Wednesday, 17 December 2008
Seanad Eireann Debate
It gives me great pleasure to move the motion on foster care. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Barry Andrews, to the House and thank him for coming in to take the debate this evening.
When I was preparing for this debate I started to wonder for how long there had been fostering in Ireland. It is certainly as old as I am, and I will not divulge my tender age — I am a lot younger than Senator Glynn, who is sitting behind me. I asked somebody when we started fostering children in Ireland and the person, who I thought was an expert on the matter, said she did not really know but that it was before 1970, when the health boards were set up and took over the process. She told me a lovely story. She said that before it was called fostering it was called “boarding out”, and that it was the responsibility of county councils throughout the country. She said that one still hears people today affectionately talking about being boarded out with Anne, John, Paddy or Mary. Obviously there are good memories of that.
I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on this motion. I notice that the last part of the Government motion states: “Seanad Éireann further commends the foster carers undertaking this valuable role and supports the Government and the Health Service Executive in their continuous efforts to encourage and recruit new foster carers into the service.” We have just seen a national fostering recruitment drive across the country, which has been a great success in my area of Sligo-Leitrim and west Cavan. It is heart-warming to see such a huge response from families who want to help other families that are in need of care or that are suffering pain in these difficult times. It is difficult for the family whose child is going into foster care, but it is equally difficult for the family taking in that child, particularly in the current economic climate. Perhaps it is not as easy for some families to take in another child, yet they open their doors readily.
I asked what was the profile of a foster family and I was told that foster parents are as different and as unique as the children they bring into their homes. I thought it was lovely that no stone was left unturned to make sure the right child got into the right home and that the parents and the child bond, in the interest of the child more so than the parents.
Although this is a good subject for discussion and there are good things happening in the area, on which the Minister will elaborate when he addresses us today, there are areas that are still causing concern. Everybody loves babies and small children, and particularly at this time of year everybody looks out for small children. However, there are problems — perhaps it is wrong to say problems, but there are issues — with older children, from around the age of ten to the teenage years. As a mother of four, I can certainly understand that. I always loved the birthday parties until they became ten-year-old birthday parties. I have two boys and two girls, and while I could contend with the girls, the boys were nightmares, and the half a dozen little fellows they would bring in were even worse than the two I had at home. I know what it is like to have teenagers, the problems, the worries, the troubles, the heartache that teenage children bring, whether they are one’s own or foster children. There is no doubt about it, the challenges are immense.
I commend the foster parents who take on children and take on those challenges. I know as a parent that it is a challenge, but the rewards are immense also — that big outburst of love, in a very simple way, whether it is a hug or a kiss that lands on your ear instead of on your cheek when you embarrass them as they are coming out of school. It is all worth it in the end.
The people I spoke to who are working with foster families have told me they are always humbled by the people they meet who are prepared to open their homes and their hearts to children in need of care. It is hard to find families to take children with high level complex issues and children with special needs — perhaps a teenager who is in trouble with drink, drugs or whatever. Perhaps we should consider running a campaign to look for families to take such children. I am sure it would mean taking more money out of an already very pressed Exchequer, but the results would certainly be worth it. There is no doubt that foster care is a positive experience for any child or young person. These children will go through their lives like the people I spoke about earlier who have nice stories about being boarded out. I am sure that when they come to tell their stories in 20, 30 or 40 years’ time they will remember fondly the people who were kind and took them into their homes.
There would not be a need for foster parents if there were not children whose lives were in some kind of danger or who were experiencing pain in their own family environment. Whether it is physical, emotional or sexual abuse, or perhaps none of those three, there is still a huge need. Such children require dedicated care and attention and this is given to them in a foster family and through the wider family consisting of a social worker, a child care worker or whomever the child encounters as a result of being in that environment. Everyone involved wants the best for the child.
It is only right children would have that back-up because some of them are very traumatised by what has happened in their home or family environment. We know some children carry that trauma into adulthood and sometimes, sadly, do not even seek help for whatever might be bothering them until they are well into their adulthood and may have acquired other problems as a result of what happened in their childhood.
Foster parents play a very significant role in the life of a child in their care. They become his or her main educators. They are the ones who liaise with the teachers and go to the parent-teacher meetings. There are six-monthly or annual reviews for the child, depending on how long that child is in foster care.
There is a need for swift implementation of the Guardianship of Infants Act, according to those to whom I have been speaking. The Minister of State and I have talked about this Act in another arena at an Oireachtas committee. Under the Act, foster parents would have the right to sign for a child in the case of a medical emergency or for something as simple as permission for the child to go on a school tour without referring back to someone else. This helps to make the child feel the same as any other child going on a school tour or when any issue arises regarding the child’s health.
I will be somewhat parochial and say that I spoke to the team leader of the foster care team in Sligo. She is a good County Offaly woman like myself. She said the best Christmas present for her would be the implementation of the 2009 service plan which is the national foster care standard. She would like to think that what we have just published could be implemented. Her team has been up and running for the past ten years. It has not received any additional resources. The team has five or six social workers and one team leader for all of Sligo-Leitrim and west Cavan. I take my hat off to them because I know at first hand the wonderful work they do and which they want to continue doing. I ask the Minister of State to consider implementing the national foster care standards.
