20th July 2011
I am pleased this Bill strengthens the powers of the newly-established Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Last week, the Minister referred to the unsatisfactory situation in 2010 when an independent review group on child deaths, established by the then Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs, Barry Andrews, was furnished with preliminary information by the HSE but refused access to individual cases files. This was due to legal concerns identified by the HSE on the provision of information to the group. It is vital to the success of the new Department and both natural and obvious that the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is given direct access to files as she needs them in a safe and proper way, bearing in mind the sensitive nature of some of the information required. This will help her ensure full accountability in the arena of child protection.
Strengthening the powers of the new Department is also important in ensuring consistency in the collection of child protection data from around the country. This is the best way to ensure that a consistent threshold is maintained with regards to children being taken into care.
As the Minister outlined in the past week, there is a big job ahead in strengthening child protection systems. The new Department will have an agency dedicated to family and children services. This will remove the child protection component out of the ambit of the HSE which will re-balance that dynamic and power more favourably towards the new Department.
This Bill is an important step towards strengthening child protection systems. I note the Minister will introduce legislation later this year to create the new child welfare and support services agency. I offer her our support on this as it is in all our interests to bring it forward as quickly as possible. I hope the legislation is comprehensive to allow for the proper lines of accountability at administrative, executive and political levels to ensure the failings that occurred in the setting up of the HSE in that regard are not repeated.
This is the appropriate time to comment on special care orders. This element of the Bill, which relates to special care orders, is highly positive and pertinent. It also relates to one of most serious of all State powers, namely, the power to detain a child in a centre such as Ballydowd. This power must always be used with the utmost care and in absolute deference to the rights of each individual child.
A previous issue of concern was that the relevant provisions of the Child Care Act 1991 were not operational. As a result, it fell to the High Court to hear applications for special care orders. I welcome the provision to afford to the Health Service Executive the power to apply to the High Court for a special care order for a child. I am pleased the previous ambiguity has been removed and the Bill sets out in unequivocal terms the processes to be followed by the HSE. These include the steps to be taken from the initial consideration of the child for special care, the application for the order, the hearing of the case, the granting of the order and the care of the child under the order through to the discharge of the order. I also welcome the role the Health Information and Quality Authority will have in this respect as a result of the amendments proposed by the Minister.
Although I support the Bill, I am concerned about the failure to address the issue of after care. I am aware this issue has been debated extensively but this legislation remains a missed opportunity. I am concerned that an amendment has not been included to make the provision of after care an automatic legal entitlement where a child has an identified need. The obligation to provide after care should be clearly stated in law. When the State assumes parental responsibility for a child in care there should be a corresponding obligation on the State, within legislation, making it crystal clear what are the State’s obligations, including the obligation to ensure the child is cared for and not abandoned when he or she turns 18 years of age.
I listened intently to the Minister’s comments on after care in the Dail last week. Research reports have continually shown that children leaving care need support, as confirmed again by a recent report by Empowering People in Care, EPIC, formerly the Irish Association of Young People in Care, IAYPIC. An amendment to legislation on the issue of after care has been sought by many organisations, including Barnardos. It is also one of the primary demands of the action for after care coalition. While I am aware the Minister intends to return to the issue of after care and much work is being done on it, an opportunity has been missed to address the issue in this legislation.