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'Children are treated like human trash': The systematic failings in Ireland's child protection system

A report published today found serious issues with inter-agency cooperation when dealing with vulnerable children taken from their parents.

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Updated 1pm

“WE NEED TO look after those children – they are our greatest national resource”. This was Professor Geoffrey Shannon’s message as his audit of garda child protection procedures was published this morning.

The report was sparked by the controversy surrounding the removal of two Roma children from their parents in Tallaght and Athlone in 2013. Shannon was tasked with reviewing the use of Section 12 powers, which allow gardaí to take a child if they believe they are at risk.

One of the main criticisms in the report is of inter-agency cooperation, which Shannon described as “overwhelmingly inadequate”.

Gardaí who spoke to Shannon over the course of his audit told him the child and family agency Tusla does not routinely provide feedback or updates to them following the handover of the child’s care.

Some children are repeatedly removed from their families by gardaí, only to be returned by Tusla. The audit described the lack of feedback from the agency as both “personally and professionally frustrating” for gardaí who have removed a vulnerable child from their parents’ care.

He said the State most ensure “children do not slip through the net”. ”We need to pull children back from the brink,” he added.

Tusla hit back at criticism in a statement early this morning, stating it was not involved in its production and no staff were interviewed as part of it. Shannon somewhat contradicted this statement at a press briefing in Garda Headquarters where is said he consulted ”extensively” with Tusla, that he had met with staff and that there was “very clear email correspondence” with the agency in relation to the report.

Taken to garda stations

In some instances, children were taken to garda stations and hospitals as there was nowhere else to house them. Gardaí expressed concern about this, particularly in relation to busy urban stations with a high level of “prisoner traffic”.

In a minority of garda districts, public hospitals are the “defacto initial place of safety”.

The lack of out-of-hours social worker services was a subject of “considerable criticism” from gardaí in the audit. Where this service was available, it was often found to be under-resourced and unable to facilitate access to case files on particular children.

Shannon described as “scandalous”, the finding that private foster care services were refusing to organise placements for children with challenging behaviour or addictions.

He noted the establishment by Tusla of a national out-of-hours service, but he said this needs to be seamless as it deals with the children who are most in need.

Inadequacies were also found in the operation of the Pulse system:

Months of repeated inquiry found numerous gaps, flaws and variations in the data captured and saved on the Pluse system in relation to instances of section 12 removal of children.

Shannon said evidence from all stages of the audit demonstrated inconsistencies in terms of data collection and data management. A systematic review of the Pulse system is currently underway and he said this process of reform is to be welcomed.

Compassion

The audit praises rank-and-file members of An Garda Síochána for their compassion in dealing with children who have been removed from their parents. It notes numerous instances of gardaí staying long beyond their rostered working hours to organise the care of a child.

In the overwhelming majority of cases, the audit found members exercised their powers following a period of “careful consideration of the circumstances and evidence available”.

He said cases detailed in the report shines a light on a part of Ireland that many of us know nothing about. A common theme in case narratives was persistent alcohol and substance abuse by parents.

“The trauma inflicted on children by their parents is staggering,” he said.

Children are treated like human trash in some of theses cases.

Shannon said no evidence was found of section 12 being used in an over-zealous manner and the most frequent circumstance encountered by gardaí exercising this power was some form of failure by a parent or a temporary lack of capacity to care for the child.

He also said there was no evidence of racial profiling in garda members’ use of these powers.

However, he was critical of the lack of training for rank-and-file members in relation to child protection. He said there was a “deep-seated culture within An Garda Síochána privileging ’on-the-job’ training and learning over, and possible to the detriment of, formal core training within the Garda College”.

Garda Assistant Commissioner John O’Driscoll said action was being taken to implement all of the recommendations made by Shannon in his report and that plans for child protection training were already underway.

Failings

Chief executive of ISPCC Childline Grainia Long said the publication of this report is a “deeply important audit of child protection powers by the state” which highlights

systemic and cultural failings in Ireland’s child protection system.

In its  statement this morning, Tusla said that much of the report’s research was conducted over the past number of years and that “collaboration and services have significantly improved since that time.”

“There are many excellent examples at a local level of Tusla staff and members of an Garda Siochana working collaboratively,” the statement said.

Additionally, at a national level, there are regular strategic liaison meetings between Tusla and an Garda Siochana. These meetings facilitate appropriate information sharing.

In relation to Section 12 of the Child Care Act, which allows gardaí remove children from their parents if they are deemed to be at immediate risk, Tusla said it is seeking to adapt its procedures in conjunction with gardaí.

- With reporting by Rónán Duffy.

Read: Midlands children in foster care can go months without seeing their siblings or birth families >

Read: Children ‘are accessing porn at sleepovers’ and viewing explicit content on phone >

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