment is increasingly avoided.
Recent research from the longitudinal study of children in Ireland shows that the great majority of parents do not use smacking as a form of discipline. The most frequently used method of discipline was "discussing / explaining why the behaviour was wrong and this discipline strategy was used by almost ninety percent of mothers (88%). Less than one percent (0.5%) of mothers reporting smacking their children "regularly or always".
10. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the steps she and her Department are taking to assist those prospective adopters who have been planning to adopt a child from Russia and who had pre-2010 declarations and were in the process of finalising arrangements before the 31 October but now find themselves in the distressful situation of not being able to conclude the process due to a decision of the Russian authorities that came into effect as of 3 July; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38771/13]
163. Deputy Peter Mathews asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans on a matter (details supplied) regarding adoptions from Russia; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38892/13]
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald): I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 and 163 together.
11. Deputy Lucinda Creighton asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the progress made to date in her plans to introduce a second early childhood care and education year for children with a learning disability; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38840/13]
29. Deputy Terence Flanagan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the progress made to date on her plans to introduce a second early childhood care and education year; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38601/13]
38. Deputy Denis Naughten asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the progress made to date on her plans to introduce a second early childhood care and education year; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38841/13]
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald): I propose to take Questions Nos. 11, 29 and 38 together.
The current free Pre-School Year in Early Childhood Care and Education - ECCE programme - was introduced in January 2010 and provides a free pre-school year to all eligible children before commencing primary school. Almost every pre-school service in the State (more than 4,300) is participating with over 68,000 children, or 94% of the eligible age cohort, availing of free pre-school programme in the 2012/2013 school year.
In line with the Programme for Government, I succeeded in maintaining the universality of the free pre-school year, including securing an additional funding requirement of €9.8m in 2012 to address increased demand due to an increase in births since 2009.
The programme includes a number of additional provisions which take account of children with special needs. These include an exemption from the upper age limit for qualification under the programme where a child is developmentally delayed and would benefit from starting primary school at a later age. In addition, children with special needs can apply to have the pre-school year split over two years on a pro-rata basis, for example availing of the programme for 2 days a week in the first year and for 3 days a week in the second year. Application for these exemptions must be made prior to the child commencing the programme. In addition, to improve the services available to children with special needs, my Department is working with the Office of Disability and Mental Health in the Department of Health, to examine how supports to facilitate the inclusion of children with special needs in mainstream pre-school settings can be improved.
As I have outlined in response to an earlier question, My Department and I, along with key stakeholders including the HSE, are currently progressing an 8-point Pre-School Quality Agenda. The action being implement are designed to ensure the highest standards of care for children in pre-school and to ensure that parents and practitioners can have confidence in the regulation of the sector. I further believe that this Agenda must be implemented; and higher standard of quality ensured, in order to provide the key building blocks for any further extensive of universal childcare provision, including any proposal to introduce a second free pre-school year, which as I have indicated on numerous occasions is my ultimate objective.
There is an increasing body of Irish and International evidence which quantify the benefits of early year’s interventions in terms of improving children’s outcomes and in delivering significant economic and societal return to the state. I this context I believe the introduction of a second year would benefit children’s educational and developmental outcomes as well as proving significantly beneficial to children with special needs. In addition a second pre-school year would represent €2,500 to €3,000 worth of free childcare to parents and likely generate 4,000-5,000 new positions, albeit mostly part-time. The benefits of introducing a second year were further referred to in the OECD reports on Ireland published last week.
However, the introduction of a second pre-school year would require considerable additional funding, with the additional cost broadly in line with the cost of the current one year provision, which is €175 million. This funding is not currently available due to the financial constraints under which the Government is currently operating. However I would hope that this proposal is one which Government could continue to work towards as our public finances recover.
Finally, I have this week received the Report and recommendations of the Expert Advisory Group which I established to advice my Department and I on the preparation of Ireland first-ever Early Years Strategy. Longer term objectives for early years care and education, including extension of universal early years provision, supports for children with specific needs and ongoing improvements in quality will be further addressed in this Strategy.
12. Deputy Michael Colreavy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her Departments intentions towards a national cross-sectoral strategy for the establishment of a childhood obesity prevention and intervention service; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38770/13]
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald): Overweight and obesity are a public health priority, the primary remit for which lies with the Minister for Health who has established a Special Action Group on Obesity whom he meets with regularly to progress the obesity prevention agenda. The Special Action Group on Obesity is chaired by the Department of Health and comprises key stake-holders, including the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. It is recognised that alone, no single initiative will reverse the growing trend, but a combination of measures should make a difference. For this reason the Special Action Group is concentrating on a range of measures including actions such as:
13. Deputy Robert Troy asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the proposals she is bringing forward to improve the quality of child care services; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38689/13]
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald): The commitment to improve the quality of early childhood care and education has been a key priority for me since becoming Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. This is why my Department and I have been progressing work on Ireland’s first-ever Early Years Strategy for children aged from birth to six years. In addition, my Department has been actively driving a comprehensive Pre-School Quality Agenda.
14. Deputy Billy Timmins asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the steps she will take to address the availability and affordability of regulated childcare services; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38839/13]
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald): The Programme for Government commits to developing early childhood care and education as resources allow, and the Government has made a very significant commitment to maintaining the childcare support programmes implemented by my Department - the Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE) programme, the Community Childcare Subvention (CCS) programme, the Childcare Education and Training Support (CETS) programme and the new After-school Childcare programme which is being fully rolled out from this month.
