There aren’t enough social workers, and sometimes that means that children aren’t reached quickly enough, says Fergus Finlay.
You’re a teacher. You’re a neighbour. You’re an uncle or aunt. And you have a real concern that a child near you is at risk. You try to keep a closer eye on things, and the anxiety grows.
There may be signs of hunger, or it may be obvious that the child isn’t sleeping, or is out too late in the neighbourhood. You may see a bruise on the child’s arm or leg. A child might have confided in you that they are frightened, or even that something bad has happened to them.
Or you may become aware of a lot of conflict in the child’s home. What do you do?
You may ultimately need to report your anxieties, together with any evidence you have — even the evidence of your own eyes may be enough — to the appropriate authorities.
You may need to do this for your own peace of mind, and you will certainly need to do it if you believe a child is in danger. You may decide to consult with colleagues, or (for example) with your school principal if you’re a teacher, but eventually you may decide that only the appropriate authorities can help.
But who are the appropriate authorities? Tusla, that’s who. Tusla is the agency established by us, the people of Ireland, and charged with the ultimate responsibility of keeping children safe from harm.
It has been operating now as a legal entity for a little over three years, and for a while before that as part of the HSE, while there was a transition process going on to separate it and give it a stand-alone responsibility.
If you’re troubled by the thought that there is a child near you at risk, and you want help and advice, the Tusla website (tusla.ie) is a good place to start. It talks about the signs you might see and the steps you can take.
It shows how to go about making a report, and it gives a list of phone numbers you can ring. You should be able to ring most of those numbers and get some further advice before making up your mind what to do.
But hang on, you’re saying. Tusla? How can I trust Tusla? Aren’t they involved in the Maurice McCabe scandal? Didn’t they allow completely false allegations to get into the wrong hands, and wasn’t that false information used to attack a man’s character?
Even when they found out it was false, didn’t they make a complete mess of how they went about things? If they’re complicit in that, how can they be trusted with any concerns or anxieties I might have?
Well, here’s the thing. In fact, here’s two things. There is no doubt whatsoever that false information found its way into a Tusla file, and was never adequately corrected. That information was used by someone for corrupt purposes, and to do immense damage to a person’s character.
We don’t need a tribunal of inquiry to tell us that much, but hopefully a tribunal will tell us exactly how it happened. The truth lies somewhere between a catalogue of errors and deliberate acts, and we need to know which end of the spectrum applies.
None of us want to live in a country where information gathered for the purposes of keeping children safe can be used for perverted purposes.
But the other thing is this. Tusla consists of people whose primary purpose is to put children first and keep them safe.
Keeping children safe involves a range of things. It involves assessment of risk, and can sometimes involve removing children from their families. But much more often, it involves helping and supporting families who love their children, but are struggling to translate that love into effective care.
It can involve helping families to deal with situations where they have lost control, or simply can’t cope with the things life is throwing at them.
That’s what social workers are for. They’re there to assess and investigate the things that are brought to their attention, and sometimes to go to court as a result. But they’re also there to help rebuild and sustain family relationships.
No-one would ever pretend that they always get it right, and parents in particular, when something is being investigated, can feel that this is a vindictive and uncaring system out to get them.
But it isn’t. It is a system under stress, though. From the day Tusla was established, people like me have argued that it needed more resources, and much better collaboration from other State agencies. There aren’t enough social workers, and sometimes that means that children aren’t reached quickly enough.
You can find the story yourself on the Tusla website. On the bottom of the home page there’s a link marked data figures’, and it brings you to a set of monthly performance graphs.
The most recent set, for November 2016, shows there are 4,800 cases (child protection concerns that have been referred to Tusla) awaiting allocation to social workers, and nearly 700 of them are regarded as high priority.
That’s a frightening statistic. But actually, there’s another way of looking at the same figures. If you track the charts, you find that the waiting list has been steadily reducing. In fact, the number of concerns awaiting allocation is down by 70% in the last couple of years, and the trend has been consistently in the right direction.
The number awaiting allocation for longer than three months has been nearly halved this year. Of course it’s unacceptable that any child at risk has to wait for even a week before that risk is assessed. But the fact that an agency set up about three years ago can show real progress in getting to grips with the scale of the problem is encouraging, and ought to inspire trust.
Tusla will only be able to deliver if it is trusted. But it too must be able to have trust in the people and agencies it works with. It isn’t possible to keep children safe without being able to share information — with the gardaí, with the health system, with school authorities, and others. If information can’t be shared in absolute discretion and confidence, then we won’t have a child protection system at all.
I don’t believe Tusla is perfect. And I don’t believe any of us can rest content until the questions now swirling around are properly answered. But if we are to keep our children safe, we have to have a group of people dedicated to that task and no other.
We have to know that children are their first and last priority. We have to know that they are well managed and decently resourced. We have to know that they are prepared to tell us the truth at all times.
From my experience of Tusla, I believe they pass those tests. Of course it’s not perfect, and of course it has to accept that trust is never a thing to be taken for granted. However, it’s critically important that Tusla emerges from this necessary examination stronger and better, more accountable than ever. Because otherwise, we will lose the battle to keep our children safe.
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