Is Tusla defending itself or our children?

Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone told the Dáil that Tusla had written to Scouting Ireland criticising it child protection record.

There is something unsettling about the growing tiff between the child and family agency, Tusla, and Scouting Ireland.

As presented, the story is one of a state body charged with protecting children calling to account an organisation which had a poor record of protecting children.

Except a few things don’t add up. And old questions resurface as to the guiding principle of a state body charged with protecting or assisting citizens. Is the body’s primary concern the citizens? Or is it the body itself?

On Wednesday, Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone told the Dáil that Tusla had issued a letter to Scouting Ireland criticising its child protection record. The scouts have been under the kosh for the last year as details of historical abuse allegations tumbled out into the public domain.

Now Tusla is saying that despite major reform in the voluntary body, there remains a problem with child protection policy. And to drive home the concerns, the letter suggested that the scouts “consider the viability of continuing with overnight trips”. Camping is at the heart of what the scouts are about.

On Thursday, Ian Elliott defended the scouts’ recent record. Mr Elliott is a child protection expert who has been acting as a consultant to Scouting Ireland since 2017. He is best known as the man who called out the Church for its failures to implement proper policies. He is a man to be taken very seriously, and the last person I can think of who could ever be accused of being less than vigilant on the protection of children.

Mr Elliott, who heavily criticised Scouting Ireland for past practices, said he could see nothing in current practices “to justify the levels of concern from Tusla”.

So what is going on? The protection of children is paramount. Minimising risk is the purpose of child protection policy, but is Tusla’s response proportionate to any perceived risk to children?

We know that historically there were major flaws in the approach of every organisation that has any interaction with children. But if somebody like Mr Elliott is satisfied with current practices, how can Tulsa effectively suggest that Scouting Ireland isn’t fit for purpose?

Of course you could posit the theory that if you eliminate overnight camping in the scouts you eliminate risk of anything untoward occurring. Equally, the unfortunate reality is that somebody will in all likelihood die on the state’s roads in the coming weeks. Does that mean we should all forgo using the roads? Would Tusla prefer if Scouting Ireland did away with its camping because that would make the agency’s work easier?

If Tusla had an unimpeachable reputation for how it functions perhaps we could have some faith in its course of action. But it does not. There are a number of examples of questionable actions and words on the part of the child and family agency.

One was published in this newspaper last December about a foster family who had a foster child removed from their care, never to see him again. The child had made what was perceived as a sexualised remark, which the foster parents reported to Tusla.

Three months later, during a routine meeting, the child was taken from the foster parents without notice. A decision was made not to allow the couple any access to the child thereafter. Bonds that had been cemented over five years — during which it is acknowledged the boy was happy — were smashed. The decision, according to childcare experts who reviewed the case for Tusla, “appears to be a very punitive stance taken by the social work department and likely not to be in the child’s best interests”.

There followed three separate investigations into the original remark. The expert review noted of the final of these: “This was the third episode of assessment/interview of the same child protection concern over a 17-month period which these reviewers would find as excessive given the nature of the comment.” In the end, the lives of a couple who had provided a home to a child were devastated. Of even more importance was the impact on the child. Was the whole thing in his interests?

That episode happened in 2016 when the so-called Grace case, involving allegations of serious sexual abuse in a foster family, was in the news. A number of shortcomings in Tusla’s handling of that case were exposed. Is it possible that the fallout inadvertently prompted over-reaction in a completely separate case at the time involving a foster family?

Tusla has a difficult job to do and a series of reports have highlighted a major resource problem. That may feed into what appears to be an over-reaction at times in discharging its mandate. Such actions can have devastating consequences on some individuals — and organisations — yet is largely tolerated because the protection of children is alleged to be the primary concern.

However, there is also a possible link between over-reaction and self-defence/self-preservation of an organisation. Repeatedly, state bodies have been shown to have as their number one concern to ensure effective impunity from any wrongdoing or bad practice. This has been the case in the gardaí, in the HSE, in departments of government. And one tactic in self-preservation is over reaction in response to the exposure of errors.

Look at how the Government reacted to the cervical cancer scandal. When public outrage was running large last year, an announcement was made that there would be free cervical cancer screening for any woman who asked for it.

The result has been a major backlog in the queue for the test. One possible outcome of the backlog is the women who may be in the greatest danger are not having their tests in a timely fashion. Whose interests are served by that?

Yet, the Government spun its way out of trouble by making what it perceived as a big gesture. The consequence was secondary to the gesture’s effect in quelling public anger.

The primacy of self-preservation in the state apparatus is arguably also the reason why we have a constant stream of independent inquiries when things go wrong.

On Thursday, the Taoiseach told a Dáil committee that he was concerned at the ballooning cost of inquiries and tribunals. Yet the culture of these inquiries has grown out of a mistrust of state bodies doing rigorous self-analysis when things go wrong. If the first instinct is self-defence, or self-preservation, then the priority for unearthing the truth is immediately relegated.

Tusla has had its share of things going wrong. Maybe it is in self-preservation mode. Maybe that’s why the concerns it has expressed about Scouting Ireland has all the signs of over reaction. If so, then the protection of children has been relegated as the agency’s primary concern.

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