7th June 2011
I welcome the opportunity to debate the fourth report of the special rapporteur on child protection, the child law expert Mr. Geoffrey Shannon who has delivered a comprehensive and considered analysis of child protection.
I warmly welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald. As a new Senator, I welcome the appointment of the former Senator to her new role. As she stated, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs was established only last week, but I know she has been doing plenty of work behind the scenes, which includes the creation of a new agency dedicated to family and children’s services which will make a significant improvement and I hope have a positive impact on children’s lives.
I welcome the Minister’s response to the report of the Government appointed special rapporteur. Mr. Shannon is responsible for keeping under review and auditing legal developments in Ireland for the protection of children and identifying gaps in child protection. This is the first time that any of his reports is being debated in the Oireachtas. The need for this debate and subsequent action is evident to me.
Let us look back at the first report of the special rapporteur on child protection, which was written in the shadow of the horrific murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham, England. In that report in 2007 Mr. Shannon identified the need for legislation dealing with soft information. He also outlined a road map. Years have passed and it is only in the past few weeks that we have seen action on this important issue under the direction of the Minister. I hope we will also see action in other areas.
We must deal with child protection in the here and now. In Ireland we can talk about the past and try to share and console one another. However, we have to try to atone for the past and for me the best way to do so is to ensure children are protected adequately and sufficiently. That will demonstrate we have learned the lessons of the past.
There are 105 recommendations in Mr. Shannon’s report. I will focus on some of the key areas at which we need to look.
I endorse the report completely and entirely. The first part deals with strengthening child protection structures. We still have a weak child protection structure in Ireland; neither the guidelines nor the vetting system operates on a statutory basis. The Ryan report implementation plan spotlighted these inadequacies. In his report Mr. Shannon has identified some of the gaps; for example, Children First: national guidelines for the protection and welfare of children is a voluntary set of guidelines. I acknowledge that the Minister is working to legislate, as well as ensuring a revised set of guidelines is published and, equally important, subsequent practice guidelines by the HSE are put in place. These need to be placed on a statutory basis because we need to ensure there is a collective duty to report concerns about the neglect or abuse of a child. This is a basic child protection measure that is readily applied in other countries. We need to get to the stage where one can report a concern and that it does not have to escalate immediately to one of abuse. As a voluntary leader, I can relate to this. At present, unless there are alarm bells ringing, it is very difficult to get the system moving. For me, success will be achieved when we start to join the dots. Should I have a concern for one of the girl guides in my care and the teacher have a concern, somebody should joins the dots and ensure supports are put in place to help the family to work and that if the child needs to be taken into care, he or she is.
On vetting and soft information, Mr. Shannon rightly identifies the failure to regulate the exchange of soft information has severely compromised the protection of children in the State. There were two cases in the courts in 2010 in which inter-agency co-operation was identified as a roadblock. In addition, we know that the appeal in M.I. v. HSE currently before the Supreme Court has the potential to undermine the vetting system. Mr. Shannon has raised a red flag and we should take action. I know that the Minister is working on this very pressing issue.
With regard to children and the criminal law, Mr. Shannon’s observations also provide much food for thought. It is very important to ensure practice and the law are always in support of the child victim and that all activities undertaken are in the best interests of the child.
Mr. Shannon raises the issue of disclosure in cases of child sexual abuse. At present, the confidential records are shared with the defence during criminal trials. Understandably, victims are often afraid that their personal records will be made available to the accused, resulting in fewer cases being processed. Mr. Shannon, therefore, recommends that Ireland urgently requires legislation and better regulation of the disclosure of children’s records during such trials.
As the issue of joint interviewing and training has been raised by several of my colleagues, I will not dwell on that point, except to say we need to ensure children do not have to undergo unnecessary interviewing. We should ensure their best interests are at the heart of investigations.
