Child protection chief on ‘walking the talk’

Tusla chief executive Gordon Jeyes outlines the challenges as ‘year zero’ draws to a close

Standing in the gym of Dunblane Primary School on March 13th, 1996, where a lone gunman had opened fire on a class of five- and six-year-old children, killing 16 and their teacher, was a defining experience for Gordon Jeyes.

The children's world in the small Scottish town was invaded in the cruellest way that day. It transpired afterwards that the killer, Thomas Hamilton (43), who shot himself at the scene, had both fought and evaded officialdom for 20 years, since being dismissed as a Scout leader in Stirling.

“My passion for children’s services was reinforced that day,” says Jeyes who, as director of education services with Stirling Council, led the authority’s “critical incidence” response to the school massacre.

Almost two decades later, his management of children’s services is being tested in a very different way here in Ireland, as chief executive of Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, which is just completing its first year – or “year zero” as Jeyes likes to call it.


The establishment of this standalone, national agency for child protection on January 1st, 2014, was heralded by the then minister for children, Frances Fitzgerald, as Ireland moving "beyond a ritual dance of shock and dismay at recurring exposés of child neglect to practical action".

One year on, can Tusla stand up to that claim of it being a new era for at-risk children?

“I think we can,” says Jeyes, pointing out that its work has to be put in the context of reform that has been going on for the past few years. “I think we have picked up the pace. I think there is greater coherence.”

With more than 500 recommendations from an astonishing total of 29 major inquiries and reviews into child-protection failings since 1980 in its “in tray”, the agency has drawn up a three-year corporate plan that is due to go before the Dáil.

“We have made a start against a background of austerity. The progress might be slower than impatient people like myself want but we’ve got momentum now. I meet many critics, including internal ones – I mean that in a good sense, I need people to tell me and to keep it real – but I rarely, rarely meet anyone who says it is not improving.”

With the agency’s staff of 4,000, mostly hived off from the HSE, a cynic might say you can take the staff out of the HSE but can you take the HSE out of the staff? Jeyes himself, shortly after he came over from Cambridge four years ago to become HSE national director for children and family services, described the organisation’s culture as “appalling”.

Infelicitous Sitting in his fourth floor office in St Stephen’s Green House, in Dublin, with pink-lidded grey storage boxes stacked in the corner in preparation for a January move to Brunel House in Heuston South Quarter, Jeyes drops the steady gaze of his grey-blue eyes when those comments are raised. They were recorded and passed on to RTÉ without his knowledge, he says, but “it was infelicitous – I shouldn’t have spoken that way”.

Laying that aside, it is “certainly the case and extremely challenging that I want to have a particular culture in the Child and Family Agency based on values”. Its three-year corporate plan has a clear statement of values, he says.

“Getting people to agree values is not difficult; getting people to behave in a respectful, or courageous or compassionate way reflecting these values is very hard. I know it’s a terrible cliche but I want us to walk the talk; I want us to be judged by how I behave – being authentic to the press, being responsive to people who inquire to us.”

Within the HSE, child-protection services had “issues of credibility, capacity and capability”, he says. “I think we have restored some credibility. I see confidence back in high-quality workers.”

He refers several times to the high calibre of the frontline workers – social workers and social care and educational welfare staff – and suggests that how they were managed and led was the issue.

Tusla still has a long way to go, he says, having inherited three very different cultures from the HSE, the Family Support Agency and the National Education Welfare Board.

“They all had distinct identities so creating a single culture is challenging – particularly when there is one predominant one, because people had learned in the HSE to behave in a certain way.”

What does he mean by “a certain way”?

“The HSE is being reformed under Tony O’Brien because it didn’t work – it should have worked,” he continues, his tone a tad tetchier. “But as soon as it began to not work, it became a broken brand, and the communications and management culture became overly defensive.”

Tusla’s executive manager, Eibhlin Byrne, who is sitting in on the interview, interjects to remind him: “You often talk about practice without fear and that sense of a supportive environment . . .”

“Yes – able to practise without fear,” agrees Jeyes, who likes to sum up his contribution to staff as one of high challenge and high support.

“If people are clear about their boundaries, are doing their best, know their role and how it complements the next role, they will have my unconditional support.”

Child-protection services fall under scrutiny when there is a tragedy, such as the death of two-year-old Hassan Khan, who was known to social services, in Ballybrack, Co Dublin last October. There is an ongoing independent review of how the various agencies interacted with the family before his death.

Some 9,000 cases of reported concerns about the welfare of a child were waiting to be allocated a social worker, a Dáil committee heard last July. The figure came from Tusla after Jeyes introduced what he calls a “measure the pressure” report.

He won’t let staff use the term “waiting list” but this back-up of cases is not static, he says. “They will have been reviewed and triaged and anything that is vital will have been passed on.”

Indeed, he says they are looked at weekly by team leaders or others and that some referrals should be closed but others will get worse before they get to them.

Inevitably, resources are an issue. Tusla was set up with an annual budget of more than €600 million but Jeyes said ahead of Budget 2015, that the agency would need an extra €45 million just to stand still. The agency was allocated half of that.

