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Padraig O'Morain: Why the HSE cannot be trusted to protect our children

New guidelines on how the HSE should handle the death of children in care would be a step in the right direction but for one thing.

This is that the HSE has shown itself to be a deeply dysfunctional organisation when it comes to child protection.

That these guidelines have been introduced at all illustrates how dysfunctional the HSE can be.

Under the new guidelines, the HSE must notify the Health Information and Quality Authority within 48 hours of the death of children in care.

HIQA also wants reports of investigations into such deaths to be published within 30 days of being completed. Why in heaven's name does the HSE have to be told to do things that should be standard practice anyway?

Clearly, HIQA and its chief inspector of social services Dr Marion Whitton, have little faith that the HSE will do the right thing unless it is obliged to do so. Indeed she pointed out yesterday that public confidence in the review process had been shaken.

After all, we know the report of the investigation into the death of Tracey Fay was published only because Fine Gael laid it before the Oireachtas. The HSE's astonishing response -- this is really Alice in Wonderland territory -- was to demand that Fine Gael take the report back.

Then it emerged that another 23 children died in the care of the HSE in ten years, leading Minister for Children Barry Andrews TD to set up the Child Death Review Group to examine the HSE files on these cases.

I have no doubt that the story of some of these children will reveal a further sorry saga of the incapacity of the child protection services to do their job.

That incapacity is due partly to underfunding -- but a major part of the problem is that child protection gets lost in the big machine that is the HSE.

Yes, the HSE must be made to report deaths to HIQA and to publish its reports into these deaths without having to be pushed into it.

But is that enough? This is the organisation that recruited foster parents without having them fully vetted.

This is the organisation that leaves almost a third of foster parents without a social worker in Dublin.

This is the organisation that often doesn't get around to looking into expressions of concern about children. That much is clear from investigations by the Children's Ombudsman, Emily Logan and from statements by social work organisations. How could it be otherwise, given that child protection is under the same HSE umbrella as the hospitals, community health services and other demanding sections of the health service?

As the HSE lurches from one crisis to another -- sometimes of its own making, sometimes not -- the case for transferring child protection to a separate, effective body grows stronger and stronger.

Such a body could make better use of child protection resources than the HSE.

In the absence of such a transfer, the guidelines on reporting of deaths may do little to change the reality of the lives of children who need protection.