New State body aims to put needs of children first
INTERVIEW:Frances Fitzgerald plans to reform the fragmented child protection system by increasing accountability, providing early services and applying ‘joined-up thinking’
The most shocking aspect of a devastating report into the deaths of children in care earlier this year wasn’t so much the neglect, the abuse or missed opportunities. We know about those failures.
What was more disturbing still was the systemic chaos in evidence. Vulnerable children had extensive contact with many public services designed to protect them: social workers, psychiatrists, education and welfare officials, teachers and public health nurses.
In one single case, a child who slipped through the cracks of the child protection system was in contact with no fewer than 14 State agencies or officials.
Staff may have been trying to do their best, but they were working in a broken system marked by poor communication, a lack of joined-up thinking and the absence of any consistent approach to prioritising the welfare of children.
Frances Fitzgerald, the first full Cabinet-level Minister for Children, says she is determined to change this situation.
The Child and Family Support Agency, due to be established early next year, will take over responsibility for child protection and early intervention services from the Health Service Executive.
Legislation to pave the way for the move is being finalised. It will result in more than 4,000 staff transferring to the new agency.
According to Fitzgerald, it amounts to one of the most significant shifts in child welfare in the State’s history.
“We’re going to move from a position where child and family welfare was barely a priority, to a position where it will be the sole focus of a single dedicated State agency, overseen by a single dedicated Government department,” she says in an end-of-year interview.
“The aim is to break down the barriers between agencies and services, and ensure there is much more seamless integration of policy and service delivery, not fragmentation.”
Changing the nameplate will be the easy bit; undoing a culture in which different professionals work in isolation from each other will surely be a much more nettlesome prospect.
She agrees, but insists there will be real reform. The agency will have clear lines of accountability and every senior executive will have child and family services as their exclusive job. In contrast, as she has pointed out in the past, it took five years before the board of the HSE first put child protection on its agenda.
The new statutory body will encompass the child protection services, as well as the Family Support Agency and the National Educational Welfare Board, which promotes school attendance. “For too long in this country, we have had too many different agencies and services all doing their own things, with insufficient joined- up thinking and not working together,” she says.
There are fears, though, that the new agency will become a mammoth child protection unit. Instead of focusing on early intervention and supporting families, most of its attention could switch towards headline-grabbing emergency cases and children in crisis.
Fitzgerald insists this will not be the case.
“Child protection is a big issue, but for the agency to be worth its salt, it has to also focus on early intervention,” she says.
As Minister, she says she is keen on providing the kind of services early on in life that might prevent problems occurring later.
She points to the hugely encouraging results of parenting programmes and high quality childcare that have resulted in improved child behaviour and long-term benefits for families and the State. This kind of investment, she suggests, represents much better value than dispensing €2 billion in child benefit each year.
“We’ve done the direct payment. It’s a kind of Celtic Tiger thing, with rates increasing for individual payments . . .
“From my policy area point of view, and looking at what children need, it’s unequivocal: it’s important you get in early [and provide the right supports].”
But does Ireland really need a Scandinavian-style approach to childcare? And do parents want this for their children?
Fitzgerald says she isn’t trying to be prescriptive, but insists it’s something we should at least debate.
“The question of what the needs and demands are here is an interesting one for public debate . . . but we haven’t discussed that yet.”
By any objective assessment, 2012 was a milestone year for children. It was the year we held a referendum to strengthen the rights of children, finally chose a site for a long-promised national children’s hospital and faced up to some of our recent failures to protect children.
If the Growing Up In Ireland studies – longitudinal surveys that track the wellbeing of children – are anything to go by, there is much to be encouraged about, she says.
There are though troubling indicators such as poor self-image among young girls and evidence of cyber-bullying.
“There has been a hopelessness [in tackling issues like cyber-bullying] because it is seen as so entrepreneurial and free,” she says, “but actually, I think we’re capable of handling a lot of things if we set our minds to it. I’d like to explore what we can do with the internet service providers.”
The impact of the referendum, meanwhile, is likely to resonate over the coming years. She cannot comment on the fiasco over the handling of the information campaign – there is a legal action pending – but says provisions which hold that the best interests of the child must apply and young people’s voices must be heard in court cases affecting them will have profound consequences far into the future.
For all this progress though, last month’s budget was attacked as anti-child and anti-family by many critics.
Why would the Government cut child benefit and back-to-education allowances at a time when we are supposedly creating a child-centred society?
Fitzgerald insists the administration’s credentials should not be in doubt after moving to hold a referendum on children’s rights, ending the jailing of minors in St Patrick’s Institution and reforming child and family services.
“No one is insensitive to the impact of the budget,” she says, “but we don’t have the money at present to pay out benefits. We’re borrowing it. We’ve to face that reality . . .
“The overall management of the economy is what will make the most difference to families. If we don’t sort it out, children and families will be in a much worse position.”