The Minister will make a short presentation which will be followed by questions from members.
Foster Care Services: Discussion
I welcome the opportunity to address the committee on foster care services. I pay close attention to the committee's work, which is relevant to the work of my Department. The committee has recently heard from Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, , Empowering Young People in Care, EPIC, and the Irish Foster Care Association, IFCA on the issue and I have also received a very timely report on foster care from the Irish Association of Social Workers. The challenges in providing high-quality foster care services in a complex environment have been discussed at length in this committee. I am aware the committee recently had a presentation from Dr. Geoffrey Shannon on the audit he carried out on the application by An Garda Síochána of section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991. The audit report raised important issues about emergency child protection services both for the Garda and Tusla. I am fully committed to addressing the issues raised in a timely way and have worked with Tusla and Dr. Shannon to develop an implementation plan for Tusla services.
Foster care is the preferred placement for children who cannot, for whatever reason, live at home with their families. We have made a lot of progress in the foster care service provided here. Of all the children in care in Ireland, 92% are in foster care, compared with 74% in the UK. In Ireland, the 8% of children who are not placed in foster care are placed in children’s residential placements or in specialist disability centres. This compares very well with other countries in the western world and we should acknowledge this. Sadly, as a country, we were known for poor institutionalised care for children. This is no longer the case. We are now to the fore in placing children in family care. We cannot and will not be complacent.
Twenty years ago foster care was, in the main, for younger children or older children who presented with few challenges or intensive needs. Children who needed additional care were usually placed in residential care or they simply left care in their mid-teens. Tusla now aims to place and keep these children in foster care. Tusla has been doing well in providing family care for separated children seeking asylum. This is also the case for children who have suffered severe abuse or trauma. The reach of the service has been pushed out to accommodate more children in a greater variety of circumstances. This is the greatest evidence of our break with the past in terms of how we look after children in the care of the State. As we bring more children into family placements rather than institutional care, we expose weaknesses in the system. I will be the first to acknowledge these weaknesses. It would be foolish in the extreme to do otherwise. HIQA does a very professional job as regulator. We need it to point out when our system is not working and we need it to confirm when it is working. That is its job. It serves our children and our country very well. We need more social workers to recruit and support foster carers. Some progress is being made on this. There was a lengthy exchange on the subject when the CEO of Tusla appeared before the committee recently. We need better ways to make sure all the proper checks are in place for safe and proper placements for children that need them. The experience children have in foster care in Ireland is generally positive. We know this from the detailed HIQA inspections of all areas in the past three years. Inspectors found that the vast majority of children were safe, happy, attending school and in stable placements. This is reassuring for me, as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, and for the public who need to know the standards set for foster care in Ireland are generally being applied.
HIQA is now revisiting all Tusla foster care services and focusing on the problems it identified in its first round of inspections. These are mainly concerned that the necessary checks and balances are in place and monitored by the Tusla foster care committees. This is critical to ensuring that problems are identified and addressed at an early stage. Constant and effective monitoring should be a matter of routine in our foster care services. Follow-up is necessary to ensure remedial action has been taken. I wrote to HIQA regarding the concerns and received a response yesterday. I welcome HIQA’s timely response but I need time to study its reply properly before responding.
During its inspections to date this year, HIQA has identified ongoing issues of planning and service governance as needing improvement. This includes having enough of the right type of placements in the right locations to meet the wide range of children’s needs. It also includes ensuring that foster carers receive the support and supervision needed out of hours, as well as during office hours, to assist them to continue to provide good-quality care. The foster care system does a very good job but it is not perfect. There are serious challenges to be met, but I hope that the members of the committee are reassured to know that the vast majority of children in foster care are receiving safe bespoke care. This is evidenced by education attendance and stability of their placements.
