Highly vulnerable children are going missing and being left "at risk" after absconding from HSE-run special support homes on hundreds of occasions.
The troubled youngsters went missing from the State's five high-support facilities, which aim to provide safe and secure support for children with severe behavioural problems.
Confidential records obtained by the Irish Independent reveal how children went missing from these centres and were deemed at risk on more than 460 occasions in the past two years.
Another 39 incidents when children, who were subject to care orders, fled without permission were recorded at the same centres.
The centres are Ballydowd in Dublin, Coovagh centre in Limerick, Gleann Alainn in Cork, Rath na nOg in Castleblaney, Co Monaghan, and Crannog unit, in Portrane, north Dublin.
Some of the children, who have severe emotional and behavioural problems, were placed in these homes by the courts.
Internal HSE reports also reveal high levels of deliberate self-harm in these centres, with 177 such incidents recorded.
There were also a number of assaults on staff and incidents where gardai had to be called.
Although inspections carried out each year capture a snapshot of the huge strains the centres were under, the full extent of the high number of absences has only emerged in the unpublished figures.
It comes against a background of ongoing concerns by inspectors about failings in the centres, particularly unauthorised absences and a shortage of professional staff.
An inspection of Ballydowd last year found there were nine young people, aged 13 to 17, being cared for at the centre that was without direct access to a senior clinical psychologist.
Inspectors from the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) found one child with exceptional behavioural problems had been segregated from the rest of the children by staff.
And a separate inspection of Gleann Alain special care unit last year discovered it was struggling with significant demands in maintaining safety and security for the five young children relying on its protection.
The inspectors said children told them there were occasions when they felt unsafe, due to bullying and assaults by other residents.
A report revealed how one child took keys from a staff member while out on a trip, leading to a new policy about the safeguarding of keys.
It found that on returning to the unit the keys were not searched for and the loss was not reported to the acting manager.
A major failing was the fact that no risk assessment was carried out to identify and minimise the risks posed to the unit's security and safety of children.
It was in a state of crisis in late December 2011 when there were 25 unauthorised absences reported, ranging from 30 minutes to six days.
Questioned on what efforts were being made to reduce the number of children absconding, a HSE spokeswoman said very often "a young person is missing because of normal childhood reasons such as staying out on recreational activities longer than planned".
She added: "The procedures that are followed by staff ensure that young people who abscond are routinely returned to their care placements. High-support units are open in that the young person is not detained."