There are, no doubt, some things Gordon Jeyes will miss when he steps down as Tusla chief executive this Friday, and you have to imagine the view from his desk is one of them, writes Noel Baker.
From his office on the fifth floor in a new development near Heuston Station, he can survey the gardens of the Royal Hospital Kilmainham.
The Child and Family Agency relocated to swanky new offices last March, months after it began work as a separate entity, as opposed to its previous incarnation as a part of the wider Health Service Executive.
The switch of offices is evidence of Tusla’s progress, and the view elsewhere from Mr Jeyes’s desk seems more positive than might have been the case in previous years. As he tells it, there have been “significant improvements” over recent years.
“I think what staff in Tusla have managed to do in two years is remarkable, what we have achieved in a time of recession,” he says, referring to a culture of putting children first, adding: “There is structure, there is accountability, and it is better managed.”
Nevertheless, the Scot claims that the change in children’s services from “a Cinderella service” within the HSE to now standing on its own — arguably still under-resourced — feet was not an easy one to undertake.
As he prepares to step down this Friday, when he will be succeeded by Tusla’s current chief operations officer, Fred McBride, Mr Jeyes actually says the biggest decision he made was the one to come to Ireland in the first place. He’s only half joking.
“I’m not exaggerating,” he says. “This has been by far and away the most challenging, and draining, job. It has been intellectually stimulating, the work done by staff in Tusla. I take enormous pride [in] working alongside these people and [in] what we have achieved, but this has been a tough gig.”
He refers specifically to the negotiations with the HSE and the Department of Health and Children prior to the setting up of Tusla as an independent service, while running children’s services within the HSE. “It was quite lonely,” he says.
The extent to which he believes children’s services had “got lost” within the superstructure of the HSE is based on figures such as Tusla having had just under 5% of the HSE’s ICT (information communications technology) work volume, but, in the last year within the HSE, it received less than half a per cent of ICT budget.
Mr Jeyes refers to the cost of overheads within Tusla as being 2%, compared to 6% in the HSE, and the 2% figure being “too lean”.
”We probably did not get a fair share... from the Department of Health and the HSE,” he says.
“It’s not to blame HSE because HSE also had their problems. We had a double whammy of going out on our own, and the economy was in a bit of a mess.”
He admits that Tusla, now in its second year outside the HSE, could have done more, but stresses that “capability has been enhanced, credibility has been restored” and that the efforts of staff on the ground had vindicated the decision to go it alone.
“It was the right thing to do,” he says. “We may have been under-resourced, we may have have been a leaky boat, but we’ve repaired it as we’ve gone on.”
Some people have argued strongly that Tusla was under-resourced from the beginning, and Mr Jeyes is not giving his successor a hospital pass when he says more cash is needed if the agency is to develop further.
“By God, we do need extra resources because you cannot maintain this level of services that we have fuelling it solely on willpower, solely on that extra effort,” he says.
“We need to move from survival to sustainability.”
There are myriad issues, from the creation of 28 extra residential care beds in facilities such as Ballydowd to the fact that the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services are still, to his puzzlement, still within the remit of the HSE, and on to the need for a fully functioning ICT system.
Tusla has been given an additional €38m, but he argues that the agency will be doing well to ensure that covers requirements within frontline services.
The recent scandal over the placement of ‘Grace’, a woman with an intellectual disability who suffered abuse at the hands of foster carers in the southeast, proves how this country’s record, when it comes to child protection, is pockmarked with disasters.
Mr Jeyes admits to frustration with the issue of an “institutional culture which has felt beleaguered, defensive, and which has become very cautious”, citing the length of time reports into the Grace case have spent gathering dust behind the scenes.
He believes there is far more legal involvement in industrial relations matters than he has ever encountered anywhere else; as an aside, Tusla has managed to reduce the spend on senior and junior counsel in court matters by 53%.
The long-awaited National Child Care Information System, which will help manage caseloads, has undergone peer review and may finally be in place by the start of next year, while the out-of-hours social work service, currently supporting gardaí in Section 12 cases in which children can be taken into care, may be expanded to involve fostering cases that might be in crisis.
“I would hope CFA will go from strength to strength and will have more responsibility for services, that staying as a child protection service it will not be fulfilling its mandate,” he says.
In addition to the area of adolescent mental health — “a no man’s land” — there is also the issue of the “lottery” of residential care services and youth justice detention facilities, where children who end up in one could just as easily be placed in another. Further reform is needed, he believes, to deal with both the needs and deeds of children in these areas.
All that, and “celebrating the good things that children do in the community” — arguably, something that gets lost amid the seemingly unending tide of resource shortages and policy shortcomings. All these tasks are now passed on to Fred McBride.
Mr Jeyes has indicated that he will stay in Ireland for the foreseeable, and has no definitive plans for a quiet retirement.
He quotes songwriter Paddy McAloon, frontman with wistful 1980s indie band Prefab Sprout: “You’re only as good as the last great thing you did.”
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