There were “significant failings” in a youth work charity’s approach to child protection and governance, which were exposed when a staff member sexually abused a vulnerable teenager in its services, a review has found.
Extern, an all-island charity, provides supports to thousands of the State's most at-risk children, on behalf of Tusla, the child and family agency.
The former employee was convicted last year, over the sexual abuse of the young teenager in Northern Ireland during the second half of 2019.
An independent review, conducted by safeguarding consultant Marcella Leonard, found concerns had been raised about the man prior to the abuse, but had not been properly escalated. He had been hired despite having a previous conviction for assault, which was not correctly recorded by the charity.
The review, completed last year and recently released to The Irish Times following a Freedom of Information Act request, found a number of failings had helped the perpetrator “circumnavigate” the charity’s internal barriers to commit the abuse.
Concerns had been raised about the man over poor practice prior to the abuse taking place, but were not reported to Extern’s human resources department.
The perpetrator was instead “spoken to by their line manager”, and later passed his probationary period. The review found this provided “a clear message” of poor practice “not being appropriately addressed or escalated”.
The man was hired without rigorous checks of his past experience, as well as having “inappropriate and inadequate references”, and these shortcomings were “not flagged” by Extern, the review said.
The relationship between the abuser and his line manager “lacked accountability”, and supervision of the employee was poor, leaving him aware that his actions were “not under appropriate scrutiny”, the review said.
This reinforced the perpetrator’s belief that the organisation’s policies could be sidestepped.
Extern did not notify Tusla of the abuse for more than a year, despite the staff member working with children from the Republic. While authorities in the North were notified at the time, Tusla was not told until September 2020.
The review said this showed a “significant lack” of adherence to governance around safeguarding, and delayed Tusla carrying out checks on children from the Republic with whom the man had contact.
A significant number of staff in Northern Ireland had not attended mandatory safeguarding training, it found. But the review said of more concern was the fact staff in the area where the perpetrator had worked were receiving “their own version of safeguarding training”.
A lack of oversight of the area had enabled a “localised practice” to develop, which represented a “serious diversion” from Extern’s procedures around recruitment, supervision and training, it found.
There were also shortcomings in communications between Extern and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), after the abuse had been reported. The review noted police decided "not to trawl" for any other potential victims in Extern's services, but this strategy was not communicated to the charity.
The review concluded there were “significant failings in how Extern as an organisation were providing governance of safeguarding policies, procedures and practice”.
Ms Leonard recommended the charity appoint an overall head of safeguarding, and this role is expected to be filled shortly.
She recommended safeguarding policies be internally audited to maintain standards, and any instances of poor practice or misconduct be escalated to human resources. Staff and board members should also receive better training around how potential sex offenders try to operate within organisations.
In an interview with The Irish Times, Ms Leonard said abusers sought to groom the child they were targeting, but also to groom “the system”, such as the other adults around them, to not recognise potential red flags, she said. In Extern’s case the perpetrator had been seen as a “nice guy”, which meant smaller instances of bad practice were not pulled up, she said.
Despite receiving about €20 million in public funding, including €7 million a year from Tusla, Extern has relatively little public profile. It supports 20,000 people a year, from vulnerable children, to those suffering from addiction, mental health issues and homelessness.
Jim Daly, former Fine Gael junior minister, took over as chairman of Extern Ireland's board late last year, having joined as a director earlier that spring in the aftermath of the controversy.
“I’m genuinely satisfied, hand on my heart, that Extern has learned from the lesson, has owned its mistake, and has genuinely been very impressive in its efforts to ensure it never happens again,” he said.