Protecting children


THE TRAGIC death of 17-year-old David Foley while in the care of the State is a graphic example of how our dysfunctional child protection system is failing to protect some of the most vulnerable children in the community. David, whose story was told by social affairs correspondence Carl O'Brien in this newspaper over recent days, was placed in care at the age of 14 following problems in his family home. Social workers remember an innocent youngster with no real involvement in crime or drugs. His needs were relatively simple: some intensive family support to address problems at home, a care placement in his community in west Dublin or, at least, a negotiated return home.

None of this happened fast enough. Instead, as two community care areas disagreed over who was responsible, he was placed in an emergency care hostel, known as the out-of-hours service. This service in Dublin city-centre is notoriously rough; the lack of any structured day means vulnerable children end up mixing with older teenagers, exposing them to drugs, alcohol, prostitution and intimidation. Three years later, in the depths of a downward spiral into serious drug use and criminal behaviour, David died of an overdose.

Health authorities have a positive duty under the Child Care Act, 1991, to "identify children who are not receiving adequate care and protection" and to provide them with suitable protection. The reality, however, is that social services are operating against a backdrop of scarce resources, staff shortages and heavy caseloads. Many child protection teams can only respond to the most urgent cases through crisis management.

For some time, health authorities have talked about shifting resources away from child protection - which tends to deal with emergencies - towards early intervention in the form of family support. But much more needs to be done to progress this. A report published this week on the adequacy of child and family services by the HSE acknowledges that development of family support services continues to be hampered by a lack of clear objectives, a defined budget or a management structure.

As a society we cannot in good conscience allow the current system to continue. If the death of David Foley teaches us anything, it is that vulnerable children will continue to fall through the cracks of the care system unless it is radically - and urgently - reformed. Too many children have been failed, lost to drugs, alcohol, crime. How many more must suffer or die as a result of chaotic and underfunded service?