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Deaths of many children in care ‘may have been preventable’, report finds

The Independent Child Death Review Group underlines a catalogue of major failings of the State’s child support services.

Image: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

AN INDEPENDENT REPORT published by the government this afternoon has catalogued for the first time the number of children who have died while in the care of the State.

The report of the Independent Child Death Review Group, commissioned under the previous government, found that of 196 deaths of children who were known to the State’s child protection services between 2000 and 2010, a total of 112 died of “non natural causes”.

The majority of the children who died from non-natural causes while in the direct care of the State were teenagers, with four-fifths of deaths occurring at age 14 or over.

Three children younger than this – including one who was just 4 years old – also died of non-natural causes, though the individual causes of death are not listed in their cases.

Five of the 17 deaths of children in direct care were drug-related, while five took their own lives, and another two were the victims of unlawful deaths.

The report found that while there were “elements of good practice” in some of these cases, “the fact remains that its application was sporadic and inconsistent.

In many cases these children engaged in ever more risk taking during adolescence with tragic outcomes.

Though the report says it is not possible to conclusively state that the consistent application of good practice would have avoided the deaths of such children, “the earlier and more consistent presence of good practice would have increased the chances” of those children overcoming their vulnerabilities.

The report also found that in 12 of 36 files considered there had been delays in taking children into care, while in 15 cases there had been no ‘care plan’ – a document which it says is “imperative” to compile in order to ensure consistency in how the child is cared for.

In nine cases, children had not undergone a medical examination after being taken into the care of the HSE.

No reviews of after-care deaths

The report also deals with deaths of young adults in after care, a system where people agree to remain in HSE care after they turn 18 and can no longer be accommodated in full care.

Of the 27 non-natural deaths of people who had agreed to remain in after-care facilities after they reached adulthood, just over half – 14 – were drug-related, while a further seven took their own lives. 11 of those deaths occurred within a year of the child leaving care, while they were 18.

The report is also severely critical of the fact that in the 32 files pertaining to deaths of young adults in aftercare, not a single one contained any details of a review or inquiry into that person’s death, nor details of any plans to do so.

Of the 68 children who were known to the HSE (though not in its direct care) who died of non-natural causes, 16 took their own lives, 13 were the victims of unlawful killing, and 11 died from drug-related causes.

Of particular concern in a number of files is the fact that the HSE was aware of drug and alcohol abuse within a number of families, in particular by parents, which must as a natural consequence have given rise to concerns as to the welfare of the children, yet the HSE closed their files in a number of these cases despite the drug and alcohol abuse continuing. [...]

In some cases no social worker was assigned to these families.

The government has committed to the creation of a new Child and Family Support Agency, to be established early in 2013, which will take responsibility of child support services away from the HSE.

The report’s recommendations include an example of 18 steps – including regular care reviews, adequate professional supervision, and the keeping of proper records – which should form the basis for that agency’s interaction with vulnerable children.

The government has also committed to recruiting extra social workers, and the expansion of out-of-hours services in Cork and Donegal to supplement the services already present in Dublin.

A referendum on enshrining the rights of children in the constitution is provisionally set for early 2013.

Read: The executive summary of the independent report into child death (PDF)

More: ‘Harrowing’ report find deaths of some children in State care were preventable

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