Report provides opportunity for decisive change in care structure
ANALYSIS:The evidence is children and young people are tragically being failed right up to the present
WHEN IT was published in 2009, the Ryan report into the abuse of children in residential institutions set out in chilling detail how religious orders and the State failed to protect vulnerable children from abuse.
The country was shocked. Never again would children be made to suffer like this.
Today’s report into the deaths of children in contact with social services is, in many respects, more shocking still.
These are not deaths or care failures that took place in another era, during the 1950s, 1960s or 1970s. The Independent Child Death Review Group provides evidence children and young people are tragically being failed right up to the present.
The obligations facing the State when it comes to vulnerable children are clear. Under the 1991 Child Care Act there is a mandatory obligation on the Health Service Executive to “promote the welfare of children in its area who are not receiving adequate care and protection”.
This involves identifying children at risk and either working with a child’s parents or the major step of taking a child into the care of the State.
Whenever this happens, the HSE is taking a profound step in a child’s life by corporately taking on the role of a parent: it is responsible for the child’s welfare, safety and protection.
This is the context in which today’s report should be considered: did the State do a good enough job in meeting the welfare needs of these children?
Child protection is challenging work. Many of the children featured had troubled, traumatic and unstable childhoods. Others lived in chaotic homes where drug and alcohol abuse was rampant, or had undiagnosed mental health or behavioural problems.
Knowing how to intervene is complex and difficult. It requires a careful assessment of whether a child’s welfare is better protected by taking them out of their family and into the care system.
But the report shows that in too many cases the response of services was sporadic and inconsistent. Files in some cases were in disarray. Individual cases were being closed off even though children were living in unsafe and risky family settings. One of the most damning findings was that the HSE abdicated its duty of care to many of the most vulnerable – those leaving the care system – with tragic results.
These are the symptoms of a child protection system that is chaotic and not fit for purpose. It shows every sign that it is built on the principles of crisis management rather than responding earlier and more decisively in the lives of children.
How has this been allowed to happen? We can only assume child protection has failed to receive the priority it deserves and has been neglected by both HSE management and the political system.
There is now a once-in-a- lifetime chance to design a new system that is better able to meet the needs of children at risk, and to halt the sense of drift that has characterised our response.
The new agency being planned by the Government – which will take responsibility for child protection away from the HSE – will need authority, proper resourcing and to be accountable.