Home > Seanad Eireann debate. Child and Family Agency Bill 2013: second stage (continued).

[Oireachtas] Seanad Eireann debate. Child and Family Agency Bill 2013: second stage (continued). (27 Nov 2013)

External website: https://www.oireachtas.ie/en/debates/debate/seanad...

Deputy Frances Fitzgerald:  It is based on the successful model of prevention and early intervention programmes funded by Atlantic Philanthropies, and that organisation has made a further contribution of €14 million, which the Government has matched. Therefore, we have almost €30 million available for such investment. Such an early intervention programme should make a big difference throughout the country and as time progresses we should be able to mainstream adolescents from that programme.

The pilot phase report of the national audit of neglect cases has also highlighted, as I said, the harsh reality of neglect.  Parental alcohol misuse was a factor in 62% of families in the overall sample. That study has highlighted for us again that family dysfunction is often associated with chronic alcohol and drug misuse. We should make it a priority to have a very appropriate response to alcohol issues in this country; to be very clear that we do not want to see young children being exposed to inappropriate branding; to make sure that those working in the adult services with adults who have alcohol and addiction problems take account of the needs of children in those families; and to ensure that we make the right decisions for all of those children. It is important that universal, easily accessible services within the community work to promote good outcomes for children, including child welfare, and that they have a clear role in supporting child development and family functioning while always being vigilant and responsive to child protection issues. We need strong linkages between universal and specialist services. I have written into the agency Bill that prevention work will be supported by the agency and that family support is a key element of its work.

Much work is under way on the development of new models of case intake, assessment and referral, to include both a greater differentiation between child protection and welfare referrals and a greater focus on early intervention. We have got to get the balance right. Clearly, many crisis cases are coming forward, but if we do not do the early intervention work and provide support to families more crisis cases will arise. It is a catch-22 in that we have to do both to be effective.

Building on this work, the Bill provides for a much expanded range of services compared to that currently delivered within HSE child welfare and protection services. It provides for the delivery of psychological services to children and families and they will be part of the specialist support.

The Bill provides that the staff of the Family Support Agency, previously a separate agency, will transfer to the child and family agency on its establishment. The functions that agency is currently discharging, with the exception of family mediation, will transfer to the new agency. These include providing family support, relationship counselling, supporting and developing the family and community resource centres, which are all very important. The new agency will build on the work that the Family Support Agency has done over a long period and the work of the nationwide network of 106 family resource centres. The Family Support Agency also funds more than 600 voluntary and community organisations. The inclusion of those services will ensure that the ethos of the child and family agency is built upon partnership with communities. I want to reiterate that commitment today.

We have to take account of the impact of poverty, which I have gone into that in some detail in the my speech. Job creation and lifting people out of poverty will be a key element in helping families to deal with the severe economic difficulties of the past few years. The announcement yesterday of the type of job creation we are seeing is important for the families we are talking about. A job is certainly the best way out of poverty.

The Bill also provides that all the functions and staff of the National Educational Welfare Board, NEWB, will transfer to the child and family agency on its establishment. I have said that the educational focus is important and that should be maintained and developed. The agency's educational welfare responsibilities are set out in statute and we must ensure that they have very high visibility in the work of the agency.

I have agreed with Government colleagues to explore the scope for further extending the responsibilities of the child and family agency after it successfully commences operations. In any event, given the breadth of services provided to children, there will be an ongoing requirement for the agency to develop very strong partnerships with key agencies in the education, health, justice, local government and other sectors, and to continue relationships and partnerships with HSE staff, as in the case of, for example, public heath nurses. We have to make sure that those linkages continue.

The programme for Government commits to improving accountability. This reflects concerns regarding the transparency and openness of the child welfare and protection services. We have taken initial steps in this regard and we want to make sure that we have greater service delivery consistently, role clarity in performance management and stronger partnerships with voluntary agencies. Gordon Jeyes has done a good deal of work on this to ensure that he develops those partnerships with the voluntary organisations, that service level agreements are, and continue, to be worked out with the voluntary organisations and that everybody can have a focus on what their priorities are. We need to have joined-up thinking between the voluntary and statutory organisations in order to meet the many needs that exist.

The task force undertook a very detailed review of governance models both nationally and internationally and devised recommendations to assist in achieving good governance and accountability in the particular context applying to children's services and this agency. The proposed sections of the Bill reflect these recommendations and a range of specific legislative proposals have been included to introduce a new model of public accountability and responsiveness on behalf of the agency. I have listed those on page 12 of my speech. They include control of the allocation of funding to the agency through the Vote of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in order that financial allocations underpin Government priorities; the multi-annual performance framework for the agency, which sets out key priorities and the key policy, resource and governance considerations; and a performance statement for the agency each year outlining what the priorities will be and the resources and key Government targets that apply. These will be extremely helpful in ensuring that the agency remains on target in terms of the work it must do. The Minister will proactively articulate the Government's requirements and enter into dialogue with the agency as to how these priorities can be achieved. 

I would like to draw the attention of Members to the provisions in the Bill related to the best interests and views of the child. These are ground-breaking ones in many ways. They fully meet the wording that was put before the people last year in the children's referendum and go beyond it in some important respects.

The specific requirements for the agency to perform its functions with regard to the Child Care Act and the Adoption Act accords with the provisions set out in the children's referendum. I introduced an amendment on Committee Stage of the Bill in the Dáil to broaden the operation of this section to provide that when performing particular functions in respect of an individual child under other specified Acts - not just the Child Care Act and the Adoption Act - the agency will seek to get views of the child and give them due weight having regard to the age and maturity of the child. At individual level it would be good practice to obtain the views of the young person, and it is what we should expect of our service providers, but this amendment will give statutory expression to good practice.

The Bill contains additional requirements across a broader range of functions relating to children and families. The agency will have regard to the best interests of the child in all matters and will ensure that consideration is given to the views of child as part of any consultation process in which the agency is involved. The Bill advances these important key principles, on which we had a great deal of discussion last year when discussing the children's referendum. In that context, it applied to the legal situations in which children found themselves, and obviously there are some legal issues outstanding in that regard.

There are 97 sections contained in 13 Parts and three Schedules to the Bill. I do not intend to go into detail on each one of those, but no doubt they will be covered in the course of our discussion. Section 1 covers the Title. Section 2 is important in that it defines the key terms in the Bill. There are a number of other provisions and I will not go through them in detail.  Part 2 covers the child and family agency in section 6 to 18. Section 6 provides for the making of an order by the Minister in respect of an establishment day for the agency. I would like to thank Senators for facilitating the debate in the House today and the taking of Committee and Report Stages in the next few weeks. Section 7 provides for the establishment of the agency on establishment day. I refer the Members to section 8, which is an important one that provides for the functions of the agency. I engaged in a good deal of discussion on this during the course of the passage of the Bill through the Dáil. Section 9 provides for the agency to have regard to the best interests and views of the child when making decisions and planning and reviewing the provision of services. Section 10 provides that the functions of the agency may be performed by a public body by agreement between the public body and the agency. It provides for a reciprocal arrangement between the public body and the agency by agreement. This is very relevant to a child and family agency because it enables many providers to deliver the services that are needed…… 

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