Social workers have to develop skills to deal with allegations of historical abuse 'on the hoof'

The CEO of Tusla has said this area is “one of the most challenging” aspects of the agency’s work.

28/3/2018 Katherine Zappone Launched Tusla's Corporate Plans Minister Katherine Zappone and Tusla CEO Fred McBride at the launch yesterday Leah Farrell / Leah Farrell / /

THE CEO OF Tusla has said that dealing with allegations of historical abuse is “one of the most challenging areas” of the Child and Family Agency’s work.

Fred McBride made the comments while launching Tusla’s Corporate Plan 2018–2020 in Dublin yesterday.

Tusla was established on 1 January 2014 and is now the dedicated State agency responsible for improving the wellbeing of children. More than 4,000 staff work in the agency, which has an operational budget of over €750 million.

Tusla has said it will need “significant funding” between now and 2020 to increase staff numbers and introduce the new services outlined in its plan.

Speaking at the launch, McBride said some social workers are not trained to deal with allegations of historical abuse.

“These are cases where adults come forward saying that something has happened to them when they were a child, however many years previously.

“That’s been, I think, one of the most challenging areas of our work from my perspective over the last number of years.”

McBride said the legislative framework in this regard is “non-specific”, meaning much of the work Tusla does in this area has “to be guided by case law and jurisprudence”, something he said was “not ideal”.

“There have been massive reductions in the numbers of historical allegations,” McBride said. He added that, despite this decrease, there has been “a massive amount of work and concentration” on this area in Tusla.

“There’s nothing lying in bottom drawers anymore, we know what’s there.”

McBride said this issue is “extremely complicated because, of course, we are required to balance the need for protecting children … against fair due process for the person against whom the allegation has been made, and that’s an extremely difficult line to walk”.

“Indeed we’ve argued at different times that perhaps that’s not a specific role that we should be undertaking.

There are certain social workers, in terms of their traditional training and education, who would not specifically be trained in that kind of forensic-style interview and substantiation.

“They’re having to develop these skills on the hoof almost, which has been very tricky … It has been massively challenging.”

McBride said Tusla is working with An Garda Síochána in relation to this issue.

“The guards can bring a particular skill set to an issue, we can bring another skill set to an issue and these skill sets come together in a managed way in order to come up with and find a solution.”

A referral every 11 minutes

McBride said about 4,200 cases have not yet been allocated a social worker by Tusla, something caused in part by difficulty recruiting and retaining staff.

He said the agency is focused on better staff retention, adding that employees’ work is made more difficult as “the activities we are involved in are not an exact science … they are full of unknowns and uncertainty”.

28/3/2018 Katherine Zappone Launched Tusla's Corporate Plans Minister Zappone at the launch Leah Farrell / Leah Farrell / /

McBride said the agency deals with about 53,000 referrals a year – a referral every 11 minutes. He said, despite a huge increase in the number of referrals, the number of children in care has stabilised at about 6,300 due to earlier and better intervention.

Discussing negative media coverage of how Tusla has handled certain cases, McBride said: “When something nasty happens to a child, there’s quite an emotive response to that and that’s something that has to be managed, and that emotive response is inevitable.

This is not just an intellectual problem, it’s an emotional problem too and that needs to be managed. I absolutely understand and indeed expect that when something goes wrong that we will be scrutinised and I’m quite happy to be scrutinised in that regard.

“I’m quite happy to be open and transparent about what we’ve not done, what we’ve not done well enough, and what we have done wrong.”

Negative headlines 

Speaking at the launch, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Dr Katherine Zappone said Tusla sometimes has to deal with negative headlines, given the difficult work the agency does. However, she added that people shouldn’t forget the children whose lives have been improved by Tusla.

“I know there are days when we all wake up to bad headlines. It is the reality of the world we live in and the type of work that Tusla does.

“The environment where this work is carried out and the needs of the children and young people that Tusla responds to are among the most challenging in our society. This makes the agency more liable to negative media comment.

“On these days, we need to remember the positive encounters, the children whose lives have been changed for the better and the spirit of kindness that I have experienced so often in Tusla services throughout the country,” Zappone stated.

Read: Tusla will underspend its 2017 budget by €11.4m – here’s why

Read: Two young children in care report sexual abuse by 11 people including their parents

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