Social worker access key to children in care - groups

 

EVERY CHILD in the care of the State should have access to a social worker at all times, children’s advocacy groups have said.

The comments were made after it emerged the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) was examining how the Health Service Executive dealt with complaints of abuse of children in foster care, some of which were sexual in nature.

Hiqa is examining seven local health areas, three in Dublin and four in Cork, over complaints received. Its report is expected to be complete in the next two months.

Some 19 complaints were made against foster carers in Dublin North West and North Central. The HSE has investigated or is in the process of investigating these.

Yesterday, the HSE was unable to say whether any of the children involved had been removed from the foster homes in which they were placed following the complaints, or whether any of the complaints were proven.

A spokeswoman said the complaints could have involved issues such as sibling rivalry, discipline, or similar problems, and not all were allegations of abuse.

Norah Gibbons, director of advocacy at Barnardos, said it was crucial that every child has a social worker available to them.

“It is really important that a child has someone to talk to, and that any complaint they make is immediately followed up,” she said.

She acknowledged it could be difficult for a social worker who had placed a child with a couple for fostering to then have to investigate a complaint of abuse, but said it had to be done “properly and speedily”.

Jillian van Turnhout, chief executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, said the group was deeply disturbed by the reports.

“The overwhelming majority of foster care families do an outstanding job in protecting and nurturing vulnerable children,” she said. Any risk could be reduced by ensuring each foster family was vetted, assessed and trained, and received ongoing support and underwent checks, she said.

With the Irish Association of Young People in Care and the Irish Foster Carers’ Association, the alliance called for each child to have a social worker and a care plan, and for each foster carer to have an allocated social worker.

Fine Gael spokesman on children Alan Shatter said many children in childcare had not been allocated a social worker, and did not have a care plan in place for them.

“The types of allegations we are now learning of are the consequence of the HSE’s failure to comply with their statutory obligations,” he said.

He said Minister for Children Barry Andrews must ensure the HSE child protection guidelines were adhered to.

In a statement yesterday, the Department of Health and Children said Mr Andrews met with Hiqa in November 2009 and February 2010 to discuss their investigation.

The Minister also met chairman of the HSE Liam Downey and senior officials this week. He emphasised the importance of ensuring comprehensive plans were in place as a priority to address weaknesses identified by the HSE and Hiqa in the provision of foster care services, the statement said.

It also noted the Minister considered it “particularly important that the HSE take all necessary steps to deliver the net increase of 200 whole-time equivalents in the number of social workers” which the Government had promised to fund this year.

The HSE said all children in its care were facilitated by social workers to express any concerns, complaints and/or allegations that they may have. The complaints were dealt with on the basis of assessing risk to the child, and ensuring the child’s safety and welfare was of paramount concern, along with all appropriate action being taken.