Children’s services face financial penalties for missing targets - Minister
New legislation will place child and family services under a single new State agency
Child and family services could face financial penalties for failing to meet new performance targets, Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald has warned.
It is one of a number of powers available to the Minister under new legislation which sets out how the new Child and Family Agency will operate.
The organisation - which will take over responsibility for many children’s services from the Health Service Executive - will employ around 4,000 staff.
The move follows long-standing criticism over the HSE’s handling of child protection and social services.
Ms Fitzgerald said the move was “most ambitious and comprehensive reform of child protection services ever undertaken” in Ireland and will bring children’s services under the sole focus of a single dedicated state agency.
The new agency will absorb the functions of the Family Support Agency, which funds programmes supporting parents, and the National Educational Welfare Board, which promotes school attendance. It will also take over responsiblity for pre-school services.
The legislation allows the Minister to set out policy objectives and performance targets for the agency.
Ms Fitzgerald said these measures would allow her to suspend or reduce funding for services which do not meet their performance targets.
“We have to get more accountability into the system,” she told The Irish Times. “This is about building the most effective service possible for children and families who need them.”
However, key professionals who work with children – such as public health nurses and mental health professionals – will not transfer to the agency.
This has been heavily criticised by some children’s rights advocates on the basis that professionals such as public health nurses offer the best early-warning sign of neglect or abuse of children.
Various reports have consistently highlighted problems such as poor communication between services, weak management and an ad-hoc approach to services.
Ms Fitzgerald defended the move and said the new agency would be stronger and in a better position to work in partnership with other services such as mental health.
She suggested that additional professionals who work with children could move to the new agency over the coming years.
“This is a major framework for future action, This is a foundation for providing much better services. A lot of the building blocks are in place: child protection, education and welfare and family support,” she said.
“If you have those in place, you’re in a better position to relate to other agencies and become a better partner with other agencies.”
The Minister said that for too many years children’s services were often “lost and rudderless” within the HSE.
“Put simply, we are 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,” Ms Fitzgerald said.
Ms Fitzgerald also insisted the new agency will place a major emphasis on family support services and early intervention, to help prevent relatively small issues turning into crises.
“The new agency will build on the excellent work undertaken by the Family Support Agency over the last decade; and the nationwide network of 106 family resource centres which will play a central role in the new agency and it’s continuum of community supports,” she said.
Under the legislation, the Minister will set out a “performance framework” for the agency, setting out key priorities and targets.
On foot of this, the agency will develop corporate plan that must be submitted to the Minister for approval. It will also be obliged to compiled a review and evaluation of its work in meeting its statutory functions. The Minister has the authority to accept, reject or seek changes.
“Ultimately, this is about creating a better quality service for children and families, and ensuring staff feel better supported,” Ms Fitzgerald said.
“I’m very conscious of young, inexperienced social workers who are working with some of the most complex cases. That isn’t fair... We need a more supportive management structure in place for them with stronger leadership.”