Address by Mr Brian Lenihan TD, Minister of State with Special Responsibility for Children at Annual Conference of the Irish Association for the Study of Delinquency

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak to you today. I can see from the agenda that you will be hearing quite a lot about the Children Act 2001 today. In the time available to me, I propose to outline briefly developments to date in implementing the Act insofar as the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform is concerned, but first I would like to say a few words about the overall implementation of the Act.

Overall Implementation

The Act introduces a wide range of innovative measures that will provide a statutory framework for the future development of the juvenile justice system in accordance with modern thinking and best international practice. It is a very complex and comprehensive piece of legislation and, for those reasons, provisions under the Act are being implemented on a phased basis.

Responsibility for implementing the Children Act, 2001 lies with three Departments, the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform in respect of diversion programmes, the Department of Education and Science in respect of juvenile offending, and the Department of Health and Children in respect of children who are non-offending but out-of-control. As Minister of State with special responsibility for children, I am responsible for the co-ordinated implementation of the Act, and I am supported in that regard by the National Children´s Office. That Office was established to drive the implementation of the Government´s National Children´s Strategy and to focus on improving the delivery of services for children by ensuring cross-departmental co-operation in relation to cross-cutting policy issues.

The implementation of the Children Act is one such issue. Implementation of the Act is complicated by the interdependent nature of most of the sections which requires the three Departments to move in parallel. During the passage of the Act through the Oireachtas, it was made clear by the Government side that implementation would have to take place on a phased basis. Over the last eighteen months the National Children´s Office has engaged with the three Departments and brought forward implementation proposals for 2002 and 2003 to the Cabinet Committee on Children. The latest proposals will see the commencement of Parts 2 (Family Welfare Conferences), 3 (Special Care Orders) and 11 (Special Residential Services Board) by the end of this year and their implementation by the Department of Health and Children. The focus of your Conference today is therefore very timely and you will be hearing much more about these matters during the course of the day.

The Children Act must be viewed in the wider context of the National Children´s Strategy which reflects the philosophy of prevention and early intervention. The Act is underpinned by a prevention and early intervention approach, characterised by the three types of family group conferencing and the diversionary and restorative justice initiatives provided for in the Act. For instance, family welfare conferences provide a mechanism for early intervention at an inter-agency level for children at risk. The conference is a decision making forum about a child’s welfare which makes appropriate plans in partnership with families and agencies. This partnership approach empowers and encourages commitment from families, including young people.

Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform

The first commencement order under the Act in respect of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform was signed by the then Minister on 23 April, 2002. The Order, which came into force on 1 May 2002, provided for, inter alia:

  1. the establishment of the Garda Juvenile Diversion Programme on a statutory basis and the introduction of a diversion conference based on restorative justice principles as pioneered in New Zealand;
  2. the establishment of the Children Court;
  3. the introduction of a fines structure for children found guilty of offences and the payment of compensation by parents in respect of offences committed by their children;
  4. the introduction of a curfew for children found guilty of offences;
  5. court orders to parents to exercise proper control over their children;
  6. the updating of the law in relation to cruelty to children and persons who cause or encourage a sexual offence on a child;
  7. reversing the burden of proof on parents whose children are found begging;
  8. a limited “clean slate” in respect of most offences committed by children;
  9. provisions relating to the safety of children at entertainments.

Garda Juvenile Diversion Programme

The Garda Juvenile Diversion Programme has been delivered by Juvenile Liaison Officers throughout the country for the past 40 years. The Programme provides that, in certain circumstances, a juvenile under 18 years of age who freely accepts responsibility for a criminal incident may be cautioned as an alternative to prosecution. The Programme has proven to be highly successful in diverting young people away from crime by offering guidance and support to juveniles and their families. In the more serious cases, juveniles are placed under the supervision of Garda Juvenile Liaison Officers, who are specially trained members of the Garda Síochána responsible for administering the Programme at the local level.

Part 4 of the Children Act 2001 introduced the concepts of restorative justice, specifically restorative cautioning and restorative conferencing, to the Juvenile Diversion Programme. Essentially, these provisions provide for the inclusion, where appropriate and possible, of the victim, the juvenile´s family and the wider stakeholders.

To facilitate these innovative developments, Garda Juvenile Liaison Officers throughout the country are receiving mediation training to provide them with the extra skills required to deal successfully with victim offender mediation. It is envisaged that by May 2004 all Juvenile Liaison Officers will have received a minimum of 60 hours mediation training.

