Serious child protection failings detected in study of Garda

Tusla claims services ‘significantly improved’ since audit carried out into children in care

A comprehensive audit of the emergency removal of children from their families by gardaí has found evidence of serious failings in the State’s child protection system. File photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

A comprehensive audit of the emergency removal of children from their families by gardaí has found evidence of serious failings in the State’s child protection system. File photograph: Getty Images/iStockphoto

 

A comprehensive audit of the emergency removal of children from their families by gardaí has found evidence of serious failings in the State’s child protection system.

The forensic audit, of more than 5,400 cases over eight years recorded on the Garda Pulse system, found serious failures in Pulse, a dearth of child protection training for gardaí, and poor and limited interagency communication, co-operation and co-ordination.

It also uncovered evidence of repeated removal of some children by gardaí from the same family circumstances, which suggested systemic failings of child protection.

The audit report described the out-of-hours social work service operated by Tusla as systemically inadequate and found a significant and troubling gap in child protection for children with behavioural problems.

Some children had to be brought to hospital to wait for Tusla services to reopen. And in some cases they were returned to the person from whom they had been removed.

The audit also found serious weaknesses within An Garda Síochána around procedures after children had been removed.

Garda Commissioner

Carried out by special rapporteur on child protection Geoffrey Shannon, the audit was commissioned by Garda Commissioner Nóirín O’Sullivan in 2014, on the recommendation of the Ombudsman for Children.

This followed an inquiry into two cases in 2013 when Roma children with blond hair, in Tallaght, Co Dublin, and Athlone, Co Westmeath, were removed from their families by gardaí using their emergency powers.

The powers, under section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991, authorise gardaí to remove a child if they believe there is an immediate and serious risk to his or her health or welfare. They are separate from the power of social workers to apply to court to remove children.

The audit examined data on more than 5,400 removals of children recorded on the Pulse system, the Garda computerised records system, from 2008 to 2015.

It also reviewed in detail 560 removal cases in 2014 and carried out questionnaires, interviews and focus groups with gardaí.

It found there there was no evidence that racial profiling influenced the removal of children and, in cases involving minority children or families, there were strong factual grounds for removal. This finding was qualified because of an absence of consistent recording of ethnic or cultural backgrounds in the Pulse system.

Cultural norms

The audit also found Nigerian children, or Irish children born of Nigerian parents, and Romanian children, were over-represented among those removed from their families. This could be attributed to different cultural norms around discipline or to higher levels of policing of these communities, though there was no evidence of that, it said.

No evidence was found of overzealous use by gardaí of section 12 and gardaí made efforts to treat children compassionately and sensitively.

The audit report is being launched on Monday by assistant commissioner John O’Driscoll.

It outlines numerous gaps, flaws and variations found in the data saved on Pulse, which it said risks the operation and accountability of the system.

On child-protection training, the audit found there was little or no evidence of it for the majority of gardaí.

It also found an explicit and deeply held culture of placing more emphasis on on-the-job learning than on core training. The audit report said this may reflect a cultural tendency within Templemore Garda Training College to diminish the value of basic training.

Findings also suggested a policy failure on the part of Garda management in the area of changes in ethnic and cultural diversity. The audit said there was a lack of training to help gardaí deal with those changes.

Children’s Ombudsman Niall Muldoon said he was very concerned about the systems failures identified in the report.

He told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland there was a need for greater inter-agency cooperation on child protection, including the co-location of child protection agencies.

“That’s what’s done internationally. When they’re in the same building they can share information. That’s what’s needs to happen.”

Mr Muldoon also expressed concern about the slow pace of Tusla’s efforts to “self correct... This needs to be improved”. He was also concerned about the lack of training for gardaí involved in child protection, and he called for further resources for high risk assessments.

Tusla statement

In a statement Monday, Tusla said: “Much of the research for this audit was done over the past number of years and collaboration and services have significantly improved since that time.

“This report was commissioned for an Garda Síochána, and Tusla was not involved in its production. No Tusla staff were interviewed as part of this audit.”

It said there were “many excellent examples at a local level of Tusla staff and members of an Garda Síochána working collaboratively...

“A robust joint working protocol is being developed by Tusla and an Garda Siochana specifically in relation to Section12. This protocol will build on the existing positive relationship, and will provide extensive guidance on a range of issues including: when to invoke Section 12, children at risk during office hours, delivering a child to the custody of Tusla during office hours, delivering a child to the custody of Tusla out of hours.

“This protocol is being developed in line with the new Children First guidance and the Children First Act.”

Tusla also highlighted its creation of the inter-agency Prevention, Partnership and Family Support (PPFS) programme to promote local supports, and its introduction of an emergency out of hours service in November 2015.

“Currently, counties Dublin, Kildare and Wicklow and Cork North Lee and South Lee have an out of hours social work service in place. The emergency out of hours service is available outside of these counties.”