At least 24 youths died in care of HSE


AT LEAST 24 children and young adults who were involved with social services have died in the past year and a half, according to health authorities.

Official figures show the largest number of deaths, 12, was due to natural causes, followed by suicide (5), road traffic incidents (3) and other incidents, including drug overdoses. The details were disclosed yesterday at the publication of six reports into child deaths and serious incidents, which highlighted grave pressure on social services such as delays in responding to neglect cases and heavy caseloads.

The reports were compiled by an independent group established by the Health Service Executive (HSE) – the National Review Panel for Serious Incidents and Child Deaths. It is charged with identifying weaknesses in policy and practice in child protection and ensuring steps are taken to strengthen services.

Group chairwoman Dr Helen Buckley of Trinity College Dublin said there was no evidence in the cases under review that deaths of children were directly linked to the inaction of social services.

She said many of the cases highlighted serious issues such as poor social work practice, lack of co-operation between State agencies, inadequate assessments and poor recording of information.

“I see services under huge pressure and I see that countrywide,” Ms Buckley said, adding that hiring extra social workers would not necessarily solve problems facing child protection services.

She said it was vital to invest in the kind of services needed by children and families, such as mental health, addiction services and family support. These should be properly integrated with child and family services, she added.

The six reports published yesterday highlighted numerous gaps and shortcomings. Among the issues highlighted were:

A lack of policy, or implementation of existing policies, relating to assessments, supervision of individual cases and recording of information. In particular, there was a need to develop a policy on suicide prevention for adolescents at risk.

A lack of a national, integrated policy for developing child and adolescent mental health and addiction services.

Pressure on child protection services was very high and there were delays responding to referrals, along with waiting lists for allocation of work.

Sometimes there was irregular contact with family members after cases were allocated. In addition, cases were sometimes closed too early, often as a result of pressure on social work teams.

The six reports concerned five deaths of young people and one serious incident concerning a young person. Three of the deaths were due to accidents, one was due to natural causes and one to suicide. The serious incident concerned an accident.

One of the young people, a toddler who died of natural causes, was in State care. The remaining five were known to the child protection services.

Of the teenagers who died, there was a common theme of involvement in drugs, alcohol and other risk-taking behaviour.

Paul Harrison, the HSE’s acting head of policy and strategy for child and family services, said the HSE welcomed the report and was working on implementing recommendations which would strengthen services.

Children’s charity Barnardos said the reports provided more evidence of the need for greater emphasis on early intervention. Chief executive Fergus Finlay said: “We owe it to the young people we have failed – and those who are struggling to continue – to learn from our mistakes and to do everything possible to build a better child welfare and protection system as a matter of urgency.”

Adam: One child's story

ADAM, A boy in his early teens, was referred to social services in 2009 by gardaí after he was the victim of an assault.

Some months later he was involved in incidents of self-harm and attempted suicide.

A close family member had recently taken his own life. During this time Adam stopped attending school regularly and was reported missing from home on at least two occasions.

“All of this information suggests Adam was a young person who needed support and treatment in respect of his mental health needs,” the National Review Panel report states. “The social work records also indicate that members of his family were looking for support in managing Adam’s behaviour.”

It took three months before Adam met a social worker. By this stage his grandmother said he was “out of control”. He admitted to using alcohol and headshop drugs, but would not take up a social worker’s suggestion that he attend counselling.

Over the following three months there is no record of any further social work involvement with the family. A planned family welfare conference did not take place.

When he was referred to child and adolescent mental health services by his GP, they concluded he did not have a major mental health problem. It was agreed with Adam and his mother that they go for bereavement counselling. By the time this letter was received by social services a month later, Adam had taken his own life.