A High Court judge has said it is "alarming" and "incomprehensible", given "unprecedented" demand for special care places for vulnerable children, that a new specialist facility is operating at less than half its capacity due to ongoing difficulties in recruiting staff.
Ms Justice Leonie Reynolds has directed that her judgment outlining her concerns at the lack of placements for vulnerable children should be provided to the Department of Children so the issues can be drawn to the "urgent attention" of the Minister.
It is “essential” that children in special care have appropriate onward placements to meet their needs and that these placements are available for a timely transition, she said.
It is clear the Child and Family Agency (CFA) faces challenges in relation to meeting the needs of extremely vulnerable children who place themselves at significant risk of harm, she said.
While the CFA has been advised that negotiations are ongoing with private providers with a view to more onward placements coming on stream next year, the fact remains there is a “distinct shortage” of placements available and the reality is the situation “will continue to get worse before it gets better”.
It is “imperative” that staffing issues are addressed urgently “to ensure a continuum of State care to the most vulnerable children in society”, she said.
The CFA had sought sanction from the Department last August to make the vacant positions more financially attractive and a response is awaited, she noted.
The staffing difficulties and consequent lack of sufficient onward placements for young people in special care meant the detention of young people in such care is being unnecessarily extended, she said.
‘Very serious’ concerns
The judge, who managed the High Court minors list for some time, made the remarks in a judgment issued earlier this week arising from a case where difficulties had been experienced in securing an onward placement for a young person who was transitioning out of special care.
This issue was becoming “increasingly commonplace” in the minors list and was of “grave concern” to all parties involved, the judge said.
In that context, she had directed the CFA to complete a review of all cases where minors were detained under special care orders.
The CFA had extended the terms of reference of the review to include a review of all its procedures in light of new provisions relating to special care introduced as part of the revision of the Childcare Act on January 1st 2018, she noted.
The review report, entitled “Transitioning In and Out of Special Care” had now been provided and the court had some “very serious” concerns arising from its findings.
There are, as of now, 14 mixed gender places available in special care for children aged 11-17 in four separate special care units, she noted. One of those, which provides two placements, is due to close at the end of this year.
What is “alarming” is that, about a year ago, a brand new specially adapted facility with placements for up to 12 children was opened by the Minister but to date has operated at less than 50 per cent capacity, she said.
At best, five of the 12 placements are being utilised, she noted.
At a time of ever increasing and unprecedented demand for placements in special care, it appears “incomprehensible” why this facility is not operating at full capacity, she said.
It was apparent, from evidence of the CFA, the difficulty related to recruitment of appropriately qualified staff given constraints on the CFA’s financial resources.
The agency last August sought sanction from the Department to address the matter by seeking to make the vacant positions more financially attractive and has also advanced proposals for recruiting staff from a range of disciplines in circumstances where a social care degree is currently a mandatory requirement, she said.
It was anticipated this would expand the pool for recruitment and assist in improving staffing levels.
Staff in special care units are an “essential cog” in the wheel to ensure extremely vulnerable children who have been placed in special care have all the necessary supports required to assist in a favourable outcome for them, she said.
In the case before her, she commended the commitment of all professional staff involved in achieving a successful outcome.