Tusla has said it is shelving new procedures around dealing with child abuse cases until next March because of the Covid-19 outbreak.
The Child Abuse Substantiation Procedure (CASP) had been due to be rolled out this year and had already been the subject of scrutiny by social workers after reports that it could allow for those under investigation of abusing children to interview their alleged victims.
Tusla had moved to reassure alleged victims in that regard, stating: "It is important to note that the guide makes no requirement that a complainant would be cross-examined."
However, the CASP came under fresh focus in April when Tusla issued a tender seeking to establish a panel that would carry out external reviews from social work investigations of allegations of abuse and neglect. The Irish Association of Social Workers queried why a tender was being issued when the policy itself had not yet been implemented.
Those panels would have comprised one experienced social work practitioner joined by a legal advisor who would look at how the assessment was carried out, any decision made, and would have the power to set that decision aside.
A spokesperson for Tusla confirmed in April that the panels are a new departure "arising from the yet to be launched Child Abuse Substantiation Procedure (CASP)".
In a written answer to a recent parliamentary question, Minister for Children Katherine Zappone said CASP is "still in development, and will be subject to ongoing review".
She said a final report on CASP is due this month but added:
My officials are engaging with Tusla to establish whether that timeline is still feasible in light of the ongoing public health emergency.
The Tusla spokesperson confirmed that CASP will now be postponed until next March.
“The Child Abuse Substantiation Procedure (CASP) was scheduled to commence implementation in June 2020," the spokesperson said.
"Due to a number of factors affecting the implementation plan, including the effect of the Covid-19 pandemic on training, recruitment, and service delivery, as well as more informed considerations on ICT system development and GDPR, a position has been recommended to extend the implementation date to March 2021 and it is hoped that a decision will be finalised in the coming days.
"It is important to stress that there is a current policy and procedure in place since 2014 and this will continue to be utilised.”
CASP was one of the main resources to tackle the significant rise in retrospective allegation of abuse being made to Tusla in recent years.
"In both retrospective and indeed aspects of current alleged abuse Tusla is limited in its investigative authority and powers," the agency had said, outlining the balancing act between allowing for fair procedures regarding someone who is the subject of an allegation and the rights of the person making an allegation, while also ensuring no child is currently in any potential danger.
In an earlier statement Tusla said: "In applying the new Child Abuse Substantiation Procedure Tusla is attempting to meet all of its responsibilities and duties having regard to a complex legal backdrop. We are absolutely mindful of the trauma and emotional distress experienced by survivors of retrospective abuse."
Ms Zappone, in her response to the PQ, said: "When assessing allegations of abuse, Tusla is required to strike a balance between minimising trauma to the person who has disclosed abuse, and affording fair procedures to the person against whom an allegation has been made. The way that Tusla operates in assessing allegations of abuse is informed by both legislation and decisions made by the courts. Where it appears that a crime has been committed Tusla is required to share information with An Garda Síochána.
Tusla has confirmed to my officials, and publicly stated, that it cannot and would never compel a person to participate in investigations into a report of child abuse against their wishes. This includes a person who has told Tusla of past abuse being questioned by the person they alleged is their abuser.
"Children, and vulnerable adults, who allege that they have been abused, will only meet with Tusla appointed representatives in the course of Tusla's assessment into whether the adult accused of abuse poses a current risk to children."