Almost 150 young people known to social services have died since 2010

Deaths reveal pressure facing social work departments, says independent report

An average of 21 vulnerable young people in contact with social services have died each year, according to an independent body tasked with reviewing critical incidents in the care system. Photograph: iStock

An average of 21 vulnerable young people in contact with social services have died each year, according to an independent body tasked with reviewing critical incidents in the care system. Photograph: iStock

 

Almost 150 vulnerable young people who were in contact with social services have died since 2010, new figures show.

The most common cause of death was natural causes, followed by suicide, accident, drug overdose and homicide.

The details are contained in reports published on Wednesday by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, into the circumstances surrounding the deaths of young people known to social services.

Case reviews of five individual deaths reveal the level of pressure being experienced by social work departments, according to Dr Helen Buckley, chair of an independent body which reviews serious incidents in the care system.

In addition, she said they showed evidence of an “emerging and problematic gulf” between health services and social work departments.

These gaps between public health nursing – which remain part of the HSE – and social services – now part of Tusla, a separate agency – in particular could become more acute, Dr Buckley warned.

Case reviews focus on five deaths, four teenagers and one infant, who died in recent years.

While they did not find any connection between deaths and any inaction on the part of Tusla, they reveal weaknesses in policy and practice in key areas.

Dr Buckley raised concern over very high thresholds that were applied in some cases when social workers were estimating whether or not harm had been inflicted on the children concerned.

Practice weaknesses included inadequate assessment, particularly where parental addiction and domestic violence were involved, she said.

In one case there was a failure on the part of a social work department to involve the young person’s father, even though he had been very involved in rearing his son and had in fact cared for him for most of his life.

Goodwill

In the same case, the social work department relied excessively on the goodwill of the young person’s sibling to take care of him without providing financial or other types of support.

Overall, 149 young people or infants who were in contact with social services have been notified to the National Review Panel since it was established in 2010. This is an average of 21 deaths a year.

Most cases involved young people who were living at home and known to child protection services for differing periods of time.

About 11 per cent of these deaths were young people in care, while a further 11 per cent were either in receipt of aftercare services or had been in care up to their 18th birthday and were under 21 years of age.

Jim Gibson, Tusla’s chief operations officer, said that while the primary responsibility for the care of a child lay with the family, it was the duty of the State to respond in cases where they needed help to carry out that responsibility.

“The key learning from these reports is that good individual supports are not enough, without a co-ordinated, multi-agency approach,” he said.

Mr Gibson acknowledged that services for children and young people could be improved if statutory agencies worked more effectively together.

He said Tusla and the HSE this year published a joint working protocol to support good collaboration between the agencies to promote the best interests of children, families and vulnerable adults.