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Statement by Minister Frances Fitzgerald - Early invention and family support services

Seanad Éireann - Wednesday 7th March

This coming Friday marks the first anniversary of this government. While my Department of Children & Youth Affairs has a few months to go before it reaches that landmark, I feel this week, nonetheless presents an important opportunity to reflect on what has been achieved over the past 12 moths.

For my part, as Ireland’s first-ever senior Minister for Children & Youth Affairs, I hope that through establishing a full government department I have managed to bring a seamless new approach to policy development and integrated service provision for children; with the ultimate objective of ensuring children are cared for and protected and that they have the best possible start to life.

One of the key elements of this new approach is an enhanced focus on early intervention and family support. I believe in being proactive, not just reactive, in seeking to improve outcomes for children’s lives and to identify and respond to potential risk factors facing children and families. The return on such a Strategy should be clear: improving the lives of individual children, their opportunities and quality-of-life while contributing to the long-term economic and social development of the state.

Today I wish to outline in more detail the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of this enhanced focus on early invention and family support which I am pursuing.

Firstly, it’s about quality interventions in children’s Early Years.

Early-interventions in children’s lives and in quality early childhood experiences are crucial to a child’s emotional, cognitive and social development. 

In January I attended a high-level OECD roundtable in Norway where I was presented with the findings of longitudinal studies in the US, England, France and New Zealand which highlighted the benefits of investing in Early Years, citing returns to the economy of between three and ten times the original investment.  In these studies, children who experienced high quality preschool went on to become higher achievers in education and in employment and these benefits also transferred to the next generation.
In Ireland’s case, the OECD in its 2011 Economic Survey of Ireland emphasized that in order for Ireland ‘to preserve its strengths in human capital’ we should recognize the importance of pre-school education in having ‘both a positive impact on later educational performance and an equity-enhancing effect’.

However it must be accepted that Ireland has regrettably been years behind many other developed countries when it comes to our Early Years sector. Even in recent years the roll-out of childcare schemes has been rooted in supporting labour market activation. As a long-term campaigner for women’s rights I welcome the important role which childcare has played in supporting increased female participation in the workforce. However for too long the focus has been solely on supporting parents, not on quality supports for the development of the child.

This has begun to change in recent years. But more must be done.
I recently announced that my Department has begun work on Ireland’s first Early Years Strategy. Only yesterday I secured Government approval for the approach I am taking in developing to this Strategy as an innovative and dynamic blueprint for the future development of Ireland’s Early Years sector aimed at providing a coherent approach to seeking to improve the lives of children from birth to age six. 

Some of the issues I envisage being addressed in this new Strategy include:

As I stated, recent years have seen some welcome changes, in particular the introduction of the universal free pre-school year in Early Childhood Care and Education (ECCE).  The universal nature of this programme is critical for childhood development and providing every child with early learning and preparation for school.

Protecting and, if possible, further developing the universal free pre-school scheme has been a key priority for me and in the recent budget I secured an additional €9.8 million in funding to maintain the universal free year which will see an increase of some 3,000 in the number of children participating in the programme next year.

My Department also runs two other childcare schemes. The Community Childcare Subvention (CCS) programme enables community services to provide childcare at reduced rates to disadvantaged and low income families. The Community Employment and Training Support (CETS) programme provides significantly subsidised childcare places to those engaged in VEC or FAS courses.

Last week, I also launched a new scheme of capital funding for early childhood facilities to be spent during 2012, with funding available for remedial, maintenance and renovation works and for equipment up to value of €50,000 per project.

The second strand of this enhanced focus on early invention and family support is developing a continuum of services in the community.

We can sometimes take for granted the wealth of services which exist for Irish children and families.

Every child and every family in the state already has access to services ranging from public health nursing to primary healthcare and from early years care to primary & secondary education. Some children and families require and receive access to further services: special education, psychological and mental health services, family support and so on.

So, services are there. My objective is to build on them and to support integrated quality service provision for all children and families. I want to see every community having access to a full continuum of services and I want to see more effective interagency collaboration, with services working together to deliver the best possible outcomes for children and families. This should include the early-identification of developmental problems or potential incidence of neglect and to respond appropriately and proactively.

The design and delivery of community-based, joined-up services should not require any reinventing of the wheel. We already have a lot to go on.

Recent years has seen significant investment by philanthropic organisations in ‘pilot’ projects and services aimed at improving outcomes for children and families around the country. Much of this funding will cease in coming years.

