Minister Fitzgerald Publishes Law to Strengthen Child Protection
Children First Bill delivers on Programme for Government and Ryan Report commitments
25th April 2012
Minister Frances Fitzgerald T.D. today published the Heads of the Children First Bill which will be sent to the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children for consultation with key stakeholders to take place before the Bill is finalised. The purpose of this Bill is to put Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children on a statutory basis which is a key commitment in the Programme for Government. You can watch Minister Fitzgerald speaking on this issue on the six one news today.
Frances Fitzgerald TD., Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and Alan Shatter TD., Minister for Justice and Equality at the Children First Briefing today
“The Cloyne Report showed that as recently as 2009, children were being abused while people stood idly by. We cannot fool ourselves into believing that ignoring child abuse is a reality of a bygone age. We have, as a society, more than a half-century legacy of turning a blind eye. Not any more. Now the process has begun of making sure the law requires what everyone’s conscience should demand; if you know a child is being harmed, you have to act.”
“In the past two decades alone, we’ve had 16 major statutory reports on child protection. We have seen horrors beyond imagining and we have reached a point where there is national consensus that we have to change. Almost everybody now, except for the really recalcitrant few, believe that we have to turn over a new leaf, we have to do things differently.”
“I am eager that the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children will hear as many detailed views as possible from key stakeholders, because this legislation must be effective if it is to protect children. Legislation to protect the well-being of children is as important as it can get. This is legislation that has been promised for years on end. In fact it was first promised fourteen years ago”
“One core principle underpins this legislation. Child protection is everyone’s responsibility. Everyone. Every club, society, religious organisation, educational establishment and medical facility that works with children. Every doctor, counsellor, coach and teacher. Everyone who interacts with children. We need to foster a culture where every individual in this state feels themselves personally responsible for creating and maintaining a society where children are protected. We protect children by making sure that concerns are acted on, not ignored. No exceptions, no exemptions.”
The Minister emphasised that Children First National Guidance will remain the fully operational national policy, alongside the new statutory provisions. The Guidance has operated on the basis of voluntary compliance since it was first published by the Office of the Minister of Children in 1999. The Minister said “the recently revised guidance and the legislation build on over a decade of practice experience. The intention is that this legislation will reinforce critical aspects of current policy to assure compliance and co-operation for the protection of children.”
The Heads of the Children First Bill strengthens the current Children First Guidance in three key areas.
• Organisations covered by the legislation will have to ensure that they are safe places for children, and that they work in co-operation with the statutory authorities. The Minister said ‘This legislation is about parents having confidence that their children are going to be safe when they attend at the range of regular activities that young people involve themselves in, including school and sports, arts, youth, cultural or religious activities, health or other services for children.'
• Organisations and named professionals will have statutory responsibility to report information about abuse or significant neglect to the HSE, whether it occurs in the organisation or elsewhere. The Minister said that ‘as a fellow professional I understand the complexity of these issues and that is why detailed guidance will be prepared to help organisations and professionals understand what level of knowledge or information would lead to a requirement to report under the legislation’.
• The HSE will have obligations to support organisations and professionals but will also have the power to take action where they have reason to believe that the organisation is not operating in compliance with the legislation.
Minister Fitzgerald said ‘I believe this legislation will be welcomed by all those who place the safety of children at the heart of our society. Organisations and professionals who are currently operating under Children First should not be concerned, as they are already operating safe practices, training staff and reporting concerns to the HSE. The new Child and Family Support Agency, to be established in 2013, is preparing to undertake the new responsibilities under the legislation and to deal effectively with reports that it receives.’
The Heads of Bill for Children First are part of a suite of legislation to protect children being developed in accordance with the Programme for Government. This includes the publication today by the Minister for Justice of the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information) Bill and the forthcoming National Vetting Bureau Bill. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs said “I have been working closely with my colleague the Minister for Justice and Equality on these matters and we will continue to work together at Ministerial and official level over the coming months to ensure that the legislative framework that develops is well-integrated, complementary and very importantly, clear for those who will be required to comply with it.”
Notes for the Editor
Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children has operated on the basis of voluntary compliance since it was first published by the Office of the Minister of Children in 1999. Significant resources have been put in place to support the implementation of Children First and in the case of the HSE and An Garda Síochána, Children First has formed an integral part of their existing operations and practices. The HSE has provided training, information and advice on the implementation of Children First throughout the sector.
The principles and practice of Children First, on which this legislation is built, have become well established over the past decade. As a result, every year there are 30,000 child protection and welfare concerns reported to the HSE services. Over 16,000 of these are child welfare concerns; nearly 13,000 are child protection concerns; 1,500 of these are confirmed cases of sexual, physical or emotional abuse.
Minister Frances Fitzgerald published a revised Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children in July 2011. Since then:
• An over-arching implementation framework for Children First overseen by an interdepartmental committee chaired byDCYA has been established.
• In September 2011, the Minister launched the HSE’s new ‘Child Protection and Welfare Practice Handbook’;
• The Minister also attended a series of regional meetings with front-line staff.
• The HSE has commenced the roll-out of a series of child protection and welfare training courses to staff nationwide;
• In addition, building on the partnership focus between Children and Family Services and An Garda Síochána, an updated joint training programme for HSE social workers and Gardaí on Children First 2011 and the Child Protection and Welfare Practice Handbook has commenced.
• As part of the assurance framework, an audit of implementation has found that as of December 2011 94% of all social workers have received and were aware of the new guidance and practice requirements.
Placing Children First on a statutory basis was a recommendation made in the Ryan Implementation Plan. In 2009 the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the Ryan Report) recommended that the Children First Guidelines “should be uniformly and consistently implemented throughout the State in dealing with allegations of abuse” (p.55).
Action 85 of the Ryan Report Implementation Plan states:
“85. Legislation will be drafted (by December 2010) to provide that all staff employed by the State and staff employed in agencies in receipt of funding from the Exchequer will have:
- a duty to comply with the Children First national guidelines;
- a duty to share relevant information in the best interests of the child (as per Recommendation 14, Action 57);
- a duty to cooperate with other relevant services in the best interests of the child.”
This deadline was not met.
Children First Bill
Under the Children First legislation, organisations that are involved with children will have statutory responsibility to make sure that the organisation is a safe place for children. They will be required to notify the HSE that they come within the legislation and appoint a Designated Officer. The Designated Officer will have responsibility that staff and volunteers are vetted, recruited properly and are trained in safe practices with children and in recognising signs of abuse and neglect. The obligation to report abuse extends to abuse and neglect wherever it occurs. The Designated Officer will make information available to parents about child protection in the organisation and will have a system in place to check and report on its compliance with the legislation.
The Designated Officer in an organisation and named professionals will have statutory responsibility to report suspicions and allegations of abuse to the HSE. Where a named professional, for example a doctor or a nurse, works in an Organisation under the legislation, they may report their information to the Designated Officer in the organisation.
The organisations that come under the legislation include all organisations where children attend without their parent or guardians. Examples are schools and educational organisations, health and social services, leisure and sporting organisations, religious and spiritual organisations, including those run in the public, private and voluntary sector. It excludes adults employed in the child’s own home, or individuals working with children who are directly employed by the parent or guardian. Amongst those professionals who will have to operate the legislation are doctors, teachers, nurses, social workers, psychologists, social care workers, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and the Gardai.
Failure by organisations and professionals to comply with the legislation could result in a prosecution or closure of a service.
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