The organiser of a major conference on the care of children has said the care system has been "dumbed down" and those working with children are not properly resourced or valued.
Maurice Fenton, a social care worker and organiser of the four-day Unity through Relationship conference held in Dublin, said Irish childcare was still “crisis-led” and the new Child and Family Agency needed to follow through on making aftercare a statutory provision so as to signal its “intent” to improve the delivery of services.
Mr Fenton said that the falling numbers of children in residential care — and the corresponding rise in the number of children in foster care — did not necessarily mean children were receiving appropriate services, particularly children who he said were too traumatised to be cared for in a foster placement.
“Relationship” was the core theme of this week’s conference, held at the Airport Regency Hotel. The speakers included Michael Donnellan, the director general of the Irish Prison Service; Gillian Ruch from the department of social work and social care at the University of Sussex; and Mark Smith from the school of social and political studies at the University of Edinburgh.
Mr Fenton said the key relationship — that between the child and the worker offering care — had been pushed to one side by other considerations.
“Various reports have shown there can be 10 to 15 different professionals in a child’s life, all involved [in their care] but they are not communicating,” he said.
He said he had “great sympathy” for social workers who he said were dealing with large case loads and fewer resources. He said waiting lists to be seen by social services was “a timebomb”, and claimed that greater collaboration between the different “professional silos” working with vulnerable children would also help outcomes for those children.
Mr Fenton said the amount of money spent on aftercare for young people leaving care at 18 may have actually fallen, despite a 20% increase in the number of children going into care in the past 10 years.
He also said a “stigma” was still attached to residential care which was seen as a “tarnished service”, even though for some children it was the best option, while foster care was less expensive.
“We have had a dumbing down of our services,” he said, adding that political will was essential in providing the right mix of care services to the children who needed them.
He also said that the growth in the number of Irish children in residential centres overseas could be linked to the closure of high support units.
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