Child protection disparity
Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald spoke of child protection failures under the HSE as “including inconsistency and fragmentation in service provision” when the Child and Family Agency Bill was debated in the Dáil last July. The district courts have now provided worrying evidence of such disparity with major differences in the volume of childcare orders being sought in towns of roughly the same size.
The figures do not amount to conclusive evidence that the safety of children is being neglected. But, on the basis of past catastrophic failures and what the Minister described as “inconsistency over decades” in the provision of child protection, early intervention and family support services, there is real cause for concern.
The Child Care Law Reporting Project, established to lift the veil of secrecy on childcare cases in the courts, should be thanked for the latest research. As might be expected, horror stories of child abuse – inside and outside of families – has encouraged a more active approach to child protection by the relevant agencies. The number of childcare proceedings in the courts rose by 15 per cent in 2012. But the contrast between differing health board areas was stark. Letterkenny generated 230 childcare applications while similar sized Midlands towns, such as Mullingar, Tullamore, Carlow and Portlaoise and produced fewer than 40. Even in the Midlands, the number of applications differed widely between towns.
Legislation to deal with this situation has been debated by the Oireachtas but awaits ratification. Under the Bill, a new Child and Family Agency will absorb the child protection and welfare services operated by the HSE, along with the Family Support Agency and the National Education Welfare Board. It will have a staff of 4,000. Recently, the Health Information and Quality Authority was scathing about the lack of urgency shown by the HSE in investigating complaints. And a national audit of neglect found services in some geographic regions to be excellent while others needed “huge improvements”.
Child protection cases and the problems affecting parents, arising from drug abuse, poverty and psychological issues, are complex and sensitive. But the reluctance by officials to interfere in family life can no longer be tolerated. Terrible things happen to children behind closed doors and they deserve State oversight and protection. The removal of child protection and welfare services from the HSE, where they are said to be “lost and rudderless”, will represent an important first step. After that, barriers will have to be broken down between different agencies and services. Before all that can happen, the Child and Family Agency must be formally established. Time to get on with it.