‘I felt like I was just an incubator for Tusla’

Advocacy group highlights ‘inconsistent’ rates of children taken into care around State

Tusla staff ‘work collaboratively with all parents to ensure that the best interests of the child is the foremost priority’. Photograph: Alan Betson

Tusla staff ‘work collaboratively with all parents to ensure that the best interests of the child is the foremost priority’. Photograph: Alan Betson

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There were more than 100 instances of babies being removed from their mothers last year, with almost a quarter of them in the Limerick and Cork areas.

Figures from the child and family agency Tusla show there were 123 “admissions into care … for children aged under one year of age” in 2019. Some of these may have involved babies removed from their mothers more than once in their first year.

The highest number of removals were in Cork, where there were 15; and Limerick, Clare and north Tipperary, where there were 15.

These compare with 12 for all of south Dublin city and county, Wicklow and west Kildare. A further 12 were removed in north Dublin city and county. No babies were taken into care in Dublin central.

In all, 14 were removed in each of the midlands and in the Waterford-Wexford areas; 10 in each of Louth-Meath and Galway-Roscommon; six in Carlow-Kilkenny-south Tipperary, and five in Donegal.

Barbara Scanlon, spokeswoman of ABC (Alliance of Birthmothers Campaigning for Justice), a newly formed support group for mothers with children taken into care, is concerned about the apparent disparities, describing the numbers in Limerick and Cork as “huge”.

She said she had been struck since ABC was formed last year by the higher numbers of women contacting the group from Munster. “There are huge inconsistencies around the country and even within areas, as to how social workers do their work. For vulnerable mothers it is very dependent on where you live and what social worker you get.”

Domestic violence

The majority of the more than 300 mothers ABC has supported have experienced domestic violence and have been in contact with Tusla for support.

“My huge concern is there is too often a lack of effective support for these mothers,” said Ms Scanlon. “The stated Tusla policy is that removal of a baby is the last, last resort but on so many occasions there is no real plan in place to help them keep their babies. In our experience there is rarely a reunification plan in place. It is cruel.”

A Tusla spokesman said: “The highest level of vulnerability is present in the early stages of a child’s life when they are totally dependent on their parents for safety, food and emotional warmth and care. Taking a child into care is always considered as the last option, and all other steps to provide safety for a child at home are considered first.

“Steps taken by Tusla social work departments to support a mother to care for her baby include building empathetic relationships, agreeing safety goals with a mother and father and working to build a safety network around them, including other adults who have the child’s safety as their primary concern.

“There are many factors which may influence the figures in a particular area, including the population, demographic and other socio-economic factors.

“When a child is placed in care, the parents of the child are provided with support services and are supported to address the existing concerns in order to facilitate the process of reunification. A reunification plan requires agreement, and if a parent or mother have not been able to avail of the support or agree a safety plan, a reunification plan may not be appropriate.

“Supports for a mother whose child is in care depend on the type of support that the mother may need and the mother’s insight into the need for this support.”

SUZANNE’S STORY: ‘I WAS HEARTBROKEN. I WAS NUMB’

Suzanne (not her real name) had her son taken from her when he was four days old.

Tusla social workers had told her while she was pregnant they would be seeking an interim care order as soon as the baby was born. Asked why they wanted to take her baby she says: “Domestic violence.”

She explains she had been in a violent relationship some years previously. A child from that relationship had already been removed from her. “They said I wasn’t able to protect that child, even though I wasn’t with the dad any more.” She had also broken up with the father of the baby she was carrying. “They said they were taking this baby because I wouldn’t be emotionally available to him.”

Three days after giving birth she had to attend court for the care application. “I was sitting in the public waiting area. It was packed because there were criminal cases on too. I was pumping milk and haemorrhaging. My legal aid solicitor said the case would go well for me. But it didn’t.”

“Going back to the hospital, I was heartbroken. I was numb. It was like being in a film; like you’re not even in your own body.”

Her hospital chart was marked ‘Tusla baby’. “I was in a public ward. People were in and out talking about me. I wasn’t even allowed have my curtain closed. I had no dignity or privacy.”

“On the morning, they were reminding me: ‘You know you’re to have him washed and dressed for 2pm. They’ll be here to take him then.’ I got him ready and then I had to hand my baby over to two social workers in training. I felt like I was just an incubator for Tusla.”

She sees her son, who is now subject of a full care order, for two hours a week, at a shopping centre. “Tusla said that was enough for me to bond with him.”

She says she would be a good mother. She says she has been offered no support, and has little hope of reuniting with her children properly until they are 18. She suffers with depression, anxiety and on one occasion came close to taking her own life. “The police had to talk me down. If I didn’t have that hope that I will have a relationship with my children one day, I’d be gone by now.”

A Tusla spokesman said: “There will always be a plan for continued contact with a mother or parent and this will be influenced by the child’s needs. Tusla staff work collaboratively with all parents to ensure that the best interests of the child is the foremost priority when making any decisions about the child’s current or future welfare.

“Family support packages are often engaged in providing emotional support and practical parenting guidance as well as referrals to and advocacy with other services such as mental health, drugs or domestic violence.”