165. Deputy Brendan Griffin asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her views regarding the 2010 adoption legislation (details supplied); and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38941/13]
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald): I propose to take Questions Nos. 15 and 165 together.
16. Deputy Clare Daly asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if she will initiate a public inquiry into the Sacred Heart Mother and Baby Homes and the manner in which adoptions were handled in here since its inception. [38605/13]
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald): The Adoption Act of 1952, as subsequently amended, provided a legal basis for adoption in Ireland and for the establishment of the Adoption Board thereby bringing order to what had been the adhoc arrangements which had previously existed in lieu of formal adoption procedures. That Act was replaced most recently by the Adoption Act 2010 which also established the Adoption Authority of Ireland. All adoptions in Ireland since 1952 have been underpined by a legislative basis.
While my Department's remit in this area relates to adoptions carried out under the relevant legislation I am aware that there have been concerns about informal adoptions or illegal registrations some of which are associated with some mother and baby homes. The issue in Ireland of illegal adoptions very much relates to illegal registrations, i.e. children who were given at birth to other individuals who registered these children as their own and who are now unable to access personal records and information. I have met with individuals who have found themselves in these circumstance and I acknowledge and empathise with the dilemma that these individuals are addressing.
Efforts have been made by the Adoption Authority of Ireland and the HSE, within their legal remit, to facilitate the investigations that these individuals are undertaking in endeavouring to establish medical and/or identifying information about themselves.
In consultation with the Adoption Authority of Ireland and the Health Service Executive, my Department is examining legislative and administrative options in relation to accessing records which may exist. I am also examining provisions in this regard in the forthcoming Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill. I have recently received further legal advice from the Office of the Attorney General in regard to complex legal and constitutional issues which have arisen during the course of drafting the Heads of Bill. These issues are currently under consideration in my Department.
Approximately 25,000 files have been transferred to the HSE Regional Adoption Service in Cork, from the Sacred Heart Adoption Society, which had responsibility for Bessboro, Co Cork, Sean Ross Abbey, Roscrea, Co Tipperary and Castlepollard, Co Westmeath. I am advised by the HSE that there has been very significant demand to access these files and consequently the HSE Regional Adoption Service in Cork has not been able to respond as quickly as would have been hoped. In parallel with facilitating such access, work by the HSE on the organising and storage of these files has taken place and planning is underway for reorganising the approach to dealing with information requests to improve access.
17. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if all inspection reports on childcare facilities are now and will henceforth be published; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38766/13]
18. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her plans to ensure highest standards are reached and adhered to and an appropriate inspection regime across all pre-school childcare facilities is in place; the time frame for achieving both; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38764/13]
36. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the progress made to date to address the recently exposed poor management standards and breaches of regulations and best practice at creches in the Dublin area; if follow-up inspections have taken place and the findings of same; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38762/13]
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald): I propose to take Questions Nos. 17, 18 and 36 together.
19. Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the extent of the reduction in working hours of child care staff in residential care homes due to cuts in funding. [38728/13]
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald): When a child cannot live with his or her parents either on a short or long-term basis, the HSE will, in the first instance, seek a suitable relative or person known to the child to provide relative care. Where there is no relative or person known to the child to provide relative care, the HSE where possible, will place a child in foster care. For young people that are unable to live at home or in an alternative family environment residential care may be considered suitable. Residential care can be in a home run by the HSE or by a voluntary or private company.
There are approximately 140 Children’s Residential Centres in operation. These centres are typically found in domestic homes in housing estates, on the outskirts of towns and villages. The centres typically have between 3 to 6 children. These children are usually in their teens. Children living in the centres attend at local schools and take part in local sporting and community activities. Staff work a shift system and young people are allocated a key-worker.
All children’s residential centres are inspected against National Standards for Children’s Residential Centres developed by the Department of Health. The HSE inspect and register children’s residential centres run by the private and voluntary sectors. HIQA inspects children’s residential centres run by the HSE and inspection reports are published on the HIQA website.
20. Deputy Seán Kyne asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs if the fact that childcare facility inspection reports are compiled in long hand and then stored for scanning and online publication by another staff member is contributing to a delay in publicising reports; and if consideration will be given to providing inspectors with tablet computers to enable a speedier and more efficient process. [38606/13]
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald): A very significant reform programme is underway in the pre-school inspection service. This involves the introduction of new national standards against which all services will be inspected. This will bring about greater consistency and transparency in the inspection process. All new reports completed by inspectors are now being published on-line, providing open access to the public to inspection findings. In addition, my Department is working with the HSE pre-school inspection service to clearly distinguish very serious breaches of Regulations from those that are more minor. I have also undertaken to strengthen existing legislation to allow the HSE to more robustly pursue providers who do not meet inspection requirements.
Finally, the staff of the HSE's pre-school inspection service will transfer to the new Child and Family Agency which will be established shortly. New national management arrangements are being introduced to ensure consistency and the best use of resources.
All of these reforms require significant changes on the part of pre-school inspectors while continuing to undertake a demanding programme of inspections. I believe the Deputy's suggestion is worthy of consideration, although the feasibility of introducing such a change on a large scale basis in the short term in the current context would be of concern. I have asked the HSE to consider the matter as part of the programme underway to enhance the effectiveness and operational efficiency of the pre-school inspection service.
21. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the new legislation she will introduce over the remaining months of 2013; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [38724/13]
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (Deputy Frances Fitzgerald): My legislative priorities for this Dáil session are to introduce the Children First Bill and the Children (Amendment) Bill and to progress the Child and Family Agency Bill through the Houses.
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