30,000 referrals over child concerns in 2012

A staggering 30,000 plus referrals were made to social services last year on foot of concerns about child abuse and child welfare, a HSE report shows.

Despite these numbers — prompted by suspicions of neglect and/or physical/sexual abuse — the Government has yet to enact legislation that would underpin Children First, the national guidance for the protection and welfare of children.

A spokesman for the Department of Children and Youth Affairs said the Children First Bill was “priority legislation” this year, but that there were a lot of issues to be resolved on foot of points raised by the joint Oireachtas committee on health and children, which considered the heads of the bill, a document designed to secure approval to draft a formal bill.

Meanwhile the HSE report highlights a number of shortcomings in relation to how the executive fulfils its statutory role.

For example, when placing children in foster care, the HSE is to select foster carers from a panel, each of whom has undergone a rigorous assessment process. However in 2012, 559 unapproved foster carers were used; in the case of 343, children had been with them for more than three months.

The HSE also failed to carry out assessments of children referred to it within a specified 21-day period. Of 16,000 referrals sent on for initial assessment, fewer than one-fifth were carried out inside the timeframe.

Further breaches of care included failure to ensure all 6,332 children in care had an allocated social worker (350 had none in 2012) and more than 780 had no care-plan.

Jennifer Gargan, director of EPIC, an organisation representing children in care, said the HSE failures represented “serious child protection issues”.

“Without a care-plan or an allocated social worker, no one is checking in with the child to see or notice when a concern arise.”

Ms Gargan said it was imperative that the promised Children First legislation was carefully crafted so that resources could meet the demands mandatory reporting would place on an already strained system.

“When resources are scarce, they need to be deployed to the best effect.”

The HSE said with about 2,300 admissions to care each year, it was not possible to ensure that all children at all times had a social worker “as there will be a short gap in some cases while a social worker is being allocated to a case”.

In addition, the absence of staff due to sickness, leave, and turnover impacted on allocation rates. In relation to care plans, the HSE said the great majority of children were catered for but that “normal day-to-day exigencies of service provision impact on this area of services”.

In relation to the use of unapproved foster carers, the HSE said it was “policy” to ensure all were subjected to the full process of assessment but again exigencies of service provision impacted on this area. The HSE figures are contained in its December Performance Monitoring Report.

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