“Far too many children are at risk of neglect in Ireland,” said the Barnardos chief executive.
More than 107,000 children are living in consistent poverty.
Mr Finlay said such children were living in families that were coming under increasing stress.
He said children at risk were more likely to drop out of education system, become involved in antisocial behaviour, drift into crime as they grew up, and eventually become part of the prison system.
“They are the children we are failing now,” he told the Oireachtas committee on health and children regarding the establishment of the Child and Family Support Agency.
Earlier, Mr Finlay said the existing system of child protection had failed.
He said it was a “regrettable fact” that during the first five years of the HSE, the subject of children had never once appeared on the agenda of the board of the health authority.
He said the HSE was set up to deal with a myriad of things and, from the start, found itself engulfed in a series of crises.
“In the middle of all that it forgot, particularly at board and senior management level, that it had a statutory responsibility to protect vulnerable children.”
The joint founder and director of the Unesco Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway, Prof Pat Dolan, said there was overwhelming evidence that over time there was a €29 pay-off for every €1 spent on early intervention.
However, he was concerned about the failure to transfer child psychologists and public health nurses to the Child and Family Support Agency and warned that children’s lives could be affected unless all of the services came under one agency.
Mr Finlay said the public health nursing profession was the best early-warning system the State had.
“Public health nurses are supposed to, by law, visit every newborn child in Ireland five times in their first two years of life,” he said.
“They are better equipped than almost any other profession to know what’s going on in families and they are not going into the agency. That’s daft. That’s crazy and that needs to be addressed by the system as quickly as possible.”
The HSE’s national director for children and family services, Gordon Jeyes, said public health nurses would be looked at during the second phase of the development of the agency and that planned legislation establishing the agency would be introduced in the Dáil in the next few weeks.