An agency for children

Mon, Jan 6, 2014, 03:00

It has been a long time in the making. A new Child and Family Agency, taking over child protection and welfare from the HSE, comes into force this week, a year and half after a task force on setting up such a body reported and six months after legislation was introduced. A chief executive designate, Gordon Jeyes, has been in place for much of that time and work has been ongoing carving out from the HSE the designated services.

The new agency has an ambitious remit. Its stated objectives are to prevent problems from arising in a family in the first instance, to identify problems and provide supports at an early stage, and to assist children and families in managing serious problems requiring specialised interventions.

It comes into being in the wake of the passing of the Children’s Rights amendment to the Constitution (still embroiled in a court challenge), which makes children’s rights explicit and provides for their voice to be heard in proceedings concerning them. It also provides for a proportionate intervention by the State where parents have difficulty in providing the physical and emotional nurture their children need, so that removing children from their families should be very much a last resort. Taken together, these measures should re-focus our policy on child welfare and protection towards supporting vulnerable families in caring for their children. This is greatly to be welcomed.

The new agency promises “a strong framework of public accountability”, which should allay some past concerns about the openness and accountability of the HSE in its policies towards child protection. It should also bring consistency in policy throughout the country, which, according to recently published statistics on court applications for care orders, appears subject to regional variation.

The new focus on early intervention is particularly welcome, but so far there has been little discussion of its resource implications. Already we know from successive reports that the social work services are severely stretched. While social workers have been recruited, the recruitment barely keeps pace with natural wastage, while the demand for services soars.

These shortages exist under the existing system, which is crisis-oriented. The pressure of work can only increase if vulnerable families are to receive support and help before crises develop. We know that poverty is strongly associated with the risks of neglect and abuse, and we also know that the number of children at risk of poverty has been steadily increasing since the financial crisis hit.

Yet the new agency has to operate within pre-existing budgets for the services it is taking over. If it is to meet its ambitious and laudable objectives it deserves adequate resources to do so. Otherwise the rhetoric about our commitment to child welfare is meaningless.

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