Temporary measures to take children into State care without a court order have been found in some cases to have been used indefinitely by Tusla, the child and family agency, with children removed from their homes for several years without reviews.
The State’s health watchdog has privately raised “serious concerns” over the use of voluntary care arrangements by Tusla, after inspections uncovered serious shortcomings.
There are currently 5,971 children in State care, and latest data shows in 55 per cent of cases voluntary consent was used to admit children into care in 2018. Children can be placed into care by social workers with the “voluntary consent” of their parents as a temporary measure. A statutory care order to remove a child from their parents must be sanctioned by a judge.
The Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) found cases where paperwork had left the expected duration or end date of the voluntary care arrangement blank. Some of these children had been taken into care as far back as 10 years ago.
Last August Hiqa wrote to Tusla's chief operations officer, Jim Gibson, to raise concerns over the use of voluntary care arrangements, "given the serious nature" of the issue.
In some cases children remained in care after the end date of the voluntary arrangement lapsed, including where the placement was intended to be for only short periods of six weeks.
Inspectors found “no evidence that voluntary consent was reviewed during child-in-care reviews, or that the appropriateness of the child remaining in the voluntary care of Tusla had been reviewed and considered”, the letter stated.
The correspondence was released under the Freedom of Information Act.
Children were being “subjected to voluntary consent for significant periods of time” with no efforts made to formalise the arrangement by securing a legal care order, “despite clear indications that they would not be reunified” with their parents.
Gareth Noble, who practises in child law for KOD Lyons, said Tusla's reliance on voluntary arrangements was "concerning because it lacks scrutiny and accountability", with no court oversight. "Children fall through the gaps and remain in this twilight zone," in some cases for several years, he said.
Tusla instigated a national review last September on foot of Hiqa’s concerns. A spokeswoman for Tusla said a child “is only brought into care as a last resort and only if it is in the best interests of the child”.
“Where reunification has been explored and is not possible at the time, contact between the parent and child is facilitated” to build a good-quality relationship.