Missing Children Hotline

12th October 2011

I thank the Minister for coming before the House and accepting the motion. I also thank her for the detailed statement. I wanted to hear that the hotline would go into operation without delay but I accept the Minister’s integrity and the proposals laid before us.

I welcome that and I will obviously monitor it.

As the Minister said, this dates back to a decision of the European Commission in February 2007 requiring member states to reserve a six digit number range starting with 116 for the harmonisation of access to services of social value in the European Union. This decision was based on reason and pragmatism, which I fully commend.
This line is critical for the parent of a missing child and for a child who is scared and vulnerable having run away from home or for a person who finds himself or herself outside his or her home country and is in dire need of help having been smuggled or trafficked into Ireland. It is also critical for someone who has been abducted by perhaps one of their own parents to know there is a number he or she can call day or night to find assistance, support and guidance.

This was the rationale behind the European 116000 missing children hotline. It was part the EU strategy on the rights of the child, which recognises that every missing child is, as the Minister said, a tragedy and that member states have not only a legal obligation but a moral one to implement whatever measures are necessary to prevent such tragedies.

The service is currently operating in 16 EU member states. A parent, guardian, professional, concerned member of the public or child who lives in Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungry, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain and the United Kingdom can call this missing children hotline on a 24-hour basis.

The value of the missing children hotline, in particular in the context of increasing cases of cross-border child disappearances, is exemplified by a recent cross-border parental abduction case. In Belgium, a father took his daughters aged seven, ten and 14 and hid them for nine and a half months in very poor and dangerous conditions. In September 2008, following a request from the Belgian and Portuguese missing children hotlines, the evening news on Portuguese television opened with an appeal for information about these missing children and concluded by showing the 116000 missing children hotline number on screen. Minutes after the broadcast, the case was resolved. That is the power of this line. This shows the real and urgent need to establish a systematic exchange of information, standardised operational procedures and increased cross-border co-operation to resolve cross-border cases of missing children in the EU.

It is a sad indictment of the priority afforded to the safety and well-being of children in the EU that there are still 11 member states in which the missing children hotline is still not operational. European Commission Vice President and Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, Viviane Reding, recently commentated that:

It is hard to come to terms with the fact that measures that could help are not yet fully operational across the Union. It would be a double tragedy to imagine a missing child trying to call the 116000 hotline only to hear an answering machine playing a prerecorded message announcing that the service will be operational in 2012.
Unfortunately, this has been the case in Ireland.

When preparing for today’s debate, I decided to dial 116000 and I got the following message:

We are sorry but we cannot connect your call because the number you have dialled is not in service. Please check the number you have dialled and try again.

What about those children from the 16 member states who are aware of this line? We have a border with the United Kingdom but what happens if children from the United Kingdom are here and they telephone that number and get that message?

It was against that backdrop and following the interventions of a number of Senators, notably, Senators Daly and Quinn, that I worked over the summer to co-ordinate and seek the approval of my fellow Senators for their support for this motion. As Senator Leyden said, the Seanad is about us working together and not just raising issues but seeing how we can make a difference and put things in place.

The Minister mentioned the situation of runaways and children in the care of the State. This line has been proved in other EU member states to be a safe contact point for these missing children to be able to telephone. They do not wish to telephone the Garda or the HSE. By using this line, perhaps we could save resources for the Garda and the HSE and know a child is safe and try to reconcile the difficulties.

The Minister said that five missing children was too many but I was disappointed when she updated us on the situation in regard to unaccompanied minors. She informed us that 11 of those children from 2010 are still missing. For me a child is a child and his or her status is of secondary importance. For me, there are 16 children from 2010 still missing and cases are still open. That is the accurate figure.

The Minister outlined the importance of the statutory agencies working together. They are doing some invaluable work but the line for me is about children and parents having easy access to those services and to give them a voice.

The Minister mentioned that ComReg has advertised the line four times but there have been no applications. I should note that a non-governmental organisation has submitted two funding proposals over the past few years to Government seeking funding in order to be able to apply for the line.

I very much welcome the Minister’s announcement that the Cabinet gave her memorandum time, that it will be put into operation and that the Departments of Justice and Equality and Children and Youth Affairs, the Garda and ComReg will work together on a project team. I urge her to follow the lead of 13 of the 16 member states in which the service is operational by assigning the number to a member of Missing Children Europe because it has built up the links and the contact points.

I noted my colleague, Senator Henry, spoke about cost-effectiveness but we also need to ensure there are minimum quality standards and a practical guide for hotline providers to ensure the hotlines operating throughout Europe are run professionally, efficiently and effectively and meet the European standards for best practice for service requirements.

The Seanad will not go away. People may talk about its abolition but we will monitor this to ensure it is implemented in full. We will work with the Minister to do what we can. We want to see that Ireland moves from being good on paper when it comes to the rights of the child to being good in operation and implementation and that we uphold those rights.

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