Courts are failing our children, Tusla chief warns
Most vulnerable are let down by process and lengthy delays, writes Eilish O'Regan
We like to believe we are a country that cherishes children and ensures their best interests are paramount.
But the most vulnerable children at the centre of care proceedings are being let down by a quagmire of process and delays in the courts which should be safeguarding them, the chief executive of Tusla has warned. The Child and Family Agency boss Fred McBride believes that "we get embroiled in process, interim hearings and more evidence. But in the middle of this is a child about whom we cannot make a long-term decision".
He adds: "It is not a satisfactory situation for a child who needs to know if they have a stable future.Sometimes it can take years. In my view, the whole system needs review."
His controversial opinion on what he sees as an overly adversarial process also includes a call to examine the roles of guardians ad litem, who are appointed to represent the child in court.
"We have no control over the value they are adding. They are not regulated by anyone. We pay for them and sometimes they need their own legal representative."
The blunt-speaking Scot, who worked in child protection in Dundee and Aberdeen, says he believes the courts in his native country are more geared towards putting the young person before process.
While his comments do not refer to a specific case, Tusla will again come under scrutiny in the High Court this week over its decision to return two children to their family at the centre of allegations of sexual abuse.
This year the agency will receive 44,000 child referrals - varying from low-level concern to high alert.
It is responsible for some 27,000 active case files on children currently under the wing of the agency.
Neglect is the most common cause for a child being referred. Others are at the centre of allegations of sexual, physical or emotional abuse. And for frontline workers there are some agonising judgment calls to be made which could come back to haunt them about whether to place a child in care or leave them with their family.
"Some people believe we can eliminate risk. We cannot. We have to mitigate and manage risk," he said.
"Some of the information we get is vague and ambiguous and needs to be examined before you decide on a proportionate level of response."
It can in some cases involve, after assessment, a decision to leave a child in a home where they were abused, as long as the abuser is no longer there. "We always err on the side of protecting the child but trying to not unnecessarily add to the trauma. It requires the risk to be monitored."
Tusla was established in 2014 as the frontline agency to look after the welfare and protection of children, removing this function from the overloaded HSE amid accusations that social services suffered as the poor relation next to hospitals.
Mr McBride, who is Tusla's second chief executive after taking over from Gordon Jeyes in January, wants to emphasise the agency's independence with its own funding of €670m. He is anxious to promote its "new beginnings" role, leaving behind the history of damning reports which highlighted tragic failures in the care of children. This is key to attracting vital social workers to the agency, he said. Progress is being made - at the end of July, the agency had just under 1,500 social workers with a target to hire another 200 before the end of the year.
"We have done a big recruitment campaign with third-level institutions," he says. The problem of retention remains, however - particularly in the area of child protection which he describes as a "hard shift".
"We are working to incentivise retention and appoint more grades of senior practitioners with higher pay. They can provide coaching to less experienced staff. Other incentives include training, flexible working and rotating people in different roles."
High caseloads, under-staffing and burnout contributed to 9,500 children not being allocated a social worker in early 2014. Some 3,500 were "high priority". However, he says by June this year this was reduced to 5,600 with 800 in the high priority category.
He insists: "High priority does not necessarily equate to high risk. They are children for whom we have a statutory responsibility such as those in care. But they may be in long-term foster care placement and well settled."
He said where there is an immediate risk, the "response is immediate".
Around 6,300 children are in care, mostly in foster families. This has remained stable for some years.
But Mr McBride is particularly troubled by the high number of older teenagers coming into care for the first time.
They may have become involved in abuse of drink and drugs and are capable of extremely challenging behaviour.
"Many of them are very angry. I am not at all convinced State care is the right thing for them."
As an alternative, the agency is beginning to develop intensive community-based services where the young person is seen every day.
"If we separate them from their home and community they are placed several miles away. They lose connections and the outcomes are not good."
One of the most successful initiatives during his time in Scotland were midnight football matches on Friday and Saturday nights.
They kept youths so busy they did not have time to commit crime and the rate of offending fell.
The aim of the agency to increase family support services, working with parents who are struggling but "always telling them what the bottom line is".
However, if child services are to work better and reduce the chances of young people falling through the cracks there needs to be more cooperation between the different agencies including Tusla, gardaí, HSE and education services, he says. "In some countries this multi-agency cooperation is a legal duty. It should not be down to local relationships."
The ambitious plans will require not just changes in practice, but additional investment.
Next month's Budget is crucial. The agency has asked for €100m extra funding in 2017.
It is another step on the road to making the divorce from the HSE full and final.