Sligo-Leitrim and west Cavan have 100% allocation of social workers to children but I am aware this is not the case everywhere else. I also spoke to people in County Mayo and they have a wonderful facility with 100 families giving foster care to 110 children.
We condemn the Government’s failure to implement the Children First principles in a comprehensive and uniform manner over a ten-year period in this country, as noted in recent reports. We note the failure to fill vacant social work posts and to recruit new social work staff because that puts children at risk.
We note that a report by the Government’s own social services inspectorate into a HSE fostering service found that one third of all children did not have a dedicated social worker, which is a huge source of stress for foster parents, or a care plan, which is not very good for the children involved or, indeed, the foster parents. We note the severe pressure on front-line health service professionals in terms of protecting children at risk which means that many children do not receive an adequate service. We note the long delays in assessment and treatment of children and adolescents with mental health difficulties and the lack of age-appropriate inpatient services. This week the Kildare service announced it was closing its waiting list except for the most urgent cases. What effect will this have on the mental health of so many children?
We also note the hundreds of young people who leave the care of the State each year and who are at risk of homelessness because of a lack of after care services. We call on the Government to take various actions to deal with this situation, to look at the gaps in terms of child protection and the provision of services, and to ensure the implementation of the principles of Children First throughout the country in a uniform manner. I understand the cap on recruitment has been lifted but the posts are still unfilled. We call on the Government to act on the concerns of organisations at the front line of providing care for vulnerable children and put in place dedicated after care services to enable these children reach their potential.
I ask the Minister of State to outline to the House what action he has taken to implement the concerns expressed by the Government’s social services inspectorate into a HSE fostering service. Many foster parents would welcome legal security and recognition by way of a constitutional referendum to the hundreds of children in long-term care for whom adoption would be appropriate. In light of the baby P case in Britain, I ask the Government to take all necessary action to ensure such a situation could not occur in Ireland if it has not already occurred. I say this because I am very concerned that the Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan, who, because of her concerns about the position of some children whose cases have been reported to her, which she says are as serious as they can get, is now carrying out her own investigation of them. I do not know if that means that children have died or if they are at risk and I am not quite sure what it implies about care, but I understand there are very serious concerns which the Ombudsman for Children is investigating. I do not know when the Minister of State will receive her report but it is clearly a very serious issue of concern to everyone.
I assume that in moving this motion the Government wished to pay tribute to the Irish Foster Care Association and foster parents which is well deserved and on which point there is no argument. The concern has to be about the child who does not reach foster care, who does not even get his or her needs assessed and whose case is not allocated to a social worker. I have heard phrases in the course of my research for this motion from people who have said that there are drawers in Health Service Executive offices full of cases which have not been allocated. I have heard of child care managers who are at their wit’s end trying to respond to the cases that are being brought to their attention. This is everyone’s concern. Not every case referred to the HSE is a child protection issue. There can be issues of child welfare of varying types which can be resolved by different actions and intervention.
When will the Minister of State, Deputy Andrews, be in a position to inform the House what number of cases, which have been brought to the attention of HSE officers and teams, have been left without a social worker? I read the HSE report, published yesterday, and noted an information gap on figures in this area. While I accept the HSE is tackling the problem, how many cases in the system have not been allocated a social worker? How many children, and their families, in foster care have not been allocated a social worker?
Foster parents have several key concerns. The current economic situation puts more pressure on them. I appreciate yesterday’s announcement on legislation in the adoption area, welcomed by the Irish Foster Care Association, which gives a little more autonomy to foster parents. As far as children at risk in Ireland are concerned, everything in the garden is not rosy. I acknowledge, however, the increased resources in this area. We have come from a time when there was very little funding to one when there is modest funding.
I also welcome the changes introduced. Foster parents and the HSE have played a large role in these. Many more at-risk children go into foster care rather than residential settings. We need to set a higher target on this. A home setting is far better for children than residential care. That has been a marvellous change in our social policy. As a former social worker who worked with children in residential settings, foster care and those waiting for adoption, I recognise and welcome the changes made.
Nevertheless, many children who end up in foster care do so because their safety, well-being and future development have been at risk. These children are vulnerable and their needs exceed those of other children. While committed carers take on caring for them, we must ensure the State also responds to the needs of the children and their foster parents in an ongoing way, not just at the beginning of the placement. Issues arise at all times. For example, when a child in foster care reaches adulthood, what supports will the foster parents get at that point? The after care policy needs to be clear. It is not good enough to give the supports up to 18 years of age and expect everything to be covered after that. Ongoing contact with the child protection welfare services can be a great support.
The HSE claims that no child at risk who is referred to it goes without an assessment. It decides that children at risk will be seen, where possible, by a social worker. The concern is, however, that one does not know the level of risk until the assessment has been done. If children are not assessed, how does one know one is moving to help the right children in the right place?
“Prime Time Investigates” examined foster care in the north east and found there were some concerns. Has there been a response to that report? Has there been a response to the social services inspectorate report? There is a major concern that the Children First national guidelines are not being implemented uniformly. I was shocked when reading the Department’s report on the implementation of the guidelines. It is clear there are inconsistencies in the guidelines’ application. Would it be better to put them on a statutory basis?
