4th December 2012
While I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O’Sullivan, to the House, I would have loved an opportunity to congratulate the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, on the successful passage of the children’s rights referendum. We have not seen her in this House since the referendum, unfortunately. I am raising the issue of direct provision on the Adjournment tonight. Much of the public awareness and outcry about the abuse and mistreatment of children in State-run institutions followed the publication of a series of damning reports, including the Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne reports and most recently the child death review report that was drawn up by Dr. Geoffrey Shannon and Ms Norah Gibbons. In response to the latter report, I expressed my profound sadness and a sense of the responsibility and shame I bear as a member of a society that has systematically failed to protect our most vulnerable children. As the Minister, Deputy Fitzgerald, remarked last year at the launch of an Amnesty International report, In Plain Sight: Responding to the Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne Reports:
At every turn, Irish people kept their mouths shut out of deference to state, system, church and community. When they should have been unified in fury and outrage they were instead silenced, afraid to even whisper a criticism against the powerful.
I am genuinely concerned that the situation for children in direct provision accommodation centres for asylum seekers will lead to a future Ryan report if we do not take immediate action. I refuse to stay silently complicit.
This is not an easy area to pursue. At this juncture, I am focusing solely on the situation for children in direct provision. I am finding it difficult to establish which ministerial remit covers which scenario. I have previously raised the applicability of standard 3.4 of the HIQA national standards for the protection and welfare of children with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, on the Adjournment. The standard in question stipulates that “child protection and welfare services provided on behalf of statutory service providers are monitored for compliance with legislation, regulations, national child protection and welfare policy and standards”. In my opinion, the HIQA national standards for the protection and welfare of children clearly apply to children in direct provision. They apply because the children in question are residing in accommodation facilities under the remit of the Department of Justice and Equality. They apply irrespective of the children’s country of origin or the status of their parents. They apply regardless of whether they are in the care of the State or cared for by the State. They apply because contrary to what the Minister, Deputy Shatter, has suggested, it is simply not true that all children living in direct provision “live in a family context and their parents or guardians have primary responsibility for their care and welfare”.
I would like to refer the House to a report drawn up by the Irish Refugee Council, State Sanctioned Child Poverty and Exclusion: The Case of Children in State Accommodation for Asylum Seekers, which was published in September of this year. I would also like to mention the 2011 report of the special rapporteur, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, in which he highlights “the specific vulnerability of children accommodated in the system of Direct Provision and the potential or actual harm which is being created by the particular circumstances of their residence including the inability of parents to properly care for and protect their children”. The HIQA national standards apply because the State has an obligation to ensure the health, safety and welfare of these children. The Minister, Deputy Shatter, has conceded that the HIQA standards “apply to the HSE children and family services in the context of its role in dealing with children living in the direct provision system who are referred to it”. I assure the House that such referrals are capable of being made under the Reception and Integration Agency’s child protection policy or by GPs and teachers, etc. According to the HSE, these scenarios fall under the remit of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs. I am seeking clarification on the number of referrals the HSE has received about children in direct provision accommodation centres. I want to know whether the Minister shares my position that any centre from which a child welfare and protection referral is made should be subject to immediate inspection in accordance with the HIQA national standards.
While I appreciate the Minister of State may not be able to answer this question, I have a huge difficulty in differentiating between “in the care of the State” and “cared for by the State”. These children are being directly cared for by the State. If one visits any of these direct provision centres, children are not necessarily in a normal family context and there may be two or three families in one room. I have a difficulty with this and I will continue to pursue this question. I feel the response is a fudge.
On the question I asked about standards, are we basically saying the HIQA standards do not apply and that no child protection standards apply? Must we wait for requests from the very people whose applications are being decided on by the Department of Justice and Equality and who do not want to upset that Department? It would be the equivalent of asking Irish families who are receiving social welfare payments to get the Department of Social Protection to investigate itself. These matters are separate for a reason. It should be independent. We should have learned from the past.