Friday 23 March 2018

HIQA expresses major concerns for safety of children in asylum centres

Mary Dunnion, Hiqa’s acting director of regulation
Mary Dunnion, Hiqa’s acting director of regulation

Shane Phelan Public Affairs Editor

A damning report by the health watchdog has revealed how one in every seven child living in direct provision centres had to be referred to social services in a single year.

Some 229 children were subject of referrals over child protection and welfare concerns, the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) revealed.

It found children living in centres for asylum seekers had been exposed to physical abuse and domestic violence.

HIQA also raised concerns about inappropriate contact by adults towards some children, while there were also situations where older children had been left caring for younger children.

In one area, Laois/Offaly, there was one referral about a child threatening suicide where it took three years for a social work team to respond.

HIQA’s findings come just weeks after the Oireachtas Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions published a report recommending the direct provision system be scrapped.

The system, initially put in place as a temporary measure in 2000, has become largely discredited.

Under the system, asylum seekers are housed in centres and not allowed to work while their applications are processed.

However, huge delays in the system can often mean an asylum seeker can spend several years waiting to learn if they will get refugee status.

HIQA’s director of regulation Mary Dunnion said: “The authority has grave concerns about the high number of children living in direct provision centres who have been referred to the child and family agency.

“Approximately 14pc of the population of children living in direct provision were referred to the child and family agency in one year, which is a significantly higher referral rate than for the general child population of 1.6pc.”

According to the report there were approximately 1600 children living in direct provision accommodation in Ireland, and of these children, there were 209 referrals of child protection and welfare concerns relating to 229 children between August 2013 and August 2014.

Of these referrals, 51pc referred to child welfare issues while the remaining 49pc related to child protection concerns.

HIQA inspectors compiled the report after investigating direct provision centres in Louth/Meath, the midlands, Sligo/Leitrim/West Cavan and Dublin north city.

Problems highlighted in the report included lack of access to social workers and delays in carrying out assessments.

It said the nature of the welfare referrals varied but there were some common themes.

These included the physical or mental illness of parent impacting on capacity to provide quality care for children, lack of clothes and toys, and parents isolating themselves and their children from support services.

Tanya Ward, chief executive of the Children's Rights Alliance, said the Hiqa report paints a painful picture of life in direct provision for children.

"Children not having enough clothes or toys; children not experiencing play or normal family life; children forced to share communal bathrooms with strangers; and parents being unable to care for their children due to their own deteriorating mental health," she said.

"These findings cannot be ignored.

"Children can't be left suffering in this system. Simple reassurances will not be enough to counter these shocking findings. Nothing less than a robust child protection and welfare response with proper independent inspections will be acceptable here."

It is understood the Hiqa report on services provided by Tusla - The Child and Family Agency is the first time that a watchdog has exposed the lack of quality of the lives of children in direct provision.

Tusla said it was deploying additional managers and staff to clear backlogs of referrals and deal with new cases in an appropriate and timely manner.

Gordon Jeyes, chief executive of Tusla, said: "Tusla staff must be given credit for their ongoing work with children and families in direct provision, particularly given the challenging environment which was not designed for children to live in long-term.

"Tusla has been engaging with the Reception and Integration Agency in relation to the findings of this report and are committed to working together to improve child protection and welfare services for all children in direct provision."

Additional reporting from agencies

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