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 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 complete 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).
Obligations on organisations
Organisations providing services to children and young people will now 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 Safeguarding Statement will also outline how staff/volunteers will be provided with information to identify abuse which children may experience outside the organisation, and what they should do with any concerns about child safety.
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 will now 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.
Since its establishment in 2011, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs has published the revised Children First National Guidance; overseen an interdepartmental implementation process; and prioritised the drafting of legislation to put Children First on a statutory footing, which is a key Programme for Government commitment.
On 25th April 2012, Frances Fitzgerald TD, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs published the Heads of the Children First Bill. In line with the Government’s commitment to the reform of the parliamentary and legislative processes, the draft Heads were referred to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children. The Minister asked the Committee to consider the Heads of the Children First Bill and make recommendations to her. She received their Report in July 2012. Since then, international research and further consultations with experts and key stakeholders, other relevant Departments and statutory agencies, were carried out to discuss and review the complex matters arising and the development of the final Bill.
On the 23rd July 2013 Minister Fitzgerald announced that the Government had approved the revised Heads and General Scheme of the Children First Bill and had approved the drafting of this legislation by parliamentary counsel (Read Report).
In parallel with the development of legislative proposals to put Children First on a statutory footing, significant work has been undertaken to achieve full and consistent implementation of the revised Children First Guidance. Implementation measures progressed to date include:
• Publication and dissemination by the Child and Family Agency of a ‘Child Protection and Welfare Practice Handbook’ [HSE, 2011];
• Training for front-line professional, including joint- training between Gardai and social workers;
• Establishment of a Children First Implementation Inter-Departmental Group to bring central government oversight to the implementation process; and
• The approval by Government for publication of Children First Sectoral Implementation Plans by relevant Departments on their websites.