Tusla has confirmed that the number of referrals it has received relating to children have fallen by at least a third since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak here, heightening concerns for the welfare of some vulnerable children.
It came as the Children’’s Rights Alliance began a new Food Provision Scheme to help target children under the age of six who - with schools and early years services closed - may be in danger of malnourishment.
So consistent is the theme of food poverty among many of the Alliance’’s member organisations that CRA chief executive Tanya Ward said any lifting of restrictions should look at the needs of the most vulnerable children - even if that means reopening schools and early years services.
Ms Ward said at a recent discussion with Tusla chief executive Bernard Gloster he referred to a fall of around a third in child welfare referrals now being received by the Child and Family Agency.
A Tusla spokesperson confirmed that the actual level of reduction in referrals was between 33% and 25% since the coronavirus outbreak hit Irish shores.
Last month the Irish Association of Social Workers had warned that a by-product of the restrictions brought in during the public health emergency would be a collapse in referrals from teachers, principles, coaches and others who might ordinarily come in regular contact with vulnerable children.
Tusla has launched a range of initiatives to ensure social workers and other professionals continue to monitor those cases and intervene where necessary. It has also reminded members of the public that if they have concerns about a child they can still get in contact to make a report.
Ms Ward said the lack of food for some children was one pressing issue. The Children’’s Rights Alliance, with funding from the Bank of Ireland and support from the Community Foundation of Ireland, has set up a food provision scheme to support the nutritional needs for children under the age of six experiencing food poverty and deprivation during the current crisis.
Teaming up with Children and Young People’’s Services Committees, it wants to target young children that are not already benefiting from sufficient direct food food provision through another organisation or programme. Ideally it will mean hot meals for the children involved and an initial fund of €50,000 is available. People can apply through childrensrights.ie or cypsc.ie.
In a letter to CRA members, Ms Ward wrote: "Through our meetings with you, we know food poverty has become a prevalent issue for families at this time."
She later said the effect of the closures of schools meant some children were at risk of food poverty.
"We were really worried about children not getting fed or being fed the wrong things," she said, adding of normal food provision in schools and early years services: "It’’s life-saving, really, for these kids."
The UK decided to keep some early years schools and services open so they could continue to provide for children most in need and Ms Ward asked: "Is there a need to open up facilities for very vulnerable children?"
She said any lifting of the restrictions should focus on the needs of vulnerable children, not just nutritionally but across the board, with some having to stay in unsafe or volatile situations during the course of the crisis.