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A Week in the Family Court: 'There needs to be intervention before we reach crisis point'

TheJournal.ie spent a week observing cases in the Family Court. Here’s what the people working in child protection think needs to be done.

Updated 22.55pm

FC LOGO Source: justice scales via Shutterstock

THIS WEEK TheJournal.ie is bringing you stories from inside the country’s Family Court.

Issues of child protection, domestic violence, parentage, custody, access, maintenance and divorce are heard in the Family Court. Today we featured some of the cases of Child Care Orders put in place.

As of May this year, there were over 6,517 children in State care.

Of these, 6,054 are in foster care, while just over 460 are in residential care.

In terms of geographical location, the highest number of children in care are in Dublin’s North inner city, at 637 children.

Best interests

These children are taken into care for many different reasons, but they all centre around what the State argues is in the best interests of the child.

Experts working in the area of child protection say the whole system – including the people that work in it – is overburdened.

June Tinsley of Barnardos told TheJournal.ie that the establishment of the Child and Family Agency (CFA) - Tusla, is to be welcomed, as previous to this, child welfare was all “subsumed” into the HSE.

She said it was lost in the overall health budget, but now there is a specific spotlight on child welfare.

Tinsley said that while there is now better governance and monitoring, there are still improvements to be made.

“From out perspective, the CFA is under resourced. From a personnel perspective they are already running at a deficit, where there are significant workloads,” said Tinsley.

She said that the knock-on effect of this is that the caseloads are so high the staff are unable to “engage in prevention and early intervention work”.

“The CFA should be intervening prior to when a family reaches a crisis point, as opposed to just stepping in when the crisis has occurred.”

Tinsley said that the CFA, while a welcome step forward, needs more resources to be committed to it.

Financially supported

“The CFA needs to be financially supported and the staff levels need to be freed up to do their work. It is great on paper, but we would like to see a roll out of its entire mandate,” she said.

Recently there were criticisms over the amount of money the CFA is spending on legal fees.

The Minister for Children James Reilly told the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children that he wanted the CFA to cut its “huge” legal bill that it pays lawyers who appear on behalf of the agency in the family courts, with the bill amounting to €34 million, of its €600 million budget.

The outgoing Ombudsman for Children said that last year, 26% of all complaints they received were in relation to family support, care and protection, with the number one reason for a complaint relating to child protection.

Children awaiting social workers

One complaint her office investigated related to the significant number of children awaiting a social worker. A staff member from the North Lee Social Work Team complained that while he responded to children that were in severe risk, there were a high number of children at risk who they were unable to respond to due to the unavailability of staff.

At the time the office received the complaint there were 147 cases without an allocated social worker which included Priority 1 cases of neglect and sexual abuse.

The investigation raised issues of the pressures on frontline services, with the Ombudsman’s office stating that they are concerned about the number of cases, the lack or resources and the ability to provide follow up.

The impact of the size of social work caseloads was also a concern, with the investigation finding that as a result of caseload size “safe and good social work practice was not possible”.

Allocations

As of May 2014, 94% (6,116) of the children in State care have been allocated a social worker. A total of 6% of children have no social worker allocated to their case.

The Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan said the HSE has moved to address some of the issues raised in their investigation, such as the allocation of social work cases being reviewed nationally, but she still expressed concern that “safe social work” was not possible in many parts of the country.

The HSE said that a national working group is currently determining what constitutes a “reasonable caseload”.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Logan said that over the 10 years of being in office, she has seen many cases where social workers are really “overworked”, where they “have very large caseloads, very complex caseloads and there are occasions, we heard it in the Roscommon case, where social workers might be graduates out of college just a matter of weeks or months and are given very, very complex cases”.

She said she wanted to reiterate before she left office her believe that an increase in supports for social workers must be completed.

Source: Video TheJournal.ie/YouTube

The latest panel review publications from July 2014 on the CFA website also acknowledges the failings in social work allocations.

It cites one case, the death of one boy ‘Luke’ who was in State care since birth.

Paul Harrison, Director of Policy and Strategy, Tusla – Child and Family Agency, said in this case, there were “considerable service pressures on social work staff at the time, the statutory intervention provided to a young person at high risk was insufficient and poorly coordinated…”.

Harrison said there were “considerable shortcomings in supporting and protecting a vulnerable young person who was in desperate need of support throughout his life. A range of challenges affected this young man”.

He said a focused and well-planned, multi-disciplinary action was required and “did not take place” in Luke’s case.

The necessary state support did not happen and we must acknowledge this and apologise.

Foster care 

Logan said that there is a “good picture” of children in care in Ireland in comparison to other countries, because the majority of the children are in foster care, but this system too is buckling under the pressure.

“The practice of having children in foster care is a much better practice than is seen in other countries, so from that perspective, it is good,” she said.

According to the latest figures from May 2014, there are 4,182 (64%) children in foster care, while 29% are in foster care with a relative, accounting for 1,872 children.

The remainder are in residential care in the State, with some children in out of State care also.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, Head of Services at the Irish Foster Care Association (IFCA) Breda O’Donavan, said they were concerned about the situation with the shortage of social workers, stating that it impacts on the supports given to foster parents.

“Every child in care should be allocated a social worker, but there are many who do not have one. The resources are so tight and social workers, who can often be quite young and new to the job, are being given 40 to 50 cases on their books.”

O’Donavan said that ideally their should be a choice of foster carers that they can send children to.

“Ideally children and foster parents are matched,” she said, but added that due to the stress on resources and the amount of children entering the care system they are just “relieved there is a bed available”.

She called on the CFA to be fully resourced with the appropriate staffing levels, stating that the shortcomings are having a direct impact on fostering families, who are often promised many supports, which never materialise.

She added that it was important to remember that often times these foster parents have to care for children from difficult backgrounds, who require many additional supports.

‘A Week in the Family Courts’ series will be running all this week on TheJournal.ie.

Read the stories in relation to child protection from the Family Courts here>>>

Tomorrow we will bring you domestic violence cases from the Family Courts and analysis of some of the issues. 

First published 6.30am

Read: Referendum on establishing Family Court ‘not necessary’>

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