Child protection Bills published
Any sports club, society or voluntary organisation that works with children faces being shut down if they fail to implement official guidelines on how to handle child protection and welfare concerns.
It is one of a number of measures contained in two new pieces of legislation published today which are likely to have far-reaching implications for how the State, voluntary groups and wider society respond to children at risk.
Details of both Bills were published today by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter and Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald.
Under the Children First Bill, all organisations where children attend without their parents - such as schools, sports clubs or religious groups - will face a legal requirement to ensure they provide a safe environment for children.
Each organisation will be required to have a “designated officer” who will have responsibility to ensure staff and volunteers are vetted and trained in recognising signs of abuse and neglect.
This officer, and certain professionals such as nurses, doctors, social workers and counsellors, will have a legal obligation to report suspicions and allegations of abuse to the Health Service Executive.
If a designated officer fails to report concerns without a reasonable excuse, they may face a jail term of up to five years. If an organisation fails to implement Children First guidelines, they face losing State funding and, ultimately, being shut down.
Ms Fitzgerald said the legislation would help ensure there are no exception or exemptions for failing to act on child abuse or neglect concerns.
“Child protection is everyone’s responsibility. Everyone. Every club, society, organisation, religious organisation, educational establishment and medical facility that works with children,” she said.
While some children’s groups have expressed concern that social services could be overwhelmed by abuse or neglect reports, Ms Fitzgerald said she was confident that reformed management of children’s services would help ensure the system would cope.
“We need to foster a culture where every individual in this State feels themselves personally responsible for creating and maintaining a society where children are protected,” she said.
Separate legislation published today by Mr Shatter will make it a criminal offence for a person to fail to disclose information to the Garda which would assist in prosecuting a person who commits a serious offence against a child or vulnerable adult.
The prospect of prosecution for failing to report suspected abuse is extended to all members of the public and not just those working with children. Any person who withholds information faces a minimum jail term of five years.
“It is not acceptable that there can be a cloak of secrecy surrounding such offences against children or other vulnerable people in society,” Mr Shatter said.
Mr Shatter confirmed the legislation would apply to priests hearing confession, but described the issue as a "media obsession". He said similar legislation has been in place since 1998, but has not proved a source of controversy since.
The legislation contains defences for parents and others where a victim of an offence requests that the details not be passed onto authorities. Mr Shatter said these defences sought to protect victims, as well as providing a defence for those who legitimately act in the best interest of a child or vulnerable adult. “This Bill should not deter victims of serious offences from seeking help and assistance they need in addressing the harm and damage caused to them,” he said.
Children's groups gave the measures a broad welcome, in particular the decision to place the Children First guidelines on a legal footing.
Barnardos chief executive Fergus Finlay said the move marked a turning point in the history of child protection. "It has been a painful journey, but the learning from the myriad reports outlining our collective failure to protect children in the past has made the publication of this significant legislation possible today,” he said.
The Children's Right Alliance, a coalition of non-governmental organisations, said the move will "change the culture of child protection in Ireland, ensuring that abuse is tackled head-on and not hidden away".