Aine Kenny: Concerns raised over children in care during Covid-19 lockdown

Lack of in-person parental visits, difficulties monitoring children and a withdrawal of traditional supports such as schools and sports clubs have all been highlighted as areas of concern.
Aine Kenny: Concerns raised over children in care during Covid-19 lockdown

Concerns have been raised about how children in the Irish care system are coping during the coronavirus pandemic.

Lack of in-person parental visits, difficulties monitoring children and a withdrawal of traditional supports such as schools and sports clubs have all been highlighted as areas of concern.

While social workers are deemed essential workers by the government, the in-person services they provide have been scaled back, due to social distancing.

Tusla also said there has been a 25-33% reduction in the number of referrals since the start of the Covid-19 outbreak, which leaves many people worrying children in need are not being heard.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner, a child protection social worker who wished to remain anonymous said the lockdown is very challenging for families, as well as social workers.

The social worker, who is a member of the Irish Association of Social Workers, said they had to adapt quickly.

"The first issue was access between birth families and children. It became an insurmountable task, as the government were advising people not to leave their household. There were a lot of frightened foster carers with underlying health conditions."

The social worker says video calling has been a workaround, and they believe this will continue in the post-Covid era.

"A social worker can meet the parent, ring the child, and then they can talk. The child can show their parents their bedroom, the dog that they are always telling them about... this never happened before as parents never visit foster homes.

They can get a visual of where they are living.

When it comes to smaller children such as babies, it is difficult to facilitate video calling. However, the social worker says new access centres have been set up, which are cleaned after each visit, and there is not a multitude of staff using the venue as there was before.

"We are also trying garden visits, or allowing older children to walk around outdoors with their parents, while maintaining two metres distance."

Monitoring children has also proved difficult. While in-person visits are being facilitated under certain conditions, they must be essential.

"We are calling to families weekly. Children don’t have the same safeguards, like schools, that they did before."

Garden visits with social distancing are also another strategy that has been employed, but the social worker says this may not always suffice. "A child’’s bedroom has to be inspected if it was an issue before."

PPE was also scarce at the start, but now there is a supply of hand sanitiser, gloves, goggles and masks for social workers.

The social worker also worries that the network of teachers, coaches, and extended family members, who may have referred cases to Tusla, now have less contact with families than before.

"There’’s been a drop in referrals, but not a drop in risk. There also may be new families that haven’t come to our attention [because of the lack of referrals]."

Some foster placements have also broken down, due to the extra stress that foster parents and children are under.

As difficult as it is for us, it is very difficult for parents, and children. Some older children want to see their parents because they might worry about them, for example if their parent was a drug user.

Gareth Noble, a child protection lawyer from the Dublin-based KOD Lyons law firm, says the reduction in professional direct contact between social workers and families is concerning.

"The number of emergency care proceedings has increased dramatically in England, as reported in The Guardian. This is not happening here.

"There is a big gap in knowledge at the moment. It is incredibly challenging. How do we ensure the health, welfare and safety rights of the child are vindicated?"

Mr Noble adds that many of the safety supports children would have relied on, such as schools, sports and dance clubs, have disappeared.

"There is a lack of information on what is happening in families, all those who were bringing information are no longer in contact. Anecdotally, there has been an over-reliance on Gardaí to police these situations on the ground."

Mr Noble says another objective in child care proceedings is to see if there are grounds for family reunification. With direct contact replaced with video calling in some instances, this will be difficult to assess.

How can we measure this when all meaningful contact [between family members] has ceased?

Another sad aspect, according to Mr Noble, is the fact that many children are not placed with their siblings when taken into foster care. Now, these children may not see their siblings, as well as their parents.

"They have a lack of sibling support, that is a big gap in a child’’s life. There are many reasons for this but it is usually down to foster placement availability and lack of capacity. If four or five children came into care at once, they may get different placements."

Mr Noble also believes there needs to be an immediate review of all children in care, as many of the support networks that families and children relied on are no longer there.

"Every child’’s care plan is redundant as of now, due to Covid-19. Each plan should be reviewed and a new one formulated with Covid-19 restrictions in mind."

He also believes that the whole nature of the care system will change.

"People are realising we need more creative solutions. The traditional model of meeting in a small, ill-designed child and family agency room won’t work.

The reality is Covid-19 is not going away. We’ll be living alongside this for a long time.

In a statement, Tusla said: "Local Tusla teams are working to ensure that public health advice is followed, and that the health of both children and families, and staff is protected whilst also ensuring that children receive the necessary services.

"Staff have been provided with extensive guidance in relation to home visits and access provision during this pandemic and this detailed guidance is available [online].

"Children continue to be visited at home, in accordance with this guidance. Online mediums are also being used to support contact.

"We recognise the importance of family contact and access for children in care and their families and we equally recognise the need to balance this with public health concerns. Every case is considered on an individual basis and every effort is made to support all concerned in any decisions taken."

Tusla also said they were continuing to conduct children care reviews "consistent with public health advice."

- Anyone with a concern about the wellbeing or safety of a child during this time should contact their local duty social work office; details are available on the Tusla website at tusla.ie or contact us via the Tusla online portal at portal.tusla.ie.

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