Will the Minister of State update the House on what actions he has taken since the “Prime Time Investigates” programme brought to light the problems facing social workers in addressing child protection and welfare services? Will he explain how he can ensure the necessary number of social workers is put in place? How many files of children at risk remain unallocated to a social worker? What action has the Minister of State taken to integrate the social services inspectorate into a HSE fostering service? How does he intend to ensure the implementation of the Children First guidelines, which are not being implemented nationally, potentially putting children at risk? When can organisations such as the Irish Foster Care Association expect to see after care services put in place for people leaving the care of the State?
I hope the House will accept my amendment to the motion. It highlights the urgent need to put the care, welfare and protection of some of our most vulnerable children above all else. We have seen the drama that has unfolded in England in recent weeks surrounding the Baby P case. Thousands of people marched in England in protest at what happened to that young child. We must take preventive action in this country. We must put services in place to support children who are at risk, assessing them, allocating social workers to them and ensuring foster parents get the support they need.
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, to the House. I spoke to him previously on some of these issues when the House debated child abuse. I compliment the Government side on tabling this welcome motion. The Irish Foster Care Association recently called for parents who would take on older children and teenagers.
I have a personal interest in this, having been a beneficiary of foster care, in that my first child is adopted. Before we took him home, he had already been in two foster homes even though he was only three months old. We have the most wonderful resource in foster parents, a precious resource that we must not abuse. They are a selfless and caring group of people, truly amazing in the way they allow adoptive parents into their homes and give advice to ensure continuity of care. It is very difficult for them to deal with separation when they finally have to let go of a child in their care. Often, this is not mediated well between the social worker, the adoptive couple and the foster family. Sometimes there is a need for visits and ongoing contact after the child has been placed in the adoptive family. That can be difficult for some adoptive couples. It is important the HSE, social workers and the Minister of State are aware of their needs in regard to the separation.
I congratulate Senator Fitzgerald on her well crafted amendment to the motion. With the detail she has put in it, I can tell she is on the ball concerning foster care. Such parliamentary work is good not just for Fine Gael but for the House and the Government. Approximately, 5,000 children are in foster care, 90% in foster homes and 10% in residential care. The more children in foster homes, the better. In Galway, approximately 240 children are in foster care but there are only three dedicated social workers, with one more to be appointed. The movements and contacts required for one child — I base this on my experience — could take up to one day if not a whole week of a social worker’s time.
Senator Fitzgerald’s motion refers to the shortage of staff. It is dangerous at times if we do not pay attention to the numbers assigned to a need. An extremely small number of social workers are required for the Galway need. Residential units in Galway are being closed which means that more foster homes are needed for more difficult teenagers. Teenagers are coming in from all levels of society where parents cannot cope. These kids are more difficult to place.
A year ago I was contacted by a mother who was desperate to get help with her out-of-control teenager, who was threatening her and his two year old sister. When the mother asked me to help I called the social work office and spoke to the social worker on duty. I was assured it would be handled. A week later the mother of the child asked me if I had done anything. I replied that I had done all the intervention that day because I knew it was so urgent. Two weeks later, the on-duty social worker had not had a chance to do anything because there was so great a caseload. As Senator Fitzgerald says, if there are so many files unopened, how do we know the risks involved? This is how serious it is.
The Minister of State has a fantastic brief in presiding over the health and welfare of the children of this country. I would love to have that brief but it is a highly dutiful brief. Being a parent of young children, like I am, the Minister of State knows how responsible a role it is. We must consider the numbers versus the caseload. More social workers and a training fund are needed to provide training for foster parents to cope with more difficult teenagers and to entice foster parents to take them. Speaking to foster mothers this morning, they told me they need help with more difficult teenagers. As a father, the Minister of State knows he would need help if he had difficult teenagers.
There is a need for an out-of-hours service on weekends. If a child fractures an arm or needs a tetanus injection, if the foster parent cannot locate the mother and there is no social worker available, the procedure cannot proceed without consent. Then the doctors must make a decision and hope that nothing goes pear-shaped. That is very risky.
Senator Feeney asked about guardianship. A strong case was made to me to represent this to the Minister of State. Can the Minister of State confirm that this measure was put in place yesterday? Perhaps it needs to be rolled out more. Guardianship will allow long-term foster parents to apply for a passport, school insurance, a visit to the dentist, a vaccination or anything in respect of the child.
Another issue brought to my attention is the fee for fostering, some €300 per week. This is considered good for a baby or a young child but not adequate for a child with special needs who must be brought on regular visits to speech therapy or physiotherapy. Petrol costs are not taken into account. A reasonable recommendation is for a tiered system of payment to reflect the need of the child.
Regular training and updating is needed for foster parents. A foster mother told me that older parents, who know quite a lot, are assigned fewer children by the HSE because they are considered more hassle. She felt she knew the rights of the child and how to advocate for the child. Another felt the rights of the child rarely come before the rights of the mother. In one case, a mother entered a new marriage and insisted on having back the child in foster care. She made all sorts of threats to the child and the child returned home. The child had many difficult years with the mother before she was 18 and could go to college. This is a major issue. We must question when the child’s needs are best served by the natural mother if neglect is involved. Is there a case there for adoption, as raised by Senator Fitzgerald?
