Child welfare expert warns of more deaths in State care
A LEADING child welfare expert has warned that more children in receipt of state care could die needlessly, despite assurances that the system has been reformed.
Trinity College Professor Dr Helen Buckley said she could not rule out a repeat of the circumstances which led to the drug overdose death of Danny Talbot, whose care by the HSE was severely criticised in a report.
Her comments contrast with those of the head of the new Child and Family Agency (Tusla), Gordon Jeyes, who said yesterday there were no indications that shortcomings still existed to the same level as they did in the Talbot case.
Dr Buckley was speaking following the publication of four reports into child deaths by the independent National Review Panel she chaired.
The panel was highly critical of the HSE's involvement with Mr Talbot (19), who died in 2009. It found serious shortcoming in the mental health and social worker services provided to the teenager.
Critically, the panel concluded that his needs were never fully assessed despite considerable contact with the health services for over a decade.
The report's authors were also unable to determine whether fears that the young Dubliner may have been abused by his late father were ever followed up.
Mr Talbot's family has accused the HSE of failing him "from the cradle to the grave".
Although Dr Buckley said things had improved since the establishment of the agency earlier this year, she expressed concern about funding for the agency, ongoing staffing vacancies and delays in responding to reports of potential abuse and neglect.
She said there were still waiting lists and "gaps" in the allocation of social workers to troubled children.
When asked if there could be a similar case to that of Mr Talbot in future, she said: "I would never say never."
The professor added: "One of the things that does concern us is the pressure on the services and means that children who have low visibility, who are neglected, who are just under the radar, may not be getting the services that they need even though the structure of the agency has improved considerably."
Paul Harrison, a former HSE official who is now director of policy and strategy at Tusla, accepted the findings of the report and apologised to Mr Talbot's family.
Mr Harrison also confirmed that there were more than 160 vacant positions in the agency, including more than 80 social work posts.
He said it was under considerable strain, with 9,000 cases potentially involving neglect, abuse or other issues of concern awaiting allocation to a social worker on any given day.
Speaking to RTE Radio, Tusla chief executive Gordon Jeyes, downplayed the likelihood of a repeat of the Talbot case occurring.
"There have been huge improvements with the services," he said.
"We are creating strong and consistent accountability. It is a work in progress and obviously risks are mitigated by the level of resources available."
The report on Mr Talbot's death was one of two published yesterday involving drug-related deaths.
The remaining two reports dealt with the accidental death of an 18-month-old girl and the passing of a terminally ill four-year-old boy.
Both families had been involved with social services.
A fifth report into the death of a young girl, which had also been due to be published, was withdrawn at the last minute at the request of the family.
Since the review group was set up four and a half years ago, there have been 12 deaths of children while they were in care.
Three died by suicide, one was killed by someone else, while the majority of the rest of the deaths were from natural causes, including terminal illness, life-threatening conditions, accidents and sudden infant deaths.