Lack of appropriate care placements leave some children in unsafe situations

Governance, management and resourcing of children’s services require further improvement, Hiqa says

A “small number” of children requiring care remained in unsafe situations for a “considerable period of time” due to a lack of appropriate placements, according to a review by the health and safety watchdog.

On Monday, the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) published an overview of its monitoring of the State’s children’s services during 2021, which includes residential centres, foster care and child protection and welfare services.

The body conducted 56 inspections throughout the year and found that while there were improvements in compliance with national standards and regulations, there was further room for improvement in governance and management and resourcing services.

Hiqa found a high level of compliance with national standards for children on the Child Protection Notification System (CPNS), a national database containing the names of all children who are deemed as being at ongoing risk of significant harm and for whom there are ongoing child protection concerns.

However, in one service area, which was not named in the report, it said planning for children facing significant risk within their homes and identified as requiring care placements was delayed at the time of inspection.

“This resulted in a small number of children remaining in unsafe situations for a considerable period of time. Appropriate assurances were provided by area managers in relation to these individual cases,” the report states.

The report concludes that failure to provide the right placement at the right time has been a consistent finding through its inspections in 2021, and “inevitably, the safety and wellbeing of children can be compromised”.

Overall, Hiqa said there was a “noted increase” in the number of children awaiting the allocation of a social worker, with the number of cases on the waiting list remaining at a “significant level”.

At the end of the year, some 16,441 or 77 per cent of open cases had been allocated to a social worker, with 4,807 (23 per cent) awaiting allocation, including 436 cases which had been deemed high priority.

These figures illustrate an increase of 568 in unallocated cases, including 60 additional high-priority cases, when compared with the previous year.

“However, it was clear that staff in service areas endeavoured to allocate children who were prioritised as high priority,” it concluded.

Eva Boyle, Hiqa’s head of children’s services, said there was an ongoing commitment to delivering a safe service but added there were inconsistencies in many services provided to children that needed to be improved upon.

“One persistent finding from our inspections was the continued challenge that Tusla experienced in adequately resourcing its services and the impact that this had on children,” she said.

“It is crucial that children have access to the right service for them at the right time to support their development and promote their safety and rights. Many children did not have an allocated social worker or experienced multiple changes in social workers over short periods of time.

“While Tusla employed other professional groups and used social care staff to mitigate the risk associated with reduced staffing levels, vacancies persisted in many services,” she added. “There was also a lack of suitable foster care placements for children requiring admission to care. Towards the end of 2021, the number of children who did not have an allocated social worker increased in many service areas.”

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is a reporter for The Irish Times