Dáil Éireann - Volume 656 - 17 June, 2008
Written Answers. - Child Protection.
Deputy Richard Bruton Deputy Richard Bruton
Deputy Richard Bruton asked the Minister for Health and Children her views on the findings in a recent programme on the services for children at risk; and the meetings she has held and the action she has initiated to address the issues raised. [22492/08]
Deputy Barry Andrews Deputy Barry Andrews
Deputy Barry Andrews: In the first instance I should like to record that the development of robust, responsive and appropriate child welfare and protection services is a priority for both myself, as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, and the Government. Recent media coverage of this area has facilitated a valuable public debate around these important issues during which voice has been given to a number of legitimate concerns, particularly in the area of service provision. I would, however also highlight the almost complete non-representation in the media coverage of the many instances of positive outcomes in relation to child welfare and protection issues, which has the potential to present a somewhat one sided view of service provision.
On the day after the broadcast of the Prime Time investigation I met with senior officials from the HSE to discuss, inter alia, the issues raised in that programme. A key consideration at this meeting was the issue raised in the investigation of waiting lists for services for vulnerable children. The HSE re-assured me that in all cases where there is a serious and immediate risk to the health or welfare of a child, the HSE responds immediately and takes appropriate action. All child abuse reports to social work departments are subject to a phased process of initial screening and assessment, aimed at providing appropriate interventions. In addition, there are also legislative mechanisms in place which also allow for responses from Gardai (for example to take a child to safety in emergency situations relating to welfare and protection).  Regarding the specific queries I raised around the surfeit of accurate and timely data available on the waiting times issues I was informed that a detailed consultation and reporting process was already underway to determine the current state of this issue. I am informed by the HSE that this exercise is proceeding well and that a report back to me is expected shortly. In this regard, I should point out that the term waiting list is, in all probability, too generic in this area of provision where ’waiting’ means pending a social work allocation to the case on a fulltime basis while the duty teams carry or monitor such cases depending on their assessment of the level of risk.
In addition, I have initiated a series of regular meetings on Child Welfare and Protection issues between senior officials of the HSE and my Office at which issues such as service reform and modernisation (including out of hours service provision), as well as any necessary legislative reform will be discussed to drive change and monitor actions for the improvement of child welfare and protection services.
As regards the specific issues raised in the recent media coverage around the availability of Social Work provision, particularly out of normal working hours, I am aware that social work out of hours service proposals are currently under consideration by HSE, my own Office and the broader Department of Health and Children. I would point out that there are currently a number of out of hours service arrangements in operation to partially cover this service around the country, for example in Dublin, dealing with homelessness
I should note as well that not all services for children at risk need be provided by social workers. The HSE provides a multiplicity of services which can effectively address the needs of children at risk. This includes a range of family support services available in communities as well as Therapy, Medical, Nursing, Psychological, and a very wide range of services benefiting children at all levels of risk. In addition Non Governmental bodies provide key services for children and families at risk on behalf of or in tandem with HSE services in areas such as residential care, foster care, community mentoring, family support such as Springboard, Teen Parenting, Youth Advocacy and many other areas.
Recent years have seen a period of major investment in child care and family support services to enable an appropriate response to child welfare concerns with over €240 million Government funds added to the annual investment in child care services since 1997. The core principle underpinning all of these reforms and additional funding is to provide children and young people with the highest possible quality of care and to provide services to protect them, as far as possible, from all forms of harm. The HSE have informed me that, at the end of 2007, 90% of children in care do have an allocated social worker and that social work services are available to all children in HSE care. Increases in resources for child care and family support services have continued in recent years. In addition to the significant number of additional social work posts HSE have created since 2005 the HSE have informed me that there has been an increase in funding of family support services of 79%, from €45.7m in 2003 to €81.8m in 2008.
The focus for development in the coming years is on preventive, community-based services which provide early intervention within a Community/Primary Care context. The development of alternative care services will, over time, impact on the numbers of children in residential and foster care. International and Irish research indicates that in many situations cases can best be dealt with by way of welfare and care services which again do not always require full time social worker input to work well rather than by way of referral straight to child protection services.
The Agenda for Children’s Services is the new overarching policy document of the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs for these areas and was launched in December  2007. The Agenda with its clear renewed emphasis on family support coupled with reflective questions to enable service provider self evaluation represents the fundamental change now underway on how Government policy in relation to children is formulated and delivered. It has been developed drawing on research and best practice at home and internationally. It requires an outcomes focus and integrated service delivery in line with the recommendations of the recent OECD report. To help implement the policy and principles in the Agenda, at the instigation of my office, the HSE have commenced the process of specifying a child welfare services policy. This is vital to effective reform and rebalancing of children’s services. The OMCYA is represented on the steering group for the development of this policy working conjointly with the HSE.
Recent instances of social work reform have shown how important communication and timely flows of commonly understood shared information are to success. The Child Care Information Project which is initially implementing standard assessment and referral methods and thereafter moving on to better standardising national child protection procedures is very important in this area. This project, in tandem with other major initiatives such as the review of the Children First child protection guidelines and the publication by HSE of their Child Protection Framework will work in synergy with the Knowledge Management Strategy for child welfare and protection (due to be completed in Summer 2008). This will work to ensure availability of better information, improved communication and application of research findings to service provision, management evaluation and policy analysis. As the above initiatives illustrate HSE are well aware of the need to work off well defined information and evidence; and not uncorroborated anecdote. It is, however, essential that the evidence used is robust, validated material.
All of these initiatives are aimed at producing better integrated interagency service provision. They also seek to provide for earlier intervention via much more comprehensive interlocking service provision for children, based on clear planning aimed at agreed outcomes in line with the move to family support initiatives. I am confident that my office and the HSE can together ensure significantly improved better integrated child welfare and protection services for all children who need such services. The work I have described shows how much is being done to realise this objective.
Dáil Éireann 656 Written Answers. Child Protection.