Our foster carers are the backbone of the foster care system. They take children into their homes and also, I believe, into their hearts. They provide what children need, namely, sanctuary in a crisis situation and loving care and stability on a day-to-day basis. This might last for a short while until a family situation is resolved or it may evolve into a long-term placement lasting until a child becomes an adult at 18. Finding foster carers who are interested and able to meet the particular needs of individual children or sibling groups, which is called matching, is a vital foundation for a successful placement. Foster carers need support and this is especially true with more complex placements. Tusla plans to offer 24-hour support to foster carers and is currently engaged in negotiations with staff unions on the matter.
I will turn to the recent report by Dr. Shannon on section 12 of the Child Care Act. The report on the application by An Garda Síochána of section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991 is very useful in highlighting the experiences of children where the Garda has been obliged to intervene. These can be in situations of alcohol and substance abuse, domestic violence and the impact of serious parental mental health problems.
The report also highlights the different challenges faced by gardaí when they are dealing with older teenagers in dispute with their families who are asked to leave the family home.
The report has identified issues for Tusla to act on. To this end I have put in place a clear plan to move forward on addressing the recommendations for Tusla from the report. My action plan, agreed with Dr. Shannon, highlights the importance of greater inter-agency work between Tusla and An Garda Síochána. Dr. Shannon’s report points to serious gaps in mutual understanding and practical co-operation at local level. We must address this. A strategic liaison committee co-chaired by the CEO of Tusla and the Garda assistant commissioner responsible for child protection is in place. This committee has an important role in addressing the recommendations on co-ordination made in Dr. Shannon’s report. My Department has been in contact with the co-chairs seeking implementation of the relevant recommendations.
I understand from Tusla that the extended service put in place in late 2015, where the Garda has access to a national social work out-of-hours telephone service, has led to improved communication between it and the Garda. Gardaí ring this telephone line for advice and guidance. If they decide to invoke section 12 in Dublin, Wicklow, Kildare and Cork, social workers, on duty 24-7, meet directly with the gardaí and bring the children to the appropriate placement. In other areas of the country gardaí are provided with information about suitable foster care or residential placement for the child.
Having enhanced the out-of-hours service, Tusla gathered performance information for 2016 that showed the out-of-hours demand by area, the reason for contacting the service and by the age of child. The data showed that, across the country, just over 40% of children who were the subject of referrals to out-of-hours services were received into care, either foster care, relative foster care or residential care. In other situations, following the gardaí discussing the referral with the social worker, the child may have gone to a relative or neighbour or, indeed, back to his or her own home if the threat to his or her safety left. For example, in a situation of domestic violence if the aggressive partner left the home, the child could remain with his or her other parent, with a follow-up by Tusla in office hours.
There was a variation in the ages of the children referred to Tusla emergency out-of-hours services across the country. In 2016 in the greater Dublin area, half of the 856 children referred by the Garda were under 12 years of age. In the rest of the country more older children were involved, with 32% or 174 under 12 years of age and 43% or 240 children aged 16 and 17 years. In some instances a child, especially older children, could be referred more than once.
Tusla continues to engage with staff unions to bring about an improved service. Further improvements are planned for this year. These include: extending the on-call social work service in order that a social worker will attend, in person, with the gardaí, in cases across all areas of the country where section 12 is invoked by An Garda Síochána; making the out-of-hours telephone support available to all foster carers; consolidating the existing three co-ordinated out-of-hours services into a single national service; this will be accessed by a single Tusla out-of-hours contact number, with additional staff allocated to underpin the improvements. It is planned to roll out these improvements in the late autumn. I am examining what further improvements are necessary to ensure we have a responsive, child-friendly out-of-hours service.
My Department and Tusla are examining the legal and policy position relating to the use of public and private providers of emergency accommodation for children who are removed from their families under section 12. I am in contact with the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, on a number of the drug and alcohol related issues raised in Dr. Shannon’s report. Alcohol and drugs are detrimental to family life. I agree with Dr. Shannon that as a country we must wake up to this reality. I requested that Tusla commission independent research about what happens when a child is placed into the custody of Tusla by An Garda Síochána. This will examine the decision making process, for example, why a decision is made to place a child in care or why it is decided to return a child to the family home. It will also examine the child’s experience. For me, this is the logical next step to Dr. Shannon’s report, and I look forward to this independent research, which I believe will be very helpful.
