Adjournment Debate. - Accommodation of Homeless Children.

Wednesday, 25 May 1994

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 443 No. 2

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Ms F. Fitzgerald: Information on Frances Fitzgerald  Zoom on Frances Fitzgerald  I thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for giving me the opportunity to raise this matter on the Adjournment. Bed and breakfast accommodation is completely unsuitable for young people for whom the health boards have responsibility. These children and young people are totally vulnerable when placed in such accommodation. They wander the streets all day with aid of £5 from a community welfare officer and as a result are more likely to get into trouble with the law and become criminals.

[472] There has been optimism about the provisions of the Child Care Act but social workers and other professionals involved in child care are being put in an impossible position on account of the lack of residential places for children. Organisations working with the homeless have disputed the figures furnished to me by the Minister for Health in reply to a parliamentary question concerning the availability of residential accommodation for homeless children. They are worried about the standard of bed and breakfast accommodation, the quality of care and the suitability of such accommodation for these children.

In my role as a social worker before being elected to this House I was aware that anybody dealing with children in care must be the subject of intense investigation, ensuring that certain standards are maintained. For example, in the case of a foster parent providing residential care for children, strict assessment procedures apply. Why should bed and breakfast accommodation be considered suitable for young people? Why should 25 young people have spent the night in bed and breakfast accommodation in Dublin on Monday last?

I ask the Minister to make a clear statement and issue guidelines to all health boards. He might assure the House that he does not consider bed and breakfast accommodation suitable for young people. We may well be faced with circumstances in which a major tragedy may occur, with an attendant investigation into the usage of bed and breakfast accommodation for young people. I understand that some of these young people, along with some owners of bed and breakfast establishments, are very unhappy with the position and that disturbing stories are beginning to emerge about young people being introduced to drugs when placed in this type of accommodation.

People may well ask why there is an increasing problem with child homelessness in Dublin and elsewhere. The reasons are many and complex.

Obviously there is the incidence of [473] increasing poverty among families, accompanied by marital problems. I am informed that, because of the reduction in emigration, agencies in London are not dealing with as many young vulnerable Irish people as in the past. Thus, these children's needs have to be met here. The increase is also because the health boards have responsibility to provide accommodation for homeless children up to the age of 18. Under the provision of section 3 the health boards have a responsibility to promote the welfare of children and bed and breakfast accommodation does not do that. As section 5 of the Child Care Act, 1991, places a statutory obligation on health boards to provide “reasonable, suitable and appropriate accommodation for homeless children” will the Minister outline to the House how bed and breakfast accommodation for vulnerable, homeless children can be construed as either reasonable, appropriate or suitable? In reply to a parliamentary question the Minister said that children as young as 12 years of age are being placed in unsupervised, unsuitable and inappropriate bed and breakfast accommodation, not just in the Eastern Health Board region but in the majority of health boards. The reality is that almost all health boards use this type of accommodation for homeless children.

In the Eastern Health Board region, where the problem is most acute, the official number of homeless children placed in bed and breakfast accommodation has increased from 39 in 1991 to 75 in 1993. There are insufficient facilities for homeless children and the health boards are becoming increasingly reliant on bed and breakfast accommodation.

In theory children have a right to proper accommodation but, in fact, they are not getting it. The dangers must be obvious to all Members and the Minister must issue guidelines. If the Minister for Health was present I would remind him of his concerns in this regard when he contributed to the Child Care Bill earlier. He was pessimistic about the use of section 5 and separating homeless children from other children. He was right [474] to be pessimistic because it is clear that homeless children are not getting the range of services they need. It is not a case of lack of funding but a lack of political will to address the issue. It will result in untold damage, physical and psychological, to these children. Will the Minister issue instructions to each health board prohibiting the use of bed and breakfast accommodation for homeless children? If he is not prepared to do this, Members and the public at large will remember that the Minister condoned the use of bed and breakfast accommodation for homeless children.

Minister of State at the Department of Health (Mr. O'Dea): Information on Willie O'Dea  Zoom on Willie O'Dea  As the Deputy is aware, the Child Care Act, 1991, provides a statutory obligation on health boards to provide a range of child care and family support services of children up to 18 years of age. Section 5 of the Act states that:

“where it appears to a health board that a child in its area is homeless the board shall enquire into the child's circumstances, and if the board is satisfied that there is no accommodation available to him which he can reasonably occupy, then, unless the child is received into the care of the health board under the provisions of the Act, the Board shall take such steps as are reasonable to make available suitable accommodation for him.

I am conscious of the concerns expressed about the placement of homeless children in bed and breakfast accommodation. The Department of Health has made it clear to the health boards that the use of this form of accommodation is not, as a general rule, an acceptable response to the problem and that all reasonable efforts must be made to provide appropriate hostel, residential or family placements for homeless children. At the same time however, it must be recognised that sometimes there is no other alternative to the use of bed and breakfast accommodation, particularly in an emergency or in cases where the homeless youngster refuses the health board's offer of a place [475] in a hostel or other residential setting. In such a situation the youngster may opt to stay on the streets unless the health board provides him with bed and breakfast accommodation.

The Deputy will be aware of the considerable progress made in providing funding for the implementation of the Child Care Act, including the provision of funding for the young homeless.

In 1993 the following additional developments were approved in the Eastern Health Board Area: additional funding of Focus Point “Off the Streets” project which provide accommodation for difficult to place youngsters, additional funding for Eccles Street hostel to increase places from 12 to 14; provision of funding for a boy's hostel at Botanic Road, Glasnevin; funding for accommodation for adolescent girls at Salvation Army, Eden Quay; Streetline, North Circular Road — four places and Sisters of Charity, Deansgrange — five places.

In the Southern Health Board areas: Provision was made for a grant of £100,000 towards development of Termon Residential Centre for homeless girls.

In the Western Health Board area a new service for young homeless and abused spouses is being developed in Castlebar.

The practice of placing homeless children in bed and breakfast accommodation is not widespread. It is mainly confined to the Eastern Health Board area where the incidence of youth homelessness is highest. The current position with regard to the Eastern Health Board is that there are six children under the age of 16 years and 19 children between the ages of 16 and 18 years in bed and breakfast accommodation. However, there are particular circumstances which apply in the Eastern Health Board area with regard to the implementation of section 5 of the Act as it applies to the 16-18 year old age category. Under instruction from the local branch of their union IMPACT social workers attached to the Eastern Health Board area are currently not [476] operating this section of the Act. As a consequence homeless youngsters in this category have to be dealt with by the community welfare service and in many cases the only placement that that service can arrange is in bed and breakfast accommodation. The absence of the social worker services means that these youngsters are not assessed as to the reasons they are homeless and whether they could return home voluntarily. Discussions are continuing between the board and the union representing the social workers and I hope that there will be an early resolution to his dispute.

I am determined that further improvements will be made in the current year with the continued development of the child care services generally. These improvements will, through earlier intervention with family support services and through increased facilities for homeless youth provide a better service for these unfortunate youngsters.

Ms F. Fitzgerald: Information on Frances Fitzgerald  Zoom on Frances Fitzgerald  What about the issue of guidelines for health boards?

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