Bernard Gloster, the chief executive of Tusla, was in his office happily working away at his computer at 7am on May 14th, 2021, when his deputy rang to say, “I can’t send any emails. Can you?” Not having looked at his messages before that call, he then turned on Morning Ireland, on RTÉ Radio 1, and heard his counterpart at the Health Service Executive, Paul Reid, talking about a cyberattack overnight.
“I walked down the corridor and my chief information officer happened to be here. I walked into his room. The first thing he said to me is, ‘We’re completely out.’ We had nothing, no email; a lot of our phone systems are IT-dependent.
“This is an organisation that had moved in quite an advanced way to paperless work,” he explains. Yet its IT systems were still heavily enmeshed with those of the HSE, out of which Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, had emerged as a separate State agency on January 1st, 2014 (encompassing also the Family Support Agency and the National Education Welfare Board).
Gloster, who had spent more than 30 years working for the HSE before his appointment to head Tusla in September 2019, says he has been involved in managing many incidents and issues over the course of his career, but the impact of the cyberattack that shut down the HSE’s IT systems “was one of the ones that concerned me the greatest”. As Tusla was 90 per cent dependent on the HSE’s ICT, all its systems were shut down.
It was the second of three big external events that Gloster has had to lead Tusla through since he took over. He was just embarking on an internal action plan he had devised, focusing on practice, culture and structure, when the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic hit, in March 2020; the cyberattack followed just over a year later, and in 2022 the arrival of families and unaccompanied children fleeing the war in Ukraine has increased demand for Tusla services.
Sitting in his corner office on the fifth floor of the Brunel Building, in Dublin’s Heuston South Quarter, overlooking the formal gardens of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, the Limerick man is reflecting on three years at the helm of the child and family agency. Operating on a budget of €900 million, with a staff of about 5,000, it is “probably one of the most complex public-sector organisations”, he says, reaching into every parish in Ireland. It funds more than 600 entities working within communities to deliver a wide range of support services.
Gloster, who drives to the Dublin office from his Co Limerick home, is the organisation’s third chief executive but the first “home-grown” one, as both his predecessors, Gordon Jeyes and Fred McBride, were Scotsmen. When he took up the position, he said that public confidence in Tusla was “highly questionable”.
Tusla in numbers
- 8 years and 9 months in existence
- €900 million annual budget
- 5,150 target for staff numbers by the end of 2022
- 5,854 children in care
- 89.5% of those in foster care
- 10.5% in residential care and other placements
He talks now of coming into the job with a strong sense that the agency was “somewhat under siege” after a couple of difficult years. Serious Tusla errors had been exposed during the Disclosures Tribunal investigating its involvement with the Garda whistleblower Sgt Maurice McCabe and his family, and a 2018 report by the agency’s regulator, Hiqa, had been highly critical of its performance.
“The agency was under a lot of pressure and became somewhat defensive and inward-looking,” he says. Gloster identified three issues that needed to be tackled in tandem: quality of service, culture and governance.
It is consistency in services that has been lacking, he suggests. “Tusla does enormously good work in so many services across the country, but it is not consistent everywhere. It is not the same for the child in Donegal, Dingle and Dublin.”
Observers say he has turned a culture of “deny and defend” towards more transparency and accountability. He feels it was about staff understanding that they needed to simplify what they do, communicate what they do and be pragmatic about what they can do, as “one of the most, if not the most” regulated State agencies. Tusla not only provides a child protection and welfare service, and alternative care for children that the State takes into care, but also regulates all creches and preschools, and provides services for adoption, family support, education welfare and for those affected by domestic, sexual and gender-based violence — although a new, dedicated agency will take over the last of those roles within the next two years.
“We have to do all of those in a very technical way, but at the end of the day we can only do that through relationships with individual children and families and communities and the public.” He thinks he was able to communicate to the workforce “that I believe in accountability but I believe in fair accountability”. An error or a failing should not be met with a “hang ’em high” response. “I think the workforce has risen to that challenge. There are some who obviously don’t.”
