Concern over low level of Garda referrals to Tusla deemed to need ‘urgent action’

Over 80% of referrals ‘get little more response than a phone call to the parents’

Tusla. Photograph: Alan Betson

Tusla. Photograph: Alan Betson

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More than 80 per cent of child protection referrals made to Tusla in 2018 and last year were deemed “not necessary for urgent action”, despite some 40 per cent of these coming from gardaí in both years.

The figures, provided to Sinn Féin TD Sorca Clarke, show fewer than 10 per cent of referrals received social worker “action”.

She described as “highly concerning” the “apparently low number of cases that are receiving social worker attention” and the absence of data on how many are multiple referrals about one child or group of children.

A review of Tusla’s staffing by the Department of Public Expenditure this month highlighted that recruitment and retention of social workers was one of the greatest challenges facing the agency, while an internal Tusla audit earlier this year found a lack of social workers in north Dublin was putting vulnerable children at “serious risk”.

The most recent data shows there were 56,561 referrals to Tusla last year, of which 9,181 (16 per cent) “required an initial assessment following preliminary inquiry”. And in just 4,863 (8.6 per cent) of last year’s referrals was “action recorded following initial assessment”.

A preliminary inquiry, according to Tusla, involves gathering basic data on a child, and contact with the child’s parents or guardians.

The figures for 2018 are similar, with 55,136 total referrals, of which 10,318 (18.7 per cent) were deemed to need an “initial assessment” following preliminary inquiry and 4,698 (8.5 per cent) received “action”.

Garda figures show the force made 26,499 referrals to Tusla last year and 23,467 in 2018 – 46 per cent and 42 per cent of all referrals respectively each year.

Not collated

A Tusla spokesman, asked how many referrals were multiples about individual cases, said: “We do not collate the data you have requested nationally. However, that information is available to social workers when considering a case.”

He said all referrals were reviewed by a duty social worker through preliminary inquiry within 24 hours of being received. “It includes engagement with parents/guardians to develop danger statements, safety goals and the scaling of harm ... Where an immediate risk to a child is identified, an immediate protective response is taken.

“If a referral does not meet the threshold for social work involvement, with no evidence of harm, they are closed at this stage. Some referrals may require a welfare response, and this can involve a number of agencies.”

Following a preliminary inquiry, if necessary an initial assessment would recommend whether the child or children required a safety plan or whether “the harm to the child is at a level where the children should be removed from the care of their parents until such time as a safety plan can be established”, he said.

‘Huge worry’

It was a “huge worry”, said Ms Clarke, that so many referrals were coming from gardaí, “who obviously felt the protection concerns were urgent” and yet “more than 80 per cent of referrals get little more response that a phone call to the parents”.

“Whether it is a case that Tusla does not have the necessary resources, or cannot retain social workers, this is a concern that needs to be addressed by the Oireachtas, and by the Minister [for Children Roderick O’Gorman],” she added.

“We are dealing with people’s lives here – little people who may be in grave danger, and parents who are under pressure and in desperate need of support.”

The data released to Ms Clarke shows the Waterford-Wexford area last year had the lowest proportion of child referrals followed up with an assessment. Of 3,504 referrals, just 247 (7 per cent) received an initial assessment. In all but one, action was taken.

In Cavan-Monaghan 205 (10.4 per cent) of the 1,970 referrals were assessed, and action was taken in 113 (6 per cent) of cases, while in Dublin north city, 416 (12 per cent) of 3,489 referrals were assessed, and in 208 cases (6 per cent) action was taken.

In 2018, Cavan-Monaghan had the lowest assessment rate (96 cases out of 1,725, or 5.5 per cent), followed by Waterford-Wexford (344 out of 4,549, or 7.5 per cent), and the midlands (571 out of 6,680, or 8.5 per cent).