Child protection agency needs more public scrutiny
Spectrum of care: what we need is an integrated approach to child protection that brings all the health and support services under one roof. This includes child welfare, prevention and early intervention services, child protection, family support, psychological services, public health nursing and mental health services. photograph: cyril byrne
OpinionWe have an opportunity to get the Child and Family Support Agency right. But, with so little transparency, we may repeat the HSE’s flaws
When the Government took office in March 2011, it pledged to “fundamentally reform the delivery of child protection services by removing child welfare and protection from the HSE and creating a dedicated child welfare and protection agency, reforming the model of service delivery and improving accountability to the Dáil”.
For those of us who have campaigned for years to strengthen and uphold children’s rights in Ireland, this commitment to establish the new Child and Family Support Agency was a source of celebration, and heralded a new and long-overdue reform of children’s services.
However, slow progress and questions around the creation of the agency have turned celebration into concern.
What has happened so far? In September 2011, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald established the taskforce on the Child and Family Support Agency as a direct response to the Government’s commitment. Reporting back to the Minister in July 2012, the taskforce described the new agency as “a once-in-a-generation opportunity to fundamentally reform children’s services in Ireland”.
In July 2012, the Minister announced that her department had started to draft the heads and a general scheme of a Bill to establish the Child and Family Support Agency.
Some seven months later, we still have not seen the Bill. We are in the dark about the agency’s remit, function and operation, and about how it will ensure transparency and accountability.
This is an extremely important juncture in the conception and development of the new agency, yet the process appears to be taking shape behind closed doors. If we are to create a new culture of children’s services, child protection and family support, we must avoid establishing what is effectively a rebranded Health Service Executive.
Thus far, there has been inadequate debate and input involving the relevant external stakeholders such as experts, service providers, parents, and children’s organisations. I believe this is a missed opportunity.
As someone who campaigned hard for a Yes vote in the children’s rights referendum, I readily admit to being disappointed that it was not the landslide victory so many of us had hoped for. However, the ensuing debate afforded policymakers a real opportunity to learn from and remedy past failings.
We cannot ignore the fact that many No voters had concerns about past treatment by our social services system. We need to listen to these concerns and ensure the new agency is fully resourced, that it works for all children and families, and that it is focused on the kind of early and accountable intervention that can deliver the best possible outcomes for children and families.
The latest Health Information and Quality Authority inspection report of the foster care service run by the HSE’s Dublin North West local health area has found that the area “could not guarantee good outcomes for children” in its foster care service.
This is the fourth consecutive report to identify serious gaps in the HSE’s ability to provide for the safety and wellbeing of children in this foster care region. I am aware that parts of the HSE are already in the process of being transferred into this new agency.