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.
Failure to ensure the integration of CAMHS between the two departments could have a severe and detrimental impact on children coming into contact with the Child and Family Agency.
The Irish economy entered a deep recession in 2008. By coincidence or otherwise, the number of children received into the care of the State rose from 5,357 in 2008 to 6,160 in 2011. The consequences of the recession include high unemployment; an increase in poverty; alcoholism; drug addiction and mental health problems, all of which crucially impact on family life.
In 2011, 9.3 per cent of children (aged between 0-17 years) continued to live in consistent poverty, up from 8.8 per cent in 2010. This equates to 106,827 children. What does consistent poverty mean? It can mean going 24 hours without a substantial meal, or being cold because parents can’t afford to heat the home.
The complexity of legal proceedings and the permanent removal of children from their families into State care is one of the most fundamental and perhaps drastic steps in a child’s life. The emotional, educational and psychological impact on the child/children can to some extent be assuaged by the provision of adequately funded services. It is also extremely important to have an educated and supported social work services. Those working in the agency have an onerous and very difficult task. To put it in context, in 2011 there were 21,040 child welfare and protection reports received by social workers.
This was an increase of more than 50 per cent since 2006. Many of those working within the agency are highly professional, dedicated and committed. Part of the support for them to undertake their difficult work effectively is the provision of resources, mental health, psychological and educational, so that an inter-disciplinary approach would result in a wrap-around service for children who come into contact with the agency.
Minister Fitzgerald and her team have a huge task ahead. We owe it to the children of this country to promote an inclusive society, and to underpin the aims of the new agency with financial and other resources to ensure its viability.
Geraldine Keehan is partner and head of family law and human rights at Augustus Cullen Law Solicitors. She is also a member of the Law Society Family Law and Child Law Committee.