Kevin O'Higgins Solicitors

State is failing to protect children properly but we don't seem to care

Friday, 4 December, 2015
David Quinn

The extent to which this country really cares about child protection remains very much open to question. In 2012, a report was produced that reviewed the deaths of children who were either in the care of the State, or who were known to the State's care services, and why they died.

The 'Report of the Independent Child Death Review Group' was published by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and was written by family law expert Geoffrey Shannon and Norah Gibbons of Barnardos.

What prompted it was the revelation that some 200 children in the care of the State had died in the previous 10 years, many from natural causes, some by violence.

The admission that so many minors known to the State's care services were dead had to be dragged from the relevant authorities. When the 'Sunday Business Post' first began to report on the matter, the initial response by the HSE was opaque. In this, it seemed very much like the Catholic Church.

Bit by bit, the true picture emerged until we finally found out that on average, 20 children per year die while in the care of the State, or while known to State services.

The Shannon/Gibbons report looked into the various deaths and found that some of them were preventable. It was strongly critical of the State's performance in this regard.

It also found: The majority of children covered by the report did not receive an adequate child protection service; delays taking children into care; poor and incomplete records; failure to record critical incidents, including the deaths of almost 30 children; no care for young people after they turn 18; and lack of support and supervision for social workers.

The report made a whole series of recommendations. But things seem to have gotten even worse in the meantime.

Last week Tusla, also known as the Child and Family Agency, produced its annual report for 2014. Tusla is responsible for the State's child protection services.

It found that 26 children in the care of the State or who were known to the State's care services died last year. That is a record.

We can't simply blame Tusla for this increase. Maybe things are getting worse on the ground. Maybe the number of children in crisis situations is increasing and that accounts for the terrible new record. That is not my immediate point, however. My immediate point is the lack of any real outcry. These latest figures were barely reported. What was mostly absorbing the attention of the media was the big payout to Pat Smith made by the IFA.

There was also a lack of any genuine outcry when the Shannon/Gibbons report was published. For the most part, it was inside page news, and not front page news.

It was not discussed for days on end on all the big current affairs shows. No-one had to resign. No-one was held genuinely accountable.

We must contrast this with the massive coverage of all of the reports into clerical sex abuse when they were published.

Why there is such a contrast I will leave to your judgment. However, serious child protection failures by the State surely deserve more coverage than they get and surely there should be some accountability when a child protection failure is particularly egregious?

In Britain, social workers have sometimes had to resign over serious child protection failures. That has never happened here. Here, they are always able to hide behind the 'lack of resources' excuse, which is a genuine excuse but which can't be allowed to cover all sins.

Another report, this one issued on Tuesday, pulled back the curtain some more on why children end up in care in the first place. This report also received little coverage.

It is the final report of the 'Child Law Reporting Project' headed by Dr Carol Coulter. It examines over 1,000 cases of children who have come before the courts because of a failure of care on the part of their parents.

The biggest reason for a care order of some description being issued by the courts was a parental disability (176 out of the 1,074 cases examined).

Next came 'neglect', accounting for 164 cases. Parental drug abuse accounted for 136 cases, while drug abuse accounted for 115.

A total of 162 were removed from their parents for 'multiple' reasons.

Surprisingly (to me anyway), 'only' 36 children, or 3.6 pc of the total, were removed because of sexual abuse, and another 75 were removed because of physical and/or emotional abuse.

The report also looks at the family background of the children. It found that children from single-parent families, Traveller families and migrant families were over-represented in the cases that came before the courts compared with their numbers in the population.

One in four child protection cases involved families where at least one parent is an immigrant even though migrants make up 12 pc of the overall population.

Seventy four percent of cases involved a parent who was parenting alone. Twenty-one percent of children overall are being raised by lone parents.

As the report puts it: "Parenting alone is difficult for anyone, even those of full ability and with strong social networks."

Another very important detail that caught the eye was the attitude of the Child and Family Agency (CFA) towards fathers.

When a child is removed from a mother, there is always the option of placing the child with its father, but this does not seem to happen as often as it should.

The report says: "…in a substantial minority of cases a father is involved in the [court] proceedings…However, the attitude of the CFA towards these fathers can sometimes be dismissive".

It then gives some examples of this.

Frankly, this is stunning. It shows a prejudice against fathers on the part of at least some State employees of the sort John Waters has been highlighting for years.

This prejudice, or dismissiveness, appears to run so deep in some cases that despite no evidence against the father who wishes to care for his child when the mother can't, the child is placed with strangers instead.

This is appalling, and we ought to be appalled by it. Given the fact, however, that child protection failures by the State still don't receive anything like the attention they deserve, we are unlikely to give the treatment of fathers by our courts the attention it deserves either. That is an injustice.

Irish Independent