Children First Bill 2014- Second Stage Debate

“For in every adult there dwells the child that was, and in every child there lies the adult that will be.” These words of the Irish novelist and journalist, John Connolly, are extraordinarily relevant. Childhood should be a happy time and should not be violated in any way. A civilised society should provide its children with a happy, secure environment. According to an African proverb, it takes a village to raise a child. We want to be part of the right village for our children. The best armour available to a young person is a healthy and positive self-image and it is our duty to ensure our children have this.

As a former primary school teacher, a profession I had the honour and privilege of pursuing previously, it is not surprising that the Taoiseach should have seen the need to appoint a Minister for Children and Youth Affairs with Cabinet status. His decision is the ultimate recognition of the importance of children and the need to have their voices heard. The Taoiseach should be congratulated, commended and applauded for doing so. I also salute the Minister for bringing to her Ministry a remarkable level of passion, focus and competence, all of which qualities are visible across a range of Bills, guidelines and actions she has introduced, despite the limited resources available to her.
I welcome the opportunity to speak to this Bill, which will form the cornerstone of our child protection legislation. It will place elements of the Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children 2011 on a statutory footing, making good on one of the key objectives in the programme for Government and following on from the Ryan report of 2009. The Bill will form part of a suite of child protection legislation, which includes the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 and the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012. The legislation was born out of the Minister’s review of the children first guidelines of 1999. I commend her on placing them on a statutory footing for the first time.

The Bill is essentially split into three key elements. First, it places on professionals and others working with children an obligation to report child protection concerns to the Child and Family Agency. The second critical plank of the Bill is the introduction of risk assessments and child safeguarding statements, which certain professionals working with children are obliged to undertake when they believe a child to be at risk of harm. Finally, it establishes the children first interdepartmental implementation group which will promote and oversee cross-sectoral implementation and compliance with Children First.

Section 10 establishes the precedent that every organisation that provides services to children must carry out a risk assessment and compile a child safeguarding statement not later than three months after the enactment of the Bill. I welcome the fact that the safeguarding statement, which will be publically displayed, will outline key points such as reducing any identified risk, including in the procedures for the recruitment of staff; the provision of information, instruction and training in regard to the identification of harm; and the reporting to the Child and Family Agency by an employee or by the provider. It will also include a list of persons in the relevant service who are deemed to be “mandated persons”. Transparency is vital in this instance and I am pleased to note it is a recurring theme in the Bill.

Section 11 addresses mandatory reporting, one of the key issues in the legislation. Those who are classed as mandated persons, for example, teachers, registered nurses, doctors and child care staff members, are obliged to report any instance where they believe a child is being harmed or may be at grave risk of being harmed. I especially welcome the inclusion of subsection 2 which provides that reporting is also mandatory in cases where a child believes that he or she has been harmed, is being harmed or is at risk of being harmed. The inclusion of this child-centred dimension is critical.

Under the Bill, when a child makes a disclosure to a mandated person the obligation is on the mandated person to report this information to the Child and Family Agency. We have heard of many cases in the past where failure to act or a delay in taking action has had the most serious consequences. For this reason, I am pleased to note the inclusion in section 11 of a provision which ensures that where a mandated person believes a child is under threat of immediate harm, he or she is not required to go through the general route of submitting a report using an approved report form that can take some time to complete, but may instead make initial and immediate contact with the agency. It is critical that such emergency contacts take place. Section 11(8) provides that such an initial contact must be followed up with the submission of the appropriate report form not more than three days after the report is filed. This is a reasonable requirement. While the ability to make immediate and urgent reports is of paramount importance, the inclusion of this emergency option is tragically necessary.
Transparency and consistency were severely lacking in such cases in the past. It is important that society has not only collectively learned its lesson but that we are also following through with legislation that is mindful of this lesson. For too long, we have lived in a society where children were seen and not heard. History has shown that we failed the most vulnerable children in our care. Section 11(7) tallies with section 16, which amends the Child and Family Agency Act 2013, in that it ensures the views of the child will be paramount at all times when the Child and Family Agency is carrying out its functions. This is one of the most important aspects of the Bill as it demonstrates the way in which our whole culture has shifted from inactive to reactive and we will never again allow anyone to sidestep his or her duty of care towards a child.
There has been some discussion about the punitive dimension of the Bill, an issue to which I will turn later. Based on professional experience, my observation of society and the experience that comes with years, I believe the very existence of mandatory reporting will create a culture of reporting.

Just as the breathalyser has achieved the same objective in combating drink-driving, through an osmotic effect, it will make it socially unacceptable not to report child abuse. This, along with other actions by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs will, as she said, make safeguarding practice the cultural norm for anyone working with children.
Some concerns have been raised that the Bill does not go far enough. There will be the potential to prosecute people under the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 while the regulatory bodies involved with children will take punitive action if their members have not acted. This legislation strikes the correct balance in achieving high-quality reporting with high substantiation rates, while avoiding overwhelming the child protection system with inappropriate reports, a criticism of the operation of mandatory reporting in other countries. As all Members are privileged to interact with so many elements of society and people of all ages every day, the significant achievement of the legislation will be to place a societal imperative on the professional working with children to report child harm and abuse.

Apart from the fundamental objective to protect and safeguard our children, this Bill also represents the type of joined-up thinking that, in the past, was badly needed. Section 13 is an illustration of this, stating as it does that someone identified as a mandated person is obliged to comply with the request of assistance by the Child and Family Agency by means of producing verbal or written reports, attending agency meetings and producing requested documentary evidence to the agency. This level of requirement, as identified by the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch last night, is very helpful and vital in the assessment of interagency co-operation.
The Bill will have an impact on various Departments. In light of this, the provision under section 14 means every Department and Government agency will have to prepare a sectorial plan, as well as forming a sectorial steering group. Not only will specific training needs be addressed, the consequences for organisations not in compliance with the Children First guidelines and legislation could include a removal of funding.
This legislation brings accountability and clarity to how we as a society treat our most vulnerable members. It ensures a consistent form of reaction to any threat to their psychical or psychological safety and represents the foundation stone of a society where even the mere threat of harm against a child or evidence of non-compliance with these new regulations is met with zero tolerance. Reacting to the Bill, the Saving Childhood group stated the legislation ensures “not just the consistent reporting of child protection concerns, but the consistent response of the State and its agencies to such concerns”.
I urge the Minister, as more resources become available to her, to expand the facilities available to our young people such as increasing the number of youth cafes, youth clubs and organisations. I salute the Minister on creating a legislative framework for child protection which was vital as we needed that cultural shift. We now need to back this up with resources and an infrastructure that supports children and young persons. The town in which I have the privilege of living, Cavan, is a wonderful place for a child and where a child can do anything he or she wants. I am happy the Minister recently provided financial support for a youth cafe for the town. Every town should be able to allow each of its children to access youth clubs and recreational facilities which will enhance their self-esteem. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle, as a distinguished former member of the teaching profession, will be aware that there is nothing more critical to a young person’s welfare than self-belief and self-esteem, along with a confidence that is different to silly arrogance. The way we give them that is through youth facilities, social activities, friendship and support.

This is a great day for children. A society that does not value its children has bad priorities.

Senator Joe O'Reilly representing Cavan & Monaghan 2010. | An ExSite website