Children removed from their parents over safety concerns were left sleeping in Garda stations and hospitals due to a lack of alternative accommodation, according to new research conducted for Tusla.
The continued use of "inappropriate" accommodation for children temporarily removed from their homes due to serious risks to their safety was criticised by the NUI Galway academics who carried out the research, which was circulated to Tusla staff in recent days.
The study was commissioned by Tusla, the State child and family agency, into the use of emergency powers by Garda to temporarily remove children from their homes.
The powers, under Section 12 of the Child Care Act, 1991, allow gardaí to take children to a place of safety if there is an immediate risk to them in their home, when Tusla does not have time to seek a court order.
The study examined 452 cases where Section 12 was used between 2016 and 2017. In the majority of cases, Tusla placed children in either an emergency foster care placement, a private foster care provider, or in one of the agency’s residential units.
However, in a fifth of cases, children were taken to hospitals as a temporary place of safety overnight or, in a small number of other instances, to Garda stations.
The study said the lack of appropriate placements or beds, particularly for older teenagers with behavioural issues, required “urgent consideration” by Tusla.
The most common reason children were removed from their home was due to parenting difficulties, followed by alcohol or drug abuse by parents, child behavioural difficulties, and child neglect.
In other cases where children slept in Garda stations overnight, social workers were often faced with a “crisis” trying to secure a proper placement the next morning, or to quickly assess if it was safe to return them to their home.
The study said placing children in Garda stations or hospitals was “not appropriate”, and it was “preferable” for children to be close to their family and social environment, if they were removed from their home.
A Tusla spokeswoman said in recent years it had increased its provision of emergency foster care and residential care, and the agency “continue to expand and develop our alternative care services”.
The use of the emergency powers was previously the subject of a 2017 report by child law expert Dr Geoffrey Shannon, which criticised Tusla.
Commenting on the recent research, Dr Shannon said: “Garda stations and public hospitals should not be used as the de facto initial place of safety for children removed under Section 12.”
A comprehensive out-of-hours Tusla service, available for children at risk, should be developed “as a matter of priority”, he said.
In 20 per cent of the cases, the children removed by gardaí were younger than five years old. In the vast majority of cases, gardaí contacted Tusla social workers on the day they removed the child from the home.
The research found in 44 per cent of cases, the child was later returned to the parent or their home. Some 56 children were removed from their home more than once under Section 12 powers during the period researchers studied.
In a little under a third of cases, Tusla opted to apply to take the child into State care, either through court order or a voluntary care agreement.
Social workers described serious issues with the practice of placing children in Garda stations or hospitals, in interviews carried out as part of the study.
In some instances gardaí were left sitting with the child for the entire night in a hospital emergency department, the research said.