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Child protection underfunding adds to suffering

  • 19 Dec 2016

Child Care Law Reporting Project highlights lack of resources and pressure on social workers

19th December 2016

Patrick Costello

Irish Times

The Child Care Law Reporting Project has again provided us with an insight into the in-camera world of child protection proceedings.

These reports on court proceedings offer a glimpse into the issues and problems in the sector. This might not be obvious from the coverage in most of the media, which has focused on the human tragedy in the cases, that leave us shocked and horrified.

There is, however, a chance to draw wider lessons that should not be lost. The Child Care Act puts a statutory responsibility on social workers “to promote the welfare of children who are not receiving adequate care and protection”.

Yet the reports are filled with examples of how this role has been frustrated by funding difficulties and the resulting service limitations.

The most disturbing example is a case where social workers sought an interim care order but withdrew the application due to lack of foster carers. The social workers attempted to put in place tight supervision arrangements but the arrangements failed and forced the application for the interim care order. There was a clear, identified and documented risk to a child that could not be acted on.

Cruellest irony

In recent years the workload of social workers involved in fostering has increased while resources to do the work have shrunk.

Recruiting new foster carers takes time – time to recruit, time for assessment and approval, and time to train and support – time that is no longer as readily available.

This time for recruitment competes with the day to day work of supporting foster carers and placements, and ever increasing paperwork. The result of this pressure and lack of resources can be seen in this case – a child left in a dangerous situation because social workers were not given the resources to keep it safe.

This is not the only example; throughout the report there are cases where funding or service limitations contributed to young people in care losing out. These include the Child and Family Agency (Tusla) arguing with foster carers in the high courts about whether a child needs braces and who will pay for them, arguments about paying for assessments for children, and a case where psychological intervention was “urgently required” but had still not been provided after six weeks. This led a judge to question the Child and Family Agency’s understanding of “urgent”.

The case with the cruellest irony involved a mother whose addiction led to her child going into care in the same place she had been as a child. The reports describe how the mother had been in the residential unit but had to leave at 18. The lack of funding and support for aftercare pushed a vulnerable young women out of what had been her home and into independent living. This was said to have had a significant impact on her.

Losing out

While children at risk come into care for protection, this case shows the need to extend this protection to them when they are leaving care. When this case was reported by many news outlets, the focus was on the shocking details of her addiction, not the structural problems that made her situation worse.

None of this is surprising. In October 2015 a leaked Tusla briefing document for Cabinet said it was in a “constant struggle” to stay within budget and that it was “in default of its statutory obligations”.

The report also spoke about how social work departments are intervening later, when problems have become more complex and more expensive, further reducing the agency’s ability to intervene early enough. Add to this the cuts in the community and youth work sectors which so often plug gaps left by lack of funding and Ireland’s ability to support the children who it need most is limited.

In the last budget Tusla got an increased allocation which is to be welcomed, yet it does not meet the funding requirements laid out clearly by Tusla in the leaked briefing. Without proper funding the hard work of front line social workers is being frustrated and young people are losing out.

There are stark lessons in the Child Care Law Reporting Project’s most recent publications, perhaps the biggest being that the things Tusla said would happen without adequate funding are happening.

Patrick Costello is a former social worker, Green Party spokesperson for children and a member of Dublin City Council.