Children at risk: failing our most vulnerable

The benefits of Tusla as a single child protection agency remain unfulfilled

 

The State has a primary duty to provide care for children where their parents are unable to do so. Young people who need to be removed from their families under emergency legislation for their own safety are the most vulnerable of all. Yet, a comprehensive audit into Garda use of these emergency powers exposes a series of serious failings which are placing some of these children at further risk.

An analysis of more than 5,400 cases over eight years on the Garda’s computer systems shows a dearth of child-protection training, poor communications with social services and limited co-operation. Out-of-hours social work service is inadequate, with significant gaps and limited availability in some parts of the State, it finds. Most troubling is evidence that vulnerable children are being removed from their family circumstances by gardaí only to be returned within a short period by social workers without risk assessments being conducted.

These findings point to systemic failings on the front lines of our child-protection services and pose troubling questions over social work practice, the resources available for risk assessment and the slow pace of the authorities in tackling recurring failures.

These are not new problems. The establishment of Tusla as a single agency three years ago with responsibility for child protection was supposed to change this. The promise from government ministers at the time was that it would deliver a “seamless integration of policy and service delivery” and that it would be a “ferocious corporate parent”. The reality is that some of our child protection and welfare services are creaking. Many social work teams are consumed with emergency cases and do not have sufficient time for the painstaking and resource-heavy work of determining the level of risk facing individual children.

For all its failures, calls in some quarters for the abolition of the agency are misplaced. Tusla has hastened some welcome reforms. There has been a greater emphasis on standardising responses and it is developing novel ways of working with the wider community. However, it has been starved of resources and political will.

As a result, it has been left to limp along with enough capacity to function but nowhere near what is required to shift the agency’s focus from firefighting towards early intervention. The benefits of a single child protection agency remain unfulfilled.

It is time for proper investment in supports and services to deliver the kind of decisive, system-wide changes that are so badly needed. Failure to do so as a State and a society will mean we cannot feign surprise if vulnerable children continue to fall through the cracks of a dysfunctional system. It is a matter of political priorities.

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