Child protection failings: Fears for safety of children in their homes

The Government is to review all emergency out-of-hours services for children amid persistent fears that large swathes of the country don’t have the supports to protect minors from “barbaric treatment” in the home.

The country’s Ombudsman for Children said the solution had to be “pushed from the top”, while children’s rights groups called for a Government task force to overhaul existing services.

The moves follow the publication of a damning report by Professor Geoffrey Shannon. Publishing his 346-page audit, he said:

  • Co-operation between the Child and Family Agency (Tusla) and An Garda Síochána was “overwhelmingly inadequate” in this area;
  • The agencies operated in “silos” and a “cultural shift” was needed;
  • Vulnerable children were getting an “inferior service” by having to use the Tusla’s out-of-hours service and were being “punished on the basis of geography”;
  • Tusla should not be so reliant on private foster care services in these situations;
  • It was “absolutely scandalous” that these private services were refusing to take children with challenging behaviours – and legislation should be amended to address this.

Professor Shannon suggested multi-disciplinary teams, which would result in “less system-inflicted trauma, better decisions for children, more appropriate intervention and more efficient use of resources”.

He said the report, described as the largest audit ever conducted on police use of emergency protection powers, should serve as a “wake-up call” for society.

He said his research, including an examination of 91 cases, highlighted what he called an “unpalatable truth” regarding the behaviour of parents. He said parents in some of these cases treated their children “like human trash” and subjected them “barbaric treatment”.

Prof Shannon said: “The trauma inflicted on children by their parents is just staggering.”

The child care expert said alcohol abuse was a common theme in the 91 cases.

He said successive governments had failed to treat alcohol abuse as a “fundamental threat” which had left the child protection system dealing with “insurmountable problems”.

He said: “There’s a clear message for government: the government needs to step up to the plate in terms of taking on vested interests and saying ‘enough is enough’.”

While criticising cooperation between the Garda Síochána and Tusla, Prof Shannon praised frontline gardaí in making decisions on invoking emergency powers and removing children from danger.

He said that in all cases he examined gardaí demonstrated a “restrained use” of powers under Section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991. He said there was “no evidence” of racial profiling.

He criticised a “deep-seated culture” in the force of not providing child protection training to gardaí – but acknowledged ongoing moves, including the establishment of the National Protective Services Bureau and pilot divisional units, which will have Tusla social workers seconded to it.

He welcomed Tusla’s establishment of a national out of hours service in November 2015 but said he still had concerns about the level of care nationwide.

He said vulnerable children having to use this system should not have an “inferior service” or be “punished on the basis of geography”.

Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone said the service had “significantly expanded” with “full national cover”, which comprised out of hours social workers in Dublin, Cork city, Kildare and Wicklow with specialists “on call to deal with queries from gardaí” in other areas.

But a spokesperson for the minister confirmed last night that Ms Zappone “has asked Tusla to look at the demand outside the four areas” and that these other areas “will be reviewed on that basis”.

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