Children left at risk by HSE social services, says Ombudsman report

HSE senior management says claims ‘unfounded and unsubstantiated’

Social services failed to properly assess or follow up hundreds of reports of children at risk of abuse or neglect in a timely manner, an investigation by the Ombudsman for Children has found.

The investigation began last year following a complaint from a staff member of the North Lee social work team in Cork who claimed more than 200 at-risk children remained unscreened and may be in "seriously at-risk situations".

Limited resources
There was also evidence that line managers in the area had warned senior Health Service Executive management of a "crisis" given the limited resources available to manage an increasing number of referrals.

The HSE’s senior management, however, insisted that claims that children were unscreened without any follow-up were “unfounded and unsubstantiated”. It argued that many unallocated cases received a response on the basis that they were on a “duty list”.

The ombudsman's report has rejected many of these claims. It expresses serious concern over the slow response of authorities to cases identified in a memo dated July 2011 where there were urgent child protection and welfare concerns.

Months to respond
After examining the cases in detail, it has found many instances where it took months to respond properly, even though some were "priority one" – or high-risk – cases, which typically require an immediate response.

Among the cases where it highlighted included:
* A seven-year-old who was witnessing domestic violence; there were also allegations of physical abuse against the father. It took four months before a home visit occurred

* A 16-year-old girl where there were concerns she was being sexually abused. While information came to light that the abuser had since left the home, it took three months for a home visit to occur

* A 14-year-old who was reported to be in a suspected sexual relationship with an adult. It took seven weeks for a visit