Tusla children’s services need a significant staff injection. I am fully supportive of Tusla in funding the range of improvements it has identified as necessary. The most important of these is allocating social workers to children who need them. Employing and retaining the numbers needed will take time as our graduate numbers do not appear to be sufficient to meet current demand. My officials are working on a range of options with Tusla managers on this important matter.
To conclude, I am ambitious for our foster care services. We have committed foster carers who have stepped up to the plate for our children who cannot remain in their own homes. I recognise that and I will support them as we continue to expand and continually improve our foster care service.
I thank the Minister. I have a few questions before inviting Deputy Rabbitte to contribute. The striking features of your opening remarks are, first, the need for budgetary values to be put on these and for the Cabinet to agree and, second, the issue of negotiations with public sector unions. Can you advise on what stage they are at and whether any issues have been identified so far? While clear benefits and tremendous supports have been mentioned, they are entirely dependent on the buy-in by members of the public sector unions. We need their support to provide support to foster families and children. What is the position in that regard?
I will take the first question and ask my officials to respond to the second one. If I understand correctly, your first question was whether we have the budget to put in place the reform Tusla has identified and the numbers of social workers and other workers within Tusla that are required to ensure that we are able to implement the ambition of that reform programme. The answer is "Yes". It is not a question of the budget per se. As we approach the budget for 2018, I expect and hope that I will get a commitment in my negotiations that we will have the money required. One of the primary issues is the numbers we are able to recruit as distinct from the money in place to pay them.
Ms Michele Clarke
With regard to the on-call service, Tusla has informed us that it has no difficulty with social workers volunteering for that. Tusla wants to negotiate carefully with the public sector unions but it does not anticipate any major problem because it is not coercive. It is not changing the conditions of social workers unless social workers opt into it. In the on-call situation, thus far it has had a waiting list of social workers who are happy to do it. It is anticipating that to be the situation, but obviously we will have to wait and see as matters proceed. That is the information that has been provided to us.
Is that done on a regional basis or is it centred service provision?
Ms Michele Clarke
I understand it will be done centrally.
There is no issue as to where the volunteers are.
Ms Michele Clarke
That is my understanding.
Thank you. I call Deputy Rabbitte.
I thank the Minister for her presentation. The Minister said, "We cannot and will not be complacent". I endorse everything she said in that respect and everything in page 4 of her presentation. I will start with Dr. Shannon's report and some questions I asked in the House last week during Priority Questions. With regard to the statement that we cannot and will not be complacent, I believe we are as a committee and a Department because we have half the work done. We must finish the other half. The report is a live document. We are not talking about something that happened ten or 15 years ago but in 2016. I will refer to page 50. In 2015, there were 718 children under section 12. In 2015, Tusla told us the out-of-hours call service was in four areas - Dublin, Wicklow, Kildare and Cork. In the month of December 2015, there were 40 children under section 12 and in November of that year there were 45 children under that section. The data are available. One cannot beat the information. It is world recognised and we all agree that this is a good piece of work.
It is real. It references children who have been removed repeatedly under section 12 and repeatedly placed back in the family home with no follow-up and no connection between An Garda Síochána and Tusla. The Minister should forget about asking Tusla to do an independent review. We know it does not have the staff. I ask the Minister to ask Dr. Shannon to finish his work. I want to know about chapter 2. What happened to these children? There is no point in saying it will be investigated. I want to know if the system is working. I want to know that the systems and supports are in place. I endorse Tusla. I am one of the few Deputies who believes it is a young organisation that needs support, but the only way it will get the support it needs is if it knows the areas where it is falling down. Dr. Shannon refers to 91 cases. I want to know that that audit is complete. Let us find the recommendations for Tusla as well as An Garda Síochána so that we can move forward. Is the Minister committed to a ministerial order giving a direction for the piece of work to be completed? That is my only question.
