Monday 17 December 2018

Children at risk of sexual abuse left in danger by serious weaknesses in social services - damning report

Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone Picture: Steve Humphreys
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone Picture: Steve Humphreys

Eilish O’Regan

Children in danger of sexual abuse are being left at risk by serious weaknesses in social services, a damning report revealed today.

The shortcomings in Tusla, the Child and Family Agency were uncovered in a behind the scenes investigation by Hiqa and need to be urgently addressed.

In some instances it found cases were closed by Tusla although the child was still at potential risk.

The investigation — requested by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Katherine Zappone - followed Tusla’s handling of a false allegation about garda whistle-blower Maurice McCabe.

The investigation found shortfalls in:

  • How child abuse allegations were screened

  • How safety plans for children were developed and managed

  • How people who were the subject of an allegation of abuse were communicated with

  • Mary Dunnion, director of regulation with Hiqa. Photo: Michael MacSweeney/Provision
    Mary Dunnion, director of regulation with Hiqa. Photo: Michael MacSweeney/Provision

    The Hiqa report calls for urgent action by Tusla to close off the risks.

    Mary Dunnion, Hiqa’s Director of Regulation, said: “A shortage of qualified social work staff is undoubtedly contributing to delays in the appropriate management of referrals and the early assessment of children at risk.

    “However, Tusla, in conjunction with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, has to manage the same workforce challenges faced by other jurisdictions and avoid an organisational mind-set that sees such problems as insurmountable due to factors outside its control.”

    While appropriate action had been taken by social workers when children were assessed as being at immediate and serious risk, the investigation found some children are being left at potential risk due to a number of failures at operational level.

    There was a gap between policy and putting these into action.

    It identified systems risk as a result of three main defective points in Tusla’s response to managing allegations of child sexual abuse, including allegations made by adults about being abused when they were children, and which in some cases, left children at potential risk.

    Stock image
    Stock image

    The investigation found inconsistencies in practice around the screening of allegations of child sexual abuse and making preliminary enquiries into these allegations, which meant that not all children at potential risk were being assessed and where necessary, protected by Tusla, in a timely and effective manner.

    Inconsistencies in safety-planning practice by Tusla for children meant that while some children were adequately safeguarded, others at potential risk were not.

    Even for children who had a safety plan, these plans were not always reviewed to ensure the continued safety and wellbeing of the child.

    While there was a policy on managing allegations made by adults of abuse during their childhood, it did not include a standardised approach to direct and guide staff in case management, leading to variation in practice and delays. Some people were not told that an allegation of abuse had been made against them and others were given only limited information.

    Commenting on the publication Fred McBride, Chief Executive, Tusla said: “I welcome Hiqa’s recognition that there is now clear strategic direction and a long term vision of what Tusla wants to achieve.

    Our core mission is the wellbeing of children and families and I want to reassure the public that where a child is referred to Tusla and there is an immediate risk they receive an immediate protective response to keep them safe from harm. Tusla welcomes HIqa’s confirmation in this investigation and all other HIQA inspection reports that practice in this area is consistent around the country.

    I fully accept that inconsistencies in practice remain where children are not at an immediate risk, and this is something that is being addressed through our comprehensive programme of reform which is showing real improvements – for example on the 9th of July for the first time in the history of the State all 17 areas around the country will be able to access an integrated system through the National Childcare Information System.”

    He continued: “It is also important to note that the area of child abuse and neglect is extremely challenging and complex. Children are abused or at risk of abuse every day in Ireland. Our staff are professionally trained to deal with complex human relations and often with unpredictable, irrational and sometimes violent human behaviour and whilst policies and procedures are of the utmost importance each situation requires and individual response and what is in the best interests of the child in one situation may not be appropriate in another.

    In 2018 Tusla was allocated and additional €40.6m which brought the operational budget to over €750m and this significant investment is allowing us to progress across key areas.

    “ It is important that we continue to improve consistency throughout the country so that children and families receive a timely and proportionate response and I welcome the announcement that the Minister is establishing an oversight group to support the implementation of the recommendations made by Hiqa.

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