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Eilish O’Regan: Heartfelt pledges of reform but there are so many concerns

THE condemnation is always long and heartfelt. But the handwringing which follows the catalogue of reports into how children were failed by the State is shortlived.

We have been here many times before.

As many as 16 statutory reports into child protection have been ordered in the past two decades, and yesterday's inquiry into child deaths is promised to be the final watershed.

But past expressions of regret and pledges of reform changed little.

Much of the same failings are highlighted again and again. And at the heart of it all is a lack of accountability from those working in the child protection system.

The weaknesses include poor judgment about a child's level of risk, lack of basic record keeping, delays in taking children into care, lack of team work and inadequate supports for families at a crucial stage.

Most significantly of all, yesterday's report into child deaths said it was essential there was a change of culture, with everyone working in the system taking responsibility.

It is not just a question of funding and overloaded social workers.

The available resources are not always used in an effective manner.

Children's Minister Frances Fitzgerald has promised to remove childcare from the Health Service Executive (HSE) by January and place it under the helm of its own Child and Family Support Agency.

The agency will be headed by Gordon Jeyes, who is the national director of children and family services in the HSE.

He has already carried out some re-organisation and has commented that he is seen as responsible for everything "that has gone wrong since Brian Boru".

The idea of the new agency is that its sole focus will be on child welfare and protection, with no management distractions from hospital budgets or medical card backlogs.

The agency will have its own budget but we know little else about it, even though there are just months to go before it is set up.

A taskforce was established last September to advise on the new agency and it is due to produce its final report at the end of the month.

But we know nothing about the line of accountability, the management structure or how much funding it will receive.

There is also no information about the level of training or re-training that the new agency's staff will require.

It will be the staff who currently work for the HSE who will make up this agency and they will work from the same locations.

There are already fears that the rush to meet the January deadline will mean that shortcuts will be taken which echo the formation of the HSE itself in 2005. It never lived up to its expectations.

The minister said there would be real-time data on social work referrals.

But we have seen recently in the hospital system -- where this kind of information is available for A&E departments -- that this does not necessarily bring significant improvement unless systems change.

There is also a danger that the agency can become somewhat removed from the wider health system, including crucial links with public health nurses who can be invaluable witnesses to families in crisis.

Yesterday's report also identified the lack of integration between child protection and psychiatric services. In many cases where mental health difficulties were evident, the adult and child psychiatry services were not involved.

Added to these concerns, the new agency will also have to deal with the rise in the reports that are being received by the health service relating to concerns about children.

The numbers of children in care have risen by 17pc in the past four years.

Against this background, it is also planned to introduce mandatory reporting for all organisations and institutions involved with children.

This will inevitably lead to a rise in workload and also an increase in spurious claims, which will take up time but have to be investigated.

It will also be working at a time of wider cutbacks. Social workers point out that even something as simple as a community creche can be a lifeline to a mother who is struggling to cope.

However, there is evidence that even some of these creches are now closing in areas like Ballyfermot and Cabra in Dublin because of funding cuts.

That doesn't bode well.

Irish Independent