31 January 2014

Minister Frances Fitzgerald's speech at launch of Child and Family Agency

Below is the speech I delivered at the launch of Tusla, Ireland's new Child and Family Agency. Taoiseach Enda Kenny also spoke at the launch of the agency, which represents one of this Government's most important reforms. Indeed, it is the single most important set of reforms in the history of child protection in Ireland.

30th January, 2014, Dublin Castle

Thank you Norah, and may I take this opportunity to thank you once again for agreeing to Chair the first Board of the Child and Family Agency. I am confident that you and your fellow Board Members will rise to the challenge and ensure the success of this new agency.

Taoiseach, can I thank you at the outset for your presence today and for the very particular interest and support you have given for this project. We all know that child welfare and protection is high on your agenda.

I want to acknowledge the work done by so many to bring this project to fruition. To the Secretary General of my Department, Jim Breslin and Liz Canavan, Assistant Secretary and the many staff of the Department for the detailed and challenging preparatory work that was undertaken leading up to establishment day.

Gordon, I would like to thank you and your team for the huge amount of work done. I know that you, your senior management team and the Board bring with you a wealth of experience and knowledge in this area and my Department looks forward to working with you as we set out on this path together.

I would also like to personally thank the Oversight Group, the staff of the National Educational Welfare Board, the Family Support Agency and the HSE, the trade unions, other members of the Industrial Relations Technical Group chaired by Joan Carmichael, and of course, the Task Force who helped shape the vision for this new Agency. Without each and every one of you making such an immense effort and showing true dedication and support, this could not have happened.

My department has responsibility for the care and supports given to many  children, young people and  families.

I want to talk a bit about arguably some of the most challenging young people we deal with.

We are responsible for funding facilities for children requiring special care in a secure facility.

Let me give you a sense of what this support  really means.  It means a young person whose individual needs, vulnerability and behavior is such that they require intensive care to make it through the day without posing a risk to themselves and others.

When a young person has arrived at this point it  actually means system failure. State failure, societal failure. It means we; family, community, care system, government and country have failed absolutely.

Many of these young people are victims of acute trauma,  lives so bleak and horrible that the remarkable thing is not that they ended up in trouble, but that they survived at all.

Their case files sometimes  show families with both parents having multiple drug addictions. They show physical and sexual abuse, neglect, emotional torture, violence from parents and between parents.

Those case files show childhoods that are ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’.

And they show what happens when the system fails.

It has failed a lot.

Not because those working within it are not trying. No-one can work with troubled families and not try. I was a social worker, dealing with struggling mothers, fathers and children. And I can tell you that it is not a job you can take lightly.

The system has failed because it was never designed to work.

In truth, it was never designed at all.

No state body brought the disparate strands together, no minister set coherent policy, no Department took responsibility and accountability. Instead, local ad hoc solutions were developed, resulting in the bureaucratic equivalent of a national patchwork quilt; it may cover the country, but it is miles from being a coherent design.

Child and family support is not an area in which ad-hoc, inconsistent solutions can work. This area, more than any other, relies on the worried teacher being able to talk to the concerned guard. It relies on the file of social worker intervention being complete and available to their colleagues. It relies on the managers being able to spot patterns and areas of concern in communities, in counties, in regions and take fast action to address them.

When it comes to children’s lives, when it comes to family’s lives, speed matters. All of the research shows that early intervention is critical for families and for children with problems.

That’s why I started by talking about the young person at the extreme end of our care system. With each of those we are endeavoring to get them the best support, the best care and the best guidance that we can.

But I know we cannot give them the one thing they truly need; a second chance at a childhood. That those children  in high support situations  would struggle to have decent lives is patently obvious when you learn about their lives. Equally obvious is how early they lost the chance at happiness.

The abused four year old becomes the violent fourteen-year-old. The neglected two-year-old becomes the solitary emotionless twenty-year-old.

The effect of system failure is seen at its most extreme with those young people. But the same dynamic applies across the board.

The family with addiction problems needs help right now. Not in a year when there is no longer food in the press, nor money for rent.

The overwhelmed parent needs support right now. Not in a year when pressure has become panic, has become collapse.

The abandoned child needs the welcome of a loving foster family now. Not when they have learned to shut themselves in solitude.

And all of that needs a system that works.

I’ve always thought it was indicative of our flawed approach to child and family services in this country that they would for so long have been treated like an adjunct of another agency, as an  afterthought.

Not any more.

Today puts us well on the way to overcoming that flawed approach.  Today   we are launching a new agency that will:-

-    take child protection services out from where they were lost in an overloaded health service;
-    bring education welfare and family support together with child protection and welfare;
-    break down barriers between agencies and services; between professional disciplines;
-    deliver much more seamless integration of policy and service delivery, not fragmentation.

For the first time we will have child and family social workers, family support workers and education welfare officers all working together, on the same team.   Over 4,000 staff in total.

We are going to move from a position where child and family welfare was barely a priority, to a position where it will be the sole focus of a single dedicated state agency, with a ring-fenced budget (of €609 million) and streamlined management, overseen by a single dedicated government Department.

But this is not just a child protection agency.

It very deliberately has 'family' in its name.

It will pull together and give single coherent direction to all of the strands of service for our families most in need; in a way that has never happened in this country before; including prevention and early intervention programmes, both universal and targeted, as well as family support services ,  the nationwide network of 106 family resource centres and education welfare services.

But as I said establishment of the Agency is in itself not an end. But it is a milestone on our on going journey of reform; and provides a platform for major further developments including:

•    rolling-out of new models for the timely management and allocation of child welfare and protection referrals.
•    completing the National Child Care Information System project;

•    extending of a national model of out-of-hours social work services;

•    increasing the number of special care places in Ireland from 16 to 35 over the next three years, starting this year; and

•    strengthening the national pre-school inspectorate and implementing a new system of registration which I have introduced as part of my efforts to improve standards in pre-school services.

Just as the creation of my Department and my Ministry made concrete this government’s commitment to radically re-prioritising children on the Cabinet and Governmental agenda, so the Child and Family Agency makes concrete our commitment to radically re-prioritising the service provided to children and families around this country.

We will not fix the problems overnight. It took decades for the legacy we inherited to develop, it will take years to fix it. But just like calling in HIQA to inspect services, or like installing Children First across the country, or moving sixteen and seventeen year olds from St. Patrick’s Institution to Oberstown,  this is a major step. Possibly the most major. Because now, the people at frontline and at management level who dedicate themselves to helping families can begin the process of developing not just a national agency, but a national team  providing the consistent commitment and competence we have been so lacking.

Thank you.