Shocking failures and inadequacies uncovered at child agency

Investigation into Tusla makes for ‘difficult reading’ says Katherine Zappone

The Health and Information Quality Authority investigated  the management of allegations of child sexual abuse cases by the Child and Family Agency Tusla. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

The Health and Information Quality Authority investigated the management of allegations of child sexual abuse cases by the Child and Family Agency Tusla. Photograph: Alan Betson / The Irish Times

 

The Health and Information Quality Authority investigation into the management of allegations of child sexual abuse cases by the Child and Family Agency (Tusla) confined itself to systems but its finding were shocking.

Minister for Children Katherine Zappone described the report as “difficult reading” but that seemed a euphemism in the face of the full weight of the hard-hitting 308-page document.

The failures, gaps and inadequacies uncovered by the investigation team were striking. The handling of retrospective allegations against adults of concern, for example, raised the possibility that potentially serious risks of child abuse were being missed.

“The investigation team found that while Tusla focused on examining current risks to children, this often resulted in a lack of urgency in responding to retrospective allegations of abuse against adults of concern. This meant that children who are potentially at risk from adults who are alleged to have abused children in the past, and or who were convicted of child sexual abuse in the past, and who now have access to other children may be missed.”

The authority did commend the commitment of staff and social workers, particularly in cases where there was immediate risk. Against that, there was a litany of poor practice detailed throughout the report, including many instances where a named social worker had not been assigned to a case, unmanaged retrospective referrals, poor record-keeping, and inconsistent risk management arrangements.

Specifically, the Hiqa team looked at 164 cases reported as closed by Tusla. The investigators “could not establish if some of the cases reviewed were actually closed. Furthermore, the investigation team found cases which were inappropriately closed as there were outstanding child protection concerns”.

Poor performance

In terms of governance, it also found “potential poor performance (by staff) was not being detected or corrected”.

How did this translate at the highest levels? The report gave little comfort to its executives or board: “At a regional and corporate level within Tusla, there was evidence of insufficient oversight… Therefore, there is a system-wide risk in delivering a consistent and sustainable child protection and welfare service.”

Some of these failures were exposed by the cack-handed management by Tusla of the unfounded allegations made against Maurice McCabe.

The clear implication, as disclosed by Hiqa, is that these failures and gaps left vulnerable and at risk children without adequate protection.

Sense of urgency

The political response from Ms Zappone was to give assurance that all of the recommendations would be implemented with a huge sense of urgency. She has directed Tusla to produce an action plan and has appointed Dr Moling Ryan to chair an independent group that will ensure those changes are being made.

Ms Zappone also partly defended Tusla, pointing out it was just four years old and is born of a difficult merger of different organisations and cultures. She also stressed several times that the agency has begun tackling many of the core failures even before the completion of the fieldwork by investigators. “They will continue with a greater sense of urgency,” she said.

That said, when asked could such failures occur again, she gave a heavily qualified answer, reflecting the very serious concerns raised.

“I believe that it is significantly less likely as we move towards the implementation of the recommendations,” she said.

But she added that because of the way “adults continue to behave towards children in our country, we never can be absolutely sure”.

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