The homelessness crisis has been a factor in an increase in referrals to the Child and Family Agency, with the number expected to top 50,000 for last year, according to the chief executive of Tusla.

In an interview with the Irish Examiner, Fred McBride said Ireland had more teenagers coming into care at a later age than in other countries, and that there was “some evidence” that younger children were developing “quite extreme behaviours and problems at an earlier age”.

Figures released by the Government last week showed a slight fall in the overall number of homeless people, although 3,079 children were in emergency accommodation in December.

Asked if this could be having an impact on referrals to Tusla, Mr McBride said: “We are fairly sure that it has.”

He said there had been an upward trend in the overall number of referrals made to the Child and Family Agency over the past two years, with 47,000 made in 2016 and 42,000 by the end of last October.

“We don’t have end-of-year figures yet, [but] in 2017 we were trending to top 50,000,” he said.

“So homelessness will be a feature of that. We don’t have that broken down precisely, but inevitably it will be.”

However, he warned that care needed to be taken where children, in difficult circumstances, were still being loved and cared for by their parents.

“So we need to be really careful that we don’t start throwing child protection services at them — that is the last thing that they would need,” he said. “But some level of family support, of course, would be useful where it is proportionate to do so.”

Mr McBride said there appeared to have been a “flattening out” of the number of children in the care system in recent years, but also said that age 17 is the single biggest age group in care and that “the proportion of those that have come into care, say at 15 plus, is quite high”.

He said it was “a reasonable hypothesis” that some of those cases had come to the fore in adolescence where services may have been curtailed during the recession when those children were younger.

As for those under 12, he said he was not aware of any growth in the number of children in that age bracket entering the care system but added there was some evidence that children are developing quite extreme behaviours and problems at an earlier age 8 to 12.

He said he is optimistic about Tusla’s work, including plans to expand out-of-hours services, including an on-call support system for foster carers. The agency’s long-awaited National Child Care Information system will be rolled out to all areas.

He was speaking before last week’s Children’s Ombudsman’s report highlighting a fragmented approach by Tusla and the HSE to the care of a girl with Down syndrome and autism who had been abandoned at birth.

Analysis: 11

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