Emily Logan referred in her reports to her concerns about child care. We should bear in mind the Baby P case in the UK. If there is such a trend of neglect by natural parents, let us do something about it. To be an adoptive parent, one must be assessed and counselled, which is right. To be a foster parent, one must go through the same process, but to be a natural parent, nothing is required. That is fine, but in a case where the child is going into care, the State must ask questions for the good of that child. If the mother’s welfare and needs are put before the child, that is in contradiction to the Child Care Act, which states that the welfare of the child is paramount.
The Minister might clarify the status of the foster family and the support, if any, it gets when the child turns 18. The foster family remains the main family for the young person. Children are not home and dry or sorted just because they turn 18. They could be at risk of homelessness due to a lack of after care services. This concern was brought to my attention today, as was the importance of the implementation of the national foster care standards.
Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children (Deputy Barry Andrews): I thank the speakers and Senator Glynn for raising this issue. I was asked to appear before the Seanad and, while it is not for me to decide, I was delighted to speak on this issue, which is an area of which we can be proud in terms of the delivery of services. I wish to refer to some items that will not be covered in my main contribution.
This matter was encapsulated in the question asked by Senator Fitzgerald about what we have done since the “Prime Time Investigates” issue arose. That took place the day after I was appointed and it gave me an early baptism. Since then, there is the question of how up to date the figures are. The answer is they are not up to date. Since I was appointed, the 2005 and 2006 figures have been published. I have received a draft of the 2007 figures and a commitment that the 2008 figures will be published by April 2009 and that, thereafter, each year’s figures will be published in a more timely fashion. That will give us a better, more contemporaneous assessment of the gaps and duplication that exist and of where we can apply resources more evenly. We are having a major discussion with the HSE to roll out a knowledge management strategy so that we can equip our social workers with the facilities that will allow them to know where risks may arise. If we can get that going, we can make a major contribution to social workers in Ireland.
Regarding after care, section 45 of the Child Care Act gives a discretionary role to the HSE regarding children after the age of 18. This is interpreted by most HSE staff to mean they will do something and not just write off children when they turn 18. Although it is a discretionary function, they carry it out as if it were mandatory. Nevertheless, I am discussing changing this section with my officials and the HSE in order to put it on a mandatory footing or change it in some way to acknowledge the issue of after care. I consider this serious because there are risks associated with it, including homelessness. It is difficult to say that a child becomes mature at 18 and capable of watching out for himself or herself. The unintended result of the major scandal in the UK of the baby P case is that social workers are removing children from homes at three times the rate they were doing prior to the case being reported. This is not what we want and everyone agrees on this.
Deputy Barry Andrews: The public hue and cry which followed this case was right and proper in a democracy. However, there is often an overreaction to a particular scandal. I am asked to guarantee that something similar will not happen in Ireland. I cannot guarantee this because we cannot observe every moment of every hour of every day of every child’s life. We must ensure people are aware of their obligations. We have a robust set of guidelines, Children First, which have stood the test of time as they have been in place for ten years.
The guidelines were reviewed thoroughly over the past two or three years and in July I published a report on them which concluded fairly that gaps did exist. Certain professionals are not aware of their obligations. The one key point about Children First is that if a person is concerned about children, he or she should report it to the Health Service Executive. It is as simple as that. However, teachers and others who come across incidents do not report them or are not aware that they are to do so in this fashion. I am doing my level best to ensure people are aware of the guidelines and I will re-publish Children First in the coming months.
I am delighted to be in a position to speak about foster care in Ireland. This is a service provision that we do not hear much about on a day-to-day basis. Foster care services do not make headlines in the media like other health and social service provisions. However, on any given day foster carers and relative carers are caring for 4,776 children. This represents 89% of the children placed in the care of the HSE. Although this figure is significant, I am of the view that not enough recognition or credit is given to all those people who are key players in this service and this has been annunciated by a number of speakers.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child sets out the principle that in all actions concerning children, the best interests of the child will be the primary consideration. The convention also states that a child should not be separated from his or her parents unless the state is of the view that it is in the child’s best interests to do so.
A 2000 publication on foster care states: “Foster care has been subject to a range of influences in its development but it can be seen as one of the early expressions of this recognition of the rights of the child.” Families and family life are very important to all children and the opportunity to experience the qualities of family life is one of the main objectives of the National Children’s Strategy. The UK Children Act 1908 introduced fostering on a statutory basis for the first time. It has been around for 100 years, which is a considerable length of time.
We are all aware that unfortunately there are times in some children’s lives when it is not in their best interests to remain at home. The environment can often be chaotic and harmful and no one is best served by allowing children to remain in situations where they are in some way at risk. Foster care provides the best way for these children to experience family life. It does this by offering care in a family setting in the community either on a short or long-term basis. It allows for many children to form good relationships with committed foster carers and their families.
Another important factor in foster care is that it allows for and actively encourages the inclusion of the child’s family during his or her care, where appropriate. In fact, the main aim of staff and foster carers alike is to work towards returning the child to his or her family. We all understand that this is not always a possibility. However, it is important for the services and all those working in them to continually review the situation of the child and his or her parents and to examine whether it is in the child’s best interest to return home.
