Child protection: a creaking system

The introduction of mandatory reporting may end up harming, not helping, some of our most vulnerable young people

The introduction this week of mandatory reporting of child protection concerns sends a message to society that child welfare is of the utmost importance. However, there are growing concerns about whether the system is ready to cope with an expected surge in child protection reports. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

The introduction this week of mandatory reporting of child protection concerns sends a message to society that child welfare is of the utmost importance. However, there are growing concerns about whether the system is ready to cope with an expected surge in child protection reports. Photograph: Dave Thompson/PA Wire

 

The Government’s decision to introduce mandatory reporting of child protection concerns will be regarded by many as a landmark development. After decades of promises, there is now a legal duty on professionals who work with or have contact with children to report to social services any concerns they may have regarding a child’s welfare. The move sends a message to society that child welfare is of the utmost importance. However, there are growing concerns about whether the system is ready to cope with an expected surge in child protection reports.

Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, will need adequate staff and resources in place if it is to respond to referrals in a timely manner. As it stands, it can hardly be claimed the system is fit-for-purpose. From the outset it has been starved of funding and political will. It limps along with enough resources to function but nowhere near enough to shift the agency’s focus away from fire-fighting and towards the time-consuming, preventive work so urgently required.

Despite a recent increase in funding, the agency had fewer social work staff this year compared to last year. Most recent data shows there were almost 1,000 high priority cases waiting to be allocated a social worker, along with close to 5,000 medium and low priority cases. Although a regulatory impact analysis of the Children First legislation was done, it did not adequately address concerns about the limited capacity of the child protection system to deal with yet more cases.

The evidence from other countries which have introduced similar measures is that simply expanding the system will not make a positive difference. The danger is that while it promotes a culture of reporting concerns, it does little to foster a shared responsibility across wider society for intervening in the lives of vulnerable children. As Dr Helen Buckley of Trinity College Dublin has pointed out, this risks creating a kind of “social” emergency department, comparable to a hospital emergency department, characterised by high thresholds, waiting lists, stressed staff and short-term responses.

We know the failings of the child protection system: a lack of early intervention; too much focus on fire-fighting emergency cases; poor co-operation between State agencies; a system responding too late to neglect and welfare concerns. These issues have been documented over the past two decades. Mandatory reporting, while positive in theory, is unlikely to help in the current circumstances. In the absence of sustained investment or wider reform, it may make matters worse. There are real dangers that young people in need of urgent protection will continue to fall through the cracks of a creaking system. Good intentions may end up harming, not helping, our most vulnerable children.