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Developments in Child Protection

 Key Developments in Child Protection 2011-2013
 
Advocating and campaigning for significant improvements in Ireland’s Child Protection and Welfare systems has always been a key part of the work of the ISPCC. The last two decades has seen a plethora of scandals which have highlighted the need for more robust systems. For a number of years, progress seemed all to slow, with report after report and recommendation after recommendation but very little real action.

The last year or two, despite the often crippling recession, has proved very positive in terms of Ireland’s child protection and welfare system. Many of the issues that the ISPCC has tirelessly advocated for have been at the forefront of change.
 
The establishment of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs

The Department of Children and Youth Affairs (DCYA) was established on the 2nd June 2011 and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs is Ms Frances Fitzgerald TD. This is a full cabinet position which will facilitate the development of a seamless approach to the delivery of services to Irish children. The Department of Children leads the development of harmonised policy and quality integrated service delivery for children and young people and carries out specific functions in the social care field and drives coordinated actions across a range of sectors, including health, education, youth justice, sport, arts and culture.
 
This new Department saw a number of transfers from other Departments:
  • Irish Youth Justice Service (Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform)
  • Early Years Education Policy Unit (Department of Education and Science)
  • National Education and Welfare Board (Department of Education)
  • Family Support Agency (Department of Social Protection)
This amalgamation will see key personnel working side by side to provide a joined-up Government approach to the development of policy and delivery of services for children.
 
Children First National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children

The Children First Guidance launched on the 15th July, 2011 is National Guidance that promotes the protection of children from abuse and neglect. It states what organisations need to do to keep children safe, and what different bodies, and the general public should do if they are  concerned about a child’s safety and welfare. The Guidance sets out specific protocols for HSE social workers, Gardaí and other front line staff in dealing with suspected abuse and neglect. In addition, there is a more significant focus on neglect as a form of child abuse and the detrimental impact this can have. There is also recognition of the importance of interagency work with both other governmental organisations and the voluntary sector.

This Guidance is supported by a practice handbook which is available to all those who work with children and families.

The major difference between this updated Guidance and Children’s First Guidelines 1999 is that the new Guidance will be placed on a statutory footing. The legislation to support this was drafted in April 2012; Heads of Children First Bill and the ISPCC welcomed the opportunity to address the Joint Oireacthas Committee on Health and Children to make recommendations and seek clarity on a number of points within. When this legislation is enacted it will mean that designated professionals will be required, under law, to report suspected cases of child abuse. This will no longer be a guideline nor a matter of discretion. This is something that the ISPCC have been campaigning for over a number of years and it is a very welcome development. The Bill will now progress to drafting and Minster Fitzgerald will publish the Bill and progress it through the legislative process. It was hoped that this would occur in 2012 however we are now awaiting the Draft Bill before the end of 2013. 


Report from the Independent Child Death Review Group

The report of the Independent Child Death Review Group (published in June 2012), authored by Dr. Geoffrey Shannon and Norah Gibbons, gives details of the 196 children who died over the period 2000-10, both of natural and unnatural causes. The children in the report include children who were in the care of the state at the time of their death, young adults who were in aftercare and other children who were not in care but were known to the HSE.

In accordance with its terms of reference the ICDRG examined the files and reports of the HSE in respect of all 112 children who died from unnatural causes and a detailed and comprehensive case summary in respect of each child is set out in the report. In addition to providing an analysis of these files the report also summarises those aspects of good practice evident from the files, and also causes for concern.

While some good practices and high standards were recorded and the report commends evidence of good practice, concern is raised of its absence in respect of other children or young persons.

The report highlighted system failings in the Irish child protections services including:
  • Poor risk assessment
  • Poor co-ordination between services
  • Poor flows of information
  • Limited access to specialist assessment and therapeutic services
  • Limited interagency work for children and families with complex needs.
  • A lack of early intervention and family support services responding proportionately to the needs of children at risk and families in crisis.
Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Adults) Act 2012

In 1998 the Criminal Justice (Offences Against the State) (Amendment) Act a “serious offence” includes murder, manslaughter, abduction or a serious assault causing physical injury to a person. This 2012 Act closes a loophole in the existing legislation because it includes sexual offences in the definition of serious offences. Until now there was no offence of failing to report a sexual offence against a child or vulnerable person. This Act, which was signed and enacted in August 2012 creates such an offence.

The Act refers to “prescribed organisations”; this is so that victims who do not want to report an offence to the Gardaí are not dissuaded from seeking treatment or therapy in respect of injury or harm that they have suffered, as was raised as a concern during the draft Bill stages.

Referendum

Over the last several years the ISPCC has been advocating for constitutional change to enhance the protection afforded to children, and to further enshrine the rights of children. We have maintained over these years that amending the constitution was an important step in ensuring the protection of children in Ireland.  

In 2012 the ISPCC, along with Barnardos, Children’s Rights Alliance and Campaign for Children, came together with this common goal and formed the ‘Yes for Children’ campaign. Together the Yes for Children group campaigned on a number of points which informed the Irish public as to why a Yes vote was the way to go:
  • Greater child protection
  • To prioritise children
  • Give children a second chance to grow up in a stable, loving home.
  • Making decisions in the child’s best interests
  • Listening to children
The group embarked on a national bus campaign which travelled all around the country, stopping at 50 locations, to engage with and inform the local communities on the Children’s Rights Referendum.  This was a valuable opportunity to speak to people directly about one of the most significant changes to be made to the Irish Constitution.

The Yes for Children campaign activities saw the passing of a yes vote in November 2012 and we believe this will enhance the rights and protection of children in Ireland.  

Garda Vetting
Garda Vetting has always been an area of great concern to the ISPCC. In 2006 we launched a campaign called, “How can we be sure they’re safe?” This campaign called on the Government to introduce a number of measures to protect children, one of these measures was to place vetting on a legislative footing and to allow for soft information to be recorded and made available within the vetting process.  Over 100,000 signatures were collected from members of the public, indicating that public attitude was very much in support of Garda Vetting. The ISPCC were invited to sit on the Garda Vetting Implementation group and have continued to highlight the gaps in this area for a number of years

In September 2011, the ISPCC were called to present their views on the proposed legislation to the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality where we again took the opportunity to express the importance of the National Vetting Bureau Bill.

The National Vetting Bureau Bill was passed and signed in December 2012. This Bill provides a statutory basis for the use of Garda criminal records in the vetting of persons applying for employment working with children or vulnerable adults.

The Bill also provides for the use of "soft" information, (which is referred to as "specified information" in the Bill) in regard to vetting. This is information other than criminal convictions where such information leads to a bona-fide belief that a person poses a threat to children or vulnerable persons. The National Vetting Bureau Bill 2012 makes it mandatory for persons working with children or vulnerable adults to be vetted, whereas up until now this has been voluntary. The Bill will also create offences and penalties for persons who fail to comply with its provisions.