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'An awful lot of neglect': Fears for safety of children as Tusla points to drop-off in child protection referrals

Teachers and other professionals play a role in reporting suspected cases of child abuse – but schools are now closed until September.

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Image: Shutterstock/Brian A Jackson

A FALL-OFF IN the number of child protection referrals to the Child and Family Agency Tusla has raised fears that a significant number of children are vulnerable to abuse and neglect during the current public health crisis. 

With schools closed until September, creches closed until late July at the earliest, and activities suspended at sports and youth organisations, the interaction between children and adults outside of their immediate families has been stopped. 

Teachers, coaches, and youth leaders play a vital role in identifying signs of child abuse and neglect at home, often recognisable through a change in a child’s behaviour, and which can then be referred to Tusla. 

But Tusla has confirmed to TheJournal.ie that referrals have been “notably down” over the past two months due to the limited interaction of children with other adults in the community.

It has lead to fears that some children may be caught in vulnerable or harmful situations. 

“We are seeing indications that the number of referrals to child protection and welfare services are lower than usual at this time,” a spokesperson said. 

“As many services and industries are not operating normally, for example the closure of schools, it is expected that referral numbers will be lower. However, Tusla’s child protection and welfare teams are here, and are working to keep children as safe as possible in every community around the country.”

When a child is referred to Tusla, the agency carries out an investigation into any suspected cases of abuse or neglect, and it works with families to support them where possible. As a last resort, it will remove a child from a family home and place them in the care of the State.

The agency relies on referrals to spark an investigation and subsequently introduce child protection measures. 

General Secretary of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, John Boyle said that the ability of teachers and principals, who ordinarily have a responsibility to report any concerns to Tusla, has been hindered due to “the limited direct contact with pupils” at present.

Tanya Ward, CEO of the Children’s Rights Alliance, said alcohol abuse in the home, as well as hunger, are some of the issues facing children during the current health crisis, and which require the intervention of social workers.

“If you look at the way the child protection system operates, it’s based on referrals, and the best people to assess what’s happening to a child is often the teacher because they see the child everyday and they can see the changes in a child’s behaviour,” she explained. 

“It can also be a health worker, a youth worker, and it can also be family members, say grandparents or uncles, who make referrals because they notice a change in a child’s behaviour, but with Covid-19… it means those professionals don’t have the same contact they had before. 

“I think we need to look at activities over the summer months for vulnerable children while respecting as much as we can the social distancing rules.

But we need to get the balance right because there are issues around alcohol abuse during this period and the impact of that is enormous on children. 

“There’s a situation where there’s a big increase in hunger because families can’t survive on welfare payments but also they’re at home longer and they would often have been getting a meal in their local DEIS school, so you have a conflation of different issues coming together to create a potentially very serious situation.”

Ward suggested that as children return to school in September and begin attending sports clubs later in the year, there will be a surge of child protection referrals made by teachers and other professionals. 

According to figures for 2019,  Tusla received some 59,683 referrals for child protection and welfare services. 

Some 5,877 cases referred to child protection and welfare services in January of this year – the only figures available for 2020 so far.

“Tusla is definitely focusing on the children where we know there are serious child protection issues and they prioritise them,” Ward said.

“But the bigger issue is that neglect piece, that you’ve now got a long period of time where children could be subjected to an awful lot of neglect. By the time September or October comes, there’s a real risk of a huge upsurge of child and welfare protection cases… and six months is a long time in the life of a child.”

Ward suggested that family members and adults familiar with a child, such as teachers and youth leaders, can play a role over the coming months by maintaining contact with children over Skype and Zoom calls “because then they can see if there is a change in the child’s behaviour” and contact Tusla, if necessary. 

The Child and Family Agency is continuing to operate as normal during the Covid-19 emergency and is processing referrals as they are received. 

“All referrals or concerns about children are being screened and assessed in line with normal practice and where a child is at immediate risk, they receive an immediate protective response,” the Tusla spokesperson said. 

“Anyone with a concern about the wellbeing or safety of a child during this time to contact the local duty social work office where the child lives. Details are available on the Tusla website at www.tusla.ie or contact us via the Tusla online portal at portal.tusla.ie.”

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