By way of answering this question, and some other members may have a similar question, I would remind the committee that I had the opportunity to choose the special rapporteur in my term, and I made the decision to reappoint Dr. Shannon. It had a significant amount to do with his expertise, his international reputation, his commitment and his passion, but also the sterling way in which he conducts his research. As he has told the committee, as well as stating publicly, he had the audit on section 12 peer reviewed by other international experts in terms of doing research and he was assured that, both methodologically as well as in substance, it was a top class piece of work. That is my view also. That is my first point.
My second point is that, as I believe the committee is aware, I have requested Tusla to put out a request for tender for an independent piece of research to be done in regard to reviewing section 13, which the Deputy stated in her opening remarks is the second piece of the work. Section 12 was the first part. Section 13 is the second part. In the process of our conversations with Tusla in making that request to commission an independent piece of research in that regard, we have been informed by and have had discussions with Dr. Shannon on the ways in which that should be conducted. All of that has been part of the past. He has already fed into that, and I am deeply grateful for that. It is appropriate to request Tusla to request an independent piece of research to be done. In terms of the audit aspect, at the heart of section 13 is focusing on the decision making of social workers and their practice in the context of what happens after the gardaí move in and help the child. Tusla then has to step in and begin to assess where they are placed etc. It is important to point that out. Regarding the piece of work, I believe we need some expertise from a social work practice perspective that informs it.
Third, it is open to anyone to respond to that request and put forward a tender to do the piece of work for the audit of section 12.
I asked a direct question. Why would the Minister have gone down that route? I know it is public procurement and so on but in the best interest of the children, why would we not have finished what we know An Garda Síochána started? Why would we not have continued the piece of work that was live? Why are we going down the route of putting it out to tender? I am sorry if I am being pointed on this, but I believe passionately in it. The dots are not being joined. The children are getting older and I need to know they have been looked after. I do not believe one needs to be a social care worker to conduct this piece of work. It is factual.
I am not saying that.
Does the Deputy have any further questions?
No. I have no further questions. The Minister knows where I am coming from.
I am not saying that. The piece of work I presume the Deputy is referring to is the audit on section 12-----
-----that was commissioned by An Garda Síochána. It was a piece of work to audit section 12. That piece of work has been finished.
It has identified a number of cases.
While section 12 is completed, section 13 needs to be done to finish the piece of work-----
That is what I am doing.
-----because one moves into the other.
That is what will be done in terms of the process I have just outlined. That work will be completed. Absolutely, we need an audit of section 13 of the Act. That is part of the implementation plan my Department, in consultation with Dr. Shannon, agreed and that we are implementing.
There is a great deal in this because we have had several hearings on it. My initial question comes from what was our first discussion, which related to the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA. It pointed out that the lack of regulation it saw in the foster care area made it difficult for it to escalate cases, concerns and weaknesses. I invite the Minister to comment on that and indicate whether it is an issue she tends to pursue.
Either EPIC or the Irish Foster Care Association stated that there was a defined break at age 18 for many children in foster care. That makes it difficult for the foster carers and for the young people leaving care. There was a general sense that more needs to be done to allow young people to leave a care setting gradually. A welcome suggestion was made in terms of provision being made for adaptations in houses. That makes sense. We are dealing with the area of foster care, but aftercare is an issue that I, Deputy Rabbitte, Deputy O'Sullivan and several others have raised with the Minister as requiring further investment and work. Obviously, they are closely connected. That is a suggestion worth considering.
To a large extent this is a resource issue, but the issue of inspections is a clear weakness. It comes back to some of the Tusla references, to which I will return, but on the issue of inspections, 84% of foster carers in south Dublin and Wicklow had not been inspected in three years. Apparently, some of those were not aware that they were obliged to be inspected. I recognise there are resource issues and while the vast majority of those are likely to be healthy, positive placements, it is the risks and the weaknesses about which we should be concerned. Individual cases come to media attention, but it is the risks and the weaknesses structurally that I believe tell the real story about our child protection services.
The Minister's document makes a number of references to the Shannon report. I am somewhat encouraged by the Minister's commentary about the 24 hours service. If I am interpreting it correctly, and I hope I am, that seems to be step beyond what was previously stated as being the case, namely, that a social worker would be on site for all section 12 applications. Is that correct?
