Wednesday, 13th February 2013
The Minister is welcome, as always, to the House. Having regard to the children’s rights referendum, as I have said here previously, I applaud, commend and congratulate the Minister on delivering on the Government’s promise. When I was on the referendum trail, as many of us were, I listened to the concerns of many parents on the doorsteps, on the streets and at public meetings. We cannot ignore that some of the “No” voters spoke of concerns about how they have been treated or how they perceive they would have been treated in past, would be treated now or in the future and some of those concerns were based on reality and some were based on perception. In addressing these concerns, I stress the significance of the Department’s decision to improve the social services system by removing child welfare and protection from the remit of the HSE and moving it into a dedicated new agency, the Child and Family Support Agency. I assure parents that the new agency will focus on early and accountable intervention that supports better outcomes for children and families and that will work to keep families together, which is something we all want to do where possible.
The Minister’s Department published the Report of the Task Force on the Child and Family Support Agency in July last year. I have asked the Leader of the House on a number of occasions if we could debate that. The Bill will be produced shortly and I ask the Minister to outline when it will be produced but I am also cognisant of the fact that the agency will have 4,000 staff and that it has a budget of €545 million. Many of us could make an impromptu speech about the failings of the system at present and we all want to get it right. We should have a debate on the remit, resources and vision for the new agency to help frame that Bill. I ask the Minister to give consideration to having a debate on it in the House perhaps prior to the publication of the Bill because this is an issue on which we could have a consensus in the House in that we that we all want to work together on it.
I wholeheatedly support this Bill and welcome the initiative the Minister has taken in bringing it forward. The making of care orders under the Child Care Act 1991 is a very important function of the District Court in the interests of the child welfare and protection. Care orders are made where the District Court, upon the application of the Health Service Executive, is of the opinion that a child has been or is being assaulted, ill treated, neglected or sexually abused, or where a child’s health, development or welfare have been or is being avoidably impaired or neglected or the child’s health development or welfare is likely to be avoidably impaired or neglected. A care order allows the child to be placed or maintained in the care of the executive pending the making of a full care order. Ordinarily the first step in the process, as the Minister said, is an emergency care order, which can last up to eight days, followed by an interim care order, which, under the current arrangements, is only extended by a maximum of eight days in the absence of parental consent. We know that, in the interests of logic and practicality, District Court judges have recently – I believe it was the beginning of last year, under the recent direction of the President of the District Court- stopped granting 28-day extensions of interim care orders in cases where the necessary consent has not been provided. I welcome that the Government has put forward the amendments in order to give the clarity that is necessary because I believe this was always the intention. These amendments are urgently required to remedy the impractical and counter-productive nature of the maximum eight-day extension without consent in terms of finding and working towards an appropriate solution for children in the cases in question.
The current system of returning to court every eight days to extend an interim care order – especially since extensions are practically always granted, I have talked to many solicitors working in the area about this – is not in the best interests of children and their families. The reality is that it creates insecurity for the child who knows he or she is being discussed in the court every week. One is over one court case and into the next one. It places an increased burden on parents that these cases are before the District Court every week and no time is given for consideration to work towards a solution. It means that social workers, team leaders and solicitors are in court waiting around all day to justify the continuation of the order only to return one week later again and again for the same case. This seriously undermines the time and resources available to social workers and team leaders who need to focus on the care and best interests of the child. It incurs an excessive and unnecessary cost for the HSE and the Courts Service. It creates unmanageable court lists and there are considerable blockages in the system.
I wholeheartedly support the Bill. The benefits of it are that it will move the focus to the best interests of the child because it will free-up the time of social workers who are most important in this process and also other people involved in the HSE towards looking at the best interests of the child. There will be significant cost savings. It will mean that the courts will be able to deal with the cases that are necessary to be dealt with. It will also mean that there will be certainty and security for the child concerned and that he or she will know that this is what will happen. The emergency care orders are there for a reason but here we are talking about interim care orders. It will move the focus to working to find a solution that is in the best interests of the child and it will rebalance the focus from going to court to managing a positive outcome in the case. That is where the focus should be.
I support the Minister bringing into line the 28-day extension to 29-days because it makes sense to have one day and one could say this is the day in question and it also ensures there is clarity and consistency which will greatly benefit the management of court lists. I thank the Minister for this. It is excellent that she has brought forward this Bill. Many people are waiting for it to come through and hopefully it will relieve a lot of time for those involved.