In view of the successful outcomes for children, it is not surprising that foster care and relative care represent the dominant placement options in Ireland. This importance is signified within our legislative and regulatory framework. The Child Care Act sets out specific provisions and regulations for foster care.
To develop and enhance the services, the report of the working group on foster care was published in 2001 and makes a wide range of recommendations to Government. Many of these recommendations have been implemented. The report recommends that discretionary payments made to foster carers be abolished and that the allowances be increased. They have been increased to €325 and €352 for 2009. This increase, small I admit, recognises the importance of fostering and the work undertaken by foster carers. Foster care makes not only social and humanitarian sense, but also economic sense. The cost of providing a foster care placement for a child represents significant savings compared with a residential placement. Although it must be recognised that while it is the aim of the Government and the HSE to reduce the number of residential placements in the interests of children, there will always be a need for a continuum of services, from on-the-ground family support services to the intensive placements in the small number of special care places.
Another key recommendation of the working group is that the standards of practice applied in foster care should be of the highest level. The national standards for foster care along with a children’s version were launched in 2003. The standards have a major role in ensuring foster care placements are adequately supported and that children in foster care receive the best possible care. The standards focus on areas such as the quality and consistency of services for children and young people in foster care, standards and practices related to foster carers and guidance to the HSE on how it can meet its statutory obligations effectively. These standards are the main tool for the social services inspectorate, SSI, which inspects foster care services, and the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA. Since the introduction of the standards, the SSI has completed a pilot inspection of foster care services, inspections of non-statutory foster care providers and two further inspections of the HSE fostering service in Meath and Dublin. The results of these inspections were in the main very positive with the children receiving a good standard of care by dedicated and committed foster carers and HSE staff.
In December 2005, a piece of research, called Lives in Foster Care, was published. I am heartened to see that the study produced positive findings on the daily lives of this young group of foster children in the areas of schooling, friendships and hobbies. The study found that on the whole the young people were leading regular lives. A total of 98% attended school regularly and the majority of them were expected to stay on in school. A total of 92% had regular friends and these friendships were deemed to be beneficial.
Another piece of research, entitled Counting on Foster Care, examined foster care in the eastern region of the HSE. In this the motives for fostering encompassed altruism and personal aspirations. This research is a resounding endorsement for involvement in fostering, indicating that foster carers felt that there were significant benefits to be derived from the experience of fostering for the children in their care and for their own families.
The Lives In Foster Care research, which I mentioned previously, also highlighted the benefits of relative foster care and the importance of being placed with a birth sibling. The latest available statistics from the HSE show 48% of children in foster care are in relative foster care. At the end of 1998, 635 children were in relative care. By October 2008, this figure had grown to 1,557, representing an increase of 145%. This is a positive development. Looking to the extended family members in the first instance is part of the national standards for foster care.
Foster carers play a crucial role in the lives of children by providing a welcoming place in their home at a vulnerable time in the children’s lives. I commend foster carers on undertaking this role. Caring for children is not easy. Caring for children who are not one’s own and who may have experienced traumatic events in their lives is certainly not easy. In recent years with the busy pace of life and with families’ time taken up with the increasing demands and pressures of daily living, I am heartened to see that fostering is so active in our society.
Many of these foster carers are members of the Irish Foster Care Association which was established in 1981. Over this period, the association has grown to a membership of more than 1,000 with 28 active branches nationwide. I congratulate the association and thank it for inviting me to its recent annual conference in Trim. I am aware the association provides essential support through its training, information support, conferences and seminars.
Deputy Barry Andrews: I understand it is in the best motivation. My apologies. To operate successfully, the nature of our foster care services must adapt and develop over time. In long-term foster care arrangements, many foster carers sought increased autonomy when making day-to-day decisions in regard to the children who had been, in essence, members of their families for several years. In 2007, an amendment was made to the Child Care Act 1991, the principal purpose of which was to provide that a foster carer who had a child in his or her care for a continuous period of five years could apply for a court order for increased autonomy in regard to the care of that child. This provision received cross-party support and I understand the Health Service Executive is putting in place a protocol regarding its implementation.
Multi-dimensional treatment foster care, MTFC, is a little known but cutting edge aspect of foster care in the State. It is designed to provide treatment in a foster care setting for teenagers with challenging behaviour. These children are usually placed in high support or special care residential settings but some may be more appropriately placed in this type of foster care. MTFC is an evidence-based programme which originated in the United States under practitioners targeting serious and chronic juvenile offenders. The programme involves special training of successful foster care applicants and intensive daily support for them during the six to nine month placement of the young person. An important factor in the success of this programme is the emphasis placed on the involvement of each young person’s family or after care resource from the outset.
This programme is in operation in several locations throughout the State. I was pleased to attend the launch of the service provided by Extern Ireland in Mullingar, as well as the TimeWise Fostering service provided by the Daughters of Charity in north Dublin. The MTFC recruitment campaigns are challenging because the programme involves an intense type of foster care, with a multiplicity of services and 24-hour access to those services. I pay tribute to the Health Service Executive for providing, where possible, this alternative to residential care.
As I said at the beginning of my speech, I am pleased to have this opportunity to inform Members of the significant developments taking place in foster care services. While we often hear negative stories in regard to our health and social services, it is important to highlight the significant and valuable work undertaken on a daily basis by social workers, Health Service Executive managers, foster carers and the Irish Foster Care Association for the benefit of thousands of children.
