Flaws in Cork foster care services highlighted


CHILD PROTECTION services in the Cork area are not robust enough to ensure all children in foster care are being safely cared for, according to a new inspection report.

Inspectors with the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) began an inspection of foster care services in the city and county in August of 2009.

In general, they found evidence of good practice in many aspects of foster care.

National standards were met in relation to children having a positive sense of identity, maintaining contact with family and friends and also children’s rights.

However, inspectors also found that due to deficiencies in the provision of foster care services, the needs of some children went unmet and some foster carers received inadequate support.

Many social workers struggled with large caseloads that often included complex cases, which used up much of their time through court appearances, report-writing and direct assistance.

This undermined the capacity of social workers to fulfil the basic statutory requirements of children in care and children and families at risk in the community, according to the report.

Two social work department managers expressed concern that these heavy workloads meant they were not always able to respond quickly to reports of alleged abuse and neglect of children.

At the beginning of the inspection, inspectors said they were informed by senior management that all 690 children placed with foster carers in the region had been allocated a social worker.

Subsequent inquiries, however, revealed that between 20 and 25 children did not have a social worker. Inspectors found that many of the deficiencies were as a result of a failure to fill vacant posts due to maternity leave.

While they found that about 450 foster carers had been officially approved, almost 50 had not been properly assessed to ensure their suitability as foster carers.

The majority of these carers were relatives, or members of a child’s extended family.

Principal social workers also told inspectors of deficiencies in the provision of basic services such as statutory care plans and reviews.

In a sample group of 43 children inspected, for example, 28 per cent did not have a care plan, while social workers had not visited about 33 per cent of the children for several years.

On a more positive note, most children in the sample group felt they were receiving a good service and that their rights were being respected.

Senior managers acknowledged their failure to comply with all their statutory duties and said they would be immediately remedied by the social work departments.

Inspectors were also shown a strategy to ensure there was a care plan review for every child in the care system in 2010.

The Hiqa inspection focused on the four local health areas in the HSE South region, which cover the city and county of Cork. These are North Lee, South Lee, North Cork and West Cork.

These local health areas were selected as a group, according to Hiqa, because they shared a managerial and operational structure in the provision of the foster care services. Fine Gael spokesman on children, Charlie Flanagan, called for a national audit of foster care services by Hiqa following the Cork report. He said it confirmed there were problems that were endemic in the service and deficiencies must be addressed.

“Hiqa is to be commended for producing these reports, which shine a vital spotlight on foster care services. Many of the same problems as have been revealed in other areas appear to be endemic in the system,” he added.