Updated Jun 19th 2018, 5:03 PM
A HIQA INVESTIGATION into how Child and Family Agency Tusla handles referrals of child sex abuse allegations found “systemic failures” and a “systems error” nationwide into how the agency handles such cases.
Minister Katherine Zappone ordered a Hiqa investigation in February 2017 after it came to light that garda whistleblower Maurice McCabe had been incorrectly categorised on Tusla files as a suspected child abuser. Furthermore, these files were also forwarded to gardaí.
How this came to happen was under the spotlight at the beginning of the Disclosures Tribunal, which is also looking at wider allegations that McCabe was subject to a smear campaign directed by the most senior levels of An Garda Síochána.
The Hiqa investigation, meanwhile, took a wider look at how Tusla manages cases of suspected child abuse, and its findings are damning in terms of agency’s capacity to deal with these matters.
While the report from Hiqa is critical of Tusla in a number of instances, it stops short of blaming any one individual for the failures in the McCabe case.
It does find, however, that reporting and governance structures at Tusla led to the series of catastrophic errors in relation to McCabe and that the agency was aware of the error and could have taken appropriate action far sooner.
And, due to the deficiencies highlighted in the McCabe case, Hiqa has said that Tusla is unable to react appropriately in some cases where child abuse is referred to it.
Speaking today, Tusla CEO Fred McBride reiterated an apology for what happened in the McCabe case and acknowledged the “deficiencies” that Hiqa found.
Some failures identified included failures to:
- consistently implement Tusla’s national policies and business processes
- accurately record important decisions made and actions taken
- monitor the effectiveness of the steps taken to protect children
- support staff members’ personal development
- manage under-performance.
Shortfalls were also identified in how child abuse allegations were screened, how safety plans for children were developed and managed, and how people who were the subject of an allegation of abuse were communicated with.
In a statement this afternoon, Minister Zappone said the recommendations of the Hiqa probe would be implemented in full. She said she was determined that the findings of the report would be used as an opportunity to improve services to protect vulnerable children.
She said she had directed Tusla to produce an Action Plan, as recommended by HIQA, as a matter of urgency.
Dr Moling Ryan, a member of the Policing Authority and former head of the Legal Aid Board, has been appointed to chair an independent “expert quality assurance and oversight group” to drive implementation of Hiqa’s recommendations.
Zappone said regular updates of the group’s work would be published. The Minister said in her statement that she will meet with the board of Tusla in the coming days “to discuss the implications of the HIQA report in more detail and to agree other steps forward”.
When questioned by reporters as to why the Hiqa report did not name individuals, Zappone rejected the suggestion that it was a cop out.
I ordered and asked for a review of the systems within Tusla by HIQA. So I didn’t necessarily ask for identification of individuals but I asked for a review [of the] system.
Zappone added that “it would be significantly less likely as we move towards the implementations of the recommendations of the report’’ that a similar failure to what happened in the McCabe case would happen again. This was echoed with later comments from McBride.
“I take full responsibility for ensuring that that recommendations that they have outlines will be continue with a greater sense of urgency,” she added.
A woman – known as Ms D – made an allegation in 2006 that Maurice McCabe had sexually abused her when she was a child. The allegation amounted to inappropriate touching.
She sought counselling in the summer of 2013.
After an error from a counsellor working for HSE service Rian mistakenly put far more serious allegations against McCabe – of digital penetration – on file, things spiralled from there.
Files were created on McCabe’s children. These erroneous allegations remained on file for a number of years, even though the error was spotted in May 2014.
It went as far as a letter being sent to McCabe containing these allegations at the beginning of 2016, and eventually helped culminate in the setting up of the Disclosures Tribunal in February 2017.
Speaking at a press conference today, Hiqa’s Mary Dunnion said that the investigation found patterns that emerged in the McCabe case in other cases.
“[We found] poor information handling, we found poor record keeping,” she said. “There was no defined information sharing between Tusla and An Garda Síochána.
In other findings, while there was a system in place for the notification of suspected child sexual abuse between An Garda Síochána and Tusla, there was no electronic data transfer system in place between these two agencies. Instead, these notifications have to be sent by fax or posted, which is neither efficient, appropriate nor wholly secure.
Poor record keeping from Tusla was also a theme highlighted in the investigation.
The report said: “The Investigation Team found that the quality of record-keeping varied widely in those service areas reviewed and, therefore, could not assure HIQA about the quality and effectiveness of Tusla’s child protection and welfare service.
For example, the Investigation Team reviewed 164 cases reported as closed in the six service areas and could not establish if some of the cases reviewed were actually closed. Furthermore, the Investigation Team found cases which were inappropriately closed as there were outstanding child protection concerns.
In these cases, it said that over 60 were escalated as warranting further action that had not been taken already.
Hiqa makes a number of recommendations in the report, that it believes Tusla should implement as a matter of urgency.
‘Variation and inconsistency’
Tusla CEO Fred McBride said he accepted there is a “is a variability in the standard of our interventions”.
He said that the agency accepted Hiqa’s report today, and that it had developed a new “national approach” to try to change that.
McBride added that where people had made “glaring” or “unnacceptable” mistakes, they will be held accountable to him and other senior management at Tusla.
On the cases where Hiqa identified further action, McBride said: “The report did not say that any of those children were directly harmed as a result of what Tusla did or didn’t do.
We’ve already apologised profusely for the mistakes that were made in the McCabe case. These mistakes and the standards that applied there were well short of what we expect, and were unacceptable.
Tusla will publish an action plan to act on the recommendations from Hiqa and said it would demonstrate accountability on the issue.
With reporting from Christine Bohan and Adam Daly