Breda O’Brien: Entire foster care system needs overhaul
Our child protection and welfare system is broken, and there is no political will to fix it
Minister of State Kathleen Lynch. The proposed commission of inquiry is designed to deflect criticism before an election. Photograph: Joe Boland
Back in 2013, I quoted John Byrne, a lecturer in social care practice in Waterford Institute of Technology. He said the most common misconception about the Irish child protection and welfare system is that it is about child protection and welfare. In fact, it is about politics and economics.
He was right then, and he is right today. Child safeguarding and welfare are not vote-getting issues. And that is why, year after year, the issue of caring for vulnerable children languishes near the bottom of political priorities.
Remember a decade ago, before another election? The government had a couple of byelection defeats due to commuter ire over congestion on the M50 motorway.
Sustained public pressure resulted in Martin Cullen striking a deal with NTR worth €600 million so barriers could be lifted. Yet when Gordon Jeyes, until recently chief executive of Tusla, said his agency needed €45 million just to stand still, it was given €38 million.
If the shocking story of the alleged abuse of the woman being called ‘Grace’, who is intellectually disabled and non-verbal, had not emerged now, child protection would not be discussed at all in the run-up to the election.
The proposed commission of inquiry to establish why Grace and other vulnerable people were allegedly left in a situation of danger is also a political decision. It is designed to deflect criticism before an election.
This is not just a ‘legacy issue’. Focusing on this one appalling case will deflect attention from the real problem – that our child welfare system is inadequate from top to bottom.
There have been improvements, notably the provision of a national out-of-hours service. Tusla has funding for 400 new posts, of which 174 are social work posts.
But there is so much still to be done. On a recent This Week programme, Jeyes said when he started, there were 700 children in the Louth/Meath area alone without an allocated social worker.
He was proud that it was now down to 70 cases. But let’s think about that. There are 70 children who were notified to authorities still potentially at risk in Louth/Meath. That figure should be zero.
Foster care is only one part of a neglected system. But making it safer for all children and vulnerable adults would be a great start.
Speaking to John Byrne again this week he emphasised three basic problems to me.
The first is a lack of social workers, resulting in enormous caseloads. People burn out from the demands of working with families in crisis.
Many seek employment elsewhere as rapidly as possible, often resulting in younger and more inexperienced teams. And so mistakes become more likely, and the cycle continues.
The second problem is the lack of independent advocates for children, whose role is to develop a relationship with every child in foster care, and to check in with them at least every fortnight.
Due to our ‘lawyering up’ culture, we spend an appalling amount of money on the guardian ad litem service to represent the interests of children in court, and virtually none on advocates to sustain them before and after, much less instead of court hearings.
The more vulnerable the child or adult, the more urgent the need for an independent advocate is.
The third problem is the lack of training and support for foster carers. Anecdotally, social workers are so desperate to find foster carers, they do not want to scare off candidates by giving them a full picture of what may emerge.
Kind, decent, caring people become foster carers and, once the child seems settled, the hard-pressed social worker heaves a sigh of relief, and gets back to that growing pile of unallocated cases.
Meanwhile, the foster family is often left adrift. They form attachments to the child, and don’t want to rock the boat about the lack of support in case they might be taken away.
That’s the best case scenario – overworked social workers, and under-supported foster parents. The idea of working to make birth parent families more stable so the family can be reunited rarely even enters the picture.
But in the worst case scenario, the rare cases where abuse is happening in the foster home, the system fails children in an appalling way.
Inspections are not a panacea. A Hiqa report on Áras Attracta published before the Prime Time documentary, failed to pick up on the issues the programme makers uncovered.
Abusers are clever. They can pretend for a few days. Independent advocates who are there for the long haul have a much better chance of identifying criminal or troubling activity.
But politicians know this is not a priority: because there are so few votes in fixing it, our child welfare and protection system will remain broken.