The Ombudsman for Children has expressed concern at the “stark” disparity in the number of children registered as being at risk of abuse or neglect on either side of the Border.
He was reacting to an analysis by the Belfast-based data journalism website The Detail, which finds there are proportionately four times as many children being monitored by child protection services in Northern Ireland as in the Republic.
Child protection registration rates over a two-year period show that 49 children in every 10,000 were identified as at risk and registered with social services in the North compared to 12 out of every 10,000 children in the Republic.
Children are recorded on a child protection register where there is an ongoing risk of “significant harm” to a child because of concerns of abuse or neglect.
The investigation also established that there are three times as many social workers available to support children and families per head of the overall population in the North than there are in the South.
Official statistics show there were 1,919 child and family social workers in the North compared to 1,612 (including temporary staff) in the south last year. Taking population difference into account, this suggests there was one child and family social worker per 1,000 people in the North compared to one per 3,000 people in the South.
In December last year 5,413 or one in five cases involving child protection concerns or children in care did not have a social worker.
Adequacy of resources
The findings are likely to prompt questions over the adequacy of resources in the South, and whether vulnerable children are slipping through the net.
Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon said the "stark contrast" in child protection figures between both jurisdictions raised questions.
“It’s a big gap. The ratio of four to one in the numbers of children on the child protection register in the North compared to the South is unusual”.
Commissioner for Children and Young People in Northern Ireland Koulla Yiasouma said the disparity was surprising given that services in the North were under-resourced by UK standards.
Dr John Devaney, a senior lecturer at the school of social sciences, education and social work, Queen's University Belfast, said the "two countries are not so dissimilar that you would expect there to be a vast difference".
Tusla said a North/South comparison would “not provide accurate insights” as the systems were different in each jurisdiction. It is devising a new child protection and welfare strategy to be launched and implemented this year.
Minister for Children Katherine Zappone said additional funding had been made available to Tusla to address critical service needs. Service providers were held to account by "a robust framework of standards and regulations".