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Joint Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs

Opening remarks by Dr Katherine Zappone TD

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs

12th July 2017

 

Issues arising in foster care services in Ireland

I welcome this opportunity to address the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs on foster care services in Ireland.  I pay close attention to the work of this Committee, which is very relevant to the work of my Department. 

I know that this Committee has recently heard from Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, HIQA, the Health Information and Quality Authority, EPIC, Empowering Young People in Care and the IFCA, the Irish Foster Care Association, on the subject of foster care in Ireland. I also received a very timely report on foster care from the Irish Association of Social Workers.

The challenges in providing high quality foster cares services in a complex environment have been discussed at length in this committee.
I am aware that you have also recently had a presentation from Dr 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 Síochána 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 in relation to Tusla services.

The story of Foster Care in context
Foster care is the preferred placement for children who cannot, for whatever reason, live at home with their own families. We have made a lot of progress in relation to the foster care service provided here. 

Of all the children in care in Ireland, 92% are in foster care.  This compares 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 and trauma. 

The reach of the service has been pushed out to accommodate more children in a greater variety of circumstances.  For me, this is the greatest evidence of our break with the past in terms of how we look after children that are in the care of the state.  

As we do this, 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 them to point out when our system is not working.  We need them to confirm when it is working.  This is their job.  They serve our children very well and they serve our country very well. 

We need more social workers to recruit and support foster carers. Some progress is being made on this.  I know there was a lengthy exchange on this subject when the CEO of Tusla appeared before you 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 over 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.

Health Information and Quality Authority
HIQA are now revisiting all Tusla foster care services and are focusing on the problems they identified in their 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 that remedial action has taken place.  I wrote to HIQA regarding the concerns, and received a response yesterday. I welcome HIQA’s timely response, however I need to study their reply to me properly before responding.

In 2017 inspections HIQA have 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 making sure 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.  It is not perfect.  There are serious challenges to be met, but I hope that the members of this 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 placements. 

Foster Carers
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 – 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 indeed sibling groups, called ‘matching’ is a vital foundation for a successful placement.

Foster carers need support. 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 this matter. 

An Garda Síochána - Section 12 Audit
I would like to turn for a moment to the recent report by Dr Shannon on Section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991, as amended.

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 Gardaí have had 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 the 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 interagency 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 need to 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 Gardaí have access to a national social work out of hours phone service has led to improved communication between themselves and the Gardaí.

The Gardaí ring this phone 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 the 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 use 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 their own home if the threat to their safety left (for instance in a situation of domestic violence, if the aggressive partner left the home, the child could remain with their 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 Gardaí were under 12 years. In the rest of the country more older children were involved, with 32% (174) were under 12 years and 43% (240) children were 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 so 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 three co-ordinated out of hours services (Crisis Intervention, Emergency Out of Hours and Cork service) into a single national service.

·    This will be accessed by a single Tusla Out of Hours contact number and 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 in relation 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 Minister 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 need to wake up to this reality.

I requested that Tusla to commission independent research about what happens when a child is placed into the custody of Tusla by An Garda Síochana.  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. I look forward to this independent research which I believe will be very helpful to us.

Recruitment

The reality and I know the committee is aware of this, Tusla children’s services need a significant staff injection.

As Minister I am fully supportive of Tusla in funding the range of improvements they have 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 seem sufficient to meet current demand.  My officials are working on a range of options with Tusla managers on this important matter. 
 
Conclusion
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. 

Ends//

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