Inspection of foster care services in Cork has found major non-compliances

Foster care service in Cork does not have enough carers, some are still unassessed and health watchdog HIQA said it was not sure that children would not be placed with a carer already facing an allegation of abuse, reports Noel Baker.

In one case highlighted in a new inspection report, a fourth child was placed with carers who were the subject of a previous allegation and more recent complaints, with HIQA asking Tusla to escalate it to ensure the safeguarding arrangements in place were sufficient.

The highly critical inspection report into the statutory foster care service in Cork also found that because of issues with how the service operated, "appropriate safeguarding arrangements were not in place for all foster carers", and that there were significant delays in the commencement and completion of relative assessments, with many children placed for several years with unassessed relative carers.

According to the report: "There was an insufficient number and range of foster carers in place to meet the demand for services and more foster carers were leaving the service than were being recruited."

The inspection by the Health Information and Quality Authority included a review of 80 cases, following which 35 were escalated to the alternative care services manager for answers over concerns including:

 - the adequacy of investigations following a child protection or welfare concern or allegation about foster carers and unclear outcomes to strategy meetings;

 - unassessed and unapproved relative carers without Garda vetting, and adults living in foster carer households without Garda vetting;

 - significant delays in the commencement and completion of relative assessments with many children placed for several years;

 - a lack of evidence of adequate safeguarding measures in place for these relatives and for foster carers without link workers;

 - relative carers who had not been approved by the foster care committee;

 - inadequate support and supervision of foster carers;

 - foster carers where the number of unrelated children in placement exceeded the standards.

The Cork Area is the largest of the 17 Tusla service areas and takes in North Cork LHO, West Cork LHO, North Lee LHO and South Lee LHO. There were 517 foster carer households in the service - 377 general foster carers and 140 relative foster carers.

The report is based on a three-day inspection conducted in February. Of the eight standards assessed in the report, just two were substantially compliant while six standards were non-compliant, of which five were major non-compliances.

According to the report: "Due to the number of significant issues arising from this inspection, inspectors were concerned that managerial oversight and monitoring was not sufficient. There was no designated authorised person to undertake formal monitoring of the foster care service."

Another risk was the 43% of all carers without a review for over three years who had out-of-date vetting. "For a number of carers, the dates since they were last vetted were in 2011 and 2012," it said.

Data provided by the area showed that there were 17 child protection and welfare concerns or allegations about foster carers in the 12 months prior to the inspection. However, on reviewing the child protection concerns and allegations log, inspectors found that there had been 29 such concerns or allegations. While these concerns or allegations were categorised correctly, "they did not consistently receive the appropriate response".

There was no national policy on managing serious concerns or allegations about foster carers. Inspectors reviewed 13 complaints or serious welfare concerns or allegations against foster carers and found they were not all managed and investigated in line with Children First (2011).

According to the report, eight cases required escalation as there were doubts over whether they had received adequate follow-up, while in one case a risk assessment as requested by the foster care committee had not been completed.

"While inspectors saw examples of an ‘on hold’ status applied to the database of foster carers, inspectors were not fully assured that a child would not be placed with foster carers for whom there was an open allegation," it said.

"One case was escalated where the safeguarding arrangements were insufficient and despite a previous allegation and recent complaints, a fourth child was placed with these carers during the inspection. The response back from the area manager regarding necessary actions following these escalations was satisfactory."

Some good practice in the area was highlighted but due to the level of non compliance with standards, HIQA wrote to the Chief Operating Officer of Tusla and at a subsequent meeting the Child and Family Agency said immediate action had been taken and other measures were being implemented to address the concerns raised. Tusla also provided HIQA with an action plan to address the concerns arising from the inspection.

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