The third of the five areas involves children in the care of the State. As the Minister is aware, many children in the care of the State are extremely vulnerable. They do not have an adult to champion their cause, the role parents traditionally undertake. They really are marginalised and should be entitled to the highest possible supports. Regrettably, this does not always happen. We are all well aware of the high profile cases in the media where children have been utterly failed by the State. Mr. Shannon’s report makes some solid recommendations to mitigate such disasters and I recommend that they be taken on board.
Senator Mary White has called for the out-of-hours services to be available nationwide and I agree. I welcome the piloting of these services in counties Donegal and Cork and I hope this will ensure that at last we can get 24-hour support for children. I can get support if I have my pet at home, but I cannot get it for a child, which says something about our society’s values.
The Minister has said that addressing youth homelessness is a priority and the programme for Government contains such a commitment. Mr. Shannon is rightly critical of the Criminal Justice (Public Order) Act 2011 relating to begging as it applies to children. We must remember that children who beg are highly vulnerable and child begging strikes to the very essence of child welfare and children’s rights.
Several of my colleagues have raised the important issue of aftercare and how people do not suddenly become adults on their 18th birthday. It does not happen overnight and parents of 19, 20 and 21 year olds will tell me it is a transition phase into adulthood. We need to ensure the State provides aftercare support for all homeless children and children in care in order that we still hold their hand and gently helping them into independence and adulthood. The link between youth homelessness and children leaving State care has been clearly established. While this was not in the report, the latest housing-need statistics, gathered in 2008, show that the largest increase in demand for social housing was from young people leaving institutional care, an increase of 179% since 2005.
The report makes important recommendations on children’s mental health. I speak also in my capacity as chair of the Children’s Mental Health Coalition, which has given me an insight into how mental health difficulties can impact on any family, anywhere in the country and at any time. I fully support and endorse these recommendations. Among them, the report recommends that the Mental Health Act 2001 should be amended to include a separate section which clarifies the rights of children within the mental health system. This should include legislation to clarify the right of those over 16 to consent to medical intervention and detention in psychiatric institutions. Related recommendations include: an amendment to the mental capacity Bill to include persons aged 16 years, and the development of a detailed code of practice on admission to and treatment of children within mental health institutions, complaints mechanisms and better consultation with children.
I was delighted to see the reports very clear recommendations on child trafficking, an issue about which I feel very passionately. Child trafficking is a very serious issue and in Ireland we often would like to feel it does not happen. Some four out of five trafficked children are trafficked for sexual exploitation. Cases of child trafficking have been discovered in many parts of Ireland, including counties Dublin, Sligo, Kilkenny and Wexford. Last week, this was once again highlighted through a disclosure contained in cables obtained by a national newspaper through the whistle-blowing organisation WikiLeaks. HSE officials admitted to US diplomats conducting research for an annual report on people-trafficking in Ireland that children have been going missing from State care and ending up working as sex slaves in brothels. Mr. Shannon’s report recommends criminal sanctions against the users of paid sexual services and I welcome the Minister’s proposal to look at Swedish legislation with a view to introducing similar legislation to criminalise those who access these services.
I would also welcome our ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography. Ireland signed this optional protocol 11 years ago and now needs to ratify it. With the Adoption Act 2010 in place, we are very close to ratifying it and we need to do so. I am involved in a campaign with the Body Shop and the Childrens Rights Alliance, which has collected almost 150,000 signatures calling on Ireland to ratify this optional protocol.
This debate is extremely important but I hope it is not just a once-off debate. I hope the Seanad can review the implementation on an annual basis and use the special rapporteur’s report. One of the Oireachtas committees to be established should be charged with ensuring recommendations from reports of this nature are implemented. All too often we see these reports where we agree with the recommendations. We need to roll up our sleeves with a view to improving outcomes for children and make a difference. In all the work I have done on the issue, I have found this is not a party issue but an issue on which we agree across the board. I would like us to go beyond raising the complaints, and to support the Minister and her new Department in improving outcomes for children.