I welcome that because it is important. Is it the case that they will have full access to the social work file while present? That is important also.
Many issues came under the Shannon report, but I re-emphasise my concern about the reliance on private placement including the Five Rivers agency.
Five Rivers wrote a good letter to the committee outlining the service it provides. I wish to emphasise that my criticism is not necessarily of the organisation, but it underlines the point made by Dr. Shannon. These organisations can refuse children who present with difficult behaviours and obviously they are entitled to do so. However, this exposes our reliance on private providers. The under-provision of State intervention and residential care options in these circumstances means children end up in Garda stations and I do not believe that is appropriate. We need to reduce our reliance on these private providers.
The last point relates to the audit issue. I raised the issue of the need for a far broader audit during the Topical Issue debate the week after the report was published. I believe this is still the case, whatever about section 13. Issues are coming up with Tusla regularly. I accept that it is a new organisation and that resource issues have arisen, but structural and cultural issues must be tackled as well. We need a full overall view of our child protection services in the State to provide us with a roadmap to get to the child protection service we need. I still absolutely believe that it will back up what Tusla needs. It will back up what the social workers are telling us they need in terms of support. I still believe it is required.
My next question relates to the section 13 work that has been commissioned. I am uncertain about why Tusla commissioned the work. If the Minister initially saw the need for it, why did she ask Tusla to commission it rather than commissioning it herself? The Minister has designated a person as the State's child protection rapporteur. I am not referring to a particular individual but to a particular office. The office was deemed suitable by An Garda Síochána to carry out this further work. Why did we not identify this office as a suitable place from which to carry out this follow-up work? Notwithstanding the need for a wider tranche of work, that office would have been entirely suitable to carry out this work.
When the report is returned and when the investigation or audit or research is carried out, will the board or the chief executive of Tusla have a veto over its recommendations? Will the report return directly to the Minister? Will the recommendations be published in full?
I have three speakers left and we have approximately 30 minutes. I appeal members to be as concise as they can.
I will pick up on some of the points and my officials will come in with some of the other points. The first point related to HIQA inspections and difficulties in terms of escalating cases.
The question was on regulations specifically.
Ms Michele Clarke
HIQA operates under the Health Act 2007. The Act included provisions dealing with registered designated centres, that is, residential centres for children, older people and for those with disability. Other powers of HIQA under the Health Act 2007 include powers relating to monitoring and inspecting standards in health and social care. These are the powers HIQA currently has in respect of inspecting foster care and child protection services. HIQA is seeking additional powers in respect of foster care. HIQA has written to the Minister in this regard and this will be considered. However, it could have implications for the entire Health Act 2007 in terms of all services in the community. That is to be considered.
I signed a commencement order in recent weeks. The order provides that Tusla has an obligation to provide an aftercare plan for all children leaving care. That takes effect from 1 September.
Another question related to the out-of-hours service, the social workers in place and whether they have full access to the social work file.
Ms Michele Clarke
They will not in the first instance because not all social work files are available on a national system. However, the national child care information system is well under way at this stage. When that comes fully on stream nationally, social workers will have access to it. Currently, they have access to the child protection notification system. That is available through the national office. Any child who is registered on that system would be known to the social worker when they get the name.
There was a question about the appropriateness of private agencies being contracted for emergency care. I understand this is the case. I have reviewed what Dr. Shannon has raised. We are reviewing the legal and policy perspective in that regard. That is under review.
The final question was on the audit for section 13. I believe I have answered those questions already except the last couple of aspects of the question. It is absolutely not the case that Tusla will have a veto over the recommendations. Moreover, I will receive the report.
I thank the Minister for the update. All of this started with the body of work that this committee has undertaken. Significant failings emerged in the report into the foster care system in Dublin South-Central, which is where I am from, and I am rather concerned about this.
I welcome that we only have 8% residential placements. That is good for our children. Some of them are outside the State as well. I have raised this before in the context of the risk to children outside the State. Overwhelmingly, these children are in loving caring environments. They are in normal environments and family homes. The care given is great. Obviously, foster carers need to be supported and applauded for what they do as well – it is tough.
