Thursday 13 December 2018

Contrition and remorse must be replaced by effective action

(Stock photo)
(Stock photo)
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

Stolen childhood and official regret. Too many reports have exposed how our troubled social services have let down our most vulnerable children.

The latest forensic look at Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, shows how a postcode lottery exists across the country in the screening and response to allegations of child sexual abuse.

Safety plans that are aimed at ensuring children are protected from risks are not standardised.

The whole area of child protection, of course, is complex and fraught with uncertainty.

However, the findings of inspectors from the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) make for chilling reading.

And the failings may also extend to other areas of child abuse and welfare.

The problems can be summed up as a combination of poor managerial oversight; failure to detect and correct poor practice; inadequate record keeping; and a shortage of experienced social workers.

Tusla, which took over the area of child protection and welfare from the HSE four years ago, was supposed to free up the agency from the distractions of being part of the wider health services.

But the report yesterday shows progress in key areas has been too slow and there are not always excuses for the failures.

For instance, we often hear about the difficulty in recruiting social workers. That is undeniable and Tusla chief Fred McBride has made big efforts to recruit more from other jurisdictions.

But inspectors were clear that more can be made of the existing workforce, including freeing up frontline staff from the burden of paperwork that is eating into time they could spend in the field.

There are no formal processes in place to determine skill-mix, while training is inadequate and supervision is inconsistent.

At the end of last March, there were 4,600 open child cases that were waiting an allocation of a social worker.

One of the most depressing findings is the ongoing sub-standard co-operation between Tusla and other State agencies, particularly gardaí. Countless reports have highlighted this over the years.

There are practical deficiencies such as no electronic data transfer system between gardaí and Tusla, which means documents are exchanged by fax or post.

But the more damning finding was the lack of an agreed information-sharing protocol between both.

Perhaps the most disturbing revelation was the discovery of 164 cases of alleged child sexual abuse that were closed, despite the fact there were outstanding concerns.

This was based on a sample of cases examined by inspectors and the fear is that it could be larger.

Were children still living in the home of their abuser? Had the abuser some form of access to the child?

Tusla has said it will implement Hiqa's recommendations and this time an oversight group is to be appointed to oversee this action plan.

Child protection and welfare will never be error free and will always be problematic and tangled.

But we have to at least know we are constantly on the path to risk reduction.

Contrition and remorse must be replaced by action and accountability for the safety of children.

Irish Independent

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