Senator van Turnhout Regrets No Commencement Date for 116 000 Missing Children Hotline

Press Release
12/10/2011: For Immediate Release.

Senator van Turnhout Regrets no Commencement Date for 116 000 Missing Children Hotline

Following a Seanad motion initiated by Senator Jillian van Turnhout, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald TD, today announced a commitment from her Department and the Department of Justice and Equality to support the establishment of the long awaited 116 000 Missing Children Hotline. The motion, which received support from all parties and groups within the Seanad, pressed the Government for clarification as to why the Irish branch of the 116 000 Hotline had not yet been made operational.

In response to the Minister’s announcement, Senator van Turnhout said: “While I welcome Minister Fitzgerald’s expression of a commitment to the 116 000 Hotline in 2012, I must express my disappointment that the announcement was not that the Hotline would be established without delay. I truly believe this service is one of vital importance, not only in terms of raising the alarm about missing children but also as a support to the families of missing children, and indeed to missing children themselves. Consequently this further delay must be met with some regret.” Despite the cross party support for the motion, it has taken four years of campaigning to arrive at this announcement.

“While I am saddened that the announcement did not go further, I am encouraged that we in the Seanad could help bring attention to this issue, and to the tireless campaigning done by the ISPCC and other NGOs that has led to this announcement,” Senator van Turnhout said today. “However,” the Senator continue, “I feel it is essential that ComReg assigns a suitable service provider as soon as possible. Furthermore, I would strongly encourage ComReg to follow the lead of 13 of the 16 EU Member States in which the service is operated by members of Missing Children Europe. Who, in conjunction with Daphne, have developed the Minimum Quality Standard Framework within “A Practical Guide for Hotline Providers” to ensure that Missing Children Hotlines throughout Europe are run professionally, efficiently, and effectively and meet European standards of best practice for service users.” The Senator concluded by calling on the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to engage effectively and regularly with which ever service provider is assigned the Missing Children Hotline number and to ensure that the service is operating at its full potential without further delay.”

The 116 000 Missing Children Hotline is currently operational in 16 European Union Member States, and aims to provide assistance to families of missing children, particularly those facing a language barrier when dealing with local authorities, by providing a single point of contact whether at home or abroad.

-Ends-
For more information, please contact:
Senator Jillian van Turnhout Leader of the Independent Group (Taoiseach Nominees)
Phone: 01-6183375
e-mail: jillian.vanturnhout@oireachtas.ie

Notes to editor:
• The motion was presented to the Seanad on 12/10/2011.
• On the 15th of February 2007, the European Commission reserved the 116 000 phone number in all EU member states as a common number for emergency action whenever a child goes missing.
• The hotline is currently operational in 16 EU Member States: Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Spain and the United Kingdom.
• In the Seanad today Senator van Turnhout cited the case of a group of Belgian children who were taken and hidden by their father in very poor and dangerous conditions. Following a request from the Belgian and Portuguese 116000 Missing Children Hotlines, the Portuguese evening news broadcast an appeal for information which concluded by showing 116 000 Missing Children Hotline number on screen. Minutes after the broadcast, the case was resolved.
• General information on the 116 000 Missing Children Hotline can be found at: http://www.hotline116000.eu/

Order of Business, 27 July 2011

27th July 2011

The point I wish to raise concerns the aforementioned Amnesty International report by Dr. Carole Holohan, which was informed and reviewed by an independent advisory group and commissioned by Amnesty International, namely, In Plain Sight, Responding to the Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne Reports. At 430 pages, the report is of considerable length and obviously will take Members time to consider. It would be worth our time both to read it and to consider how best it could be debated in the House. The report acknowledges and understands what went wrong but also is working to ensure we establish a child protection system that is fit for purpose, lest we ever allow this to happen again. The “we” on which Amnesty International puts value is not simply about the church or the State but pertains to “we” as a society. In Plain Sight calls on us to acknowledge the extent to which the systematic abuse and exploitation of the tens of thousands of vulnerable Irish children in State and church run institutions was known across Irish society. The report does not purport to play the blame game. It moves beyond what has been to date a largely factual discourse about the who, what, where and when of the widespread and systematic abuse in question to a more philosophical and sociological analysis of why. To understand why it happened will help us to transform the present.

At the launch yesterday, Colm O’Gorman, executive director of Amnesty International, said:
But the focus cannot be purely on the past, as if this history has no relevance for our society now. We must consider the degree to which this history reveals vital truths about the nature of our society today. The past only becomes history once we have addressed it, learnt from it and made the changes necessary to ensure that we do not repeat mistakes and wrongdoings.

Another striking and vital feature of the report is the acknowledgement that the abuse survivors endured is not only morally repugnant, shocking beyond many people’s comprehension and patently illegal, but amounts to a grievous violation of their human rights. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, launched the report yesterday and acknowledged the Government’s legislative agenda. This House needs to have a debate about that agenda. I also ask the Leader to call on the Minister to redouble her efforts to ensure the constitutional the amendment to strengthen children’s rights is held without delay, that we ensure the full implementation of the UN convention on the rights of the child in Ireland, study the report and use it to inform our policy on child protection.

Child Care (Amendment) Bill 2009 – Seanad Bill amended by the Dail – Report and Final Stages

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.

Order of Business, 19 July 2011

19th July 2011

I join with the leaders of other groups in thanking the Committee on Procedure and Privileges and the Leader for bringing forward motions Nos. 1 and 2. These will give life to the motion which, though put forward by the Independent group, was worked on by Senators from all sides together. It is great to see this expression of our joint work. I hope we can reap the riches of this in the months ahead and demonstrate the importance of this House.

I ask the Leader to allow time for the House to inform and guide policy and legislation to underpin the safety, welfare, protection and rights of children. In the past week we had the Cloyne report, which was debated during the Order of Business last week. We have had much debate on this matter over the last few days. I send a strong message to all adults that there is only one State authority. If one has reasonable grounds for concern about the abuse of a child one should report it to the HSE or the Garda. That is the only answer.

Yesterday, we saw the conviction of Mr. Michael Ferry, from Donegal. He had been convicted but yet was allowed to continue to work in a school in Derrybeg, Donegal despite that conviction. This resonated with me because I went to summer school in Derrybeg, Donegal.

Later today, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs will lay before the Oireachtas the second progress report on the Ryan report, which is something to which the House should give consideration. This report contains 99 actions. It could greatly improve outcomes for children. I note that the Minister, despite previous resistance, decided a few months ago that the oversight group should be more than just a public service group and invited a non-governmental organisation, the Children’s Rights Alliance, to be part of the group. I welcome her decision and I look forward to seeing the report.

It is natural that we Senators should express our hurt, anger or shock at the recent reports, but the House has a stronger role to play. We need to remember that children are being abused in Ireland today. This is not about the past. It is about the here and now. On Friday, the Minister published Children First: National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children, and will bring forward legislation. The House could help inform that legislation. We should have a debate on what needs to be done. There is fear among the public about statutory reporting. We should also talk about mandatory protection to ensure that State agencies co-operate and share information.

I ask the Leader to arrange a debate on what the Seanad can do to underpin the safety, welfare, protection and rights of children in Ireland today.

Fourth Report of the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection – Statements

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.