Efforts to meet urgent care needs of children criticised

 

A High Court judge has described as "sub-standard" and "less than impressive" the efforts made by the Department of Health and Children towards meeting the urgent residential and care needs of troubled children.

Promises by the Department to provide these units across the State were not lived up to, precious time had been lost as a result of "culpable time-wasting" and the problems of accommodating the children had daily become more acute, Mr Justice Kelly said yesterday.

Almost five years after the courts had declared these children had constitutional rights to be suitably accommodated and cared for, those rights had not been vindicated by the State.

He said counsel acting for a 16-year-old boy was, in principle, entitled to an injunction directing the Department to adhere to the timescales for building the units given on behalf of the Department to the court earlier this year.

However, because counsel for the State had taken - for the first time yesterday - a technical objection to such an injunction being sought in the present case on the grounds the case had been adjourned generally, an objection with which the judge was not impressed, a motion should be brought for injunctive relief against the Department of Health in the names of all the other children's cases. He would hear that on January 18th. The judge said he was merely taking steps to ensure the Department's word - regarding what it had told the court would be done for the children - was its bond. He was disappointed the Minister for Health, who through his counsel had assured the court there was ample finance and intention to make good the promises, would not formally under take to the court that those promises would be adhered to within the timescales set out.

He understood some delays, through building strikes and other matters, were unavoidable and that there were difficulties in trying to put together a system for troubled children in circumstances where there was a legislative vacuum, but some delays were avoidable.

Although strongly critical of the Department of Health, Mr Justice Kelly praised the progress made by the Department of Education and the Eastern Health Board towards meeting the needs of at-risk children. He believed these two bodies understood the urgency of the situation and had made a long-term commitment of money and resources.

One factor which might explain the difference between the approach by the Department of Education and the EHB on the one hand and the Department of Health on the other, was there had been continuity of policy and personnel dealing with children's cases in the former bodies.

The EHB and Department of Education personnel were familiar with the cases and what was required; however, there was no such continuity in the Department of Health.

The judge was speaking at the close of a review by the court of progress made by the State and EHB in providing suitable secure and high support accommodation for at-risk children. Last April, the State and EHB outlined their proposals for meeting such needs and the judge granted a lengthy adjournment so progress could be made.

When the review opened last week, the Department of Health admitted there had been "slippage" in meeting the timescales and some units would not be open until 2001 and perhaps later. The EHB said it expected its 24-bed high support unit at Ballydowd, Lucan, to be operational from July and a second unit at Portrane was on schedule. However, the board stressed it was experiencing major problems with recruitment of care workers.

In April the court heard the Department of Health had approved proposals to more than treble the number of high support and secure places by the year 2000 and the judge at that hearing praised the efforts made.

However, last week, the court heard of delays in meeting the targets set in April for construction of those units.

Earlier, Mr Paul O'Higgins SC, for the Departments of Education and Health, agreed there had been slippage. He said one problem was local opposition in some areas to the proposed units.

Mr Gerry Durcan SC, for the boy, welcomed the efforts of the Department of Education and the EHB.