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€19 million a year spent on private foster care because Tusla is overstretched

Oireachtas Children’s Committee will today recommend resources be used to recruit more social workers for public service.

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PRIVATE FOSTERING COSTS the State around €19 million a year, but a new report by TDs is recommending that this spend should be slashed.

With the price of putting a child in private foster care more than three times than that of public foster care, the Oireachtas Children’s Committee said that the money would be spent much better elsewhere.

Specifically it wants the money redirected into the recruitment of new social workers to handle the huge caseloads put on existing staff at Tusla.

In a report to be published later today, seen by TheJournal.ie,  the committee outlines a number of recommendations it feels should be made to how cases of children in care in Ireland are handled.

The committee said that an increase in demand in the 2010s for care services, and a moratorium on recruitment in the public service from 2009 meant that the HSE, and later Tusla, were increasingly forced to turn towards private fostering services.

Turning to private fostering agencies is a costly one for the State.

Representatives from Epic told the Committee: “Placing a child through one of the private foster care organisations costs the State an average of €58,000 per child per year versus €17,900 for children fostered with foster carers registered directly with Tusla.”

The committee was told by Tusla that, year-on-year, it has been placing more and more children in these private fostering services, although it is still a small proportion of the 6,000+ children in care at any one time in the State.

It said in the report: “As of December 2015 there were 308 children in private foster care which rose to 361 in December 2016 and 384 in 2017. This represents an increase of 17% in 2016 and a further increase of 8% year on year to June 2017.

Tusla attributes the increase in demand to difficulties in some areas in placing children with relatives, a general shortage of suitable placements in some areas, on-going difficulty in recruiting new foster carers to meet demand and an increased demand for specialist services.

The price Tusla has been spending on these services has also continued to increase.

In 2014, it spent €17.23 million. That rose to €18.35 million in 2015, and again to €19.56 million last year.

While Tusla’s budget only allocated €18.9 million for private fostering this year, we don’t have a full figure for the money spent this year as of yet.

Fostering First Ireland is one such company providing private fostering services, and it received a large portion of the €18 million spent by Tusla on private services in 2015.

In 2015, it received €6.3 million from Tusla to provide foster care. According to its financial records, it recorded a profit of €580,000 that year. This was an increase of nearly €220,000 on the previous year.

So what does the State get for this extra money? Well, for one, private fostering agencies usually fare much better in Hiqa inspections than Tusla’s own facilities.

Usually, private fostering fills a gap in what Tusla offers.

But, for the Children’s Committee, it would like to see that money spent elsewhere.

It said:

The committee recommends that a value-for-money review be carried out on the use of private foster care companies and consideration be given to diverting funds away from the use of these companies and redirected into the recruitment of foster carers and sufficient social workers so that the same range of supports can be provided directly by Tusla.

Recruitment

The problems that Tusla has had with the recruitment and retention of staff has fed into the use of private agencies, and social workers have spoken out in the past on the heavy workloads and stress put on the profession.

One told TheJournal.ie: “Burnout. I can’t describe it any other way than that.

In a very short space of time, I find that everyone around me has changed. They may stay in social work but go to a different area of it. It’s such a shame. It becomes too stressful, and you’ve got to be able to cope.
Looking at my caseload, if I had two-thirds of what I currently have, I’d be able to do a really great job.

The committee also highlighted this issue in its report, and said that the problem of recruitment and retention was a “recurring theme over the course” of its investigations.

It said that Tusla should work with the HSE to “see what is working” in this area and share knowledge to see how it better retain staff in this area.

Emergencies

Across the country, depending on where you live, Tusla may not be able to provide an out-of-hours service.

As the Geoffrey Shannon report highlighted, this often meant that gardaí would be called into crisis situations and take a child to safety.

In figures provided by Tusla to the committee, this happened 120 times up to 21 June 2017.

While Tusla has teams in Dublin, Kildare, Wicklow and Cork to deal with emergencies out of hours, it is up to gardaí to attend child protection concerns in other parts of the country on weekends and evenings.

This “gap” in the service needs to be address immediately, according to the committee.

It said: “The committee recommends that an EOHS (emergency out-of-hours service) be provided in all areas of the country. It further recommends that the gaps in the service are closed immediately so that EOHS is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.”

Hiqa

The committee also said that the remit of the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) should be extended.

Currently, it goes into foster care settings – both public and private – to evaluate them. If it finds deficiencies, it makes recommendations on how they can be fixed.

The committee raised concerns with Tusla over a number of inspection reports.

Perhaps most noteworthy was the recent inspection of Tusla’s foster service at Dublin South Central, where Hiqa found serious risks in relation to “long delays in the commencement and completion of relative foster carer assessments and in achieving a decision from the foster care committee”.

Because of these and other flaws identified by Hiqa, the committee says that the body should be given greater responsibility in the process:

The committee recommends that the remit of powers afforded to Hiqa be extended to include powers of enforcement.

The right supports

In his foreword to the report, committee chair Alan Farrell said that it is important that all children placed in State care “receive the support and services necessary to meet their needs and that these supports are delivered to the highest level”.

He added: “Significant numbers of young people who enter the care system may have past experience of parental figures that were unable to care for them or were neglectful, abusive, or not able to manage the severe behavioural issues that some children display.

On behalf of this committee, I commend the work of foster carers who provide this vital service to the children in this State.

Read: ‘I understand why a lot of people leave’: Being a social worker in Ireland

Read: Beaten, neglected, left home alone – The report ‘every parent in the country needs to read’

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