Progress towards child support agency slowed by bickering at official level

Ministers say enabling legislation will be published in the coming weeks

From the Kilkenny incest case in 1993 to last year’s report into the death of almost 200 children in care, successive scandals have demonstrated the failure of the State to protect the children who were its most vulnerable citizens.

The Government has begun making amends for this sorry history in a number of ways, such as the creation of a specific ministry for children and the passing of the children’s rights referendum last year.

A further central plank of its strategy is the creation of a single agency dedicated to children’s issues, which was promised in the programme for government. It undertook to fundamentally reform the delivery of child protection services by removing child welfare and protection from the Health Service Executive and creating a dedicated agency.

A report published last July stoutly championed the creation of the Child and Family Support Agency, and the Government gave the necessary go-ahead. Gordon Jeyes was drafted in from the HSE as chief executive designate and Norah Gibbons, former director of advocacy at Barnardos, has been appointed chairwoman of the new body.

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Slow progress
However, progress has been slower than anticipated. Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald promised the necessary enabling legislation would be published late last year but it never appeared. It was then promised for early this year but again the time line has slipped. Ministers now say it will be published in the coming weeks.

It is, undoubtedly, a substantial undertaking to unpick the current working arrangements of more than 4,000 health service staff and move them to a new agency. The idea behind the agency is that a broad range of prevention, intervention and support services will be available to children in addition to core child welfare services. This is because the previous controversies revealed a fragmentation in services when an emergency occurred: it wasn’t so much that there was no intervention but that different groups of professionals weren’t talking to each other as they should have been.

This is the rationale for transferring services such as public health nursing, speech and language therapy, psychology and mental health services and family support services to the new agency. All of these areas were identified as critical to the needs of vulnerable children in recent reports.


Internal opposition
However, as the documents obtained by The Irish Times show, there is serious internal opposition within the health service to the proposed changes as they apply to clinical psychologists. Senior psychologist managers within the health service fear the social worker "tail" will wag the psychologist "dog" in that crisis interventions in urgent care cases will come to dominate over the broader interventions to improve the mental health of all children.

With resources in short supply, and budgets contracting, their fear is that children with milder problems – ones that nevertheless need to be identified early to stop them worsening – will get scant attention because of the focus on crisisdriven interventions.

Supporters of the agency argue that the involvement of professions other than social work will ensure that it isn’t dominated by crisis cases. A failure to integrate all support services for children into a single agency could result in the agency functioning as “a Nama for children”, solely dealing with emergencies, according to one observer.

Ms Fitzgerald responded to the issue by setting up a subgroup of officials from her department and the Department of Health to carry out an impact assessment.

However, it has failed to come up with an agreed solution and so the impasse remains. And while the bickering continues, children continue to wait for the service that was promised for them.

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times