Tusla chief hits back at growing ‘blame’ culture against agency

Fred McBride says accusations are making it more difficult to retain staff

Fred McBride chief executive of Tusla says ‘blame’ discourse is affecting social workers.  Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Fred McBride chief executive of Tusla says ‘blame’ discourse is affecting social workers. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

A growing “blame” culture against Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, is affecting child-protection work, making it more difficult to retain staff and could make children less safe, the agency’s chief executive has warned.

Fred McBride said he was “concerned” a culture was emerging similar to that in England following the death of baby ‘P’ in London in 2007.

Baby ‘P’, Peter Connolly, was 17-months when he died, having suffered more than 50 injuries over eight months, despite having been seen by children’s services. His death led to accusations social workers had not done their job and the head of social services in the area was sacked.

In the aftermath, says Mr McBride, child protection social workers across England became so “terrified” of making the “wrong” decision that they began to “hide behind procedures” and stopped “intelligent” child protection work.

Tusla has come under repeated fire, most recently following the publication of an audit of the emergency removal of children from their families by gardaí.

Though the report had been commissioned by An Garda Síochaná, and was critical of the lack of child-protection training for gardaí, and inadequate communication between Tusla and the force, it was Tusla which bore the brunt of the blame in commentary, particularly for returning children to families from whom gardaí had removed them.

It also coincided with a number of case studies by RTÉ Investigates in which again, says Mr McBride, Tusla child protection services were blamed for failing to “adequately protect children”.

Referrals

Assertions that it was the “responsibility” of Tusla “to protect children” put the bar too high, if a guaranteed, risk-free safety was the demand. It is the responsibility, he says, of Tusla in conjunction with other services, to do all within their professional power to make children safer in an often chaotic world.

He was also adamant that in any case where a child is returned to a family, an assessment will have been carried out and a plan put in place. In some cases the child will be returned to family members other than those from which they were removed.

Where Tusla has 42,000 referrals a year and at any time has 26,000 open cases, he believes the agency is, in 99 per cent of cases, making children safer.

“In the cases that have been raised I am quite confident we have done the right thing. If we had really screwed up then of course we would have said so.”

Removing children

He is also concerned at the “simplistic” belief that at the first sign of risk a child should be removed.

“The impact on a child of being removed is massive, whether from a family or a settled foster placement. Removing children: make no mistake about the trauma that that can cause a child. It can be worst thing you could do. Often a child absolutely feels they are being punished, that it’s their fault if they are removed,” he said.

“Imagine if it was your own family and one child was harming the other, you wouldn’t throw one of them out, especially if they were already vulnerable? You’d deal with it. You would talk to them, supervise more closely, you would have a plan in place. That would be intelligent risk management. But even then, there are no guarantees. We can’t guarantee anything. Human behaviour is unpredictable.”

Mr McBride said there was a notion in the child protection field that “professionals should be able to predict what is going to happen”.

“Well you can’t with this work. When things go wrong there is a notion that somebody must be to blame. There is a huge appetite for blame in this country and simple solution,” he said. “Of course we remove a child if it is the right thing to do, but the point is you can’t treat every circumstance in the same way. It’s got to be in the best interest of the child, or both children.”

Retaining staff

Though Tusla is, for the first time, now recruiting more social workers than it’s losing, he says retention remains a challenge. “I can tell you as someone who has worked in all the social care groups, the child protection shift is the hardest, most stressful. We need to look seriously at pay and conditions.”

Asked whether child protection social workers should be paid more than other social workers, he says: “I think so, yes. But it’s not just money, it’s the need for more support, more job satisfaction – and part of that is about having more time with families – and a greater public understanding of the complexities of the work. The ‘blame’ discourse is affecting social workers. It’s scary stuff.”