Tusla service in Kerry was in ‘crisis’ with staff under ‘extreme pressure’

Confidential interviews with social workers detail Tusla ‘working from one crisis to another’

In late 2019, Tusla discovered issues around social workers under-reporting abuse allegations to gardaí in the area. Photograph: Alan Betson

In late 2019, Tusla discovered issues around social workers under-reporting abuse allegations to gardaí in the area. Photograph: Alan Betson

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The State’s child protection service in Co Kerry was in “crisis,” with the atmosphere turning “toxic”, following revelations last year Tusla had failed to refer hundreds of abuse allegations to the Garda, according to an internal investigation.

The Kerry area of the child and family agency had been significantly under-resourced for several years, leading to “extreme pressure” on staff, according to confidential interviews with local social workers, seen by The Irish Times.

In late 2019, Tusla discovered issues around social workers under-reporting abuse allegations to gardaí in the area. It later emerged there were 365 cases of suspected child abuse or neglect that had not been referred to gardaí in Kerry. An audit later found the delays notifying gardaí may have thwarted some criminal investigations into alleged abuse.

In recent confidential interviews, Tusla staff outlined the Kerry area had been under increased strain in the years leading up to the controversy, and was “bending under the pressure”.

‘Struggling’

One social work team leader said they were “struggling” to provide services, due to a lack of staff, and caseloads were too high. Another team leader said that from at least 2018 onwards the area was “working from one crisis to another”.

The interviews were conducted in recent months, as part of an ongoing Tusla disciplinary action taken against a social worker in the Kerry area.

It had emerged the staff member had failed to renew their professional registration with Coru, and was placed on leave.

Several staff told investigators the social worker had been “stretched beyond all capacity” and had been left with an “unsustainable” workload for one person.

One colleague recalled passing the staff member in the corridor, and seeing their face “grey from the stress”. Requests for extra staff had been made in 2018 and 2019, interviewees said.

The disciplinary investigation is being led by Conal Devine and Paul Harrison, and has yet to produce a final report.

In one interview, the investigation team said they understood that from 2016 onwards “the service was somewhat in crisis”, when it came to dealing with historical child abuse cases.

Tusla initially feared there could have been as many as 2,330 suspected abuse cases that had not been referred to gardaí, but the investigators noted the actual figure was much lower.

One social worker said the atmosphere in Kerry became “toxic” following the revelations that alleged abuse cases had been under-reported.

In interviews staff said they felt they were “waiting for the axe to fall” during this period, and some were out on stress-related leave.

One team leader said there was a lack of communication at the time, and “no one knew exactly what they were doing”. A restructuring of the area caused “a great deal of chaos”, she said.

Following the addition of extra staff the area was now better able to meet its statutory requirements, and was not swamped with “fire fighting”, one interviewee said.

Restructured

A spokeswoman for Tusla said the issues in Kerry were identified during a “proactive” audit in late 2019, after which the area was restructured, “with some additional resourcing to strengthen practice and capacity”.

There were four senior social worker posts in the Kerry area in mid-2019, but that has since been increased to seven senior posts, one of which is currently vacant, she said.

“Kerry, as with all Tusla areas, makes submissions for and resources are allocated based on service needs and available resources,” she said.

“As a part of normal business, vacancies in a particular role or team occur and they are filled as quickly as possible,” she said.

The spokeswoman added the agency could not comment on any individual disciplinary procedures.