Revamp of child services urged

 

Early intervention and evidence-based programmes are key to improving outcomes for at-risk children and saving money for the taxpayer in the longer term.

This was the clear message to Government from the "What’s working for children" conference in Dublin today.

Speaking at the two-day event, Aileen O’Donoghue, chief executive of the children’s charity Archways, said the Government needed to radically shift its approach to providing child and family support services.

“For years, late intervention has dominated Government approaches to working with children and families. But late intervention requires setting aside money for the resultant failure that is early school leaving, anti-social behaviour, unemployment or even life in prison,” she said

“Prevention and early intervention, by contrast, requires small amounts of money, which, when invested as early as possible, brings about immediate results for children and families as well as economic benefits for society as a whole.”

The concept of evidence-based programmes was relatively new in Ireland, Ms O’Donoghue said, and it involved using rigorous criteria in evaluating various services, such as randomised control trials, similar to those used in medicine or science.

“It’s time to spend our limited money on what we know is working for children, not what might be working,” she said.

The conference, which was organised Archways in association with the Office of the Minister for Children and Atlantic Philanthropies, was addressed by a number of international experts in the field of child services and, specifically, early intervention programmes.

Steve Aos, director of the Washington State Institute for Public Policy in the United States, shared the findings of his groundbreaking cost-benefit study on the policy options for reducing crime in Washington State.

His research has prompted the state authorities to adopt a different approach to fighting crime by redirecting money away from a proposed prison-building programme and into child support and early intervention services.

The shift in policy has helped Washington State significantly reduce juvenile crime rates to well below the national average, providing a major saving to the taxpayer in terms of a lower take-up in adolescent services and a lower adult prison population, the conference was told.

“The first thing that we discovered in the mid 1990s [in Washington] was that we were doing things in terms of juvenile services that were not based on any rigorous scientific evidence,” he told delegates.

But he warned that even when the right programmes were identified, it was still necessary to ensure that adherence rates were kept high, and “that you were getting what you paid for”.

Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald, who earlier opened the conference, said the establishment of a ministry for children represented an “important value statement” on the part of the Government.

The new department will be officially created on June 3rd next when the child service functions of several other departments in the areas of health, education and justice will be brought together under a “new departmental entity”, she said.

Ms Fitzgerald said her department would publish a number of reports in the coming months which, in some cases,  would highlight how the State had failed children.

“It is important that lessons are learned so we can move to an understanding what early intervention means and what child service models are working”.

She called on the various groups and charities attending the event to consider how best “we move practice to policy” in terms of child services, and how these policies can inform the National Children’s Strategy.