independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Colum Kenny: Kids in care need support from more than just social workers

The recent report on child deaths in care captured the reality of the lives of those at risk, says Colum Kenny

When the 200 kids who had been in care since 2000 died, where were the parents and families? Where were the politicians who carve up public services to suit their agendas and who appoint political friends to run State boards? Who exactly were the ministers who made the system?



Some families do their best, such as the family of Devlin Kavanagh, whose story is told above.

Many of these kids are out on the edge long before they reach social services. Social workers who are overworked and dedicated make easy scapegoats for politicians with skewed priorities and for years of managerial confusion.

Last week's report of the Independent Child Death Review Group is a catalogue of system breakdowns. And it is welcome as that. But children need support not just from social workers. They need proper educational and health services too. And parents who really try hard.

One problem is parental neglect. Some people are having children irresponsibly. Others are not looking after them when they should. Some cannot cope no matter what.

The authors of the report captured this reality. They wrote: "The problems that faced a number of these children began early in life. Children and young people admitted to care tend to come to the attention of the HSE after a serious incident or series of incidents giving rise to concerns as to their welfare.

"In a large number of cases the child has already been subjected to negative experiences and influences before coming to the attention of the HSE. The child or young person has not had an opportunity to build up their own resilience and to learn positive coping mechanisms. This is likely to place the child's welfare at risk."

The role of booze is especially important in many of the cases. The authors of the report note that "alcohol contributed to children being exposed from their earliest years to poor parenting, neglect, abuse and psychological trauma".

This is not to say that parents are always to blame, or that all members of extended families abdicated responsibility for their relatives. In some cases parents or relatives do their best.

Nor is it to suggest that chronic neglect or unprofessional practice on the part of the HSE or of some of its employees is excusable. But it is to introduce a note of reality into headlines that do not always capture it.

Any social workers could have told any politician or journalist any time lately that the system does not work. They are on the front line. Threatened. Assaulted. Stres- sed out because they cannot get for those children at risk what is required to help them.

The politicians who kept promising adequate resources and children's rights, but never managed to deliver what was actually needed, should figure in the headlines.

One reason why better records were not kept is that some social workers felt abandoned by the system. They were left to their own devices to do what they could for children at risk. The strongest continued to try. The weakest were demoralised, and nobody noticed until now.

Critics say that even if the Republic of Ireland employed twice the number of social workers that it actually has, it would still only have the same number per problem child that Northern Ireland's social services have. Cherish the children of the nation equally?

One social worker last week told me of having to keep files on a floor because the HSE could not deliver a filing cabinet. Many social workers find the system frustrating and the resources inadequate to meet the needs of children at risk. Some who skill up or make an extra effort get no thanks.

Much attention rightly focused in recent years on abuse by members of Catholic religious orders. But it was Irish citizens and Irish politicians who abdicated responsibility for childcare to the church. And they have continued to abdicate responsibility for children at risk, preferring to dedicate resources elsewhere.

The problem about media reports based on hard cases is that they seldom give readers the big picture. Fergus Finlay, chief executive of Barnardos, spelt it out last week. He acknowledged changes for the better but sounded far from convinced that the battle for adequate resources for children at risk is over. If Ireland neglected children at risk during the boom years, what chance now?

Right now, there is a Minister for Children who knows about the problems of children at risk. Minister Frances Fitzgerald is a professional social worker herself. And she has been fighting to improve things, at a time when other ministers have their own priorities and when the HSE is struggling to meet medical needs.

More than 200 new social workers have since early 2010 been recruited in line with the recommendations of the Ryan report. A new Child and Family Support Agency is being set up to take over responsibility for children at risk from the sprawling HSE. A referendum on children's rights is once again being promised.

Social workers see what is happening. The HSE, like too many Irish public bodies, became dysfunctional down the years. These bodies were the plaything of politicians who were out of touch with the reality of making institutions work and who were feather-bedded against the consequences of their actions.

Did any politician last week take responsibility for the system uncovered by the Report on Child Deaths? We live in a country with too few consequences, except for those such as the children who died.

They deserved better. So too did some of their families who genuinely tried their best. The creation of a special agency to help them could make a big difference.

The next time a child in care dies let us get a fuller explanation of what went wrong and who exactly let him or her down.

Because it seldom is just their social worker, visiting as frequently as other pressures allow and caught in the middle between parents and politicians.

Sunday Independent

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