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Minister Fitzgerald sets out priorities for the year ahead

 

  • Publication of the Children’s First Bill

  • Complete development of National Child Detention Facilities

  • A new National Policy Framework for Children and Young People

  • Ireland’s first ever Early Years Strategy and policy on ‘Family Support'

  • To enhance the preservation, management and access to adoption records

  • To support the work of the recently-established Child and Family Agency

  • To amend the Child Care Act 1991 in respect of Aftercare



Wednesday 5th March 2014

Frances Fitzgerald TD, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, has today contributed to the special Dail debate on Government priorities for 2014. The Minister’s speech is presented below.

I welcome this opportunity to discuss the priorities that I, as Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, wish to see realised over the coming months.

Since the establishment of a dedicated Department of Children and Youth Affairs it has been my privilege and honour to drive forward a range of Government commitments as they relate to children and families.

We are in the midst of an ambitious reform agenda, and our aim for children and families is to fundamentally change how services are delivered to them.
To integrate those services.
To allow those services to respond earlier.
To allow for joined-up thinking and a degree of independence not previously afforded in the context of service delivery.

To date, as Minister for Children & Youth Affairs I have delivered on key Programme for Government commitments, including:
·    Holding the Children’s Referendum;
·    Establishing the dedicated new Child & Family Agency;
·    Securing funding for; and commencing works on new National Child Detention Facilities; to take all 16 and 17 years olds from St. Patrick’s Institution;
·    Maintaining the free pre-school year;
·    Improving quality standards in early years and childcare services;
·    Introducing the new Area Based Childhood programme;
·    Completing a review of implementation of the Youth Homelessness Strategy.

I wish this morning to outline my main priorities for 2014, including in relation to delivery of outstanding Programme for Government commitments; and continuation of the implementation of the commitments I just referred to.

My Priorities for 2014 include:
·    To publish the Children First Bill;
·    To complete the development of National Child Detention Facilities;
·    To support the work of the recently-established Child and Family Agency;
·    To amend the Child Care Act 1991 in respect of Aftercare;
·    To launch the National Policy Framework for Children and Young People;
·    To launch Ireland’s first ever Early Years Strategy and policy on ‘Family Support and Parenting’;
·    To continue quality improvements in early years and childcare services and to review existing targeted childcare supports;
·    To enhance the preservation, management and access to adoption records.

Children First Bill
My Department is currently finalising the Children First Bill, which will place elements of the Children First National Guidance on a statutory basis, in line with the Programme for Government commitment to fully implement the recommendations of the Ryan Report. The Bill is included in the legislative programme for the Spring/Summer session, and I expect to submit it to Government in the coming weeks.

It is intended that the Bill will impose a duty on certain specific individuals to report child protection concerns to the Child and Family Agency, and it will improve child protection arrangements in organisations providing services to children.

An Inter-Departmental Group has been established involving key Government Departments, An Garda Síochána and the Child and Family Agency to promote the importance of Children First compliance across Government and to ensure consistency of approach. In July 2013 the Government approved the publication by relevant Departments of their Children First Sectoral Implementation Plans.

Children (Amendment) Bill/National Children’s Detention Facilities
The objective of ending the detention of children in adult prison facilities has been recognised by successive administrations since at least the 1980s.  Since my appointment as Minister, I have prioritised the achievement of this goal.
Since May 2012, 16 year old boys are no longer being sent to the adult prison system and those being remanded and/or committed by the Courts are now being sent to Oberstown.

In addition, in 2012, I was pleased to announce that Government had provided capital funding of over €50 million for the development of an integrated National Children Detention Facility.  Construction of the new facilities at Oberstown commenced last September. The first 3 residential units, intended to provide for the transfer of responsibility for 17 year old boys from the adult prison system to Oberstown, will be completed this year.

A care staff recruitment programme has been sanctioned by Government and my officials are working with the Public Appointments Service, so that new staff will be deployed for orientation and training on a staged basis during 2014.  

A new specialist Assessment, Consultation and Therapy Service (ACTS) now operates on the Oberstown campus and mental health screening of all young people coming into detention, either on remand or on committal, now takes place within the first 24 hours.

I am also pursuing a programme of reforms aimed at enhancing the effective management and capacity on the Oberstown Campus.  In the latter part of 2013, a campus-wide Manager was appointed for the first time, reporting to the Board of Management.  I intend later in the year to present to the Oireachtas a Bill to amend certain provisions of the Children Act 2001 which will provide for the merging of the 3 existing Children Detention Schools into a single legal entity, and which will also address a number of legal and policy issues associated with managing all children under the age of 18 on that site. 

Child and Family Agency
Just over a month ago in Dublin Castle, an Taoiseach and I launched Tusla, Ireland’s first-ever Child & Family Agency.

