Wednesday 26 May 2010
Response to Emergency Legislation Relating to Child Deaths
By Jillian van Turnhout
Chief Executive, Children’s Rights Alliance
“The Children’s Rights Alliance requests that the Government publicly shares the basis from which it is necessary to develop emergency legislation to release files on child protection cases, as announced by Taoiseach Cowen in the Dáil last night (25 May 2010). The Alliance does not believe that there are any legal blocks to impede the transfer of files.
“Scandal after scandal, the latest of which is confusion over the number of deaths of children while in State care, has seen public confidence in the HSE plummet. Confidence must be restored as a matter of urgency; and the Government must ensure that it has the power to investigate child deaths and to put in place a robust inquiry – an independent inquiry. The Alliance firmly believes that a panel or group is only independent if its members are drawn from agencies other than those which are subject to investigation.
“If emergency legislation is to be introduced, then let’s use this as an opportunity to restructure our new child death reporting mechanism, which is wholly inadequate. The emergency legislation must provide for the reporting of any child death panel directly to the Oireachtas to ensure independence and political accountability.
“Under HIQA guidance, the HSE, at the very least, must publish the executive summary of all reports and aim to publish the full report within 30 days of its completion, with any decision not to publish to be given to the Social Services Inspectorate (SSI). The SSI must also submit a quarterly report to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, setting out key issues and learning of systemic importance arising from the findings and recommendations of reviews received over the period. Under the current guidance, the Minister or an Oireachtas Committee are not entitled to a full copy of Child Death Reviews.
“The Alliance would go further than the HIQA guidance and call for a nominated Oireachtas Committee and the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs to receive the reports (full and executive). Following appropriate scrutiny, if it were deemed necessary (and in the best interests of the child) to keep the reports confidential, then the Oireachtas should be informed of the reasons as to why this decision was taken.
“We need to ensure we have a credible and comprehensive system to protect and care for children at risk. The Government needs to take its share of responsibility and allow for the vigorous scrutiny within the Oireachtas of child protection systems. Ultimately, Government needs to establish a system that is child-centred, which learns lessons from tragedies that have occurred, and works to provide vulnerable children with the best support and care possible.”
Jillian van Turnhout
Notes for Editor:
1. The Review Panel for Serious Incidents and Child Deaths under the HIQA Guidance for the HSE comprises 17 members: a Chairperson, Deputy Chairperson and 15 panel members. Of those:
• 2 are currently employed by the HSE
• 3 are currently state employees in other agencies (some of which may be subject to investigation)
• 4 are former HSE staff employees
2. Alliance commentary on HIQA Guidance
The Alliance welcomes the publication of HIQA’s Guidance and believes that they are a very positive development. There is an urgent need to restore public confidence in the State’s child protection and care system and this Guidance has the potential to help build such confidence. However, the Alliance has some concerns about the operation of the Guidance:
• Enforceability: The Alliance is concerned that the Guidance is not enforceable.
• Scope: The HIQA’s Guidance only applies to children that are within the care system or who have been involved with the HSE. The Guidance does not therefore apply to child deaths that occur outside the care system or HSE involvement, leaving a gap whereby other child deaths are not covered by this mechanism.
• Children in Detention: The Alliance notes that the Guidance is to be amended to reflect the Irish Youth Justice Services (IYJS) detention context. The Alliance interprets this to indicate that all children in detention are to be fully covered by the Guidance, and would therefore urge that this amended Guidance be made available as soon as possible.
• Building Expertise: Clarity is required as to whether the child death review panel or panel members would be a standing or an ad hoc group. The Alliance believes that a standing group is preferable as it would allow for the building up of valuable expertise.
• Prevention: There should be more emphasis on establishing trends and patterns, with the aim of preventing child deaths in the first place.
• Sensitivity: There should be more prominence given to the ethos of Committee, to include principles such as acknowledgement and sensitivity to a family’s grief, regardless of where culpability may lie.
3. Child Death Review Group to review HSE investigations
The Alliance welcomed the announcement on 8 March 2010 by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Barry Andrews, TD, to establish an independent group to examine the results of completed reviews of deaths of children in care since 2000. The group is to comprise of Geoffrey Shannon, child law expert, Norah Gibbons, Barnardos and Chair of the Roscommon Inquiry, and a third, international figure (yet to be announced).