By not fully funding Tusla, the State fails to protect children

The handling of McCabe child abuse allegations is the agency’s biggest test yet

Grainia Long: “I have long suspected that our a child protection system has one hand tied behind its back.”

Grainia Long: “I have long suspected that our a child protection system has one hand tied behind its back.”

 

Some time ago, a child with a broken arm called to an ISPCC office on a Friday evening. This particular office is not a drop-in centre, but our professional staff brought him inside, and listened. The boy didn’t want to say much, but he was clear and unequivocal about one thing: he was absolutely not going home.

Because it was “out of hours”, we couldn’t access a social worker. So our only option was to call An Garda Síochána. The officer was kind; he did his best to reassure the child, and my colleague travelled with them to hospital.

It transpired that the child’s arm had been broken by an abusive parent, following a litany of violence over time, until he decided he’d had enough. The boy made a difficult and incredibly brave decision to get out of danger by putting his trust in strangers.

Several aspects of that story are both shocking and depressingly familiar. The most obvious is that a child had endured so much abuse and violence that he was prepared to leave his own home to feel safe. He was prepared to put his trust in the ISPCC at one of the most uncertain times in his life.

Our job is to deliver on that trust, and to ensure that the child never regrets asking for help. To listen to all children, and to act on their right to be safe.

Confidence and trust

Ireland’s entire child protection system is dependent on trust and confidence: on trust between child and social worker; on the trust and confidence of the public to report when they have concerns; and on trust between Tusla and organisations such as the ISPCC. We need to know we can refer children with allegations of neglect and abuse, and trust that the State agency will act competently, professionally and in their best interests.

The recent public interest in Tusla’s handling of child abuse allegations is its biggest test yet. This relatively new agency already faces an investigation into how it meets some of its most important obligations.

The ISPCC has called for the investigation to be wide-ranging: to look at whether there are systemic issues that prevent Tusla from meeting national and international best practice; whether it has been sufficiently resourced to ensure data is securely captured and shared; whether lessons can be learned regarding case management; and whether financial constraints are hampering its ability to deliver for children.

I have long suspected that our a child protection system has one hand tied behind its back. The ISPCC has previously cited several examples of Tusla not meeting international standards of practice – due to, in our view, insufficient resources. The agency’s recent evidence to the Oireachtas Committee on Children made reference to the €137.5 million additional funding it argues is necessary for a fit-for-purpose organisation.

Unfortunately, it has received just over half that amount. By not fully funding Tusla, the State is choosing not to fully fund the protection of children. This is despite the many reports that led to the agency being set in the first place.

Remember the Ryan report? The Roscommon Child Care Inquiry Report? The Independent Child Death Review? After the publication of each of those reports, the Irish said never again. And yet, here we are.

24-hour services

Tusla has ambitious plans for transformation, which I welcome, yet is still unable to deliver on some of the fundamentals of child protection that are the norm in other countries. It is unacceptable that children cannot access 24-hour social work services. Instead, gardaí alone can call in the limited services of an emergency social worker behalf of the child. Children in dire need of help must turn to law enforcement as a place of safety

In addition, there has been a delay in full commencement of the Children First Act, which would put child protection obligations on a statutory footing. Lack of resources is given as the reason for this delay.

Maeve Lewis of One in Four, which supports adults who have been abused in childhood, last week said that several clients were considering retracting their referrals to Tusla, afraid of what would happen with their data. This is deeply worrying and I sincerely hope a momentary – if understandable – response.

If children and adults lose faith in our child protection system, the only people who benefit are those who want to exploit children for their own gain.

The measure of any organisation is how it responds in a crisis. Tusla’s next steps must be to co-operate with the Hiqa investigation and, just as importantly, get ahead of the crisis. Tusla must build relationships locally so that organisations, parents and children feel a sense of confidence and a personal stake in their child protection agency. It must listen to children, parents, foster carers and others on how to sustain their faith in the organisation. It must value inter-agency co-operation, and it must make the building and sustaining of trust its watchword and its priority.

To do otherwise is to fail children, at the very point in their lives when trust could keep them safe.

Grainia Long is chief executive of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.

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