Key to changing practice and culture was a shake-up in structure. “The governance in my view was heavily centralised, quite siloed and quite fractured,” says Gloster, who set up a central management team of five. Then, because “you can’t run Tusla for each individual child from the centre of Dublin”, he divided the country into six regions and appointed six chief officers to lead those regions, each effectively becoming “the CEO of Tusla in their place”.
Where does he think the organisation stands now in terms of public trust? “I think it is perhaps for others to judge... but I would say that I have a strong sense from fairly significant reference points and feedback that public confidence in the agency is better,” he replies. There is recognition that the organisation is “on the pathway of improving”. Across Government and Irish society generally, he believes Tusla is seen more now “as part of the solution in the State’s response to where we’re at as a society, rather than, perhaps, being part of the problem, as it were”. However, it will always experience challenges, due to the nature of its work.
They are the ones that will ask all of us as public services to challenge ourselves as to what we can do differently. They are the young people who are at most risk
Although the agency’s aim must be to keep every child safe, “in the context of 73,000 children referred to us in 2021, I would say that’s pretty impossible. But I am a firm believer in continuous improvement.” Taking all Hiqa reports combined as an indicator, the trend is upwards. Hiqa monitors Tusla’s services against the national standards for child protection and welfare, classing them as “compliant”, “substantially compliant”, “moderately non-compliant” or “majorly non-compliant”.
“Our categorisation in the top two of those, ‘compliant’ or ‘substantially compliant’ overall as a measure of all our reports has gone up from 51 to 81 per cent in three years. That is a very significant vote of confidence, not in a service that doesn’t have problems but a service that knows it has problems and knows how to deal with them.”
But for about 50 at any one time of the 6,000 children in its care he doesn’t know what the answer is. Due to the difficulties and trauma they have experienced and the “shortcomings of integration by lots of State agencies”, these young people “end up with all the challenges of the world. Nobody is able to connect them to a solid, safe core placement, be it in their family or in a care place.” They haven’t fitted neatly into any mental health or disability box “and they become, ultimately by circumstance, children with welfare and protection concerns, some of them self-harming, some being harmed or exploited by others”.
These young people live in a variety of emergency arrangements with Tusla staff, in hotels, B&Bs and holiday homes, “just to try to keep them safe and get them from one day into the next”, while attempts are made to ground them in a service. The big question for the State is not just how to help these young people, but also to learn how they reached such a troubling level of need in the first place and what, perhaps, could have been done earlier in their lives to avert that.
“They are the ones that will ask all of us as public services to challenge ourselves as to what we can do differently,” Gloster says. “They are the young people who are at most risk.”
As to whether vulnerable children fall through the gaps in what can appear to be “turf wars” between the HSE and Tusla, he says there is better co-operation between the two bodies, “but not anything for us to be complacent about”. He doesn’t think Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (Camhs) should be brought into Tusla’s remit, as his predecessor Jeyes had argued. “Where I would agree with the view of Gordon and others in the past is that there is a serious requirement on all State agencies to understand that when children come to our attention in difficulty, there is a collective responsibility to respond.”
In a new departure, Tusla is recruiting its own therapists in “significant numbers” this year. While it always had a few, it is now hiring approximately 20 therapists, mainly speech and language and occupational therapists, to work exclusively with children in care. Tusla needs to become a multidisciplinary agency, he says, “no more than HSE hires social workers on every one of their teams. That is not to say the HSE therapists won’t still need to do a job”.
Gloster has a good working relationship with the outgoing CEO of the HSE and, for both organisations, the challenges they face within children’s services aren’t just about money, he suggests. Increasingly it’s about the complexities of life for children who need personal, social and health services.
“We very often want to talk about what the State can and can’t do for children and families in difficulty, and that’s an important conversation. But we do have to have an honest conversation about what happens in the lives of children and families before they come to the attention of the State, the pressures that they are under.” The influences in society of drugs, crime, abuse and poor mental health, combined with factors such as poverty and Covid-19, collectively create a difficult context for children.