For example, under the ‘Prevention and Early Intervention  Programme’ my Department and Atlantic Philanthropies are co-funding, until 2013, three specific projects: CDI Tallaght, youngballymun and ‘Preparing for Life’ in North Dublin.  The types of services run by these projects include: early childhood care and education, parental and family support programmes, literacy initiatives and health-based initiatives.
The ‘National Early Years Access Initiative’ is another initiative, involving Atlantic Philanthropies, the Mount Street Club Trustees, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and Pobal.  Through this initiative a select number of local demonstration projects have been funded around the country, each of which seeks to deliver innovative inter-agency responses to improving participation in quality early years care, education and development  On Monday I was in Athlone to launch one of these projects - ‘Tus Nua’ which serves the Longford/Westmeath area.

A common goal of both the ‘Prevention and Early Intervention Programme’ and the ‘National Early Years Access Initiative’; and indeed of many other philanthropic-backed projects, has been a focus on evidence-based practice and ongoing project evaluation for the purpose of advising future policy and the mainstream provision of similar proven effective services.

My Department will work closely with philanthropic organisations to actively progress and mainstream the key learning emerging from these projects.

This mainstreaming can be achieved through implementation of the National Literacy & Numeracy Strategy and through preparation and subsequent implementation of the Early Years Strategy.

I also see there being a much a greater role for NGO’s and community-based organisations in providing family support services, something which will be very much facilitated by the new Child and Family Support Agency which is due to be established in 2013.

This takes me on to the third key strand of this enhanced focus on early invention and family support - reform of Ireland’s Child & Family Services

As Minister, I am currently overseeing an ambitious ‘change agenda’ in the HSE Child & Family Services, aimed at improving service capacity and consistency.  I have secured an additional €21 million in funding for Child & Family Services in 2012 and have secured the recruitment of 62 new social workers. This year has also seen the creation of a dedicated budget sub-head for child and family services while management structures are currently being re-organised at national, regional and local level. These reforms will pave the way for establishment of the new Child & Family Support Agency in 2013.

A key element of the ongoing ‘change agenda’; is this enhanced focus on early intervention and family support services.

The 2009 Report of the Monageer Inquiry and the 2010 Report of the Roscommon Child Care Inquiry made clear recommendations on the need for early intervention services and the development of a targeted family support service.

But we shouldn’t need the recommendations of statutory inquiries to convince us of the need for such services. Factors such as poverty and deprivation, early-school leaving, mental health and substance misuse are very real and can impact significantly on chidlren’s well-being.  For example an assessment of HSE child care datasets indicate that the primary reason for 14% of children being taken into state care was “a family member abusing drugs/alcohol”. The National Crime Council reports that 29% of women and 26% of men suffered some form of domestic abuse at some stage in their lifetime.

Too often it is the interplay of numerous risk factors that act to expose children to serious risk. Too often these risk factors exist within the family setting.

The purpose of early intervention and family support must be to identify and intervene as early as possible; and through ‘proportionate means’, so as to address such risk factors and ultimately prevent children from having to be taken into care.

Between 2006 & 2010, the number of children in care increased by almost 13.7%. Since then, during 2011, the figure further increased from 5,727 to 6160, an increase of 433 or 7.6%. This increase is in line with increases in comparable jurisdictions. However despite this increase Ireland has fewer children in care per 10,000 of population than those other jurisdictions. However this should not prevent us from seeking to do all we can to keep this figure as low as possible.

The HSE’s ‘Agenda for Children’s Services’ which was prepared by the Child & Family Centre in NUI Galway highlights the importance of health and social service provision built on the premise of a child remaining and being supported within the family and local community. It also provides a description of family support defining it as ‘activities for families that are developmental (e.g. parenting for the first time), compensatory (e.g. helping a child cope with disability) and/or protective (e.g. ensuring safety of a young person).’ 

To support the development of family support, I envisage the rollout of a number of positive service developments over the course of 2012. The current HSE Service Plan includes objectives for the increased use of supervision and other protective strategies to maintain children at home safely.

To this end the HSE is progressing the implementation of new risk assessment models, while it has also commenced work, with support from my Department, on a new Family Support Strategy . This new Strategy, which will be critical to the workings of the new Child & Family Support Agency, will underpin the design of new service delivery models aimed at providing support at the earliest stages of emerging difficulties, differentiating welfare and protection needs. These new models of delivery will, in time, fully integrate existing HSE services, the Family Resource Centre network and the wider community and voluntary resources already working in this area.

I would also hope that the concept of ‘proportionate means’ will be given constitutional strength and underpinning when the proposed constitutional amendment on children is put before the people later this year.

In conclusion, I hope my statement to the house has provided Senators with a understanding of the new approach I am taking as Minister and in particular the enhanced focus I have placed on early intervention and family support services.

I see 2012 as being a year when this focus will become much clearer and sharper as we develop the capacity and effectiveness of these services, to ultimately improve outcomes for children by intervening earlier, in particular in the Early Years; through actively supporting families and through promoting the protection and care of children in their home setting.


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