Disabled children “are being left behind again” because welfare staff who should be helping them have been redeployed by the Health Service Executive to work on the Covid-19 pandemic, an Oireachtas committee has heard..
The HSE "at this stage" should have enough Covid-19 testers and contact tracers without requiring staff experienced at assessing children's needs, the Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon declared.
He was responding to Sinn Féin TD Mark Ward, who said parents of disabled children in his constituency in Clondalkin had told him about the impact of staff redeployments .
The situation in Clondalkin is mirrored elsewhere, Dr Muldoon told the Joint Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration, adding that the State has been guilty of “decades of dereliction of duty” for the disabled.
More than 6,000 children with disabilities are in the queue for needs assessments with less than 10 per cent of those being carried out in the time allowed by law.
The State should be forced to repay parents who pay for their own assessments, he said. “It’s a shame that we even have to think that way,” he told Labour’s Séan Sherlock.
Poor planning sees children reaching school age without locally available places for them, “even though it would have been known since the children were born that there would be a need”.
The situation was "a real indictment of the service that is provided", he told Fine Gael's Alan Dillon, who said children in his Mayo constituency must travel to Galway for special-needs schooling.
The lack of progress is “heartbreaking” and puts extra pressure on already-stretched parents, Dr Muldoon said, adding that parent have “to scream loud, to scream consistently” to get help for their children.
He had urged the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) to reform 13-year-old flawed national assessments standards for disabled children. However, Hiqa is not to do so over the next two years.
Meanwhile, vulnerable children are losing out on vital supports due to Covid-19 restrictions since schools reopened in September, according to a new survey.
The poll of also 400 parents and carers found that many young people attending special classes are being excluded from mainstream education because of social distancing regulations.
Forty one per cent say their children need more special needs assistant (SNA) support, while 33 per cent said they were not satisfied with the schooling offered to their child this year.
Stress and anxiety
Seventy nine per cent said children would need more in-school support to continue education if schools close in the future because of Covid-19, according to the survey conducted in October.
The Covid-19 closures have hurt such children badly, the 382 parents from campaign groups such as Inclusion Ireland, Down Syndrome Ireland and AsIAm said.
Many vulnerable children lost key developmental skills and continue to experience high levels of stress and anxiety owing to the loss of routine, said Adam Harris, chief executive of autism charity AsIAm.
The Department of Education has provided the same support to schools as last year, but it has not taken into account the needs of individual students in schools, or the impact of the pandemic, he said.
Despite the challenges, he said many young people are greatly benefiting from the return to school and parents want to make sure this continues even if there are restrictions after Christmas.
Calling for extra SNA and other teaching supports, Fidelma Brady, Down Syndrome Ireland’s head of education, said the findings illustrate the challenges faced by parents of children.
“We need to ensure that all children have access to appropriate and beneficial education in schools, and experience inclusion at its best at every stage of their education journey,” she aid.
Parents are broadly pleased to have their children back in school, said Enda Egan, Inclusion Ireland’s chief executive, though the loss of “essential” ear defenders or fidget toys because of Covid-19 safety rules stands out.