Senator David Norris: I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews. It is appropriate that he should participate in this debate because he is a caring and sensitive person who will take a direct and immediate interest in these issues. I also welcome the opportunity to pay tribute to those involved in foster care, foster parents and officials, most of whom are doing an extremely good job. Occasionally, however, one hits a snag, as I have learned through the several cases in which I have been involved.
Without providing details that might identify the persons concerned, I will refer to a particularly tragic case in which a young woman who was addicted to drugs had two children and subsequently suffered brain damage after an overdose. The grandparents in this case wished to take an interest in the children but met great resistance in this regard, not from those providing the foster care but from the authorities handling the case. Some of those bureaucrats were young people hardly out of college, the ink fresh on their diplomas, but they presumed to know more than the children’s grandparents. Officials must show some sensitivity in such cases. The birth mother was wired up to various machines in an intensive care unit, yet because of some theoretical consideration, it was determined that the two children should be made to visit her once a fortnight. They left screaming because it was clearly a horrendous nightmare for them. There must be a balance between our understanding as human beings and the theory that may be dealt out.
The foster care system in general is creaking along somewhat. I emphasise that I have nothing but the highest regard for those involved in the system, apart from my reservations about the rigid application of academic ideas regarding the welfare of children in obvious defiance of their needs. The Minister of State indicated that there is a lack of data, which is a critical issue. To plan and make provision for the future, it is important that we should have an accumulation of data so that we know what the situation is and how it may best be progressed.
I have been briefed by a group with which I was previously unfamiliar, the Irish Association of Young People in Care, which was established in 1999. There has been some Government involvement with this organisation, with the Health Service Executive providing funding for a two-year project, the children’s rights and participation project, under which there has been successful engagement with 1,000 people in the north Dublin area. It has been adopted by Vodafone for sponsorship as one of its particular charities. It seems, therefore, to stand in good repute.
One of the first issues the organisation highlights is the absence of up-to-date data, which it emphasises as vital. The group is optimistic and aspirational in its stated objectives, expressing the view that every young person in care should have an allocated social worker. I am not sure how practical that is within the current budget restraints. It also emphasises the importance of devising and implementing a care plan and that resources should be allocated on the basis of need rather than resources. That is certainly the case in an ideal situation but when resources are limited, tough decisions must be made. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to allocate to everybody on the basis of need alone, particularly in the current economic climate. For that reason, we must make the most efficient use of the resources we have.
The most up-to-date statistics, as far as I am advised, are from December 2005 when there were 5,220 young people in care. Of these, 85.6% were in foster care and 7.6% in residential care. This indicates how vital foster care is within the care system. Some 22% of those in care had been so for less than one year, 42% for one to five years and 36% for more than five years. The percentage of children in foster care is growing all the time. Some 44% of relative foster carers had children placed without approval. That is worrying, as is the lack of information. For example, we do not know how many children have been allocated social workers, nor do we have precise information on the ethnicity of those children. That may not have been an issue in previous generations but it certainly is now and is something that must be clearly addressed.
There are no statistics for the number of young people who exit the system completely at the age of 18, at which time they may be vulnerable. There seems to be no follow-up of such individuals. We must be informed of the outcome for these young persons. We cannot allow them simply to slide off the end of a conveyor belt without some knowledge of the end result. There is anecdotal evidence that children in long-term, stable foster care placements have better outcomes than those with multiple placements. It is vital that the data in this regard are made available. Children do not always stay in the same family grouping but may instead move from time to time. I assume that can be highly unsettling for a vulnerable young person.
There is a lack of up-to-date information on the numbers, roles and locations of social workers. The most recent data, from 2001, indicates there were 1,992 social worker posts with 307 vacancies. Within this figure is a worryingly high annual turnover rate of 18.1%, with health boards consistently reporting difficulties in recruiting. That is another problem. This high turnover of social workers, perhaps coupled with multiple placements, is unsettling for young people. There is no central core of stability in such an arrangement, which is precisely what is missing from these young people’s lives.
There is no clear definition of a care plan. What are its objectives? Why is it in place and what should it cover? Very often it is merely a history. It is not a care plan looking to the future but one stating this, that or the other happened and we are now at point X. We should be trying to determine what the results of this historical survey imply and how the system can be improved.
According to national standards, the reviews of a young person’s care plan are supposed to occur once every six months in the first two years of care. They are important because they detail issues such as contact with the family and so on.
After care assistance, which I already mentioned, is very important but it must be tightened up. We must bear in mind that over half of the 16 to 17 year olds leaving care do so in an unplanned way. That figure is astonishing. Those young people are vulnerable and in tumult and they leave the system in a way that is not planned for.
I find it interesting that the primary reason for young people being placed in foster care is parental neglect. I want to reflect on that for a moment because sometimes we are lectured about the holiness of the family by what I regard as the more conservative voices in this debate. I came from a family, the same as everybody else, but it is a great mistake to make it just a shibboleth, define it narrowly and not recognise that there are occasions in which the family can be in dereliction of its duty. What about those children? Are they placed in an ideal situation? Should we bow down and grovel to the families that produced these cases of neglect? Should we not be more realistic and say that all these circumstances are human and that the institutions they deal with are human institutions and must be shaped and assisted in the interest of the human components and not in the interests of some mythical or ideological concept that makes a totem out of the family.
