'Vet as many people as possible to keep children safe, but there must be a common sense approach'
Childminders may not be covered by the new child protection measures due to come into force, but your local sports club, youth club or drama group certainly is.Any parents helping out at their children’s activities in the community should already be familiar with the Garda vetting process and child protection issues. Essentially, the Children First Bill puts current best practice on a statutory footing – though the draft legislation’s mention of custodial sentences and fines for non-observance will concentrate minds.
Just where will personal responsibility lie among a group of well-meaning volunteers struggling to keep badly needed youth or sports clubs open? And is the increased bureaucracy going to stop people offering to help out?
Organisations will need to be very clear about who has responsibility for what, says child protection lawyer Sinéad Kearney with ByrneWallace solicitors in Dublin.
Any organisation providing services to children will have to appoint a designated officer responsible for dealing with any concerns or allegations about child neglect or abuse. This officer has to be the most senior manager within the organisation, but the role, rather than the responsibility, can be delegated to somebody else who might be more suitable.
The designated officer will have to decide whether or not these concerns should be referred on to the HSE for further investigation. If it is decided not to report the concerns, a written record of the reason for that decision must be kept.
There is a fear that organisations would report the slightest concerns just to be on the safe side “and that would cripple the HSE”, suggests Kearney. “There are not enough people to cope with that, so you would hope common sense will prevail.”
The new legislation is going to mean a significant amount of extra work for people, she acknowledges, but it has to be a good thing.
“It is not just about children, but also about vulnerable adults.” Volunteers will need to accept the new system, she adds, and “it is up to governing bodies to make sure it is as pain-free as possible”.
The Football Association of Ireland is one governing body which has been running information seminars and workshops around the State this autumn about the proposed legislation.
It works with the main leagues, which are then responsible for passing on the information to the clubs.
“It does increase the importance of child protection within sport and we would see it as a positive development,” says FAI child protection officer Vincent O’Flaherty. The proposed legislation has been well received at grassroots level, he reports, where, generally, the guidelines would already be implemented.
When it comes to vetting of volunteers, O’Flaherty points out that anybody working with children in the Republic of Ireland now has to be vetted. “I try to take the football side out of it: this is not just the FAI, it is every organisation working with children.”
He doesn’t think the requirement is putting volunteers off, as attitudes have changed. “We would have been very positive about getting the message out that this is for the benefit of children, but it is also about protecting ourselves as coaches.”
Every club will be legally responsible for assessing who needs to be vetted. “We are saying vet as many people as possible to ensure children are safe, but there has to be a common sense approach to it.”
One area where the legislation goes beyond existing guidelines is the protocol around giving children lifts, and that is something clubs need to be aware of.
“There is nothing new or startling in the Children First legislation that we weren’t expecting but some of the detail we did have a few concerns about,” says Olive Ring, national child protection manager with the National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI). The NYCI represents and supports more than 50 national youth organisations, including Scouting Ireland, Irish Girl Guides, Foróige and the National Association for Youth Drama. The council’s main concerns are the implications for volunteer-led organisations.
“There are organisations ringing us all the time saying ‘we know there is legislation coming, what do we do, where do we go, where do we get help?’,” says Ring, who believes the promised publication of a guidance document by the HSE will be key.
Generally, the youth work sector would be ahead of other sectors in terms of child protection measures, says Ring. It was one of the first to introduce vetting, and there would be very few volunteers who haven’t been vetted.
There is broad support within youth work circles for the Bill but the criteria for reporting abuse or neglect are of concern. She says that while the Bill says groups can ask the HSE for advice about whether or not to report something, that can’t be used as a defence if a judicial case is taken.
There are fears about the new requirements being a barrier to volunteering – for instance, if the designated officer is a volunteer and could be personally liable. People are also worried about the amount of bureaucracy it could involve.
“No one wants to see a situation where work with young people is decreased,” she says, adding that people need a lot of information, support and time to get organisations ready for the checking and monitoring systems.