Dr. Shannon's report indicated the majority of cases of children at risk appear to be because of the abuse of alcohol and the misuse of substances, including medication, whether prescribed or otherwise. What are we doing about this? The last time I heard public discussion or debate on this was during the production of the national hidden harm project. Then we went to the strategic statement, Seeing Through Hidden Harm to Brighter Futures. That was the last report in 2015. How are we going to address this issue, which represents the majority of cases where children are being put at risk in their own homes?
Reference was made to the definition of childhood and aftercare. I welcome that from 1 September, it will be mandatory for an aftercare plan for all children reaching the age of 18 years. This discussion has come up again and again with particular reference to mental health services. The cut-off point seems to be rather absolute and cruel in some instances. Parents are asking why it cannot be based on individual needs assessment. The definition of the end of childhood needs to be a little more flexible. It should be pushed out to the early 20s. We will all work on that at some stage.
Can the Minister not advise Tusla? Would it not be better or more prudent, in the context of the hundreds of new social workers that Tusla intends to employ or is trying to attract, to advise the agency that with industrial relations negotiations, the roster should be part of the terms and conditions? Should the roster be set up as part of the process of the new social workers to be appointed? Should it be in their terms and conditions of employment in the contract? That would give certainty rather than allow it on a voluntary basis. That would give a certainty to the cover of out-of-hours for children at risk.
I note that following discussions with committee members, the Chair has put on record a request that a review of section 13 be carried out. I am unsure and unclear why it has gone to Tusla. Deputy Ó Laoghaire referred to this as well. I am unsure why it has gone via that route. It would be in the interests of children perhaps if the Minister herself appointed someone.
The first question was about alcohol and how significant it was in Dr. Shannon's report. I am attentive to that and I agree. As committee members may be aware, we will be bringing forward the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill in the fall in light of the most recent discussions in terms of our strategy for reducing harm caused by drugs and alcohol.
In some of the questions that I raised to the Minister for Health in that regard, I felt there could have been more of an emphasis on the alcohol aspect of it. In light of those discussions, the Minister indicated to me that he would be instructing a review of our alcohol policies subsequent to our moving through the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill 2015. I am deeply concerned in regard to that.
I note the Senator's point in regard to the aftercare plan. In terms of advising Tusla about the roster on social care workers, Ms Clarke may want to answer.
Ms Michele Clarke
That may well be considered. One of the issues that Tusla has in that regard is having experienced social workers providing the out-of-hours service. That would be important because they are giving key advice. If there was a shortage of social workers volunteering, Tusla would obviously have to look at other methods.
If I may say something about aftercare, the figures show us that between 40% and 50% of young people in foster care remain living with their foster carers over time and they do not experience an abrupt change. Many come and go. When we look at residential care we have two figures. One is the figure for children in residential care and the other is the number of residential care places that are paid for. There are approximately an additional 100 cases paid for and that is because they are over 18. There is an attentiveness that on his or her 18th birthday, a young person does not leave, particularly if he or she is in education.
I thank Ms Clarke. I will now call upon-----
I have one tiny supplementary. At the beginning, I meant to ask about significant failings that were found in foster carers in Dublin South-Central and Cork - there were two areas. Is there a follow-up to that?
Ms Michele Clarke
Yes. There is an action plan, that is produced by the area, that HIQA monitors. That information comes into the Department. We monitor that. We, in the Department, have monthly performance meetings with Tusla and issues such as this are brought to our attention. We look to see what improvements are being made on an ongoing basis. The Dublin-mid-Leinster area, in particular, would have difficulties across a number of issues in terms of staffing and link workers.
I thank Ms Clarke. Penultimately, Deputy Neville.
The Minister might clarify the outline of the out-of-hours service for the gardaí calling on Tusla social workers. The Minister mentioned some areas of the country, such as Dublin and Cork. If I remember correctly, she stated that this may be rolled out a bit further. I seek clarification on where it will be rolled out, what timelines are involved and what parts of the country may be covered.
