The authors of a raft of new reports into how child welfare and protection cases are dealt with in courts have said more secure care beds are urgently needed to help those most in need.
The latest volume of reports from the Child Care Law Reporting Project revealed acute cases such as one girl fleeing secure care by jumping from a moving car and then going missing, while a boy with extreme behavioural problems was living in a homeless hostel.
A total of 55 cases were published on Monday and were accompanied by observations from the CCLRP reporter Lisa Colfer and its Executive Director Dr Carol Coulter.
The reports showed that just 14 secure beds are available for at-risk children, with some Irish children sent to placements overseas. To illustrate the severe nature of some of the cases, Dr Coulter and Ms Colfer referred to one teenager who had been groomed online and later started to access child pornography on her phone via the dark web.
She disclosed that she had spent nearly 24 hours a day online, all day every day watching this material and talking to other people.
She was described as "both a victim and potential sexual predator" and was receiving specialist help.
"In order for this critical system of care to really offer a chance to change the lives of the most vulnerable children in our society, at a minimum all 26 beds need to be fully operational, and appropriate step-down facilities provided for those leaving special care," Dr Coulter and Ms Colfer said. "In addition, provision has to be made for those children who fall outside the definition of those qualifying for special care.
"A true measure of progress in our society would be to offer residential high secure mental hospital care to all young people who need it in our own State instead of sending them out of the country, out of their communities and away from such families as they have, at enormous expense to the State. While this will require resources, it offers a more satisfactory and permanent solution than the current ad hoc system of sending these children out of the State."
The volume of reports also highlighted the difficulties faced by the Child and Family Agency to staff secure care units. Referring to exchanges made in one High Court case, working in this area "was not seen as an attractive employment opportunity, staff retention was a problem as well as ageing staff who were retiring".
On that occasion, the court heard that 33 social care staff had left since 2018 alone.
"Staff were at risk of physical injury, there had been 277 incidents of restraints and 371 staff injuries in 2018, some of which included serious physical assaults. Due to assaults on staff 217 calendar days had been lost, some staff remained out of work on the basis of injuries and some staff may never return due to injuries received.
Among 33 staff who had left their jobs in special care, reasons given were the extremely stressful nature of the work, trauma as a result of their work and assaults.
"There was a rolling recruitment campaign on the TUSLA website but the recruitment drive had limited effectiveness - 161 people had applied, 76 did not make it to interview, 25 applicants passed to the interview process, four did not attend, six interviews did not proceed, six were still to be interviewed, and one candidate was to be offered a place. Fifty-eight posts were currently offered within special care."