Dáil Éireann - Volume 446 - 02 November, 1994

Adjournment Debate. - Implementation of Child Care Act.

Mr. Durkan: I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this matter on the Adjournment of the House. The failure of the Minister to implement in full the Child Care Act, 1991, initiated in 1988, is bordering on criminal negligence. The need for the legislation was recognised by the Minister when, as Opposition spokesman, he contributed to the Second Stage debate of the Bill on 14 June 1988, columns 184, 185 and 186 of the Official Report of 14 June 1988 refer.

The need for the legislation was obvious to everybody in this House. The legislation initiated in 1988 was dealt with by a number of Governments in its course through the House and eventually became available for passing into law. I do not wish to be personal but it is a sad reflection on the Minister for Health that after two years in office, during which time it was his prerogative to implement or enact in full the provisions of the Bill, that has not been done.

A number of serious incidents throughout the country in the past number of years have come to light and with which the Minister and everybody in this House is familiar. The Minister has failed to recognise that the delay in [1701] implementing those main provisions of the Bill has obviously put a number of children at risk.

The mere appointment of additional social workers, while welcome, does not address the serious problems such as ensuring that children are put in a place of safety or the removal of the person or persons likely to pose a threat to the safety or well-being of the child concerned. A supervision order would enable health boards to carry out as many visits as necessary to safeguard a child's safety. The need for regular supervision and inspection of residential centres must be obvious to everyone, particularly in view of several recent tragic events which time does not allow me to go into in detail. Suffice to say, without referring to the particular cases, that the Minister is well aware of the need to ensure that the provisions which would eliminate the situations that have arisen could be implemented without further delay.

I am certain that the Minister is a deeply caring and conscientious person — I have no reason to disbelieve that and will not make any allegation to the contrary — who genuinely wishes to ensure the maximum protection of children as envisaged under the Act. Unfortunately, by his procrastination in this instance, he is prolonging the threat to children at risk throughout the country in residential centres or in their homes. Any further delay in the enactment of the remaining important sections of the Act may put the health of certain children at risk at best and, at worst, their lives may be in danger.

I call on the Minister to act now because tomorrow may be too late. I refer him to the debate on 14 June 1988 where, as reported at column 184 of the Official Report he stated: “Parts III and IV contain the core issues”. If I were talking to a Minister who did not understand the situation or was not familiar with the health portfolio or did not have a good track record of highlighting health issues in the House, I would say [1702] there was some excuse but I am speaking to a Minister who is familiar with the urgent need to implement the provisions of the Act in full. All 77 sections were deemed necessary at the time as is patently obvious to the Minister.

Mr. Howlin: I thank Deputy Durkan for raising this important issue on the Adjournment.

At the publication of the Kilkenny incest report, I announced that the Child Care Act, 1991, would be brought into operation in its entirety by the end of 1996. I am advised that this is the shortest possible timeframe required to have the necessary infrastructure in place to give real meaning and substance to the legislative provisions. The circumstances surrounding the tragic death of Kelly Fitzgerald have reinforced my resolve to ensure that this is achieved.

The full and proper implementation of the Child Care Act is the single most important contribution that can be made towards promoting the welfare of children who are not receiving adequate care and protection. I am disappointed at the criticism expressed about the timeframe for implementation of the legislation. I want to make it perfectly clear that I am not prepared to sign orders bringing further sections of the Act into force until I know that the structures, services and staffing required to operate them are in place and effective on the ground. Such a knee-jerk reaction would completely undermine the enormous efforts we are making to build up the child care and family support services, to recruit the best personnel and to build the physical infrastructure to respond effectively to the new demands that will be placed on health boards under this wide-ranging legislation.

The next phase in the programme for the implementation of the Act involves the commencement of Parts III, IV, V and VI which deal respectively with the protection of children in emergencies, care proceedings and the powers and duties of health boards in relation to [1703] children in their care. These provisions will strengthen the powers of the health boards, the gardaí and the courts to intervene in cases of child abuse and neglect. The neeed for the early implementation of these priority provisions has been underlined in the Kilkenny report.

I explained to the House previously that these are complex provisions. Various sets of new regulations, as well as rules of court, are required to give full effect to them. I am determined that the parts in question will be brought into operation in the shortest possible timeframe and extensive preparatory work is under way in my Department to ensure that this is achieved. Two working groups were established to assist my Department in the preparation of the initial drafts of the new regulations relating to foster and residential care. The foster care working group has completed its task and yesterday I circulated the draft regulations prepared by it to the various interest groups. The residential care working group is at an advanced stage in its deliberations and it is my intention that its draft will also be the subject of widespread consultations.

When I took up office I was determined to find real resources to implement this Act. I have secured unprecedented levels of funding for the child care services to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is put in place to support the Child Care Act and that the health boards will be in a position to discharge the additional statutory responsibilities assigned to them under the legislation. I have approved a range of new child care and family support services, the full year cost of which is an additional £20 million. The scale of these developments demonstrate in the most tangible and concrete way possible my determination to ensure that the Act is not simply implemented on paper but is backed up by a sustained programme of investment.

Among the important new measures [1704] I have sanctioned are the creation of over 370 new posts for the child care services throughout the country; the provision of additional hostel places for homeless children; the establishment of new family resource centres and community support projects to assist disadvantaged children; the expansion of the homemaker and home help services to help families in difficulty and the establishment of community mother programmes in a number of health board areas; increased financial support to pre-school services in areas of social deprivation and the provision of additional places; the development of foster care and other alternative family placement services.

In approving the various new child care initiatives I have outlined, I placed special emphasis on strengthening the health boards multidisciplinary child protection teams. A significant proportion of the 370 new social worker, child care worker, child psychiatrist, psychologist and other specialist posts that I approved have been created specifically to enhance the capacity of the health boards to combat the horrendous problem of child abuse and to provide a range of supports to the unfortunate victims of such abuse and their families.

It is my firm intention and that of the Government to implement the Child Care Act in the shortest possible timeframe and to put in place a comprehensive framework of support services for children.

Mr. Durkan: I hope it is not too late.

Ms O'Donnell: Publish the report of the Western Health Board in the Kelly Fitzgerald case.