New Tusla child protection policy needs much broader examination, committee told

Rapporteur Geoffrey Shannon says new policy has both positives and downsides

Geoffrey Shannon. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Geoffrey Shannon. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

 

A new child protection policy being adopted by Tusla needs “a much broader examination”, an Oireachtas committee was told on Wednesday.

Geoffrey Shannon, special rapporteur for child protection, said if the future of child protection is going to revolve around the Signs of Safety policy document, there needed to be an honest discussion on it. It had some elements that were positive and downsides, too, he said.

Australian expert Dr Andrew Turnell, who pioneered Signs of Safety in western Australia, is training all of Tusla’s 1,466 social workers in the new model.

It centres on a change in attitude to vulnerable families and their children, away from paternalism, where social workers see only the dangers and impose solutions, to one where they see also the families’ strengths, build on these and work with the family to keep children safe.

Mr Shannon told the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs that Article 19 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires the protection of children from harm and abuse and that is reflected in Irish law.

“In implementing Signs of Safety, Tusla must have regard to this,” he said.

“It needs to be monitored … it is the primary responsibility of the State to ensure children are protected.”

Mr Shannon addressed the committee on issues arising from his audit report of the exercise by gardaí of powers under Section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991, which allows them to remove children from their homes in emergency situations.

Poor training

The report was published last month and highlighted concerns including poor interagency co-operation, poor training for gardaí and inadequate out-of-hours social work services.

On Tuesday, Minister for Children, Katherine Zappone, announced a plan to implement recommendations in the report. Measures included Tusla assigning an experienced social worker to the recently established Garda Síochána National Child Protection Unit, a review on the level of demand for an enhanced social work out-of-hours service and a new protocol on interagency communication.

Mr Shannon told the committee he welcomed the plan, but would like to see a time line for it.

He described the current out-of-hours social work service, based in Dublin, Kildare, Wicklow and Cork City currently, as creating inequality for children. He said a “call centre”, allowing gardaí outside those areas to contact a social worker out-of-hours, was a “stop gap”.

Speaking to the committee on children and mental health, Gareth Noble, child law solicitor, said children were “in a much worse position now” than they were prior to Vision for Change, the State policy on mental health introduced in 2006.

The policy included community based responses for children through Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (Camhs).

He said recent figures 2,419 children and their families are waiting in excess of 12 months for an appointment with Camhs and last year, 67 children with mental health difficulties were admitted to inappropriate adult hospital wards. This represented “an unacceptable series of ongoing breaches of children’s rights”, he said, and constituted “a serious dereliction in our duty of care towards them”.

Underinvestment

He also said he supported the Mental Health (Amendment) Bill 2016, proposed by Senator Joan Freeman, which would create a prohibition on the admission of children to adult psychiatric units.

Peter Hughes, general secretary of the Psychiatric Nurses Association, highlighted concerns about “inadequacies and underinvestment” in Camhs.

He said the association was conducting research, in partnership with the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, on Camhs and the Vision for Change.

Early indications suggested 37 per cent of the multi-disciplinary teams recommended were operational, half the liaison services were in operation and only 48 of the 100 recommended beds were operational, in part due to staff shortages.