In addition to the 6,000 children taken into alternative care, Tusla’s child protection staff work to safeguard and support another 14,000 who remain at home with their families. About 90 per cent of those in care are placed with other families and more than a quarter of foster carers are relatives. The other 10 per cent of children are in residential care and Gloster is keen to reduce the State’s reliance on private providers for this.
Private care is a feature of almost every part of delivery of services in Ireland now, be it in health, nursing homes or disability centres. “It has its place; it’s important we don’t become pejorative about it. Yet private operators make a profit. There is nothing wrong in that in business, but there is an ethical part about it being reasonable.
“I want to be very clear some of them are exceptionally good at what they do; the issue is our level of dependence.” About 65 per cent of residential care is provided by private companies, the other 35 per cent by Tusla and NGOs.
Although there are a lot of social care workers in Ireland, they are required in many other settings and the work is exceptionally challenging — it is our highest rate of absenteeism
Asked to explain his concern about over-reliance, he points out that Tusla has a process for procurement of services, mostly for quality control and assurance. “I am not saying anyone in the private sector would be motivated to do this out of badness, but ultimately a private provider can close their door tomorrow; they can fold their company and walk away. If the children are left without an adequate, safe, reasonable service, the State has to step in.”
Another issue is that Hiqa regulates Tusla and Tusla regulates private residential care. “That is a fundamental conflict because we are the provider — we are the purchaser — and we’re also the regulator, and I’m hoping that is going to change and shift to Hiqa, but that’s ultimately a Government and legislative decision.”
The Tusla board has approved a plan to bring provision of residential care to 50:50 public and private within the next three to five years. The challenge is the time it will take the agency to do this, as it involves not only sourcing premises, but getting planning permission for change of use, adapting the house to meet all regulatory requirements and “critically, we have to recruit staff”. Typically, residential care involves two to four young people in a house, which requires the equivalent of 16 full-time staff, at a cost of about €1.5 million a year. “Although there are a lot of social care workers in Ireland, they are required in many other settings and the work is exceptionally challenging — it is our highest rate of absenteeism, our highest rate of incidents.”
Tusla aims to have 5,150 staff by the close of the year — it had 4,837 by the end of the first quarter. “We are certainly experiencing pressure on the social work side — we have done massive recruitment but retention is an issue.” He attributes that to the complexity of the work and the availability of other options for social workers.
Before the Ukraine war, Tusla would have expected to have between 90 and 95 unaccompanied minors seeking international protection in its care at any one time, out of about 150 to170 referrals a year. So far this year it has had 466 young people referred and 167 of those are in care, of whom 63 are from Ukraine and 104 are from other countries. Even without the war in Ukraine, the demand for international protection is growing, due to the situations in Somalia and Afghanistan, among others,
“I also think, potentially, aspects of UK policy might have something to do with the Irish part of that,” he says. “We have managed but this week we are running another foster care campaign to try to recruit families. In the short term, we have had to open some additional private residential capacity, which is contrary to our overall plan for residential care.” But Gloster doesn’t see unforeseen events as a reason to delay reform and improvements. He even notes one upside of having had to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It helped me in the context of introducing what I call ‘agility’.” It’s clear he doesn’t want dilly-dallying around decision-making to stall what needs to be done. In another example of “out of bad comes good”, Tusla expects to be “practically self-contained in ICT” by the end of the year and equipped with the latest cybersecurity protections. The agency had just three or four people working on ICT in 2017; now it has 75.
With this interview due to be published on the day of Budget 2023, Gloster appears reasonably confident that Tusla will get at least the extra €44 million it estimates it will need to maintain the existing level of services next year. Although, with the cost-of-living crisis and soaring fuel prices, this winter is expected to bring a toll on children and potentially increase demand for Tusla services. Financial pressures tend to increase tensions within any family, but in already-volatile families the consequences can be particularly damaging.
“I would be concerned and I think my staff would tell me that we should be concerned” about the added challenges. However, he stresses that, “even if it is beyond our remit”, Tusla would work with funded partners on the ground to support families. “Whatever it means, we will do our part.”