Criticism never far away for Tusla - an agency dogged by legacy issues

There is a lot of goodwill towards Tusla, given its difficulties in matching its relatively modest budget with the scale of the job on its hands, but criticism never seems too far away, writes Noel Baker.

Tusla chief executive Fred McBride with Minister for Children Katherine Zappone. Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins
Tusla chief executive Fred McBride with Minister for Children Katherine Zappone. Picture: Gareth Chaney Collins

Tusla is at the eye of a storm in relation to the handling of the false allegation regarding Sgt Maurice McCabe, but it is not the first time the Child and Family Agency has come under scrutiny.

Tusla became an independent legal entity on January 1, 2014, under its parent department, the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. It was a move seen as finally giving child welfare and protection concerns the primacy they deserved following years of accusations that they were near the bottom of the to-do list within the Health Service Executive.

Under its new guise, it pulled together HSE Children & Family Services, the Family Support Agency, and the National Educational Welfare Board. However, there were queries over what the Child and Family Agency did not include, including Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services. It also took on plenty of legacy issues, including a fractured child welfare and protection system which had seen disparities in referrals and how they were dealt with under the old HSE system.

It has an operational budget of approximately €600m but Fergus Finlay, chief executive of Barnardos, has been among those arguing that this is inadequate given the broad range of services Tusla operates and the burgeoning number of cases on its books. As of last November, its budgetary overspend was still just €5.2m for the year, and that was primarily down to non-pay and private residential and foster care expenditure. It has almost 4,000 staff.

It has been playing catch-up on frontline recruitment, while the long-awaited National Child Care Information System — a central system supporting child protection, child welfare, and social work services in Tusla — has also witnessed numerous delays.

Regional weaknesses were not long coming to the fore. In April 2015, Tusla announced that it was launching a review following the discovery of hundreds of files relating to children by a recently appointed principal social worker in its Portlaoise office. The discovery of the files — as well as another 822 files where gardaí had made referrals to either Tusla or the HSE — had sparked concerns for the welfare of the children mentioned in the previously unattended-to files.

Completed later in 2015, the audit of 743 case files found that 660 required the allocation of a social worker — including 127 that needed immediate action.

At the time, Fred McBride, now Tusla chief executive but then its chief operating officer, said: “A clear weakness identified in the Laois/Offaly area has been that relating to filing and records management.”

There is a lot of goodwill towards Tusla, given its difficulties in matching its relatively modest budget with the scale of the job on its hands, and much sympathy for those working within those constraints.

But criticism never seems too far away. Just last month the president of the district court, Judge Rosemary Horgan, criticised Tusla for its handling of a case involving two siblings who are now on their sixth social worker. A string of inspection reports by the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) has highlighted cases where children have not been allocated a social worker. Last year, a draft internal report warned senior management in Tusla that more than 225 children may be at risk due to being in continuing contact with alleged abusers.

At the same time, Tusla is a work in progress. There are good news stories. Its most recent annual report, for 2015, showed a 21% reduction in cases awaiting allocation to a social worker and a 65% reduction of high priority cases awaiting allocation to a social worker.

But, as recent revelations show, it may be some time before it is rid of its growing pains.


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