If we are truly serious about the welfare of children we must provide proper funding
Published 17/07/2014 | 02:30
SINCE 1993 more than 560 recommendations have been made by various child abuse inquiry reports conducted in Ireland.
Over that period we have had a number of significant pieces of legislation, the establishment of a specific government department to deal with children's affairs, three major structural changes in the statutory child protection system and the introduction of numerous policies – including a new model of service delivery.
It could reasonably be expected that the events highlighted in the National Review Panel reports published yesterday should not recur, or should at least diminish.
The current aspiration is to provide a seamless, community-based child welfare service from a wide range of agencies all working together in partnership.
This is an ideal which the majority of people working in children's services wholeheartedly support. However, those of us old enough to remember the conclusion of the Task Force on Child Care, published 33 years ago, will see a strong resemblance between it and the current framework being proposed by the Child and Family Agency.
In 1981 the services aspired towards community-based family work, with a strong multi-disciplinary component and an objective of early intervention and prevention.
This ambition has been reiterated over the years from the Kilkenny Report in 1993 to the publication yesterday of the National Review Panel's reports.
Yet, despite investment in the services over the decades, the goals of the Task Force were never met.
The reasons often cited are weak infrastructure; underfunding, communication gaps and a general reluctance on the part of many services to 'own' child protection and prioritise responses to vulnerable children.
The question is whether these same obstacles will impede the progress of the Child and Family Agency in the implementation of their new reforms, and whether the same pattern of deficits will continue.
The first major weakness in respect of infrastructure and policy has now been addressed with strong leadership and management as well as sound guidance provided by the newly established Child and Family Agency. However, the other factors remain problematic and challenging.
Good practice does not entirely depend on the financing of services, yet it is hard to see how the promises made at the launch of the Child and Family Agency will be fulfilled if it is inadequately funded.
The agency's CEO, Gordon Jeyes, recently voiced his concern about the shortfall in the budget for the first year. Financial constraint results in a fragile service and low morale when frontline managers and practitioners feel overwhelmed with the demands made of them.
It restricts the possibility of early intervention and it forces practitioners to ration their services to only the most urgent cases, which ultimately leaves children very vulnerable and prone to more serious consequences.
Some of the reports published yesterday reveal how this vicious cycle plays out.
It also has to be recognised that child abuse occurs in the context of many adversities that impact on families, particularly drug and alcohol misuse and domestic violence which in turn lead to mental health problems, instability and poverty.
There has also been a distressing increase in the number of young people ending their own lives by suicide. These factors underpin a significant number of the high-profile cases we have recently seen and feature significantly in the reports published by the National Review Panel.
Social work departments cannot work in isolation from the services set up to deal with these problems.
Nor should they have to carry full responsibility for what are essentially the ills of society.
Vulnerable young people interface with a number of systems, including youth justice and education as well as disability, health, psychology and mental health services.
A cohesive response requires each of these services to prioritise children's overall welfare needs and work together to provide solutions. Similarly, services that deal with the parents of these children need to take a family-focused approach which aims to improve the quality of life for each member.
When damning reports are published, it is easy to lose sight of the progress that has been made.
The Child and Family Agency have accepted fully the criticisms made in the recently published reports and have committed to implementing the recommendations.
They have also fulfilled an earlier promise to disseminate the findings from child death reviews and integrate learning into new policies.
A full response, however, will also require an assurance from other government agencies and services of their willingness to share responsibility for the future safety and welfare of children and young people.
Dr Helen Buckley is an associate professor at the School of Social Work and Social Policy, Trinity College Dublin and chair of the National Review Panel which examines the deaths of children in care and known to child protection services.