Child protection legal system was ‘culture shock’ to Tusla head

Tusla had been ‘bedevilled a little bit’ by a lack of consistency of approach

Fred McBride, chief executive of Tusla. Photograph: Eric Luke

Fred McBride, chief executive of Tusla. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

The child protection legal system in Ireland was “one of the biggest culture shocks” ever experienced by Fred McBride, head of Tusla, he told a congress on family law on children’s rights.

Mr McBride, who worked in child protection in Scotland before moving to Dublin, said he found engagement with the legal system “quite difficult”. He also said training of judges would be a “significant step forward”.

He told the World Congress on Family Law and Children’s Rights that Ireland’s legal system, because it intervenes in private family life and removes children into State care, “remains particularly adversarial”.

“As someone coming from another jurisdiction, it was perhaps one of the biggest culture shocks I’ve experienced, in how the court system takes a long time to make firm decisions about children’s future,” he said.

“Sometimes you’ve got children’s cases in limbo for two or three years, temporary decisions made, interim decisions made.”

He said a fundamental review of the Child Care Act 1991 was required and was under way. “It needs a fundamental overhaul in my view,” he said.

“Within that, the setting up of a family court and training judges would be a significant step forward.”

The four-day congress, held at the Convention Centre in Dublin, features 150 speakers and more than 600 delegates from 53 countries.

Mr McBride told delegates the number of unallocated child-protection cases where a social worker has not been assigned was “starting to creep up again in the context of a significant increase in referrals”.

“We are trying to get underneath all of that and understand why that is and what we do about it,” he said.

Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, was undertaking an overall transformational programme, Mr McBride said. There were 17 operational areas across the country, he added, and 12 assessment frameworks, used by local social work teams. Tusla had been “bedevilled a little bit” by a lack of consistency of approach, he said.

“I realise Cork is different from Dublin, which is different from Donegal, but some kind of consistency of practice framework requires to be developed,” he said.

Australian model

He said the organisation was adopting the Signs of Safety Child Protection Framework, developed in Australia by Andrew Turnell and others.

Mr McBride also said he found engagement with the legal system “quite difficult”, although he did have engagement with the president of the District Court, Judge Rosemary Horgan, who was “very much an open door”.

He paid tribute to agencies working with children, including gardaí and social workers, who “often in the face of quite relentless criticism, tried tirelessly to make the right decisions to make children, families and communities safer”.

“It sometimes feels like hostility,” he said.

He also said he was introducing mandatory training for all social workers “in terms of their interface with the court system”.

“I have to say, most of them find [it]the most stressful aspect of the work that they do.”

Laura Lundy, professor of education law and children’s rights at Queen’s University Belfast, spoke about the “Lundy model” of child participation.

She told delegates children had rights under Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to participate in decision-making that affected them. The Lundy model argued that children needed the space to be heard; the voice to express their views freely; an audience that would listen to them; and influence, so that their views were acted on.

Ireland was the first country in the world to have a National Children’s Participation Strategy, and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs had used the Lundy model for child participation.