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Thursday 22 March 2018

Children's watchdog now faces hard-hitting inquiry

Tusla chief Fred McBride: in the eye of the storm. Photo: Douglas O'Connor
Tusla chief Fred McBride: in the eye of the storm. Photo: Douglas O'Connor
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

Tusla chief Fred McBride is a blunt-speaking Scot who took over the helm of the agency which promotes the protection and welfare of children.

When he was appointed in January last year he had over 30 years experience in the fraught area of social work practice and management.

Mr McBride joined Tusla in 2014 as head of operations, the same year a HSE counsellor discovered they had made a "cut and paste" error in 2013.

The counsellor who had passed on the information to social services wrongly accused Sgt Maurice McCabe of serious sexual abuse.

Tusla was granted full legal status in January 2015 and with it came the full case-load of child protection and welfare from the HSE.

The establishment followed a series of tragedies when HSE social services were found to have failed a number of vulnerable children. With its own budget and free from the pressures of the HSE, which must cover a range of health services, including hospitals, the hope was that it would lead to an improved service for some of the country's most vulnerable children.

Tusla is now facing a statutory inquiry by the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) which has a reputation for hard-hitting probes and findings. Hiqa's chief executive Phelim Quinn has a reputation as a fearless watchdog. This has most recently been demonstrated in its examination of care standards and management at Portlaoise Hospital, where five babies died over a number of years.

It's findings led to a very public clash with Tony O'Brien, chief of the HSE, which itself has major questions to answer about the whole McCabe debacle.

Tusla's treatment of the allegation made against the McCabe family and the huge implications this has for these innocent people, as well as weaknesses in its child protection safeguards, will be investigated.

Much autonomy in relation to investigations lies with local social services teams across the country and it is their job to assess risk.

Hiqa already investigates how some of these local teams deal with child protection and welfare cases and several reports have highlighted under-staffing and children who have not been allocated a social worker.

In an interview with the Irish Independent last year Mr McBride said high caseloads, under-staffing and burnout contributed to 9,500 children not being allocated a social worker in early 2014.

Some 3,500 were "high priority". However, he said by June 2016 the number of children not being allocated social workers was reduced to 5,600, with 800 in the high priority category.

"That is exceptional progress," he insisted. "High priority does not necessarily equate to high risk. They are children for whom we have a statutory responsibility such as those in care. But they may be in long-term foster care placement and well-settled."

He said where there is an immediate risk the "response is immediate".

The agency received around 44,000 child referrals varying from low-level concern to high alert. There were some 27,000 active case files on children currently under the wing of the agency. Around 6,300 children are in care, mostly in foster families. This has remained stable for some years.

Sex abuse claims: how the Tusla investigation works

  • Allegations of sexual abuse can be made to gardaí or Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, by a third party in good faith.
  • If the allegation is historic, social workers are obliged to assess if there is any immediate risk to children.
  • It is the responsibility of the local social work team in the county.
  • The assessment must be complete and the steps are set out in Tusla's 'Policy and Procedures for Responding to Allegations of Child Abuse and Neglect' which is intended to ensure that all members of the agency are aware of the law and act according to the principles of fair procedure.
  • The assessment would likely involve a visit to a family home and interviews with adults and children.
  • A case conference would be held to assess the level and immediacy of the risk. This could theoretically involve gardaí and the removal of the alleged perpetrator from a family home.
  • Throughout such assessments, the safety and wellbeing of the child or children involved always takes priority.
  • Tusla has a legal responsibility to assess the likelihood of any current or potential future risk to children. It can share information with gardaí.
  • If, on the basis of the reported concern or existing information, there is reason to believe that a child is at immediate risk of harm, the concern is followed up immediately and interventions made. There should be cooperation between Tusla and gardaí where necessary.

Irish Independent

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