The establishment of the Agency delivers on a key Programme for Government commitment and represents one of the largest and most important public sector reforms being undertaken by this Government bringing together over 4,000 staff and a budget of some €609 million to provide a dedicated focus on services for children & families, including, particularly, for the over 6,400 children in the care of the state.
We have moved from a position where child and family welfare was barely a priority, to a position where it is now the sole focus of a single dedicated state agency. For the first time we have child and family social workers, family support workers, social care workers and education welfare officers all working together to protect children and support families.

The Child and Family Agency Act 2013 provides for a detailed process of accountability and performance management. In this context I am mindful of the important role that the Minister has to play. As a priority in late December I issued a detailed letter of determination and performance statement to the Agency so as to ensure that the process of agreeing and finalising a business plan for 2014 would happen in good time, notwithstanding the Agency itself was only formally established on the 1st of January of this year.  I am pleased to advise that I have in the last few days approved the 2014 plan.

Priorities for 2014 include:
·    Recruiting additional social workers, in line with the additional budget allocations in Budget 2014;
·    Rolling-out new models for caseload & information management;
·    Commencing a three year plan to double number of special care places;
·    Delivering greater efficiencies and savings in legal cost; and
·    Introducing 24-hour access social work services.

Aftercare - Proposed amendment to the Child Care Act 1991.
I wish to advise the house that last week the government approved the heads of the ‘Aftercare Bill 2014’ and have been referred the Heads to the Oireacthas Committee on Health and Children for consideration. I understand the Committee will consider the matter on 11 March.

The proposals will amend Section 45 of the Child Care Act 1991 to  impose a statutory duty on the Child and Family Agency to undertake advance planning in respect of the needs of children who are due to leave its care on reaching the age of 18 years. The proposals will formalise good practice and ensure the continuation of improved arrangements for aftercare which have been introduced under the Child and Family Agency’s National Aftercare Policy and Procedures.
It is my intention to make the transition to aftercare as seamless as possible at a time when young people can be particularly vulnerable.

Launch of the National Children and Young Peoples’ Policy Framework
This Government’s commitment to children and young people is in our collective economic and social interests.  At a time when other Western countries are experiencing reducing birth rates, Ireland’s population of children and young people is growing. The Government’s Medium-Term ‘Strategy for Growth’ rightly recognises that “ensuring the best possible outcomes for this group is therefore an important element in our future economic planning.”

Later this month I will ask Government to approve the new ‘National Policy Framework for Children and Young People 2014 - 2020’.

This is the first overarching National Policy Framework spanning children and young people from birth to age 24 years. It sets out the Government’s objectives for improving children’s and young people’s lives over the period 2014 to 2020, and how we intend to achieve these objectives.   Essentially, this Framework will, for the first time establish a shared set of outcomes for children and young people and identify a range of commitments in place across Government and progress these based on a structured, systematic and outcomes focused approach. In order to ensure the effective implementation of the Framework, my Department will establish a robust infrastructure to guide and support its delivery.

In addition to the National Policy Framework, it is my intention in 2014 to publish Ireland’s first National Early Years Strategy, building on the Report of Expert Advisory Group on this Strategy, which I published late last year.

My Department is also working on a new high-level ‘Parenting & Family Support Policy’ to be published in 2014; to take key learning from Irish & international research and to guide the work of Child & Family Agency and future programme design and management of grant funding.

Early Years/Childcare
I accept that major challenges remain in ensuring quality standards of care in all early years/childcare settings. This is the result of a legacy of under-investment in quality and training supports; and an effective absence of regulation and enforcement. However I am satisfied that there has been significant progress with respect to the implementation of my 8-point Early Years/Childcare Quality Agenda. Priorities for 2014 in this area include:
o    recruitment of more new inspectors;
o    establishment of a landmark new National Quality Support Service;
o    publication of new National Quality Standards;
o    commencement of higher qualification requirements for staff;
o    roll-out of a new training support programme.

In addition, as I announced recently in this House, my Department is to conduct a review of existing targeted childcare schemes (i.e. CCS & CETS) to consider how best to structure future childcare support, to both support working families and to incentivise labour market activation, which could be expanded to more families as resources allow.

Adoption Records
I appreciate the concerns which continue to be expressed in the relation access to adoption records. I am committed to implementing a range of measures, both legislative and administrative,) including:
o    To further developing and reorganising adoption services under the Child and Family Agency; to better facilitate access to records where they exist;
o    To enhance the promotion of the Adoption Contact Preference Register; and
o    To complete work on Heads of the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill, with a view to providing the most comprehensive approach possible to providing access to information for adopted persons, incl. a strengthened underpinning for the future maintenance of records. Where draft are agreed by Government, these will be referred to the Joint Oireachtas Committee for detailed consideration

Conclusion
In conclusion, I welcome the opportunity to update the House on my plans for the year ahead. I want to build on the momentum achieved and to deliver on our commitments on time and within budget. There are significant challenges, but I am committed to rising to these challenges and delivering valued improvements to services for children and families.

Thank you.