Child-protection audit ‘a wake-up call’ for society, report author says

Repeated removal of children from same circumstances indicates systemic failure

Prof Geoffrey Shannon and Assistant Commissioner John O’Driscoll at the publication of an audit into An Garda Síochána’s child-protection management. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Prof Geoffrey Shannon and Assistant Commissioner John O’Driscoll at the publication of an audit into An Garda Síochána’s child-protection management. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

An audit that found serious failings in the State’s child-protection system is “a wake-up call for Irish society”, the author of the report has said.

Prof Geoffrey Shannon, who led the audit into An Garda Síochána’s handling of removal of children from their homes in cases of emergency, said it revealed unpalatable truths about how society treats some of its members.

He said the barbaric trauma inflicted on some children by their parents is staggering. “Children are treated like human trash in some of these cases,” he said.

The forensic audit, of more than 5,400 cases over eight years recorded on the Garda Pulse system, found serious failures in Pulse, a dearth of child-protection training for gardaí, and poor and limited interagency communication, co-operation and co-ordination.

It also uncovered evidence of repeated removal of some children by gardaí from the same family circumstances, which suggested systemic failings of child protection.

The audit report described the out-of-hours social work service operated by Tusla as systemically inadequate and found a significant and troubling gap in child protection for children with behavioural problems.

Some children had to be brought to hospital to wait for Tusla services to reopen. And in some cases they were returned to the person from whom they had been removed.

The report details 91 cases of child protection recorded on Pulse and makes a number of recommendations, including the production of clear guidelines for gardaí on the use of section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991, which authorises gardaí to remove a child if they believe there is an immediate and serious risk to his or her health or welfare.

It also recommends an out-of-hours social work service directly accessible to children or families as well as comprehensive training for gardaí in child protection and ethno-cultural diversity. It calls for improved co-operation between An Garda Síochána and Tusla, and specialist Garda child-protection units nationwide.

Speaking at the launch of the audit report on Monday at Garda headquarters, Prof Shannon highlighted the role of alcohol in child-protection cases.

“The Government needs to step up to the plate in terms of taking on vested interests and saying enough is enough,” he said.

‘Overwhelmingly inadequate’

He also focused on interagency co-operation and said it was “overwhelmingly inadequate”, but was essential to ensure children do not slip through the net.

He defended the report against criticism from Tusla, and said he had extensive contact with the organisation prior to publication.

Also speaking at the launch, Assistant Commissioner John O’Driscoll welcomed the report finding that gardaí implement the Child Care Act in an appropriate manner.

He said there had been significant developments in An Garda Síochána, including the establishment of the Garda National Protective Services Bureau, to focus on victims and vulnerable people.

The bureau would address training of gardaí, he said. There would also be a national child-protection unit, he added, and in the future there would be secondments from Tusla into that bureau.

He acknowledged Pulse was an outdated system and said within the next 12 months there would be a new investigation management system.

Tusla chief executive Fred McBride welcomed the report and said it would contribute to the organisation’s reform agenda.

He said out-of-hours services had already been expanded in Dublin and Cork, and elsewhere gardaí have access to an on-call social worker and information from Tusla’s child-protection notification system.

He said a joint protocol was being finalised between the Garda and Tusla and the next big move would be joint protection teams, with social workers and gardaí working together.

Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon said the report was thorough and comprehensive.

“It shines a light on many parts of society that maybe Ireland hasn’t thought about; it also shines a light on the good work done by gardaí,” he said.

He said he did have concerns about interagency co-operation.

“If you are going to take a child into care you need to know that everybody around them knows exactly what they are doing and are working together on the same plan,” he said.