Time to restore trust in child protection

 

THE GOVERNMENT’S decision to set up a children and families agency outside the Health Service Executive (HSE) is an opportunity to rebuild public trust in the State’s role in protecting children and supporting families. But cultural change and more community involvement in child protection is needed to keep Irish children safe, says Gordon Jeyes, HSE national director of family and children services.

Jeyes, who was appointed in December following widespread concern about the deaths of children in care, says he has been shocked at the lack of reliable data and information provided by HSE services and the sheer unpopularity of the organisation.

“It seemed to me a remarkable achievement to become so unpopular in such a brief time, when having a single health service for a country as small as Ireland seemed a no-brainer,” says Jeyes, who recalls how newspaper cartoons lampooned the HSE as the second-most hated institution in the State – behind only Anglo Irish Bank – at the time he was interviewing for the HSE post.

Since taking on the job in February, Jeyes has identified a lack of consistency across different HSE areas and a lack of accountability as critical problems. “There is an Irish tendency not to be particularly keen on consistency, and social work requires consistency,” says Jeyes, who was headhunted by the HSE from his post as director of children’s services at Cambridgeshire County Council in the UK.

“There is a cultural tendency in Ireland that if it comes from Dublin it cannot possibly be any good and so the ‘Republic of Cork’ or somewhere else wants to do it differently,” he says.

“In many walks of life that is laudable, but we are a small country. We need to make sure we are distributing resources equitably and we are using them consistently, and helping children with their life chances,” says Jeyes, a plain-speaking Scot employed on a two-year contract to reform the HSE family and children’s services unit.

He describes the HSE’s failure to tell the Minister for Children last year how many children known to social workers had died as “inept”. He bemoans previous management failures that mean there are no proper systems in place, and criticises the “refer on” culture that exists more generally in Ireland towards child protection.

“People are always a bit scared of child protection, but they have become so even more in Ireland. There is now a ‘refer on’ culture, so when people ask what do you do if there is a problem? You pass it on to the HSE so they can take the hit,” he says.

He believes that a change of culture is needed in Ireland towards child protection. “It takes a whole community to keep a child safe. We need to engage communities and have inclusive schools and services,” says Jeyes.

Jeyes started off his career as a teacher in a tough neighbourhood in Glasgow’s east end in the 1970s, which he says experienced very high levels of deprivation. In 1995, he was appointed director of education services for Stirling Council in Scotland, a role that saw him take a lead role in responding to the Dunblane massacre when 16 children and one adult were killed by a gunman.

“The first press conference I ever did was going into Victoria Halls in Dunblane and it was like a scene from The Day of the Locust. The hall was packed with cameramen from every country in the world. We came onto the stage and there were tears,” he says.

“My first big experience of working with health, social work and education as a team was Dunblane,” says Jeyes, who places a strong emphasis on community support and integrated services to bolster child protection and welfare.

In 1999, Jeyes took on additional duties for children’s social work, a role that made him the UK’s first director of children’s services with responsibility for health, education, youth services, special educational needs and psychologists.

“There are no boundary solutions,” says Jeyes, who praises the decision by the Government to create a full ministry for children for the first time.

“They are making a value statement by doing this and it is incumbent on all who are committed to children to spend this political capital wisely,” he says.

Jeyes says the new agency will represent an opportunity to rebuild trust with the public. But he says structural change is not the answer to child protection problems and warns that it can also cause distractions that end up placing children at risk.

“We’ve oversold the notion, particularly in the UK under New Labour, that the State will solve everything with lots and lots of legislation. Rather, it is about our values and the cultural issues that Ireland faces,” he says.

He points to a failure to recognise the voice of the child and an imbalance between the legal rights of children and the institution of the family in Ireland. “We need to hear children’s voices in social work files and records . . . it is a particular difficulty in Ireland because of the specific status given to the family in the Constitution,” he says.

He says winning the proposed children’s rights referendum would be a more important step for cultural, rather than legal, reasons.

“How can we have a country or society that somehow considers certain individual’s humanity secondary to another person’s humanity just because they are a child?” he asks.

Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald has said Jeyes will play a key role in helping to set up the new family and children’s agency under her office’s direct responsibility. So does he have any specific ideas on reform?

“I think children’s services committees can be part of the solution, not in the delivery of services but more on accountability,” says Jeyes.

The 2006 national children’s strategy committed each of the 34 city/county development boards in Ireland to establish committees responsible for improving the lives of children and families at local level. All the big organisations and agencies working with children are meant to be represented on the committees.

“Each local community should have a body whereby each agency – health, education, perhaps social protection and environment – are held accountable to the local community about whether they are providing joined-up services,” he says.

Jeyes is clear that there also needs to be clear lines of accountability throughout the service. “I was appointed to run a change programme to reform social care, which I am doing. But I argued that this would be impossible to do unless I had full accountability for the management of services. So there are now straight lines of responsibility to me, not dotted lines,” he says.

He says building trust with the community will take time. New family support networks should be established throughout the State and there needs to be a better understanding of the circumstances when we will work with a family to avoid a child being taken into care.

He dismisses as a myth the notion that the new agency will intervene more regularly to take more children into care. The agency will work with parents to help keep children in the family home, he says.

He says one of the big challenges facing him in implementing the reform programme is the lack of money and the ongoing moratorium on recruitment. He also urged patience, cautioning that there is a great deal of work to be done before the new family and children’s agency is up and running.

“They have appointed a noisy, opinionated, experienced, fairly successful Scot, which gives an illusion that a national office exists. But it doesn’t yet,” he says.