We must remember that 50% of the children in foster care are in that care directly because of parental neglect. That is not the responsibility of gay people. We are not undermining the family. We are not causing this parental neglect. That is something that exists and it must be taken into consideration as part of the spectrum of human experience in this country.
Senator Camillus Glynn: Ba mhaith liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire Stáit agus chomhghairdeas a dhéanamh leis as ucht an jab atá déanta aige. Mar a deireann an seanfhocal, áfach, “a lán déanta, níos mó le déanamh”.
I am delighted to have been responsible for putting this motion on the clár of the House this evening. There are a number of reasons for doing so, one of which was to bring the area of child care to centre stage. I am not saying it had not been there previously but five years ago, as chairman of the then Midland Health Board, I was asked to formally launch the Irish Foster Care Association and in the course of a conversation with a number of social workers and others on that occasion, I was made familiar with a number of problems that confronted the Irish Foster Care Association, one of which was the difficulty in recruiting social workers. I am delighted that 100 new social workers are being recruited. I raised that issue in the previous Seanad on a number of occasions and asked that career guidance teachers would exhort young people in education to pursue the social worker occupation as a professional career.
In further conversations with people involved in the area of foster care, I was informed there was an ongoing difficulty with recruiting social workers in the Republic of Ireland, on the island of island and within the British Isles. I understand social workers were recruited from as far away as South Africa. There is a difficulty in that regard and again I would ask career guidance teachers to encourage young people to pursue this profession as a career.
I thank the Leader for agreeing to have this motion on the agenda, having raised it a number of times in the House. I thank Senator Healy Eames for welcoming the motion. We might not all agree with the text but it is an opportunity for all sides of the House to address what we consider to be the problems arising from child care and foster care. The last part of the motion states: “Seanad Éireann further commends the foster carers undertaking this valuable role and supports the Government and the Health Service Executive in their continuous efforts to encourage and recruit new foster carers into the service.”
The ideal place for a child to be brought up is in the home where there is a healthy, caring atmosphere. Foster carers provide that vital service. Care centres are an option I would not favour. That is the reason it is so important to exhort additional people to offer foster care.
At this point I welcome to the Gallery members of the Irish Foster Care Association and Fostering First Ireland. I thank them for their advice, support and concern. The Irish Foster Care Association is an important organisation because foster carers need support and back-up facilities. That is precisely what the Irish Foster Care Association provides. It was formed in 1981 by a group of foster parents and social workers. Although she is not in the Chamber, in a jocose way I can say that Senator Feeney was out and about at that time also. To return to the nub of the problem, it is important we have people with the generosity of spirit shown by foster carers to provide this service.
In a career that spanned over 30 years in the psychiatric services, I have been struck by children who failed the system, or the system failed the children, who found their way into the psychiatric services. That is regrettable. One aspect that impressed me was that people fostered children with very challenging behaviour and children with a sensory disablement. We should be vigilant at all times that children are protected and cared for to the highest levels of excellence. As those involved in this area are aware, it is the parents who contribute to the formation of the person and influence the child most. That is why it is so important that children grow up in a caring setting, preferably in their own home with their own parent or parents, but if that is not available, with foster parents. Foster parents provide the care and I cannot praise them enough for that.
The Minister of State referred to the amendment to the Child Care Act that gives foster parents certain rights. That amendment is welcome and is an important development. I understand it comes into operation today and, therefore, this discussion is very relevant to that matter.
There is no point in throwing pious platitudes at the Irish Foster Care Association and foster carers. I say to the Leas-Chathaoirleach, the Minister of State and all the Members of this House that in six months’ time I will be placing this motion again, with the co-operation of our spokesperson, on the clár of Seanad Éireann because there is too much at stake for children and society. We read in the local, national and international newspapers what can happen when we take our eye off the ball and we should cast ourselves in the role of the busybody or nosey parker in ensuring child safety and security, and ensuring child rights, attain the highest level of our attention.
Senator Camillus Glynn: We all need a spur and we all need to be motivated from time to time. In that way, child care and foster caring can generate the most attention because all sides are focused on them. I am privileged to have been successful in tabling this motion on the clár. I thank the Leader and all the spokespersons, particularly Senator Feeney, our spokesperson. This is one of the most important debates to have taken place since I entered the House. I thank the Irish Foster Care Association and the foster carers who are wonderful people. Where would we be without them?
Senator Paudie Coffey: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I support the Fine Gael amendment. I acknowledge the essential and hard work of the Irish Foster Care Association and of foster carers who are often the unsung heroes in our society. After all, they volunteer their time and energy and that of their families, and they are giving. The word “foster” implies love and care and we must always acknowledge that those carers are willing to provide this service and give their love and care to others.
Families who open their homes to care for these vulnerable children must also be acknowledged. The children would not need foster care if they had not been through a traumatic period in their lives. I refer to my family experience. I am the youngest of five and I am proud that my parents fostered children when I was only aged one or two. They built a life-long relationship with one of the children and it is wonderful and beautiful to see that the child, who is now a parent, acknowledges herself as one of our family. I have witnessed the love that passed from a family that was willing to give to a family that needed love and care at an important time in their lives.
