Could another Danny Talbot case happen again?

Despite well-meaning policy changes, frontline services are under real strain

 Danny Talbot, the teenager who died at the age of  19 while in the care of the State. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Danny Talbot, the teenager who died at the age of 19 while in the care of the State. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Thu, Jul 17, 2014, 01:01

If Danny Talbot were growing up in care today, could the same appalling pattern of failure happen again? If we are to rely on the word of those in charge of child and family services, there’s every reason to believe a line in the sand has been drawn on a shameful era of failure.

There is now a single State agency responsible for child and family services. There are new policies and protocols on issues such as accountability, oversight and inter-agency co-operation. By bringing together a range of services, there is finally the opportunity of providing a coherent and dedicated child support and protection system.

However there are warning signs that, while policies and structures are changing, there is little sign yet of progress in crucial areas. Many frontline professionals still report working against a backdrop of scarce resources, staff shortages and dangerously heavy caseloads. It means they often don’t have time for the painstaking and energy-sapping early-intervention work that can help families before concerns escalate into emergency cases.

There are more than 160 posts vacant within child and family services, including more than 80 frontline social workers. This is at a time when the volume of child protection and welfare concerns – more than 40,000 annually – is close to an all-time high. The number of referrals will only grow bigger when new legislation makes it a legal obligation shortly for anyone working with children to pass on concerns over abuse or neglect to social services.

Public health nurses, psychologists and experts in child and adolescent mental health services remain under the aegis of the Health Service Executive. Many say that, despite “protocols”, many of the same problems over co-operation with social services remain. In addition, the new agency is facing acute financial pressures and reportedly will need to trim its budget by millions of euros this year.

This can also affect the quality of service on the ground. Draft plans, for example to standardise aftercare services, are a cause of real concern for some foster parents. It is understood that planned reforms to aftercare could result in payments to foster families ceasing where a child in aftercare does not engage in education or training.

Instead, many young people who turn 18 would be guided towards applying for the dole and getting accommodation through housing services. Yet, it is precisely these young people – like Danny Talbot – who are the most vulnerable.

In response to a query from this newspaper yesterday, the agency said there were no “immediate plans to standardise foster care payments” and there would be full consultation with foster carers before any changes occurred.

Everyone who wants the best for vulnerable children hopes we are in an era where the old pattern of failure is a distant memory, but when asked if a case like Danny Talbot’s could occur again, Dr Helen Buckley, the chairwoman of the independent review team that examined his case, was careful to point out that risks remain.

“I would never say never,” she said yesterday, “but pressure on the service means children who have low visibility, who are neglected, who are just under the radar, may not be getting the service they need – even though the structures of the agency have improved.”

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