Prior to the commencement of this part of the Act, the Garda Research Unit in the Garda College evaluated a pilot project of 68 cases where restorative justice events took place. The results proved very positive for victims, offenders and Gardaí alike, with over 90 per cent of victims satisfied with the manner in which the case was dealt.

Since this part of the Act came into effect in May 2002, Garda Juvenile Liaison Officers have held almost 100 restorative justice events for a variety of offences including burglary, assaults, nuisance phone calls and public disorder. I understand that an in-depth evaluation of these cases is at present being carried out by the Garda Research Unit and will be published in due course. It is intended that, as Garda Juvenile Liaison Officers become more skilled in administering restorative justice, they will be able to focus on the more complex and high-risk offenders, with a view to further reducing the incidence of recidivism.

The Children Act has presented An Garda Síochána and in particular Juvenile Liaison Officers with many new challenges in deciding the manner in which they deal with juvenile offenders. The Gardaí have embraced this challenge and are currently in the process of designing a Garda model of restorative justice that will take the best of the pre-existing Juvenile Liaison Programme, apply the philosophy of restorative justice to that Programme within the context of the Children Act and deliver a quality service that will meet the needs of the child and in turn reduce the level of re-offending.

To ensure the effective operation of the Garda Juvenile Diversion Programme in accordance with section 44 of the Act, I established, in June of this year, a committee to monitor the effectiveness of the Programme, review all aspects of its operation and monitor the ongoing training needs of facilitators involved in restorative conferencing.

Garda Youth Diversion Projects

In addition to the Garda Juvenile Diversion Programme, there are in existence a total of 64 Garda youth diversion projects. These projects are a community-based, multi-agency crime prevention initiative which seeks to divert young persons from becoming involved – or further involved – in anti-social and/or criminal behaviour by providing suitable activities to facilitate personal development, promote civic responsibility and improve long-term employability prospects.

As you may be aware, recent years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of these projects, from 12 in 1997 to 64 at present, a process made possible, in part, by funding under the National Development Plan 2000-2006. Funding of €5.577 million has been allocated to these and related projects in the current year.

Community Based Options

The successful implementation of the community based options in the Act will require a very significant input from the Probation and Welfare Service. In this context, the Service, as part of its planning for the ongoing implementation of the Act, engaged trainers from the Department of Child, Youth and Family in New Zealand for the intensive training of all Senior Probation and Welfare Officers, as well as providing day seminars for all Probation and Welfare Officers. When the relevant part of the Act is commenced, the Senior Probation and Welfare Officers will act as facilitators for family conferences convened and managed by the Probation and Welfare Service in accordance with the requirements of the Act. The Service will provide ongoing training through its Staff Development Unit as required.

Following a competition, nine additional Probation and Welfare Officers took up duty in September 2003 and one to date in October, and a response to other offers of appointment is awaited. It is the intention that, subject to an adequate number of additional Probation and Welfare staff being recruited from this competition and a new competition which is underway at present and to the availability of adequate resources for therapeutic or other interventions required, implementation of community sanctions provided for in the Act as well as family conferencing will commence in 2004.

It is an underlying concept of the Children Act to expand the options a court will have at its disposal when deciding on how to deal with a young offender. These options are an essential feature of the Act as they will allow effect to be given to the principle that detention for young offenders will be a last resort. Thus the Act envisages committals to custody of young offenders being availed of only in situations where other alternative diversions and community-based options have already been resorted to and have failed.

Under the Children Act, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform will also be obliged to provide separate detention facilities for 16 and 17 year old boys and girls who are committed to custody by the courts either on remand or under sentence. The provision of appropriate custodial facilities is a priority for the Irish Prison Service. The primary objective of these detention centres will be to provide a secure but supportive environment in which young offenders can develop the personal and social skills necessary to avoid future offending.

In line with this approach, a new facility for male juveniles in this age group will open at St Patrick’s Institution in the near future. This unit, which was designed by a multi-disciplinary team, will include a custom-designed facility for the delivery of education, recreation, medical and therapeutic services. The longer-term provision of a dedicated facility on a greenfield site for 110 juveniles – 90 male and 20 female – is also being considered. Having considered a report by the Commissioners of Public Works and the recommendations made and having conferred with the Director General of the Prison Service, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform decided some time ago that the proposed development of such a facility at Newlands Villa, Naas Road, Clondalkin, Dublin 22, should not proceed. I understand that the identification of another site for the proposed juvenile detention facility is now being pursued in consultation with the Director General of the Prison Service and the Office of Public Works.

In conclusion, I hope this short presentation has given you some idea of what my Department is doing in this area and I thank you for your attention. I wish you an interesting and informative conference.