Does our social work system have sufficient safeguards to protect the good name of those facing false allegations?
It’s a question being raised in the fallout from the controversy in which Sgt Maurice McCabe faced an unfounded allegation of child abuse.
It has prompted real concern about the checks and balances of a system in which highly sensitive information and allegations are routinely shared between social services and the Garda.
Professionals on the front line of child protection services who spoke to The Irish Times feel the system works fairly and safely in the vast majority of cases.
However, they say it’s vulnerable to errors due to a combination of pressure on the childcare system, high staff turnover and the move from paper-based records to an IT system.
“Due process and fair procedure is a fundamental part of the system and in general it works well,” said one senior profession. “I think we have very good systems for sharing information. They are stricter than the rules which apply in the UK. But they only work if staff apply the rules faithfully and professionally. In my experience, that is the norm.”
The establishment in recent years of a State agency with sole responsibility for child and family services, was supposed to herald a new era in child protection following a series of scandals.
Tusla held the promise of ensuring that child protection issues would deliver a more cohesive service, backed by resources and greater accountability.
The McCabe case appears to show a litany of errors involving Tusla, such as failing to inform Sgt McCabe about the original allegations, failing to act in a timely manner and acting on outdated information.
Many child protection professionals, however, point out that mishandling of the case extended to the HSE’s national counselling service and the Garda, in particular. The widespread dissemination of sensitive – but inaccurate – allegations about McCabe is unusual according to professionals.
“We have to share information with the Garda,” said one experienced social worker. “That has always been part and parcel of what we do. In my experience, it has always been done very carefully and sensitively. For some reason, these allegations got out there. All the evidence points to the Garda.”
Child protection professionals point out that there are strong constitutional and legal protections over the sharing of information over informing individuals about allegations made against them.
If anything, say some professionals, the system is weighted in favour of those against whom allegations have been made. Much of this stems from the introduction of what’s known in social work circles as “section three”, a policy for responding to allegations of child abuse and neglect. It was as introduced by Tusla after a number of court judgments where fair procedures were not followed.
Social workers, however, believe this “legalistic approach” compromises their first duty of care to the child and there have also been concerns it could result in alleged abusers cross-examining their alleged victims.
In terms of the proper handling of cases, many child protection workers say high levels of staff turnover remain an issue. Trust and relationships are key in effective social work but in a sector where agency staff are being used to fill staffing gaps, these can be in short supply.
In addition, social workers in some parts of the country also feel isolated and unsupported, struggling in some cases with high caseloads. Thousands of reports of suspected abuse, neglect or welfare concerns – many of which are classified as “high priority cases” – are waiting to be allocated a social worker.
Social services have been at the centre of numerous State inquiries over the years which have raised these issues.
The announcement by Minister for Children Katherine Zappone of an inquiry by Hiqa, the health and social services watchdog, into the Tusla's handling of the McCabe case means all these issues are likely to come under the microscope again.