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Thursday 14 December 2017

Whistleblower case reveals litany of mistakes by Tusla

Child and family agency has been found wanting on several occasions

Emotional: Children's minister Katerine Zappone briefs the press outside Leinster House this week. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Emotional: Children's minister Katerine Zappone briefs the press outside Leinster House this week. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

When Tusla came into being in January 2014, it was supposed to herald a new era in child protection in Ireland. The child and family agency was established following controversies where HSE social services failed vulnerable young people, a number of whom died in tragic circumstances.

By creating an entity separate to the HSE and giving it its own budget, it was hoped the child protection system would improve and become much more cohesive than its often dysfunctional predecessor.

But while significant improvements have been made in dealing with caseloads, the agency has been found wanting on a number of occasions.

Anyone who cares to read reports compiled by the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) will know myriad failings have been identified during the past three years.

Inspections have revealed inconsistencies in the safety and quality of services, with significant delays in some cases to assess the needs of children and families where abuse and neglect was suspected.

One HIQA report outlined how children in north Dublin were left waiting up to two years to see a social worker, while cases of suspected abuse were not notified to gardaí in a timely manner.

Another disclosed how 700 unallocated child protection case files and 822 unacknowledged garda notifications of alleged abuse were discovered in an office in Portlaoise in 2015, prompting a national review.

Now HIQA is again investigating Tusla, but this time over its handling of unfounded allegations made against garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe, an affair so serious it has threatened the very stability of the Government.

The case raises major concerns about the way in which highly sensitive information is shared between counsellors, social workers, Tusla and gardaí.

There are very real fears dark forces sought to discredit McCabe.

Tusla has already apologised to McCabe and his family for mistakes made, without detailing exactly what those mistakes were.

But a number of these can already be identified. The first was the failure of the agency to inform McCabe of the opening of a file based on a mistaken report.

Tusla was wrongly informed there was an allegation in 2013 when a file was shared with the agency and An Garda Síochána by a counsellor working with the National Counselling Service.

Long-established principles dictate McCabe should have been informed of the allegation and given a reasonable opportunity to defend himself.

For some reason this did not happen.

Whatever the reason, it is clear there was a failure to inform McCabe or to investigate in a speedy fashion.

Tusla is obliged to carry out a complete assessment of all allegations of child abuse.

It also has a legal responsibility to assess the likelihood of any current or potential future risk to children. This does not appear to have occurred.

By May 2014, the counsellor had written to Tusla saying there had been "an administrative error" and that the allegation had been erroneously "cut and paste" into the file.

While the explanation was scarcely credible, it did not mark the end of the affair.

The file was never actively investigated, but it is alleged its existence was used in some quarters to mount a smear campaign against McCabe, who by that stage was causing major headaches for garda colleagues after exposing abuses in the penalty points system.

Bizarrely, Tusla then proceeded, based on the outdated information, to contact McCabe about the allegation in December 2015.

The contact was made by someone in Tusla who did not know the original "error" had been corrected.

It was the first McCabe learned of the false smear against him.

Ironically, if this last error had not occurred, McCabe may never have found evidence of the apparent campaign to blacken his name.

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