Serious concerns were raised around the "viability" of continuing to place vulnerable children in private residential centres by the then chief executive of the Child and Family Agency, Tusla.
Tusla inspections of residential centres for young people in State care run by private contractors, found 27 out of 46 centres reviewed in 2017 did not meet required staffing standards.
Fergal Lynch, secretary general of the Department of Children, wrote to Tusla early last year, seeking an explanation over the "recurring" problem.
Then chief executive of Tusla Fred McBride told the senior department official private residential centres had continued to flag “difficulties recruiting, retaining, training, and supporting staff”.
The problem had the “potential to make the sector increasingly unstable and raises issues regarding the viability of the private residential sector”, he warned.
Some 239 children in State care are living in private residential centres, according to latest Tusla figures from December 2018.
When a child or adolescent is taken into care, Tusla will first try to foster them with a relative, or in private foster care. When that is not possible the State agency will place the young person in a residential centre, which happens in approximately one in 20 cases.
Correspondence between the senior officials was released to The Irish Times, following requests under the Freedom of Information act.
Failings identified during inspections of private residential centres most commonly included high staff turnover, lack of experienced staff, over dependence on agency workers, and insufficient staff training, Mr McBride said.
Funding for the required number of extra residential centre workers could cost up to €10 million, the Tusla chief executive told Mr Lynch.
In a response, Mr Lynch claims a lack of funding was making the sector “unstable” and posing issues for its “long-term viability”, were very serious. The top official asked what steps were being taken to manage any potential risk placing children in centres with inadequate staffing levels.
In cases of concern Tusla staff may restrict private or voluntary centres from taking any more young people until staffing problems are addressed, Mr McBride said, in a letter on July 25th.
The last tendering process for private residential providers had been run in 2014, and since then facilities had seen “an increase in cost of living, cost of insurance, and pay restoration”, he said.
Changes to working time regulations under European Union laws, and Labour Court recommendations, had led to staff roster changes, and the resulting need for an extra 100 staff across the voluntary centre sector, Mr McBride said.
“Where concerns have been raised regarding staffing, Tusla will liaise with the private provider to ensure that every effort is being made to address any identified staffing deficiencies,” he said.
Mr McBride stepped down from his role as the head of Tusla last September, and Pat Smyth has been acting as interim chief executive since then.
In a statement, a spokeswoman for Tusla said private and voluntary-run centres were “subject to regular monitoring and inspections” to ensure they meet national standards.
“Tusla has no role in the recruitment of staff in private and voluntary centres and it is a matter for the respective organisations to ensure they are adequately resourced,” the spokeswoman said.