“It means we have to look to further efficiencies in the ways we engage with partners.” While still under discussion with the board, its budget will reflect the priorities of child protection, of educational attainment, of domestic violence and of family centres.

Insufficiently funded “There will be further trimming because we need to create a sustainable budget so that we are ready to live within our means.”

The agency is not sufficiently funded and does not have a wide enough range of services, he argues, but at least it is no longer the Cinderella service of a large health service.

Ireland should recognise and celebrate where many of the children’s services are first class, he says, such as foster care (accounting for about 93 per cent of children in State care). “The fact that we have less than 400 young people in residential accommodation.”

While he promises an announcement in the new year about a more formal aftercare system, better integrated services for domestic violence and the appointment of specialists to work with children who exhibit sexually abusive behaviour, Jeyes would like to see the agency being able to do more in areas such as mental health and on alternatives to placement in care.

He talks about the importance of children, families and communities being well-informed and supported to make good decisions.

“The big threats to teenage health are bad decision-making about drugs, about alcohol, about sex, about diet, about fitness and about their attitude to learning and sticking at it.”

Tusla also needs to be a firmer advocate for children with the Government, he suggests, when it comes to issues of housing, health and education. “We can’t do everything.” For the mammoth task of organisational change that Jeyes is driving, 12 months is nothing. But a year in the lives of the children on whose behalf Tusla is making decisions all the time can be a very long time. At the risk of sounding pejorative, how does he sleep at night?

“What some people don’t understand is that every judgment we make is about risk. Leaving a child with the parents can be risky; removing a child from a home can be risky; challenging a judge who doesn’t give access is risky; challenging a judge who does is risky.”

Corporate things He continues: “What keeps me awake at night is corporate things – like irrational discussions about budgets. In other words, I can stand criticism as well as the next person, I am very experienced in that – I think I have proved that by staying here four years. A lot of people might have expected me to give up by now.”

Is it that bad? “Absolutely. This is pretty demanding.” The children’s services in Ireland, he says, have been like a neglected child – and then shown the door when it became a truculent teenager.

“We need to stand up for ourselves and make sure children are seen and are heard.” To ensure it doesn’t become the “well that’s where we put the naughty children and move on” service.

In what little spare time he has, Jeyes, who grew up in Gourock on the west coast of Scotland, relaxes at home with his wife in Howth, Co Dublin. Coincidentally, their only child married a woman from Dublin, 18 months ago and also lives here.

“I go for what passes as running on the beach. I sit and stare at my nine-month-old grandchild. I read voraciously.”

He had never read John McGahern before he came here. “What a find he was for me. I know some Irish people think he is too truthful and too dark . . . but for me it’s the beauty of the writing.”

Today’s Ireland, adds Jeyes, is an “outstanding place” for a child to grow up. “We just have to make sure that high-quality, Irish childhood is accessed by everyone.”

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Calls for single inspection service

Pre-school inspections is one of the roles that Tusla took over and Gordon Jeyes questions the wisdom of the Department of Education now recruiting its own inspectors for early years services, as announced by Minister for Education Jan O'Sullivan last September.

While these services, he says, are about learning as well as care, there should be a single inspection service covering the Síolta and Aistear curriculum guidelines and the care standards.

The decision to have separate inspections is “not particularly strategic”, he suggests, choosing his words carefully.

“I presume, it is an interim stage. I don’t think it makes much sense to have the Pobal improvement and advice service separate as well. The bits of that jigsaw are there but they are not necessarily joined up and in the right place.”

For its part, Tusla is very clear about its role as a regulator and is in the process of recruiting more inspectors, bringing it up to 48 (from about 38 at the start of the year) as well as having appointed four regional managers and an interim national manager.

As a result he promises more frequent inspections of the country’s pre-school services.

However, he argues that what the Prime Time creche exposé of May 2013 showed, was "not so much a failure of inspections as a failure of service".

There is still a need for the Government to pull together an early years strategy, which is not the business of Tusla.

"It is not for me to say but Ireland has got to make up its mind on early years services – is early years a public good, is it an expansion of education or is it just somewhere that families can leave their children as a private transaction so that they can go to work? Or is it a combination of all of those?"

To the mention of the sector's complaints that the inspection service is "unsatisfactory", he responds: "Well, I find Hiqa [Health Information and Quality Authority] very unsatisfactory. We're the Hiqa in this situation."

Tusla is also moving towards a registration system of pre-school services once the Government gives it the green light.

“I believe the Government has agreed a registration fee, which is very modest,” he adds, but one he’s not going to disclose prematurely.

Jeyes on:

Changing the culture: “Getting people to agree values is not difficult; getting people to behave in a respectful, or courageous or compassionate way reflecting these values is very hard.”

Decision-making: "What some people don't understand is that every judgment we make is about risk." Backing staff: "If people are clear about their boundaries, are doing their best, know their role and how it complements the next role, they will have my unconditional support." Sleepless nights: "What keeps me awake at night is corporate things – like irrational discussions about budgets." Staying the course: "A lot of people might have expected me to give up by now." Critics: "I have never found my Irish colleagues shy of telling me what's wrong and what we are not doing enough of." Combating negativity: "Biggest responsibility is turning critics into contributors."