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Fergal Landy
Consider Reform within HSE before setting up Child Care Agency
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Child Protection Family Support Organisational Reform Children's rights
An opinion piece for the Irish Times on the proposal to establish a stan alone child protection agency
I AM concerned about the Government’s stated intention to create a child protection and welfare agency. I believe this policy needs to be interrogated before a decision is made. No evidence has been presented to show it will improve outcomes for children and families, and it seems it is being justified by a perception that current problems can’t be solved while the services are located within the Health Service Executive.A decision of this magnitude ought to be based on a clear rationale rather than a perception.I believe there is potential for reform within the existing structure – potential that will be compromised by the creation of a standalone agency.Gordon Jeyes, HSE national director of child and family social services (a position filled for the first time in January), has had no opportunity to demonstrate that child protection can be prioritised when you have a sufficiently senior manager responsible who is reporting directly to the chief executive of the HSE.Political commitment to resources, ring-fencing of budgets at departmental level and a more direct line of accountability through the HSE to the new Department of Children could have as big an impact in terms of resourcing and accountability as creating a separate agency.The potential to use primary care development as a means of enhancing child protection and family support – by intervening earlier and more holistically – will also be scuppered.Although it requires improvement, the existing structure provides integration within the HSE of core services vital to child wellbeing, such as public health nursing, child psychology, child and adolescent mental health, speech and language therapy services, disability services, adult mental health, and addiction services. This integration and the potential to enhance it will be lost by creating a separate agency without having tried alternative basic and cost-neutral measures.A single piece of legislation could simultaneously place the Children First National Guidelines and Children’s Services Committees on a statutory footing, thereby mandating the integration of existing services. This could also put the geographical coverage of relevant State-funded services on a statutory footing.Such legislation could place a statutory duty on all taxpayer-funded organisations working with children and families to report appropriately and early to the HSE and to collaborate with each other and with the HSE.A separate agency to receive, investigate and assess child protection concerns runs counter to much of what we know about the importance of integration in child and family services.Many authors have criticised child protection services for developing an excessive emphasis on the management of risk to the detriment of a more holistic approach to children and young people and to supporting their families to care for them effectively. The separation of child protection services from other services means the likelihood of this type of risk dominance taking hold in the new agency is great.Stigma, too, is an issue for families in contact with child protection services. However, measures such as co-location with all the community-based services, the increased use of primary care and other universal services, the effective collaboration of relevant agencies, and the increasing involvement of the HSE in early intervention and prevention have the potential to erode and minimise this stigma. In contrast, a standalone agency will exacerbate stigma. The name of the new agency, synonymous with the removal of people’s children into alternative care, will quickly become whispered in corridors.The overarching rationale behind decisions in this area ought to be the realisation of the rights of the child.  
Irish Times
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