I was contacted by foster parents last year regarding the child benefit issue. In October 2007 legislation was introduced which provided that where a child is in foster care continuously for six months, the child benefit will only then be paid to the foster parents for the benefit of the child. However, there are concerns because the payment is still made to the parents of the child for that initial six-month period but the child does not benefit whatsoever. Some people feel the payment should be put in a trust for the future benefit of the child for his or her education or a service he or she might need because the foster parents do not want it. Will the Minister of State clarify the position?
I refer to the lack of services for children with mental health difficulties who have been traumatised during their lives. There are delays in their assessment and treatment and it is essential that the Government addresses this issue and devotes resources and support to these services. It is not good enough that children who have suffered at the most vulnerable time in their lives must go on waiting lists to access essential services, such as counselling, special education support, psychology and social work. Children in those circumstances need the support of the State because they are vulnerable and they have been isolated. The State should stand by them. Their foster parents will stand by them because they have made that sacrifice. We must, therefore, look to the State to support them in that essential work.
I support the amendment in which Fine Gael calls on the Government to work with professionals to address their concerns at gaps in child protection and the provision of services, to ensure the implementation of the Children First principles across the country in a uniform manner and to act upon the concern of organisations at the front line of providing care for vulnerable children and put in place dedicated after care services to enable these children to reach their potential. As Senator Norris said, we cannot afford to leave children in isolation without support when they leave foster care. I am happy to commend the amendment to the House.
Senator Camillus Glynn: I thank colleagues for their contributions. The Minister of State has given us good news. One of the core issues relating to foster care is the inadequate number of social workers available to investigate whether children are at risk. That will be addressed, which is a welcome development. I ask the Minister of State to ensure the Department expedites the matter to ensure pending cases are dealt with in the most efficient way possible. I am a grandparent and our children are paramount. They are tomorrow’s leaders, industrialists and carers and, therefore, it is absolutely imperative that during their childhood they receive optimum care in a loving and caring setting. Such an environment is provided by foster carers. I cannot say enough to extol what they do and the IFCA provides back-up for them. It is important that carers have support and very often, when they do not, carers become the people who have to be cared for. I commend the motion to the House.
|Burke, Paddy.||Buttimer, Jerry.|
|Coffey, Paudie.||Coghlan, Paul.|
|Cummins, Maurice.||Doherty, Pearse.|
|Donohoe, Paschal.||Fitzgerald, Frances.|
|Hannigan, Dominic.||Healy Eames, Fidelma.|
|Norris, David.||O’Reilly, Joe.|
|O’Toole, Joe.||Ross, Shane.|
|Twomey, Liam.||White, Alex.|
|Boyle, Dan.||Brady, Martin.|
|Butler, Larry.||Callely, Ivor.|
|Cannon, Ciaran.||Carty, John.|
|Cassidy, Donie.||Corrigan, Maria.|
|Daly, Mark.||de Búrca, Déirdre.|
|Ellis, John.||Feeney, Geraldine.|
|Hanafin, John.||Keaveney, Cecilia.|
|Leyden, Terry.||MacSharry, Marc.|
|Ó Domhnaill, Brian.||Ó Murchú, Labhrás.|
|O’Brien, Francis.||O’Donovan, Denis.|
|O’Malley, Fiona.||O’Sullivan, Ned.|
|Ormonde, Ann.||Phelan, Kieran.|
|Walsh, Jim.||White, Mary M.|
|Boyle, Dan.||Brady, Martin.|
|Butler, Larry.||Callely, Ivor.|
|Cannon, Ciaran.||Carty, John.|
|Cassidy, Donie.||Corrigan, Maria.|
|Daly, Mark.||de Búrca, Déirdre.|
|Ellis, John.||Feeney, Geraldine.|
|Glynn, Camillus.||Hanafin, John.|
|Keaveney, Cecilia.||Leyden, Terry.|
|MacSharry, Marc.||Ó Domhnaill, Brian.|
|Ó Murchú, Labhrás||O’Brien, Francis.|
|O’Donovan, Denis.||O’Malley, Fiona.|
|O’Sullivan, Ned.||Ormonde, Ann.|
|Phelan, Kieran.||Walsh, Jim.|
|White, Mary M.||Wilson, Diarmuid.|
|Burke, Paddy.||Buttimer, Jerry.|
|Coffey, Paudie.||Coghlan, Paul.|
|Cummins, Maurice.||Doherty, Pearse.|
|Donohoe, Paschal.||Fitzgerald, Frances.|
|Hannigan, Dominic.||Healy Eames, Fidelma.|
|Norris, David.||O’Reilly, Joe.|
|O’Toole, Joe.||Regan, Eugene.|
|Ross, Shane.||Twomey, Liam.|
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: On a point of order, I understood it was the convention in this House that the proposer of a motion would be here for its conclusion and would respond to the debate. Is that not the convention in this House? It did not happen tonight. It is very disappointing that the Government could not provide speakers for this important motion, which they put on the Order Paper.
Senator Paschal Donohoe: I have my hand up for a point of order. We spent a lot of time asking that issues, such as the Lisbon treaty and the economy, be debated. We have 30 minutes left of our session——
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