Child welfare

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Referendum on children

The Taoiseach was questioned as to the reasons for the delay in holding a referendum that would protect the rights of children (Dail Eireann, Debates, 30th June 2010, 11- 16; 29th June, 775-6).  He told the Dail that the senior officials group on the issue had met twice and almost completed its work.  A range of implications had been identified by the Office of the Attorney General. The government must check out the financial implications, whether resource or other issues arose, if the acknowledgment of rights was sufficient and correct and whether the constitutional language provided the necessary clarity.  All these issues had to be teased out.  He wanted to bring forward a referendum but he wanted to do so correctly and get the work done departmentally and interdepartmentally.  The government had to work out what were the implications of the referendum and the unintended consequences that could arise:  ‘every statement must be constitutionally right’.  Judges would have to decide what was meant when this or that or the other was stated.  What were the financial implications and resource requirements?  This was not a simple matter and we had to do this in a careful and considered way.  To suggest that the government was prevaricating, sitting on its hands and this was simple stuff and we should have the referendum in September was to ignore the reality.  They had to ask what were the sectoral implications for education, health or any area involving children’s rights?  What was the nature of interventions that were suggested in the wording?  What impact would that have on family rights or on children’s rights?  What further acknowledgment of existing rights beyond what exists in the constitution were we talking about?  Constitutional law must be very carefully considered.  We did not do a service to the children of Ireland if we did not bring forward something that could not be validated or acknowledged in the constitution.  We did not want to end up in a situation where the words proposed could involve judges’ interpretations that were unintended or could have consequences beyond the ability of the executive.  The question of financial resources should be checked because the issues that arose were considerable.  ‘We do not want to end up with judges making allocations of resources.  The separation of powers must be respected’. 

Eamon Gilmore (Lab, Dun Laoghaire) accused to Taoiseach of telling the house that because there was such a range of resource and financial implications, then the government had dropped the referendum.  The Taoiseach, though, told him that they were in the throes of discussions.  The scope and content of what was being discussed had far wider implications that one would expect.  When one got into it, this was an area that was becoming very complex and not easily resolved.  When we became clearer as a result of the work, we could come back and discuss it based on a clear and cogently based view of where we were.  The examination was taking place at government and inter-departmental level.  A senior officials groups was working on it and he had had a discussion on it last night at ministerial level to get a full view of where the work was currently.  He accepted that this would be a difficult area to resolve and push through, but this did not in any sense dilute the commitment of the government to the issue and he reiterated his commitment to act properly and correctly.

The Dail also debated the implementation plan for the Ryan report (Dail Eireann, Debates, 9th June 2010, 785-820).  The Minister of State at the Department of Health & Children, Barry Andrew, explained that the plan, adopted a year ago, provided for €15m in 2010 as part of a four-year timeframe.  The government was committed to filling 270 HSE social worker posts by end 2011, with 200 to be filled by the end of this year.  He rejected proposals that child protection services be taken away from the HSE and given to a new entity.  It would take several years to establish a new structure and valuable time would be lost in creating a new entity.  ‘A new name does not guarantee strong leadership, effective team-working and standardized ways of delivering a professional service’.  James Reilly (FG, Dublin N) though described the HSE as ‘not fit for purpose and should not be trusted with the care of our children’.

Alan Shatter (FG, Dublin S) described child protection services as dysfunctional and very little changed.  Only 25 social workers had been recruited and records were kept in unsecured disorganized loose leaf notes that were falling apart, files were missing, notes were not signed or dated and items belonging to children had fallen from files.  Caomhghin O Caolain (SF, Cavan Monaghan) said that all of this was coming at a time when the state was cutting back social welfare,  education and health services in a way that hit marginalized families and vulnerable children most.  ‘They are the essential supports which help address child poverty and neglect’. Why did it require a seemingly endless series of exposés, investigations and reports to get things right? he asked.  Some children in State care had not received a visit from a social worker for ten years or more and many files were incomplete, incorrectly recorded or missing. Denis Naughten (FG, Roscommon – South Leitrim) added that since 2000, 508 migrant children placed in HSE accommodation had disappeared and only 67 traced.

Concluding the debate, the minister of state said that the government was on target, except in the one area of homeless children.  He criticized those who spoke of the need for 1,200 social workers, for he did not believe that this would solve our problems.  Doubling the number of social workers could have the effect of doubling the number of suspected cases and flooding the system with reporting.  ‘We should forget about 1,200 social workers because it will not happen.  The 200 social workers recruited this year and a further 70 next year will allow us to achieve the basic targets we need to ensure we have allocated social workers’.

> Children in foster care and at risk: Seanad Eireann, Debates, 13th July 2010, 392-3; children in direct provision: Dail Eireann, Debates, 7th July 2010, 261-3; aged-out minors: Seanad Eireann, Debates, 2nd July 2010, 933; missing children’s hotline: Dail Eireann, Debates, 9th June 2010, 997

> Work of the National Education Welfare Board: Dail Eireann, Debates, 1st July 2010, 647