Extern’s approach to child protection incident one of ‘containment’, review found

Authorities in North informed of abuse case but Tusla says it was not told for more than a year

The registered head office of charity Extern  in Naas, Co Kildare. Photograph: Alan Betson

The registered head office of charity Extern in Naas, Co Kildare. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

During an introductory meeting in August last year, the new interim chief executive of Extern, a charity which works with vulnerable young people in the Republic and Northern Ireland, was made aware of a report of sexual abuse which had been made to the organisation.

Ciairín de Buis was told a former staff member in Northern Ireland had allegedly sexually abused a teenager in Extern’s services the previous year.

While authorities in the North had been informed, the incident had not been reported to Tusla, the child and family agency in the Republic, she was told.

Ms de Buis informed Tusla during a meeting the following month, where the reaction was one of “shock” at the delay of more than a year in the information being passed on, according to some present.

Extern describes itself as a “leading social justice charity”, and supports about 20,000 people a year. This includes vulnerable children, those suffering from addiction, family breakdown, homelessness and mental health issues.

In the Republic, it works with children in the care system or with challenging behaviour, and runs Garda youth diversion programmes.

Tusla refers significant numbers of vulnerable young people to the organisation, for which the charity receives €7 million in funding a year.

In a letter dated September 25th, 2020, Bernard Gloster, Tusla chief executive, told Ms de Buis he was “appalled at the major failure” in not notifying the agency, according to correspondence released to The Irish Times under the Freedom of Information Act.

Assessments of children who had been “accessible to the alleged perpetrator” had been delayed as a result, he said.

Mr Gloster claimed Extern had “concealed matters of substantial and significant child protection concern”.

Extern identified more than 350 children across the Republic and Northern Ireland at risk of having also been potentially affected by the former staff member. Twenty-one of these children were deemed to be at “high-risk”, seven in the Republic, 14 in Northern Ireland. The perpetrator in the case was later convicted. Tusla later said there was no indication any child it referred to Extern was affected by the incident.

Details of exactly who knew what and when, became the subject of extensive correspondence between Extern and Tusla.

In a letter dated October 2nd, 2020, Ms de Buis said the first written record of the charity’s directors being informed was a November 1st, 2019, email from her predecessor as chief executive, Charlie Mack. The allegation of sexual assault had been made in the second half of 2019.

Charlie Mack, the former Extern chief executive. Photograph: Tom Heaney
Charlie Mack, the former Extern chief executive. Photograph: Tom Heaney

Extern has three separate boards, Extern Ireland, Extern NI, and an overall Group board.

In the email, Mr Mack said the Extern Group chair, Extern NI chair, chair of the audit and risk committee, and “all appropriate authorities” had been made aware of the issue.

Ms de Buis told Tusla while the board of Extern Ireland were not directly informed, “most members were informed by email, by virtue of their being members of the audit and risk (committee)”, or as they also sat on the Group board.

Tusla informed Extern it was considering suspending referrals to the organisation.

Gerry Campbell, chair of Extern Group, in a letter dated October 27th responded saying any sanction “must be reasonable, fair and proportionate”. The decision “must stand up to public scrutiny” and carried significant “reputational risk for Tusla,” he told Mr Gloster.

The Tusla chief responded saying the statements were “astonishing” given what had occurred in the organisation, and confirmed it would be halting referrals to Extern.

In the days following Mr Campbell’s letter, Ms de Buis resigned, citing in an email to Tusla “serious concerns around governance and the direction of travel the board is taking the organisation on”.

Danny McQuillan, director of services, took over as interim chief executive.

Three board members of Extern Ireland also resigned in late 2020, due to concerns over the failure to notify Tusla; chair of the board Dermot O’Donnell, Molly Buckley and Dr Shane McCarthy.

Mr O’Donnell told The Irish Times the failure to share the information was “completely wrong,” and Tusla should have been informed. Ms Buckley said her “biggest concern would have been for the vulnerable young children” using the services, who could have also been harmed.

Mr Mack is now chief executive of Cranstoun, a company in England which works with young people, and provides substance misuse and domestic abuse services.

A spokeswoman for Mr Mack said legal advice precluded him from responding to questions from The Irish Times. However, it is understood he maintains no Extern client in the Republic was ever put at risk during his tenure.

In a statement from the same spokeswoman, Derek McCabe, former chair of Extern Group in late 2019, said Mr Mack notified “both Extern Group and Extern NI boards of this issue immediately on being made aware earlier that same day” and protocols were implemented to “notify all relevant stakeholders in Northern Ireland”.

This was “based on the information available from then director of services, now interim CEO of Extern, Danny McQuillan of a safeguarding issue specific to the Northern Ireland region,” he said.

“At no stage was I or the boards made aware of any safeguarding risk to any Ireland clients, as Mr Mack was presenting information from his services director, Mr McQuillan, which clearly advised the safeguard issue was specific to Northern Ireland only,” he said.

Responding on behalf of Mr McQuillan this week, a spokeswoman for Extern said: “The Extern board was given assurances from the former CEO Charlie Mack that this issue had been reported to all appropriate authorities.”

Former senator and governance expert Jillian van Turnhout conducted a preliminary review of Extern’s governance, completing it last November.

Her report, seen by The Irish Times, states the approach to the child protection incident “was one of containment rather than safeguarding and transparency”.

The organisation’s board structure was “not coherent” and the matter should have received lengthy discussion from directors.

The report said a local Tusla office had inquired with Extern about the incident in January 2020, which they heard about third hand, but did not receive a reply.

However, when the original disclosure was made a plan was put in place for the victim, and the matter was taken “very seriously”, it states.

Extern separately commissioned an assessment of its recruitment practices, and conducted a review of all personnel files, and staff’s vetting status. Late last December, Mr McQuillan told Kate Duggan, Tusla director of services, that all staff files had been checked, and no red flags were raised.

Safeguarding expert Marcella Leonard was also appointed to conduct a full review, following the initial van Turnhout report. A draft was completed last month, with the final report expected imminently.

Following extensive engagement, Tusla decided to resume referring children to Extern’s services in January 2021.

In a statement to The Irish Times, Gerry Campbell, now chair of Extern Ireland’s board and Extern Group, said the organisation had “zero tolerance for any form of abuse”. It works with children and families to bring about positive changes in their lives, and the safety and wellbeing of young people “is our highest priority”, he said.

“The internal review of the safeguarding incident and the introduction of new measures to further strengthen our policies and procedures has been fully implemented,” he said.

Extern’s priority was to ensure “the mistakes made were corrected”, and it had worked closely with Tusla “to bring about assurances on our protocols, policies, and practices”, he said.

A spokeswoman for Tusla said it resumed referring children to Extern following “satisfactory” reforms. “We continue to liaise with Extern, and meet them monthly, to ensure that the appropriate standards of safeguarding and governance remain,” she said.

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