Currently Tusla provides a national out-of-hours phone social work service to the Garda Síochána throughout the night, weekends and bank holidays. Where they come across a child in an urgent situation they can contact the national social worker number. They will speak to a team leader or a social worker. It is a service that is provided from Tusla national head office in Dublin and then the Garda can outline the nature of the situation and be provided with advice. If the gardaí are in Dublin, Kildare, Wicklow or Cork city, and decide to use section 12, a Tusla social worker will come in person to the garda and child and bring the child to his or her placement. If the garda is elsewhere in the country, the national phone social work service will contact the foster care provider, arrange the placement and then contact the gardaí with the details. Outside of the four areas I mentioned, the Garda would transport the child. Tusla has also divided the country into seven regions for the purpose of having a social worker on-call within one hour out of hours in particular circumstances, that is, in more serious circumstances. As I indicated in my remarks this morning, that is what is currently going on.
We hope that in September or autumn, this will change. As I indicated, the crucial aspect that will change is the plans for Tusla to put in place and make available a social worker in every county to work with the gardaí in the invocation of section 12, and second, that the out-of-hours phone line will be available to the foster carers as well as the Garda.
I wish to make a comment on what Ms Clarke said. It is a real tribute to foster parents that the 18 year olds in so many cases stay with the family despite probably very little support. The point Deputy Ó Laoghaire was making that there should be possibilities of working with local authorities, in terms of such matters as housing extensions, is something we should recommend. It is more of a cross-departmental issue.
I welcome the evidence of progress that we have seen on these issues this morning. The fact the Minister reappointed Dr. Geoffrey Shannon as the rapporteur for child protection was a positive decision because of his outstanding contribution. We all saw that here last week when he gave evidence to the committee. I share the issue that was raised by everybody around whether he can tender for this job and I note the Minister indicating that he can. That maybe clarifies something. I hope we will not be considered to have prejudiced the situation.
I particularly welcome what I think is progress on the out of hours and 24 hour services. The ISPCC, in particular, has a strong concern about that.
I am aware of that.
I ask the Minister to keep us informed of progress because there will be recruitment needed, and the point about having senior social workers available. It should be a wrap-around service because it is at the weekends and at night time that so many of these issues arise. It is important as well that whoever responds is as knowledgeable as possible about the needs of the child.
My particular issue, I suppose, is the one that Dr. Shannon raised significantly last week around the inter-agency co-operation and the feedback to the Garda. They told us they have these kind of arrangements at national level, but it is clear from Dr. Shannon's evidence:
There is no evidence of formal routine follow-up from Tusla regarding the progress of a particular case after a member of An Garda Síochána has handed over responsibility. Moreover, there is no evidence of effective and robust systems for inter-agency information-sharing...
Dr. Shannon goes on to say, "notification is not communication". This is crucial in terms of the welfare of the children involved. In ongoing implementation of the report and ongoing interaction with Tusla, it is vital that the Minister insists that that happens at all levels, and particularly at the level of the individual cases. It is a big failing that was pointed out by Dr. Shannon. That would be the main issue I wanted to raise with the Minister.
Also, I have raised with everyone that there is a new system being proposed by Tusla called Signs of Safety and Tusla is starting to train its staff in it. As I understand Signs of Safety, it involves the wider community. It involves the gardaí being trained. It involves other community and even family members understanding what it is about. My fear is that children who are genuinely at risk will end up back with their family or back in situations where there is significant risk to them. It might be a good system in terms of children who are at lesser risk - maybe there is always a risk. I want to ensure that the Minister is aware that this is happening and that she is kept informed as to how it is being implemented, and particularly that there is appropriate and proper training for anybody who is involved in the system. My concern is this it is not about saving resources, that it is actually about the welfare of children.
I thank Deputy O'Sullivan for her positive comments. I am aware of the concerns of the ISPCC, and also the ISPCC's hearing of some of the changes that Tusla is bringing in place here over the next number of months in terms of the out-of-hours services and that it sees them as a step in the right direction as well.
