Needs of children trumped by politics and economics

Column: Despite all our rhetoric about cherishing children, cultural factors stand in the way of progress

Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald holds the “Children First” document at its publication in July 2011 in Dublin Castle. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald holds the “Children First” document at its publication in July 2011 in Dublin Castle. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh

Sun, May 19, 2013, 06:00

A friend of mine who is involved in a voluntary organisation received child protection and welfare information by email from the Health Service Executive a few days ago. Guess where she lives? The Carlow/ Kilkenny area. She found it hard not to be cynical that despite being called to a meeting about child protection two years ago, this was the first concrete action taken since then.

Such a coincidence that the material arrived days after the publication of the Hiqa report into child protection in Carlow/Kilkenny. The report found that of 27 childcare protection standards, none had been implemented in full, and nine had not been implemented at all. Some children had not even been allocated a social worker, and children at risk of harm and neglect did not have proper care plans.

Social workers have a 22-26 case load, often complex, demanding and emotionally draining cases. The Hiqa report praised the individual commitment of social workers, but it is clear that the system is dysfunctional. Many experienced social workers have either left due to burnout, or been promoted, so staff are predominantly young, inexperienced and poorly supervised, and are often overwhelmed.

Training and professional development was one of the first casualties of the cutbacks, with a virtual ban on everything except in-house training. Without continuous professional development, people don’t progress, and may regress. The great fear is that there are many children at home who should be in care and many children in care who should be at home, but neither category is receiving the attention they deserve.

Some of the failures are inexcusable, such as not reporting children at risk to the Garda. However, it is an open secret that there has been a lack of trust and communication between the HSE and gardaí for many years.

The amount spent by the HSE on legal fees for childcare cases is shocking. Such fees cost the HSE more than €23.5 million up to the end of November 2012, with one barrister earning almost €1.3 million.

There are better ways to spend that money. Kieran McGrath, whose work as an independent child welfare consultant has brought him into regular contact with the deficiencies of our system, has been saying for years that the adversarial nature of our legal system is particularly unsuited to complex child welfare cases.

He has worked in frontline services for children who had been sexually abused. In a 2005 article in the Judicial Studies Institute Journal , he describes how children in temporary care can have their futures put “on hold” while lengthy legal appeals take place. So called short term placements can last for years. Further disruption ensues when placements break down under the strain. It also has the effect of stigmatising parents and making them more reluctant to seek help. He describes the very different Dutch inquisitorial system. Unlike in Ireland, where every party in a child welfare case arrives “lawyered-up”, in the Netherlands in cases that may involve taking a child into care, often neither the State nor the parents have legal representation. This is because “compulsory measures are rarely taken and huge efforts are made [by the judges] to form a partnership with parents so as to reduce conflict”.

He believes there is a great need for a rigorous multidisciplinary conference involving judges, lawyers, social workers and care workers, child and adolescent mental health services, foster carers, and childrens’ and parents’ advocacy groups. From that, a pilot non-adversarial model might emerge, with the fallback of court still available.

John Byrne, a lecturer in social care practice at Waterford Institute of Technology, also believes our system is utterly dysfunctional, and despite being the backbone of our care system, that foster carers in particular are treated very badly. He says the most common misconception about the Irish child protection and welfare system is that it is actually about child protection and welfare. He believes it is about politics and economics.

Implementing Kieran McGrath’s suggestion would show commitment to change. But that intangible but incredibly powerful factor – culture – stands in the way. Despite all our rhetoric about cherishing children, time after time we see proof that politics and economics do indeed trump the needs of children.

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