Child protection failings: ‘It’s going to shock you beyond belief’

Prof Shannon’s report details barbaric abuse of children by parents, writes Cormac O’Keeffe.

Dr Geoffrey Shannon at the launch of his report in Garda HQ in the Phoenix Park in Dublin.
Dr Geoffrey Shannon at the launch of his report in Garda HQ in the Phoenix Park in Dublin.

CHILDREN treated like “human trash”. Children subjected to “barbaric” treatment and “staggering” levels of trauma. Lives that have been left “shattered”.

It’s a story that has been told in this country before, many times. But this is not times past; this is now.

And it’s not at the hands of the Catholic Church - it’s at the hands of parents.

Professor Geoffrey Shannon said this was an “unpalatable truth”, one that politicians and the media, in particular, appeared to be reluctant to name.

He was speaking at the launch of his report on the use of Garda emergency child protection powers, a report commissioned for An Garda Síochána.

In an unscripted and impassioned 40-minute address, he said “every parent” in the country should read chapter 3 of his 346-page report. “It’s going to shock you, shock you beyond belief”, he said.

He said he and his team were “genuinely shocked that this was the Ireland of 2015/2016 and 2017”.

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

Prof Shannon said it was easy to blame state agencies, but stressed that parents had the first responsibility to care for their own children.

“Children are treated like human trash in some of these cases. I don’t use those words lightly. The 91 narratives do no sugarcoat the barbaric treatment some children suffer.”

He said these cases raised wider issues, and that his report was “as much to do about Irish society” as it was about the workings or failures of the Child and Family Agency (Tusla) and An Garda Síochána.

He said the prevalence of domestic violence, not necessarily physical in nature, had “not abated” and that this should concern us.

But he spoke at length about the role of alcohol in his 91 cases.

“One of the biggest issues facing society is the adverse consequences for the welfare of many children posed by alcohol abuse.”

He said there was a persistent “ambivalence” of governments in this area.

“The failure on the part of society to comprehensively address the alcohol problem as a fundamental threat to the proper functioning of individuals and communities leaves the child protection system dealing with insurmountable problems.

“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’.”

Prof Shannon then turned his focus to what those agencies responsible for this area were doing. But he said he “felt compelled” firstly to respond to a statement issued by Tusla before his report was launched.

It made a point to say that this was a report for the gardaí, that Tusla was “not involved in its production” and that its staff were not interviewed for it.

Prof Shannon said this had caused him “much distress” and said he had “extensive contact” with Tusla. Tusla later clarified their position and apologised to Prof Shannon.

He said the point of the report was to examine how gardaí were utilising emergency powers under Section 12 of the 1991 Child Care Act.

On the whole, he gave high praise to gardaí on the frontline. He said the “overwhelming finding” was that members committed great efforts to treating children “sensitively and compassionately”.

He said many members worked long beyond their rostered hours to organise care for a child. He said they demonstrated on the whole “a significant degree of critical sophistication” in exercising their power.

“In all cases examined gardaí demonstrated a restrained use of section 12 powers,” he said.

He added that he found “no evidence of racial profiling”, but qualified this to say that the Garda Pulse computer system did not routinely record ethnic data.

His finding stands starkly against that of former Children’s Ombudsman Emily Logan who examined garda’s use of powers in the so-called Roma cases, concluding that they had used “racial profiling”.

He added. “In my view, and I say this without qualification, hundreds of children would go unprotected without the work of rank and file members of An Garda Síochána. It’s very important to say this.”

Not that he did not have criticisms for the force, including the lack of training provided to gardaí.

He said the “overwhelming majority” of current members had not received training on child protection.

“There is a deep-seated culture in An Garda Síochána privileging on-the-job training over, and often to the detriment of, formal core training.”

He also criticised Pulse, saying it did not provide “consistent and accurate” data on this area.

Moreover, he said that while the rhetoric of the force was the need for interagency work with Tusla, the reality fell “far short”.

He welcomed the establishment of the Garda National Protective Services Bureau, which will have Tusla staff seconded to it. He also welcomed divisional units, three of which will start in the next fortnight.

This area was where the bulk of his concerns lay – the lack of interagency work with Tusla – along with Tusla’s out of hours services and concerns he had regarding private foster care services. “Very clearly, interagency cooperation at the moment is overwhelmingly inadequate in this area. There is a problem with agencies operating in silos. That needs to be tackled.”

He said it was “essential” that the services share information and said that a “cultural shift” needs to happen and suggesting co- located services, like he had seen in the UK and New York. He said there was “considerable criticism” from gardaí regarding Tusla’s emergency out of hours service.

He welcomed Tusla’s establishment in November 2015 of out of hours services for parts of the country but said he still had concerns.

He said vulnerable children using the out of hours service should not have an “inferior service” or “punished on the basis of geography”, in some cases having to travel “hundreds of miles” for an emergency foster care.

He said Tusla was “heavily reliant” on private foster care services. He said there was a pattern of private foster care services “refusing” to take children with challenging behaviour.

“I found this absolutely scandalous,” he said.

He said Tusla should not be so reliant on private services and called for changes to legislation “removing any ambiguity” regarding the requirement to take such children.

He said his report was “a wake-up call for society”.

“These children do not need our sympathy – they need our action.”

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