Child and Family Agency has difficult task ahead
The Child and Family Agency Act 2013 established the Child and Family Agency on January 1st, 2014. It is deemed to be part of a key Programme for Government commitment and has come into being partly in response to recent reports on child protection failings, including inconsistency and fragmentation of service provision.
The stated aims of the agency are to bring a dedicated focus to child protection and welfare services previously operated by the Health Service Executive (HSE); to provide family support and other key child services.
The agency will include early intervention services to prevent problems arising for families, and it will also provide specialist interventions to assist children and families where serious problems arise.
The Family Support Agency, the National Education Welfare Board and community-based psychological services have been subsumed into the new agency. However, this does not include psychologists operating within acute disability, public health nurses, mental health or other specialist services. Nor does it include the all important service of the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS), the responsibility for which will remain with the Department of Health.
The agency comes into being at a time of, relatively speaking, severe financial constraint. The financial choices made by the Government will impact substantially on how this agency will operate in practice, and will be an indicator of the Government’s commitment to it. I say Government because Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald, who has responsibility for the agency, does not act in a political vacuum and does not act alone. Her voice at the cabinet must be supported by the Minister for Finance and others if the agency is to achieve its stated aims. The aims are laudable and reflect a commitment to protecting the most vulnerable children in society. This is the hallmark of a civilised society, and the rhetoric must be underpinned by financial resources.
In the Report of the Independent Child Death Review on the Death of Children in Care 2012 chaired by Geoffrey Shannon and Nora Gibbons (now chairwoman of the new agency – an appointment welcomed by many working in the area of child protection), it was noted, inter alia, the importance of assessing the mental health needs of children and young people, and the need to provide a roadmap for the care of the child and young person to tackle mental health issues. The report further advocated the need for early intervention in cases where children come into contact with the HSE. These recommendations are enshrined in principle into the aims of the new agency. One of the most critical recommendations of the child death report is that CAMHS be integrated with child welfare and protection work in the community. It was also recommended that those working in the area of child welfare and protection be aware of and be trained in the recognition of mental health issues. It is currently the case however that CAMHS will remain under the auspices of the Department of Health. This will be hugely challenging for the agency. The Minister for Health and the Minister for Children must now examine a mechanism to ensure that the provision of those CAMHS services be provided to all those who require it.