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Our child-protection system must work for the most vulnerable

Report makes for stark reading but shows the need for reform and legislation, writes Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald

IT is a terrible tragedy to lose a child, no matter what the circumstances. I appreciate, therefore, that the publication last week of the Report of the Independent Child Death Review Group is particularly difficult for the families of the 196 children and young adults who died in HSE care, in "aftercare", or who were "known to the HSE" in the decade up to 2010.

The report's findings are deeply disturbing. We read of children and young people, often vulnerable, often in crisis, who needed support. We read of families crying out for help they didn't get, but also families who were unable or even unwilling to engage with services. We read of services often willing, often going the extra mile, but fragmented and not joined-up in their response.

The question must arise how, after a period of such unprecedented economic prosperity, we were left with a child-protection service in need of such fundamental reform.

The report highlights key identifiable risk factors -- in 56 of the cases summarised, alcohol and drugs were prevalent in the home; in 46 cases, alcohol or drug use by the young person was a factor; in 30 cases, domestic violence was a feature of home life; in 29 cases, criminal activity was a feature of family life; while non-school attendance was a factor in 20 cases.

Clearly early intervention for vulnerable children in families in crisis is critical. As a society, we need to recognise early and obvious signs of concern, to help families in crisis, to encourage responsible parenting and critically to protect vulnerable children.

If the report highlights anything, it is the fact that providing services is one thing, but ensuring that they are having a real impact is another. It also highlights that this is not always about resources -- some children had many, many services and professionals working with them -- but about how well those services worked together to provide the various supports that the child needed. This just didn't happen in so many cases.

There are other specific lessons, too. One is that young people with a need for aftercare (on reaching 18) should, and must, receive the support they require. I believe the law needs to be strengthened, and with advice from the Attorney General, I will be proposing legislative change later this year.

A second is extending

access to 24-hour social work advice and assistance. Child-protection crises arise 24-7. So why should child-protections services operate any differently? Children in crisis must have access to 24-hour social work help and I am determined to achieve this.

The Government has acknowledged that the system needs complete reform. That is why we are committed to establishing the new, independent Child and Family Support Agency.

This work is now well advanced and my intention is that it will be fully operational from January next year. Within that agency, we must develop a whole new system of child and family services delivery, which deals with the failures, including poor risk assessment, poor co-ordination between services, poor flows of information and limited access to specialist assessment and therapeutic services.

Structures and systems are all very well, but the Government is also determined to ensure that the underpinning legislative and policy framework is also right. We are committed to holding a referendum this autumn in order to strengthen children's rights in the Constitution and allow for effective interventions if and when required. Work is also well under way on the advancement of the Children First Bill, which will make mandatory the reporting of all suspected cases of child abuse. This is another critical milestone for the Government.

But there are also fundamental lessons for society in general when we read this report. They are about the value we put on children and childhood. They are about the fact that protecting children is everyone's business and we will only get it right if we work together -- State, non-government organisations, communities and families.

Another lesson is that if we don't change our attitude to alcohol in this country, the inter-generational adverse impacts will continue to accumulate in future generations. Another lesson concerns the role of parents -- these are the primary protectors of children, and they need to be supported in every possible way.

But in the small minority of cases where parents are really struggling and not meeting their child's basic needs, we need to intervene in a way that we are fully confident is going to make that child's life better.

A great many changes have been put in train. This Government is determined to get children's services right, and as minister I am passionately committed to delivering on this objective.

Frances Fitzgerald is the Fine Gael TD for Dublin Mid West and Minister for Children and Youth Affairs.

Sunday Independent