Homeless advocates are worried that new family hostels are not independently inspected or regulated.
“Currently the standard of inspection throughout the homeless system is very low,” says Anthony Flynn, the CEO of Inner City Helping Homeless.
“The lack of inspection indicates that the new family hubs will fail to be inspected also,” he said. “This situation is far from acceptable.”
He fears that the nine new “family hubs” that have been, or are being, set up to get some 500 homeless families out of hotels by 1 July will follow the same model with little in the way of regulation or inspection.
He is not the only one who has expressed concerns at a lack of regulation. It’s “a massive child-protection issue”, said independent Councillor Mannix Flynn.
“I want to see HIQA in those settings, investigating and inspecting,” he says. “I want to see Tusla in there to make sure that everything is in place for those children.”
But it’s unclear even what department has responsibility for this issue, and what minister could give HIQA a mandate to step in – each one points to another.
The family hubs are better than hotels for homeless families, says Dr Niall Muldoon, Ireland’s ombudsman for children.
But they need to be a short-term measure and must be regulated, he said.
“National quality standards and child-protection measures for homeless services are necessary to monitor emergency accommodation,” he said. “This should include family hubs.”
“The implementation of these standards is an issue that Government must come together to address,” he says.
It isn’t easy to track down who should be responsible for monitoring standards in homeless family hubs.
A HIQA spokesperson said that the agency “can only act within our function as set out in the legislation”.
That means that it only inspects and regulates “designated centres”, as set out in the Health Act 2007. At the moment, family hubs aren’t included.
It is possible for new centres to be designated to HIQA, by the relevant minister. “That is a political decision whether to extend our powers,” said the spokesperson.
It’s a bit unclear, though, which minister that might be.
The “Children First” guidelines, which set out how to deal with child protection, do recognise homeless children as “vulnerable”, and seem to indicate that hostels with children should be inspected by the HSE.
“The HSE registers and inspects children’s residential centres and hostels run in the private and voluntary sectors,” it says.
But a spokesperson at the Department of Health said that questions in relation to the inspection of family hubs should go to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.
A spokesperson at the Department for Children and Youth Affairs said that the “hostels” referred to in the “Children First” document are a different type of hostel.
These were places where children, who were not with their families, were placed in the past, he said.
“The Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government is responsible for ensuring that best practice in child protection operates in services and initiatives under its remit,” said the spokesperson.
A spokesperson for the Department of Housing said we should direct questions about inspection and regulation of family hubs to the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive (DRHE).
DRHE did not respond directly to the question of who is responsible for ensuring that child-protection procedures are in place. Its response focused on building standards.
“All buildings are for their stated purpose and comply with relevant and applicable housing standards legislation,” said a DRHE spokesperson.
“The service provider is required to carry out detailed quarterly inspections of the premises,” they said.
In the past, Daithi Downey, a senior official at DRHE told councillors that he had written to HIQA a number of times asking them to take on the role of inspecting homeless services. “We have written on a number of occasions to make that position clear,” he said.
It’s unclear who would have the power to direct HIQA to do that.
Section 29, Part 1 of the 2007 Health Act says that: “The Minister may give general directions in writing to the Authority (HIQA) for any purpose in relation to the provisions of this Act, or any other enactment … and the Authority shall comply with any such direction.”
But a spokesperson for the Department of Health said that all powers in relation to children had been transferred to the Department for Children, when it was established separately from Health, in 2011.
He said he thinks that the Minister for Children, independent TD Katherine Zappone, would have the authority to direct HIQA to regulate an institution where children live, if she decided to do so.
We also put detailed questions to Tusla about their role with children who are vulnerable due to homelessness but they didn’t directly address that.
“Tusla and the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive developed a joint working protocol for emergency accommodation,” said Eleanor Reidy, communications officer at Tusla. “This protocol provides guidance on child protection and was issued to all providers in Dublin.”
While it seems there is no external monitoring of the family homeless hubs, DRHE and those operating the hubs say they will have child-protection procedures and standards of care in place.
All children under the age of 18 must be accompanied by a parent, says the spokesperson for DRHE.
“All services involved with children have an obligation to provide them with the highest possible standard of care in order to promote their well-being and safeguard them from harm and/or abuse,” she says.
These procedures are informed by “Children First” and the “HSE Child Protection and Welfare Practice Handbook”, she added.
Employees at Respond, a housing association that is running two family hubs in Drumcondra and Tallaght, have experience running creches and communal-accommodation settings, said Brid McGrath, the communications officer for Respond.
They are used to working with strict child-protection procedures, she said. “Our procedures are very, very tight. It’s ‘Children First’ all the way.”
No child can be left in the care of another adult at the centre, she said.
“If children are left with staff, there are always two qualified staff members present,” she said. “We are currently recruiting a childcare co-ordinator also.” There are kitchens and laundry facilities as well as activities and play facilities for children.
McGrath says that Respond adheres to the National Quality and Standards Framework for Homeless Services. (DRHE said it hasn’t been published yet, so a copy was unavailable.)
The DRHE spokesperson also said that there is no Garda vetting of adults living in the communal setting with children, as “no single adults are placed in emergency accommodation with families”.
The 1998 Housing Act requires the council to provide emergency accommodation, she said. “The legislation does not prevent a household from accessing emergency accommodation due to Garda vetting.”