Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman has said he will not have full confidence that children involved with St John Ambulance are safe until the first aid organisation has a national safeguarding officer in place.
A report by Mr Justice Geoffrey Shannon, published earlier this year, found the organisation’s past culture had “facilitated” the grooming of children and that it “failed to intervene” on knowledge about boys being at risk of abuse for years in the 1990s.
The report, which also strongly criticised failings in current standards, recommended the organisation hire a full-time safeguarding officer. Mr O’Gorman said the organisation had assured him it was in the process of recruiting for the role.
Speaking at the Oireachtas committee on children on Wednesday, Mr O’Gorman said it was “absolutely essential” that the position was filled so as to provide the public with confidence about the organisation’s child protection standards.
“Until that person is fully operational and is in position and is in the role, that’s when I will be fully satisfied of the absolute safety of every child in that organisation,” he said.
Tusla officials told the committee that a shortage of staff was the “biggest challenge” it faced when it came to ending the agency’s reliance on special emergency arrangements, such as bed and breakfasts or rented apartments, to house children in State care.
At present 162 children in care are being accommodated in these arrangements, which have been criticised as inappropriate by children’s rights organisations and judges.
Kate Duggan, Tusla’s interim chief executive, said the agency had worked to reduce the use of hotels in such emergency arrangements.
Only one child at present has to be placed in a hotel on a given night, she said, adding that where children in care were put in hotel rooms, this was for the “very shortest time possible”.
In three quarters of cases where children were in these “unregulated” placements, they were accommodated in leased apartments or houses, with staff on site, she said.
“Every one of them has an allocated social worker, every one of them has a care plan,” Ms Duggan said. “There is no young person left without a bed and a safe place on any night.”
Around 100 of the 162 young people in special emergency arrangements were unaccompanied asylum seekers who arrived from Ukraine and elsewhere without guardians.
Mr O’Gorman said the recruitment and retention of social workers was a “major issue” facing Tusla. He said there had been “challenges” in filling all available places on current social work college courses.
However, he said Tusla had a “very focused” campaign to recruit social work students, by offering all graduates a contract upon qualification.
Ms Duggan said Tusla had hired 138 graduates as social workers this year and was in the process of recruiting 70 social workers from abroad.
She said a staff survey last year found that social workers felt they were not able to spend enough “face-to-face” time working with children and families. Ms Duggan said employees expressed concern that much of their work related to compliance and box ticking, which the agency was looking to address.
Tusla officials also said the issue of children in care being at increased risk of sexual exploitation was being taken very seriously. The agency had referred 27 cases of suspected exploitation of children to gardaí for investigation so far this year. In seven of those cases, Ms Duggan said, children were not in care, but living in the community.
Research from University College Dublin published earlier this year raised “grave concern” about girls in care being targeted by co-ordinated “gangs” of predatory men. It detailed numerous 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 or given gifts.
Following the UCD research, Ms Duggan said Tusla had conducted an “audit” of cases it was aware of where there was a suspicion children living in residential care homes had possibly been sexually exploited. It was carrying out a further review into “the reporting and process management of concerns regarding child sexual exploitation”, she said.
A working group of Tusla and department officials was examining the issue of exploitation and had commissioned further academic research into the problem, Mr O’Gorman said.