Child care

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Protection of children, youth homelessness

Report of the special rapporteur

The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald, inaugurated a debate on the fourth report of the special rapporteur on child protection (Seanad Eireann, Debates, 7th June 2011, 165-188).  The report painted a disturbing picture, she said, especially in the area of youth homelessness and children with mental health difficulties.  Last month her department had organized a seminar on youth homelessness and it was interesting to note that the number of homeless children had declined.  We all knew that there were deficits, especially for children leaving care, the 24hr service and quality of information.  The HSE already provided a 24hr crisis intervention service and there were two upcoming pilot projects in Cork and Donegal.  She would shortly bring proposals to government to strengthen the Children first guidelines on reporting.

Terry Leyden (FF, labour) welcomed the recommendation concerning 18-year olds, who after that age were no longer the responsibility of the HSE and were vulnerable to homelessness.  Fidelma Healy Eames (FG, labour) drew attention to what she considered to be a gap in the report – missing children, who she believed were vulnerable to slavery and trafficking.  The section on youth homelessness in the report was very thorough and there should be a protocol in place to identify children at risk of homelessness.  Ronan Mullen (ind, NUI) agreed with the importance of providing care beyond the age of 18: no parent would abandon a child at that age, so why should the state?

Aideen  Hayden (labour, Taoiseach nominee) said that poverty was a common risk factor among the children in the report.   Many of the children came from family environments that experienced poverty and these children could be identified.  Studies of youth homelessness showed how many of the children concerned were known to multiple state agencies, many of whose interventions failed, but they were well known within the system.  Earlier intervention in education, health and welfare would prevent them going down the path of youth homelessness and the criminal justice system.  One third of all children leaving care experienced homelessness in six months and two thirds within a year.  Many then moved into adult homelessness and found it difficult to extract themselves from that situation.  Drug and alcohol abuse, mental health problems, prison and leaving care were all triggers for youth homelessness.  There had to be proper systems for children with mental health problems, including tribunals and an advocacy service.  She supported the recommendation of an end to the use of garda stations as the out-of-hours service.  She commended the government for introducing a ‘housing first’ approach to homelessness.

Mary White (FF, industrial & commercial) likewise spoke the issue of youth homelessness, which, she said had never been comprehensively attacked.  She strongly supported the recommendation that this be addressed by the local authorities and the HSE through social housing – ‘at least, if young homeless people had a roof over their heads which they could call their own, they would have an important point of stability in their lives.  Surely, with all the ghost estates in every community in the country, we can provide access for homeless children to this accommodation’.  The report suggested that the numbers of homeless children were less than 500, so meeting the housing challenge was doable, granted the political will.  She returned to the issue of the 24hr social service, but the existing system was a failure and the Croke Park agreement should enable the earlier industrial relations issues to be overcome.  She commended the gardai for their work in responding to acute social issues where those with official responsibility had washed their hands.

Jillian van Turnhout (ind, Taoiseach nominee) described the structure of child protection in Ireland as weak.  She drew attention to the latest statistics of housing need, which showed a huge demand for social housing by young people leaving care, up 179% since 2005.  She supported the recommendation for an amendment to the Mental Health Act, 2001 to clarify the rights of children within the mental health system.  David Cullinane (SF, labour) drew the Seanad’s attention to the Prime Time programme on the effects of austerity and cuts on the most vulnerable children, especially the consequences of cutting the carer’s allowance and also to the report of the One Child Foundation showing that 500 children disappeared from state care.  According to Deirdre Clune (FG, cultural & educational), the recommendations on homelessness made ‘a lot of sense’.   Greater coordination among those providing services could make a big difference and the lack of integration of services was alarming.  She welcomed the commitment that the HSE would be responsible for assisting vulnerable youths after 18. John Gilroy (Lab, cultural & educational) drew attention to the continuing inappropriate practice of placing children under 17 in adult psychiatric hospitals.

Responding to the debate, the minister, Frances Fitzgerald explained that her priority was to introduce Children first on a statutory basis, new guidelines, an assurance framework and an implementation framework.  In the area of youth homelessness, she agreed that the use of Garda stations should be discontinued.  It was unacceptable that children leaving care became homeless.  A new set of guidelines had been issued to the HSE to confirm that they had authority to work with children in care after 18.  The possibility of using ghost estates must be addressed.  She concluded by saying that she would consider an implementation plan for the report, but everything could not be done at once and they would have to prioritize.

Progress on the constitutional amendment on the rights of children was raised by Terry Leyden (FF, labour) (Seanad Eireann, Debates, 1st June 2011, 99-101).  He drew attention to the report of the all-party committee on the issue in February 2010, the 2010 report of the Ombudsman for Children, and urged that the referendum be held sooner, rather than later, for example with the presidential election.  Speaking for the government, the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Shane McEntee re-affirmed the government’s commitment to the referendum and that it was a priority.  A draft wording developed by the Attorney General for the last government did not adequately reflect the recommendations of the committee, so the Minister for Children had now commenced discussions with the Attorney General with a view to a wording that did more closely reflect the all-party committee, following which it would go to government for approval for referendum.  The vote would not take place on the same day as the presidential election out of concern that this would unnecessarily and unhelpfully politicize children’s rights and a separate referendum was more appropriate.

Later, responding to a question from Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin (SF, Cavan Monaghan) about the establishment of a new child protection agency, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald told the Dail that preliminary work had been undertaken and the project would now be accelerated, including legislation and governance arrangements.  Her department would work closely with the National Director for Children and Families Service within the HSE on disaggregating the resource base for children and family services from the HSE in advance of its establishment (Dail Eireann, Debates, 21st June 2011, 229).  As for the children’s rights referendum, a small team was now working on this issue and there were discussions with the office of the Attorney General for a new wording (Dail Eireann, Debates, 21st June 2011, 230).

> On 28th June, Charlie McConalogue (FF, Donegal NE) introduced a constitutional amendment, the 29th amendment to the constitution Bill, to make provision for any Irish child to have the option of adoption when it was in her or his best interests (Dail Eireann, Debates, 28th June 2011, 732).