More than 100 vulnerable young people in need of an emergency placement had to be accommodated in hotels last year — including two children under the age of four — because of a lack capacity within Tusla's national out-of-hours service.
Tusla has pledged to address the growing number of children and young people accommodated in hotels as an emergency measure when no other residential care placement is available.
The Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon, described the situation as "very, very concerning" and one they had already discussed with Tusla. "A child can be brought to a hotel, taken out of their family home as it is not a safe place to be, but as far as they are concerned they are taken by strangers to a hotel room, and those strangers could change every eight hours," he said.
Dr Muldoon said there was concern over private sector involvement in residential care, something Tusla has said it is addressing, adding that hotels and emergency accommodation were "a poor substitute for quality care" and he was looking forward to engaging with Tusla on the issue.
In its latest strategic report on how it plans to overhaul its residential care provision, the Child and Family Agency said that as of the end of last January, there was a total of 126 children and young people around the country who were assessed as requiring a residential care placement but "due to lack of capacity, these young people were placed on a waiting list until a suitable residential care placement is available".
As for those in need of an emergency placement, that is normally sourced through the out-of-hours service, but the report outlined the challenges in sourcing beds.
The result was that more than 100 vulnerable young people were placed in hotels.
"From January to November 2021 there were 117 placements of children and young people in emergency hotel accommodation (excluding separated children seeking international protection)," Tusla said.
"There are currently 26 emergency care beds, six are provided by private providers and the remaining 20 are provided by community and voluntary providers," it said.
"Throughout 2021, all 26 emergency beds were filled each night and there was inadequate capacity to meet demand.
"Unfortunately, this resulted in children and young people being placed and cared for in hotel rooms, or holiday accommodation, with staff on-site to provide care and support.
"In 2021, a governance framework was developed to promote consistency in sourcing of these placements and the governance of same."
There were issues around the country, but the problem was particularly acute in Dublin Mid Leinster, Dublin North East and in Tusla South.
"The South and Dublin Mid-Leinster Area have the highest reliance on hotel placements," it said. "15% of children and young people were placed in emergency hotel accommodation due to lack of an available foster/residential care placement.
"There has been an increasing trend in the monthly requirement for emergency hotel placements since January 2021.
"For both regional and national out-of-hours emergency hotel placements, 72, of placements were for young people aged 15 to 17 years. However, the national out-of-hours service had to place two children aged under four years in hotel accommodation between January and November 2021."
Tusla has already signalled its aim to reduce private residential care provision and overhaul the system, with more than a third of placements now outside the area where the young person being placed normally resides.
Marissa Ryan, CEO of EPIC, Empowering People in Care, said: "Some of the young people we work with have been placed in hotels as an emergency measure and have found this very distressing. Being in care can be extremely difficult and destabilising, and uncertainty about where you will live compounds this. EPIC welcomes the new Tusla Residential Care Strategy, particularly the commitment to move away from dependency on private care provision. We hope to see the Government invest robustly to resolve the scarcity of residential care placements in Budget 23. Equally we believe it is critical to prioritise recruitment, training and support for emergency foster carers, as the best place for any child is always within a family home.”