HSE Child Welfare and Protection Services: Statements
First Stage: 21 May 2008
Oireachtas Link: http://debates.oireachtas.ie/seanad/2008/05/21/00008.asp
I also echo the words of the others in welcoming the Minister of State to the House and congratulating him on his new appointment. I very much welcome the words in his speech to the effect that he would make it a priority to provide services to some of the most vulnerable young members of our society. We all agree that the protection of vulnerable children should be a key priority of the Minister of State with responsibility for children and youth affairs.
There is a great deal in the Minister of State's speech with which we can all agree. Much of it is like motherhood and apple pie - little that is controversial and much that is very positive. The Minister of State spoke of the need to ensure integrated services for child protection. Clearly, that is important. He spoke of the need to ensure early intervention which, again, is vital. He spoke of the need to provide family and community-based supports for children at risk. Again, there is no disagreement there. He also spoke of the great appreciation we all must feel for the great and immense work being done by social work teams. We all agree with that.
Unfortunately, the reality does not reflect the noble aspirations and very positive things said by the Minister of State in his speech. It must be noted that in the very short time since the integrated Office of the Minister for Children has been created, three Ministers have already held that position: Deputy Brian Lenihan, Deputy Brendan Smith and the current Minister of State. This in itself is symptomatic of a problem, which is that each Minister of State may have very noble aspirations and very positive commitments but they simply have not had the time for those commitments and aspirations to bear fruit. Each Minister of State is beginning again in terms of making priorities, commitments and so on. That is a real problem.
Other speakers have mentioned the wonderful “Prime Time Investigates” programme which has done us a great service in terms of public service broadcasting in bringing to us the reality of the situation for children at risk. Perhaps I should say that I have a small amount of knowledge in the area and should declare an interest in that I have worked as a barrister and appeared in what used to be called the Health Board Court in Dolphin House, so I have seen some of what is happening on the ground. Certainly, the “Prime Time Investigates” programme made us very much aware of the great difficulties facing social workers in providing a service to protect children at risk and to support children who are in care.
I know for a fact that many social workers are very concerned by the response of the Health Service Executive to the issues raised in the programme. The HSE spokesperson on the programme asserted that children at serious risk receive appropriate social work support services. This was said and repeated in the Minister of State's speech despite the fact that HSE managers throughout the country are regularly advised and are made aware by social work teams of the real inadequacies in terms of service. In his speech, the Minister of State said, and I believe it is accepted, that the HSE has 5,362 children in its care at present. What is buried in the figures is that he then said that 90% of those children in care, to whom the HSE bears a statutory responsibility, have an allocated social worker. Clearly, what this means is that 10% do not. We are talking about more than 500 children in care to whom the HSE bears a statutory responsibility yet who do not have an allocated social worker. That is a matter that should be of serious concern to us all. That figure of 10% does not take into account how many of the 90% have allocated social workers who may have too heavy a caseload to be able to take on the full responsibility and provide the fully adequate service to the children for whom they are responsible.
What do these inadequacies mean? They mean that children in care may never have the opportunity to build up a relationship with a social worker, may not have adequate plans made for immediate and future care and may have plans made that are simply incapable of being followed through. Follow-through is a real problem, particularly in respect of plans made for them when they reach adulthood and are coming out of HSE care but simply cannot be abandoned into society. These are children who have already been abused or neglected at home and who have already been let down by those responsible for them and by those to whom they should be closest, yet they are again being abused or certainly being let down by the State services. This is nothing short of serious neglect by the State.
The HSE response to this issue, as reported on “Prime Time Investigates”, was less than adequate and betrayed a certain complacency in the approach of the executive to children in care. The official spokesperson stated that “we will probably never get to 100% in terms of the protection of children at risk but we would like maybe to get to 95%, 96%” and that this is “probably as best, as good as it can be”. That indicates a certain complacency in respect of the predicament and the serious situation for vulnerable children in Ireland today. While saying that children at serious risk would immediately have services available to them, he also admitted that he did not think any manager of child welfare services would say that they were very comfortable with the way things are. Again, that is a serious admission. He said that:
As long as there remain children out there who are vulnerable or whose needs are not being fully met, we have an obligation and a desire to meet those needs. I think a huge amount has been achieved in recent years but at the same time, a lot more has to be done.
That much is certainly true. A lot more must be done. As Senator Fitzgerald has said, the difficulty with making plans to do more and provide the adequate services that are required is where the services themselves are in denial about the problem. That is where the “Prime Time Investigates” programme has done great value in making us more aware, but it is unfortunate that the HSE appears to be somewhat in denial. I think there was a veiled attack on the critics of the HSE in the Minister of State's speech where he said that claims made about the HSE services should not be working off uncorroborated anecdote. I do not think there was an attempt to do that in the programme. I would like to hear the Minister of State say how many cases he and HSE believe a social worker appropriately should have in terms of a caseload. It is clear to us that if 500 children have no allocated social worker, there are many more who may have an allocated social worker but are simply not getting the service they need because their social worker's caseload is too heavy.