More than 4,000 children left waiting for a social worker - Tusla chief
More than 4,000 children who were referred to protection and welfare services are waiting to be allocated a social worker, it has emerged.
Fred McBride, chief executive of Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, admitted the number continues to be too high, although it is down from 9,000 in previous years.
A lack of social workers and a rise in the number of children who are being referred to the agency means services are under strain.
Concerns about the protection and welfare of around 53,000 children a year are now coming to the attention of the agency - the equivalent of one child every 11 minutes.
He said while recruitment and retention of social workers continues to be an obstacle, it is not as bad as it was.
The children who do not have a social worker have been through initial screening but their cases need further examination.
He insisted, however, their cases are "not in a drawer" and staff are continuing to monitor them at home and at school.
He was speaking as Tusla, which has been under the spotlight for failures on some social services since it took over from the HSE in 2014, launched its new 2018-2020 corporate plan.
Although the number of children referred to Tusla has increased, the number who are removed from their families and placed in State care has stabilised at around 6,400.
He said the agency is now working more on prevention and support and pointed out the impact of a child having to leave their family home can be particularly traumatic.
"One of the biggest features when they are older is the sense of loss and grief," he added.
Social workers are dealing with "uncertainty and risk" as well as families and people who hide information.
One of the ways to retain social workers, coping with complex child protection and welfare cases, and reduce turnover, is to help them manage risk, he added.
"If we don't support them we will not manage to hang on to them," he added. "We must get it right in cases where we intervene." Situations can be "fraught with difficulty and danger".
Tusla cites the increase in homelessness as an added pressure. Figures for October showed that 3,200 children were homeless.
The number of homeless children rose by over 260pc between December 2014 and October 2017.
The number of immigrants to the State has also brought a broader mix of nationalities and cultures with increased demands.
The agency said it has yet to see the impact of mandatory reporting which puts an onus on key professionals and youth workers to notify potential risks to a child.
The inability to recruit sufficient staff has meant that it had an underspend of more than €11m for 2017. It spent €258.8m, although it received an allocation of €270.2m.
Tusla had to spend €1m of its legal bill on the Disclosures Tribunal, where it was called to account for the manner in which a false allegation of child sexual abuse against Sgt Maurice McCabe was handled in 2013.
Mr McBride said 2017 had "undoubtedly been the most challenging year yet faced by the agency, predominantly because of an unprecedented level of external scrutiny".
It has been under scrutiny from various agencies, including the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) as well as the Data Commissioner and the Ombudsman for Children.
The impact of this kind of scrutiny meant that it drew significantly on frontline child protection services.