Ireland: Joe Higgins calls for proper funding for children’s health and welfare

Autistic teenager High Court case reveals under-funded services

A recent Irish High Court case concerning an autistic teenager forcefully showed the lack of funding and resources for children with autism and behavioral problems. Joe Higgins, Socialist Party (CWI), TD (member of the Dáil Éireann, the Irish Parliament), asked the Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, about the case and called for decent funding of services to help children and families effected.

Joe Higgins calls for proper funding for children’s health and welfare

Dáil Éireann, Leaders’ Questions, 21st June 2005

Joe Higgins (Socialist Party)

Reports on the recent High Court judgment concerning the future care of the autistic teenager, Lewis O’Carolan, highlighted the intense suffering of his parents, his own difficult position and implications for the parents of other children in similar circumstances. They also highlighted the need for specialised intervention at this stage of Lewis’s life. The acuteness of his behavioural problems arose because of the unavailability at an earlier stage of appropriate intervention and training which could have radically modified the severity of his behavioural problems, thereby making life much easier on his parents and him.

High Court cases have been taken because the State has failed parents in these difficult circumstances. However, the High Court opinion that an offer of a place in the Woodlawn facility in north Dublin was objectively adequate does not meet the urgency of Lewis’s situation. Appropriate intervention is needed and is a different matter. The only appropriate facility with the capacity to remediate the earlier inadequate facilities provided in this State is in Bangor, Wales.

Independent Deputies met the O’Carolan family and experts in autism to discuss the situation in depth. Deputy Gregory has assisted the family for a number of years and is well acquainted with the matter. We ask the Taoiseach that the State short circuit the long history of this family’s difficulties and make the funding available for Mr. O’Carolan to attend the Bangor centre. The family has announced that it and its supporters intend to embark on a fundraising campaign to ensure he attends the centre. It would be obscene for a family in this situation to be forced to travel the highways and byways.

Last week, I heard in the Committee of Public Accounts that €250,000 per year is required to cater for young offenders in five of the facilities belonging to the Department of Education and Science. These are necessary facilities. However, it would cost less to cater for a child in Bangor. I ask the Taoiseach to step in and determine whether the funding may be provided. Approximately 20 other children with a similar severity of autism could also be assisted. Can the Taoiseach respond positively to this tragic situation?

The Taoiseach

I do not wish to rehearse a court case. Both sides brought evidence before the court and a judgment was made. I was deeply distressed after hearing the O’Carolans discuss their son’s condition. Everyone would be so affected. I do not doubt that it is extremely painful for the parents to see their autistic children in distress on a daily basis. Every parent wants his or her children to reach their full potential regardless of needs or disabilities.

As I understand the case, it is regrettable that an agreement acceptable to the O’Carolan family was not possible. The professionals involved believed that the care plan proposed by the Woodlawn centre and offered by the State was the best option for Lewis. The court, after considering the multidisciplinary service available at Woodlawn, arrived at the same conclusion and the case has been adjudicated.

The State proposed that an integrated education and health related support service be made available to Lewis on a residential basis at the Woodlawn centre in Lusk. The centre provides assessment, care, rehabilitation and education for individuals who have learning disabilities or other difficulties including behavioural problems. It currently offers a residential service to young people who range from 14 to 22 years of age. An individual education plan will be drawn up for Lewis to be delivered by a specialist teacher with the support of a special needs assistant and where appropriate, support from nursing staff, care assistants and teachers. Lewis will also have access to occupational therapy and speech and language therapy. Staff working with Lewis will receive the support they require through training for their roles and regular review meetings will take place with input from the staff to facilitate the delivery of services.

I understand the services available in Woodlawn can meet all of Lewis’s needs. That was the case put forward by the State in the court case. We have invested significant resources in recent years to improve services for people with special needs. I will not say they are perfect as they constantly need more resources for staff and to achieve best practice, but we improve each year with regard to education, health, residences and staff.

The State did not seek costs from the O’Carolan family despite the fact it won the case as we would rather not be in this position in the first place and it is a pity these issues end up in court. I have more detail on the case, but the outcome of the judgment is that it is genuinely believed Woodlawn can provide the service to the O’Carolans.

J. Higgins

That the High Court awarded costs to the family today underlines the point that this facility only became available or offered at the time of the litigation. Woodlawn is the best option available to the State in the State but it is not the best option available. We must take the evidence of his extraordinarily dedicated parents, the evidence of parents in similar circumstances and those teachers and carers for autistic children who know the situation well. The conclusion they have drawn is that we, the State, should fund this child to go to Bangor for perhaps 18 months for the care they believe would radically transform his life.

We need a national diagnostic and assessment centre for autistic children with extremely challenging behaviour. The Irish Autism Alliance is pro-active in investigating the establishment of a facility similar to Bangor here. It is hoped the State will commit funding to that. I again ask the Taoiseach to examine the human suffering in this situation and the position of those closest to and familiar with it, and in quiet reflection come up with the funding to send this child and others who need similar care to this facility.

The Taoiseach

I appreciate the case Deputy Higgins makes on the needs of the O’Carolans’ son and I am not arguing against that. I do not wish to re-run the court case that has examined this issue and it is a pity these issues end up in court. The amount of assessment, care, rehabilitation, education occupational therapy and speech and language therapy required in this case make it complex. As I outlined, the case put forward by the State for the Woodlawn centre in Lusk is that it has the required staff to carry out on a proper basis the tasks necessary for this and the other cases there.

The point was made about developing and enhancing the services and examining international experience, and that is why this Government increased resources for disabilities services so much. Deputy Higgins will appreciate this case has gone through it. I understand the staff at Woodlawn, which is part of St. Joseph’s intellectual disabilities services, and those putting forward the State’s case believe they can help. I join in what the Judge stated in court that it is hoped that Lewis will have an opportunity to use the facilities at Woodlawn and that they will be effective.

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June 2005