Children and Youth Affairs Minister, Barry Andrews, launched the blueprint for how children should be protected and cared for by the State, with survivors and children’s rights groups demanding the swift implementation of the measures.
It is a huge undertaking, but then it needs to be.
As Barry Andrews said yesterday, the horrific abuse catalogued in the Ryan report made headlines around the world, and the reaction of campaigners and survivors both here and abroad makes implementing the key recommendations a priority.
Mr Andrews said he believed it would cost some €25m to implement the recommendations over the next three to four years, and that Finance Minister Brian Lenihan is committed to the process. The money will have to be found from other places, in addition to achieving more with existing resources.
The announcement of an implementation plan was given a broad welcome by survivors and children’s rights groups, all of whom will closely monitor the pace at which the recommendations are acted upon.
Spread under 20 separate headings, the 99 headline-grabbing measures will be music to the ears of many working in the sector.
Chief among the recommendations is the filling of 270 social work vacancies. This will be complemented by steps to ease new recruits into the system by lessening caseloads in the first year.
Those entering the profession following graduation will also be provided with additional supervision and will not have to deal with complex cases immediately, a move designed to help prevent staff turnover and burn-out among those working with vulnerable children.
These vacancies will be exempt from the public service moratorium, as are staff at the National Counselling Service, which will now receive additional resources to deal with the surge in calls since the Ryan report was published and with the report into the handling of abuse cases in the Dublin Archdiocese also on the horizon.
Those social work positions are to be filled within the next 18 months, Mr Andrews said, although many in the Irish Association of Social Workers (IASW) will contend that serious damage was done to those in the system heretofore because of the shortage of staff on the ground.
However, Declan Coogan of the IASW yesterday said his organisation was delighted with the announcement, and with the fact that there was a timeframe for the appointments.
The system of inspections will now be extended, with HIQA (the Health Information Quality Authority) to be given powers to carry out checks of foster care placements, facilities caring for those with disabilities and young people seeking asylum, among others.
A senior manager with sole responsibility for children and families will be appointed within the HSE for the first time, and an out-of-hours scheme will be piloted in two areas ahead of a possible national roll-out.
Section 45 of the 1991 Children Act will also be altered to bolster the provision of aftercare to those who grew up in the care system and are turning 18.
The minister said that "the State is to take the role of the parent", although it is still unclear whether in practice this means mandatory aftercare – he said aftercare will be provided "when a need is identified".
The HSE will complete its audit of existing aftercare services, with Mr Andrews admitting that more gaps than duplication of service is likely.
The Children First guidelines will be placed on a statutory footing, and while there is no call for mandatory reporting, state agencies and voluntary bodies that do not report suspected cases of child support could, under new contract terms, be in breach of contract and face sanctions including possible withdrawal of funding or losing their jobs.
Finally, the minister said that a referendum on children’s rights was still on the agenda, although no timeframe was provided as to when the electorate will be given a chance to vote on the issue.
Mr Andrews will now form an implementation committee that will be required to report annually, but already some people have highlighted potential gaps.
What about those abuse survivors living in Britain, one campaigner asked.
Another questioned the continuing legal barrier to discussing the Redress Board, yet another asked about the high number of scheduled inspections and the possibility of survivors being included on visiting committees to institutions.
Even allowing for attempts to achieve more within existing resources, the €25m it will cost to implement the 99 actions over the next three years is considerable, particularly given the parlous state of the economy.
Mr Andrews admitted that some controversial measures included in the recent An Bord Snip Nua report, such as the merging of the Office of the Ombudsman for Children with that of the Ombudsman, will have to be considered.
In other words, child protection is being addressed after years of being overlooked or neglected, but it is likely it will lead to cuts elsewhere.
The Government may still have to wait for those positive newspaper headlines.
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