Report on exploitation of girls in care exposes lack of co-ordinated State response

Officials were warned months ago about sexual exploitation of girls in residential care by gangs of predatory men outside the homes, correspondence shows

Outside a residential home for children in the care of the State, staff would watch as, night after night, a car pulled up outside the accommodation.

A 16-year-old girl in the care of Tusla, the child and family agency, would walk out of the group home and get into the car, which then drove off. She would return later, often with new clothes or jewellery.

The girl, one of a cohort of the most vulnerable children in the country, was suspected of being sexually exploited by a group of older men preying on teenagers in State care.

Her story was one of many laid out in a study published on Thursday, which found girls living in residential care homes were being sexually exploited by “co-ordinated networks, or gangs, of predatory men”.


Unlike the vast majority of the 5,600 children in care who live with foster carers, this smaller cohort of about 400 young people live in group care homes.

This could be for a number of reasons, such as previous placement breakdowns due to behavioural issues tied to past trauma, having complex needs or potentially addiction or mental health challenges.

These care homes typically house up to six young people and are run by Tusla or contracted to private and voluntary providers.

The study from University College Dublin’s school of social work expressed “grave concerns” about girls in State care being groomed and sexually exploited by organised “gangs” of older men.

The research found cases of girls being taken from residential care homes by taxis and brought to hotels, where they were then sexually exploited and abused, often after being supplied with drugs.

Children in their early teens were being coerced into sex acts with multiple men, in exchange for money or goods, or on the instruction of an older man they were groomed to view as their boyfriend.

The study was based on interviews, undertaken between February and May 2022, with 21 staff and organisations working with children in care.

They described instances of girls being picked up outside care homes by men “practically every night of the week”, with one interviewee stating they believed a “ring” had targeted a group of girls in one residential centre.

The stark findings prompted the researchers to call for an “immediate investigation” by the Health and Information Quality Authority (Hiqa), which inspects Tusla services.

There have been growing whispers about the exploitation of girls in the care of Tusla in recent years among those working in the sector. The problem had gained little public attention prior to the recent study, however. One source working in the sector said this was because it was “very easy” for the State not to pay attention to these victims, as “they have no voice”.

In a report last December, The Irish Times revealed authorities were investigating an alleged abuse “ring” targeting one group of girls in State care, which Tusla became aware of around the second half of 2020.

In that case, which remains under Garda investigation, several teenage girls were allegedly groomed and taken to Dublin city hotel rooms under the guise of parties taking place.

There they were given alcohol and drugs, as well as gifts such as expensive clothes, before allegedly being sexually abused by older men, according to sources familiar with the incidents.

Documents show on foot of that case Tusla internally sought to overhaul how it tracked suspected exploitation.

Why can't we protect girls in State care from sexual exploitation?

Listen | 21:34

On September 25th, 2020, more than a dozen senior and mid-level staff from the Garda and Tusla logged on to a conference call. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss “recent concerns” about the exploitation of children in care following several urgent cases, according to minutes seen by The Irish Times.

Over a number of months the group drew up a new joint plan for how gardaí and Tusla would better identify cases where young people were being exploited.

In a meeting on November 13th, 2020, under the heading “press strategy”, the group was “advised not to publicise” the work, the minutes stated.

A new Tusla policy was rolled out internally for social workers at the start of 2021, which has led to an increase in notifications of suspected exploitation.

One source in Tusla said exploitation in care had since been firmly on the “radar”. There had been initial fears inside the agency that a large-scale abuse ring run by a criminal network could be in place, the source said.

However, following further investigation, the source said, it appeared recent cases of grooming in residential care had been more “opportunistic”, involving individuals or small groups of men, rather than one large, organised criminal gang.

The research pointed to failings in how authorities responded to reports of children going missing from residential care facilities.

Frontline staff described a sense some gardaí seemed “tired” of dealing with young people frequently reported missing, who they viewed as “problematic”.

The study highlighted a “concerning” case where a teenage boy in care would frequently abscond from his accommodation to meet older men.

The academics said that despite the boy going missing several times, staff caring for him appeared not to follow up “on the fact that he was being sexually exploited when missing”.

In response to the study, Tusla representatives said they were not surprised but found the evidence “sobering and disturbing”.

The agency accepted that at times it had failed to keep children safe, “because of a lack of residential places available to facilitate the child being moved” elsewhere.

Men were also believed to be targeting hotels Tusla was using as emergency accommodation for children in care. The agency has had to rely increasingly on this type of accommodation due to a shortage of beds elsewhere.

The study said staff reported men had been “hanging around hotel lobbies” to target children in these more ad-hoc accommodation arrangements.

One source working in residential services said groups of men had come to know the locations of these hotels and were “preying” on girls.

“They give them so much attention, they tell them they’re beautiful, they give them free drugs, you can understand how these kids are drawn in,” the source said.

The fact every teenager had a smartphone and used social media meant perpetrators had a constant window of access, which one professional told the study had led to a “tsunami of offending”.

Often sexual coercion could first start with requests for explicit photos, which abusers could then use to blackmail and extort young people, the study said.


Dr Mary Canning, co-author of the study and academic with the UCD-based sexual exploitation research programme, said she was “horrified” at the findings.

The scoping study was believed to be the “first of its kind” in the Republic and more detailed research into the full prevalence of exploitation in care was needed, she said.

Researchers had seen “some degree of victim blaming” from professionals, due to a lack of training, she told The Irish Times.

She pointed out girls had been the victim of “sophisticated” grooming, leading them to believe men in their 20s and 30s exploiting them were their boyfriends.

The grooming can involve a cycle where girls originally exploited can later become “recruiters”, coercing others into becoming involved with predatory men, the study noted.

One professional described instances where children would “bring other kids on board” to be exploited.

In another case a girl encouraged a peer to abscond from their care home to her “so-called boyfriend”. The man brought both girls to an apartment, supplied them with drugs “to achieve compliance” and sexually assaulted them, one interviewee told researchers.

The Department of Children, and by extension the Government, cannot plead ignorance to the problem.

The Ombudsman for Children has been privately warning about the sexual exploitation of children in care for months, correspondence shows.

Dr Niall Muldoon, the ombudsman, wrote to Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman and now-interim Tusla chief executive Kate Duggan last October to set up a round-table meeting to discuss the care of “at-risk” teenagers.

An internal briefing from the ombudsman’s office said vulnerable young people being sexually or criminally exploited appeared to be “invisible within Government policy”.

In a subsequent letter to a senior department official on February 14th, Dr Muldoon said there were “significant challenges” to all State agencies working together “in the best interests of this cohort of children”.

Dr Muldoon said it was clear there was a “need for leadership” from Government, to push forward “a coherent, interagency approach” to prevent the at-risk group falling through the cracks.

Responding to the study, Mr O’Gorman said his department would immediately “prioritise” a review of its findings and recommendations.

“No child should be at risk of exploitation and work to raise awareness of and tackle child exploitation is a priority for my department and Tusla,” he said.