Children First Legislation
The Children First Bill, 2014, which will put elements of the Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children (2011) on a statutory footing was published by the Houses of the Oireachtas on 14 April 2014 (Children First Bill 2014). The introduction of this legislation has been a key Programme for Government commitment, and will form part of a suite of child protection legislation which already includes the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act, 2012 and the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012. The Bill has passed all stages in both Houses of the Oireachtas and the Bill was signed into law by the President on 19 November 2015. The provisions of the legislation will only come into force when brought into effect by regulation of the Minister. CF Act 2015.
Sections 1-5 and Section 28 were commenced on 11 December 2015.
The Bill provides for a number of key child protection measures, as follows:
· A requirement on organisations providing services to children to keep children safe and to produce a Child Safeguarding Statement;
· A requirement on defined categories of persons (mandated persons) to report child protection concerns over a defined threshold to the Child and Family Agency (the Agency);
· A requirement on mandated persons to assist the Agency in the assessment of a child protection risk, if so requested to do so by the Agency;
· Putting the Children First Interdepartmental Group on a statutory footing.
Provisions of the Bill will ensure that concerns about children will be brought to the attention of the Agency without delay and improve the quality of reports made to the Agency and the quality of follow up on concerns. The new legislation will operate in tandem with the existing Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children .
In parallel to the legislative process, an exercise to revise and update the existing Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children (2011) has commenced. This is to ensure that the Guidance, which will continue as the basis for all citizens to report concerns, reflects the new legislative obligations and provides, in one place, a comprehensive reference resource for individuals and organisations. This will provide clarity and ensure consistency between the proposed legislation and the existing non-statutory obligations which will continue to operate administratively for all sectors of society.
Purpose of the Bill:
The policy objective of the Bill is to raise awareness of child abuse and neglect; to provide for mandatory reporting by key professionals; to improve child protection arrangements in organisations providing services to children, and to provide for inter-agency working and information-sharing in relation to assessments by the Agency. The policy intent is that the legislation will operate side-by-side with the existing non-statutory obligations provided for in Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children (2011).
The legislation also contains a provision in Part V which removes the defence of reasonable chastisement in relation to corporal punishment.
Obligations on Organisations
Organisations providing services to children and young people will be required to undertake an assessment of any risks to a child while the child is availing of its services, and use this as the basis for developing a Child Safeguarding Statement. The purpose of the Statement is to identify how the organisation will manage any risks identified in the risk assessment.
The legislation makes provision for a Register of non-compliance for those providers who fail, on request, to provide a copy of the Child Safeguarding Statement to Tusla.
Mandated reporters are persons who, by virtue of their training, responsibilities and experience should have an awareness of issues relating to child protection. These professionals either work with children or young people or they are in service sectors that encounter adults or families and children where there is risk of abuse and neglect. Mandated reporters will be required to report information regarding child abuse above a defined threshold which comes to their attention in the course of their professional or employment duties. They will also be required to report any direct disclosures of abuse from a child.
Obligations to assist the Child and Family Agency
Under the new legislation, mandated reporters may be required to cooperate with the Child and Family Agency, if requested, in relation to assessment of child welfare and protection concerns by the Agency.
A significant provision in the legislation is the underpinning on a statutory basis of the Children First Interdepartmental Group. This Group, which will include a representative of all Government Departments, will be required to keep under review, the implementation of this legislation and the Children First Guidance, and to report on an annual basis to the Minister. Departments will also be required to publish Sectoral Implementation Plans.