Vulnerable children are being failed by the State

Analysis: The ‘silo mentality’ of Tusla and Garda identified by audit must change

Prof Geoffrey Shannon at the publication of an independent audit of the exercise by An Garda Síochána of Section 12 of the Child Care Act, 1991. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

Prof Geoffrey Shannon at the publication of an independent audit of the exercise by An Garda Síochána of Section 12 of the Child Care Act, 1991. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

 

Despite all the good work being done by gardaí and social workers on the front line, vulnerable children are still being failed by the State.

Weaknesses identified by the audit into Garda use of emergency powers to remove children from their parents found multifarious failings in the child protection system.

These ranged from problems with training for gardaí and inadequacies in the Garda Pulse system, to poor communication, co-ordination and co-operation between gardaí and State agency Tusla as well as systemically inadequate out-of-hours social work services.

Gardaí are poorly trained in child protection and have received no training in ethnic and cultural diversity, the audit said. And though it found no evidence of racial profiling, an untrained force may well be vulnerable to it.

There is a gap in care for children with behavioural difficulties during out-of-hours periods because the private company, contracted to operate the service in many parts of the country, has no statutory obligation to take them.

These children, for whom services cannot be found, may be brought to hospital to wait for the re-opening of Tusla services the following morning, or the following Monday. Some of these children are returned to the family they were removed from.

The most disturbing findings in the audit, however, involve cases where children were removed from their home by gardaí only to be returned there within a short period by social workers.

In one case, creche staff had notified social workers of their concerns for a three-year-old child they were looking after.

The child’s body had bruises and hand prints on it and medical advice confirmed the marks were the result of physical violence.

Gardaí invoked their emergency powers to remove the child to safety on a Friday evening, believing Tusla would go to court on Monday morning for a court order. But the child was returned home on Monday.

In another case, a family had moved home from one Tusla area to another. Because of the move, the family was put back on a waiting list for services.

Despite numerous notifications to Tusla of concerns about the children from a charity working with them, no action was taken.

Eventually, gardaí were called and had to remove an 18-month-old child from its drunk and “screaming” mother. The garda involved said it was frustrating that nothing had been done and the case had escalated as a consequence.

Reasonable cause

Gardaí must use their own judgment, under Section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991, when deciding to remove a child, while, under Section 13 of the Act, social workers must prove to a judge there is reasonable cause to believe a child’s health or welfare is at risk.

This makes for a higher bar for social workers. But this does not fully explain why some children are returned to parents from whom they were removed. And it has no bearing on failures to intervene when cases are referred to them.

That is down to a lack of resources. More social workers are needed and they need resources to intervene to help families before children have to be removed.

There was also a “silo” mentality identified in both organisations, so that instead of helping each other to help children, they often worked in isolation.

An Garda Síochána and Tusla are now saying co-operation protocols are being developed and that is to be welcomed.

But protocols are only as good as their use at ground level, and they are not much help if resources are not there.

Though we prioritised children in a constitutional referendum in 2012, it is clear we have yet to really put those words into action for the most vulnerable.