A fresh start for child services but challenges remain

The Child and Family Agency has the potential to end the failures that have hampered the State’s handling of abuse cases for decades

Gordon Jeyes, chief executive of the Child and Family Agency, said the warnings of the past should “echo in our ears”. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Gordon Jeyes, chief executive of the Child and Family Agency, said the warnings of the past should “echo in our ears”. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Fri, Jan 31, 2014, 01:00

Is the Child and Family Agency a shiny new brass plate to cover the same dysfunctional child protection service? Or does it represent a brighter future in which vulnerable children’s needs are responded to in an early and decisive way?

At the launch of the new agency, there was plenty of goodwill that the latter will prove to be the case.

The new Child and Family Agency is designed to ensure there is better communication between authorities, more standardised approaches
to care and increased
accountability.

Why does all this matter?

The answer can be found in the pages of some 29 inquiries into the State’s handling of child abuse cases over the past two decades, which have resulted in hundreds of recommendations.

Most highlighted the same key failings : poor co-operation between State agencies;
the lack of a standardised approach to dealing with
abuse concerns; and a failure
to implement child protection guidelines consistently.

In one case, a child who died after she slipped through the cracks of our child protection services was in contact with some 14 different State agencies or officials.

The agency holds the promise of changing this
for good.


One roof
By bringing together a range of services under one roof, there is the opportunity of providing a coherent and dedicated child support and protection system.

During the days when social services were the HSE’s responsibilty, child protection issues barely registered at its board meetings. Now, it has its own board, clear lines of accountability and its own budget.

In all, it represents the most comprehensive reform of child protection undertaken in Ireland. Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald and all those involved in establishing the agency deserve credit for establishing the new body at a time of cutbacks.

But there are steep challenges ahead if it is to deliver on its vision of demanding the very best for children.

Many frontline professionals are still working against a backdrop of scarce resources, staff shortages and dangerously heavy caseloads.

Hundreds of social work posts are vacant at a time when the volume of child protection and welfare referrals is close to an all-time high. In addition, key aspects of children’s services have not been transferred to the new agency.

Public health nurses, psychologists and experts in child and adolescent mental health services remain under the aegis of the Health Service Executive.

Are there any guarantees that communications problems of old won’t be repeated with the new agency?

In reality, the process of reform is only beginning. As Gordon Jeyes, the head of the new agency put it yesterday, the warnings of the past should “echo in our ears”.

Too many children have been failed in the past – and everyone accepts we can’t afford for even more children to be failed again.

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