Several independent social workers, some of whom used to work for the HSE, earned more than €100,000 during 2011 working as 'guardians ad litem' – appointed by the courts to a child who is likely to be placed in long-term care.
Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald has been working closely with the HSE and other agencies with a view to arranging the future organisation of the service, which is currently provided on an unregulated basis her spokeswoman said.
Ten individuals and organisations shared €2.6m spent by the HSE in 2011. Fees paid to guardians have decreased from 2010 when several individual social workers earned as much as €300,000.
The figures do not include fees paid by the HSE to guardians' legal teams.
In Dublin, Meath, Kildare and Wicklow, a structured payment system allows guardians to claim €110 an hour plus additional costs for travel/waiting and mileage while in the rest of the country payments are made at rates invoiced by guardians.
A spokeswoman for Barnardos, which provides the largest guardian ad litem service, said the organisation dealt with an unprecedented amount of new referrals in 2011.
She said each of their freelance contractors were qualified in social work or psychology and had experience of the courts and in the assessment of child welfare.
The service ensured that a child's interests were central to decisions made about them, she said. Even when the child was too young to fully communicate its wishes, the guardian can assess the child's feelings through non-verbal communication.
She said there needs to be a properly regulated and managed system for providing guardians to the courts.
Solicitor Malachy Steenson said, under current regulations, there were no qualifications required to become a guardian ad litem.
He asked why guardians needed legal teams when their job was to prepare a report without putting a view on it.
He also said there was something inequitable about legal assistance given to guardians which is often not available to parents.
Lecturer in social care John Byrne said extended family members, such as grandparents, should be encouraged to actively participate in the process.
He said all children involved in care proceedings should be entitled to an advocate who will independently represent their wishes and challenge the State when necessary.