Minister to set up new children’s agency

Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald says health managers have a very challenging job in the current environment and it is very important that we work to maintain morale and a sense of unity.  Maureen Browne reports.

Ireland’s first full Cabinet Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald, will be establishing a separate new Child and Family Support agency, accountable to her Department, which will be responsible for child protection and welfare.

Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald
Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald

She is shortly to establish a transitional group which will work out the exact form of the agency. Staff will come from the HSE, the former Department of Children and the educational, welfare and justice systems.

“I hope the establishment of the agency will reflect a reforming government and that we will do things in a new way. Children will be at the heart of our work and a key issue for us will be  to provide a more seamless and more structured service for  children  coming in contact with a range of services, including health, youth justice, and education.  I will hope for lots of flexibility among staff to help achieve this.”

The new Department has responsibility for core areas of child protection and welfare, which are being taken out of the HSE and indeed, this is one of the major changes being faced by the HSE.

“I see the establishment of the Department as a value statement about the 1.4 million children in the country.  I also see it as an economic department, because I think the individual future of the young people will be affected by how we plan the economy and they in their turn through their experience and expertise will influence the economy.

“While we are responsible for the core areas, I want to work on what I call a whole government approach to everything to do with children. We need a cross department rather than a sectoral approach and I am planning a series of initiatives in this regard.

For example, Health Minister, Dr. James Reilly is very interested in setting up cross department work on children with special needs and this would involve the Departments of Children, Health and Education.   I will be working on this and on disability areas with my colleague, Minister Kathleen Lynch. Child protection is another area which has to be driven across all departments.

“Then, all hospitals and any places where children are being looked after should have Children First guidelines in place and structures for their implementation, with a separate liaison person to deal with any concerns.”

I would be very interested in getting feedback from health managers and setting up a dialogue between now and October or November on what should be included in the new national children’s strategy and the new Children First Guidelines

The new Department of Children is based in Mespil Road in Dublin, in the former Department of Labour & Arts and the Minister is delighted that her new Secretary General, Jim Breslin, has such a wide experience in the health services.  The Minister has duplicate powers with the Minister for Health requiring the HSE to ensure she gets all information she requires about their services.

“With my own background as a social worker and family therapist, I am particularly interested in health.  Health managers have a very challenging job in the current environment and I think the government appreciates this.  Morale is so important and with constant criticism of the health services and the changes underway, it is very easy for frontline workers to feel undervalued, I think it is very important that we work to maintain morale and a sense of unity.  But I also think managers are excited by the reforms and by the opportunities they will bring.

“I would be very interested in getting feedback from health managers and setting up a dialogue between now and October  or November on what should be included in the new national children’s strategy and the new Children First Guidelines.  The Children First Guidelines which I will introduce will place a legal obligation on everybody to report child abuse but they will also be about organisations working together, about multi disciplinary work and sharing information.”

She sees the Ombudsman for Children as a very important post, and an additional safeguard that an independent person is keeping a watching brief on how services are delivered, as she believes government departments can become insular at times.

Minister Fitzgerald believes that the current different ages of consent for children – including the obligation of the HSE for after care for young people up to the ages of 21 or 22 – are very confusing and she is looking forward to the report by the Law Reform Commission on which age constitutes a child.

She plans to have the wording of the children’s referendum early next year and the referendum in the autumn.

She would like to see child and adolescent mental health services coming under her Department.  “Children and adolescents with mental health problems are amongst the most needy and vulnerable in the state.  A percentage of children who come into the care of the HSE have significant mental health issues and I think there is great scope for the professionals in this area to be involved in their assessment and in examining the best interventions for them.  Also, we have to stop admitting children to adult psychiatric units and this will be stopped by the end of this year.”