Speeches

Speaking note for Mr Tim O´Malley, T.D., Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children at the launch of the publication of the evaluation report on the Family Group Conference

Introduction

Welcome and thanks to the Chief Executive Officer of the Mid-Western Health Board for his invitation to launch this evaluation report.

I am delighted to be here in the Mid-Western Health Board today to launch the publication of the evaluation report on the Family Group Conference which was piloted in this Board in 2001 – 2002.

Commend the Mid-Western Health Board for taking the initiative to pilot this Family Group Conference project. This project reflects the Board’s commitment towards families and professionals working together to meet the needs of children in the community.

Aware that there will be a lot of interest in the Pilot Project from other health boards.

Background to Family Group Conferences

The concept of the Family Group Conference originated in New Zealand and it is designed to maximise the use of the child´s social and family support networks at a time of crisis in their lives. They have been established successfully in a number of countries, adapting the original model to fit different contexts and cultures.

Following a visit to New Zealand in 1998 by the then Minister of State Mr Frank Fahey T.D. and Department of Health and Children officials to explore the applicability of this process in Ireland an initial one year pilot project was undertaken in the Eastern Region. The evaluation of that project was conducted by Dr Valerie O´Brien who also is the author of the evaluation of this pilot project. These evaluation reports provide an invaluable resource for other health boards in applying the Family Group Conference model to an Irish setting.

Children Act 2001

As you know the Children Act 2001 provides for three types of Family Group Conference. Two will be utilised in the Juvenile Justice area and the other will be used by Health Boards in cases of children who require special care or who may need other types of care. The Children Act refers to this latter Conference as the Family Welfare Conference.

The Children Act, 2001 constitutes a fundamental revision of existing legislation governing the treatment of children in conflict with the law and for non-offending children in need of special care or protection.

The central principle that governs the Act is that children should be brought up in their own communities and families. Where intervention occurs it should aim to support and maintain children within these relationships and networks because it is clear that that is where children do best.

Placement in a secure setting should be exceptional, should be a measure of last resort and should be for as short a time as possible.

This Act represents a major change in how we think about and how we deal with children coming before the courts.

The Children Act, 2001 provides, inter alia, for the amendment of the Child Care Act, 1991. Part 3 imposes statutory duties on health boards in relation to children in need of special care or protection. Part 2 of the Act establishes the Family Welfare Conference on a statutory basis for the first time and provides that a family welfare conference be held in relation to the issue of a child’s placement in special care. (Health Boards have been funded to Pilot and to establish Family Welfare Conferencing over the past few years.) Part 11 provides for the establishment of the Special Residential Services Board to co-ordinate special residential services. (The Board has been operating on an administrative basis since April 2000). Work is progressing to allow for these Parts of the Act to be introduced within the next number of months. Their commencement is dependent on certain parts of Part 9 and Part 10 of the Children Act being introduced first. These Parts are respectively the responsibility of the Department of Justice Equality and Law Reform and the Department of Education and Science.

The proposals in the Act have far reaching implications for the future roles of the three Departments, their Agencies and indeed the Courts in the delivery of support services for children with special care needs or in conflict with the law.

The Government recognises that such a major piece of legislative reform as the Children Act, 2001, overhauling as it does the entire system of juvenile justice in this State, requires not only committed but co-ordinated implementation. Indeed, one of the greatest criticisms in recent years of our response to youth crime and children with challenging behaviour has been the lack of co-ordination between the relevant Government Departments and State agencies. Because of the substantial resources needed, the Act will have to be phased in over a period 5 years i.e. by the end of 2006.

The Cabinet Committee on Children has assigned responsibility to the National Children’s Office for co-ordinating the implementation of the Children Act 2001, across the three sectors involved: Health, Justice and Education. Work is at an advanced stage to allow for the implementation of Parts 2, 3 and 11 of the Children Act in the early part of 2003. The operation of the statutory Family Welfare Conference provided for in Part 2 of the Children Act by the Health boards will be essential for the successful implementation of these parts of the Act.

Principles of Family Welfare Conferences

The principles underlying the conference are that the child’s interests are paramount and that children are best looked after within their own family. These principles fit into the ethos contained in the Child Care Act 1991and are in line with professional thinking in child care.

The conference can be initiated in 2 ways: either on a direction from the Court where a child on a criminal charge appears to be in need of special care or protection or where it appears to a health board that a child in its area may require special care or protection.

Essentially as outlined in Part 2 of the Children Act 2001 the functions of a conference are to make recommendations to the health board on the care and protection requirements of the child. This procedure will provide a system for the early identification of children at risk and a means of providing support and assistance for the child following inter-agency intervention.

In general, attendance at a conference will include the child, the parents or guardian or guardian ad litem and maybe other relatives of the child /any other persons who know the child or have a particular expertise in the matter to be discussed whose presence would benefit the conference.

As the functions of a FWC are to make recommendations to the health board on the care and protection requirements of the child, the FWC will provide a system for the early identification of children at risk, and a means of providing support and assistance for the child following inter-agency intervention. The FWC is one of the structures to ensure that children in need of special care or protection only go into special care units as a last resort.

Family Group Conferences have been evaluated internationally and the results have been both positive and encouraging. Family Group Conferencing has a potentially critical contribution to make to the development and delivery of child care, child protection and child welfare systems. It represents a major new approach for dealing with family crises, as it recognises the crucial significance of the family in relation to securing positive outcomes for children.

The dominant focus in child care services since the early 1990’s has been on the protection and care of children who are at risk. More recently, the policy focus has shifted to a more preventive approach to child welfare, involving support to families and individual children, aimed at avoiding the need for further more serious interventions later on.

Conclusion.

I would like to pay tribute to Dr O’Brien in her work in this evaluation report and I look forward to her presentation.

Finally, just to thank the Mid-Western Health Board for inviting me to launch this report.