In terms of the inter-agency co-operation that Deputy O'Sullivan is speaking about, as Dr. Shannon pointed out, there is clearly room for significant improvement in that regard. My understanding is that it has a lot to do with where he has talked about and his call for a cultural change in the context of the child protection system.
It has a great deal to do with inter-agency co-operation, central to which we need to continue to ensure there is an ongoing development of trust between An Garda Síochána and Tusla. There are a number of ways in which that must happen. As we move past the first audit of the use of section 12 of the legislation and the work of the strategic liaison committee, I have indicated to that committee my concerns and intent that ongoing inter-agency co-operation continues, and that the cultural change aspect of the implementation plan must be clearly reflected in the way in which it oversees the work of the implementation plan. It is important that the committee is overseeing and trying to ensure that inter-agency co-operation. If we really drill down, what does that mean? It needs to be happening at every level but particularly at the level of the individual child in a case and on the ground.
I want professionals, wherever they work, to put child protection at the top of their agenda and not to think that it is a matter for someone else to do or that filling out a form relieves them of their obligations. I want professionals on the ground, whether they be gardaí, social workers, public health nurses or teachers, to co-operate with each other. That means going to meetings, picking up the phone, getting to know their opposite number, explaining to each other what their role is, listening to their concerns and worries, challenging each other, and not laying the blame when there are difficult decisions to be made. Those are the nitty gritty aspects of the cultural change that Dr. Shannon referred to and that needs to happen. High level committees need to be attentive too, but we need to respond to the call for a change in the way that they will ultimately work better together, involving a large number of officials and practitioners in various disciplines. That is what it means and that is ultimately when we will get better forms of inter-agency and individual co-operation.
Ms Éimear Fisher
While the Minister has brought the attention of the strategic liaison committee to the recommendation for cultural change among the other recommendations, it must cascade from the top. While that committee is co-chaired by the chief executive officer of Tusla and the assistant commissioner of the Garda who is responsible for child protection, it has to cascade downwards. From a practical point of view, the assignment of a Tusla person to the Garda national child protection unit has been agreed by Tusla. The process in regard to that assignment is in train as we speak. The Garda national child protection unit is not currently in a position to take that person because it is fully engaged with training its own staff on mandatory reporting and the full commencement of the Children First Act. That person will be appointed within a matter of weeks. The date we have been given is the end of September. The process has to be gone through from the point view of job specification, what we expect of this person, how they will work and so on. Clarity is needed around that but even more so from the point of view of what the member said about the practical impact of people working together, follow-up and the facilitation of that.
The Garda is in the process of establishing specialist protective service units in each of the 28 Garda divisions. It has a vanguard of those units set up in four areas, two in Dublin and two in the rest of the country and it is proposing to roll those out further. Once they are rolled out and the effectiveness of them from the Garda point of view has been established, and there is a foundation in place, there is a view that there needs to be some discussion about how that needs to link properly and practically with Tusla. One option is whether a designated social worker needs to be embedded in the unit, but whether that is the right option and the right use of resources by Tusla is a question to be considered. It has not been precluded or totally decided at this stage, but from the point of view of the working of those units, the Garda is quite anxious to get them embedded and then to see how best to work together. That will clearly provide a facility for the follow-up that the member asked about.
Thank you, Ms Fisher. Are there any further remarks?
Just about the signs of safety and the officials being aware of that in their monitoring.
Signs of safety, absolutely.
Ms Michele Clarke
Yes, we are aware. The subject has been discussed among Tusla social workers with the trainers and Dr. Eileen Munro, who is one of the sponsors of it. She, along with her Australian colleagues, have been very complimentary about the professionalism of the social workers they have found in Ireland in terms of their judgment. We take the Deputy's point. It is something we have also considered.
Thank you, Ms Clarke. I thank the Minister and her officials for their presentation and for answering questions this morning. On behalf of the committee, I note the comprehensive manner in which they have responded to the queries presented. The committee is adjourned until 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 27 September 2017.