My speech on the audit of the use of section 12 of the Child Care Act by An Garda Síochána

There is no disputing that Dr Geoffrey Shannon’s recent report has given rise to grave and understandable concerns.

There are a number of criticisms of Tusla in the audit, moreover, in the media coverage of the audit.

In particular, these relate to the out of hours social work service and to effective communication between Tusla and An Garda Síochána.

The overall issues raised in the report can be summarised under the following headings:

  • Inter-agency co-operation and communication;
  • The repeated application of section 12 and out-of-hours services;
  • The lack of suitable emergency accommodation, leading to young people being admitted to hospital or kept safe at Garda stations.

It must be taken into account however, on inter-agency co-operation and communication, Dr. Shannon’s review examined PULSE data from 2008 to 2015 – all cases where section 12 had been applied by An Garda Síochána in 2014 and a sample of cases where it had been applied in 2015.

In relation to the out of hours social work service, a significant enhancement of the service took place in November 2015, and a national service now exists which facilitates 24 hour Garda contact with a social worker in cases where removal of a child under section 12 is being contemplated, and provides emergency foster and residential care for child who are removed from their families under this provision.

As part of this service social workers are available on the ground at night, over weekends and bank holidays to assist the  Garda Siochana in the busiest areas of Dublin, Cork city, Kildare and Wicklow.

This of course begs the question about the remaining 22 counties. Statistics show that the period in which most of these calls are made is from 10 p.m. at night to 3 a.m. in the morning.  I have been assured that the volume of calls in these counties indicates that contact with Tusla social workers by phone is sufficient – nevertheless – I am encouraged that the Minister has confirmed that this is under review.

There is always a need to ensure this is realised at local level. In order to address this – both organisations have recently developed a joint protocol on the use of section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991.

It is my understanding, this will be signed off on by the two organisations very shortly. The joint protocol covers the application of section 12 and the process to be adopted during office hours and out-of-office hours as emergencies arise, in addition to notifications to Tusla.

It must be noted also that, Dr. Shannon at the launch of the report on Monday 29th May, expressed his full confidence in Tusla’s child protection framework.

Some additional concerns however, have been expressed about the placement of such children in Garda stations and hospitals

It is my understanding that social admissions to hospital takes place only in exceptional circumstances, and only where such a placement is for the child’s own safety. Tusla do not request the Garda to keep a child over part of a night, this is a Garda decision.

In relation to effective communications between Tusla and An Garda Síochána -I am informed that regular strategic liaison meetings take place at a senior level.

Moreover, in a very positive development – I am also informed that Tusla is locating an official on secondment to the Garda National Child Protection Unit.  This should facilitate continuously improving interagency working between the two agencies with statutory responsibility for child protection.

At this point I would like to summarise the actions taken to address the findings in this report.

  • As outlined above, work is already well underway in relation to many issues commented on in Dr. Shannon’s audit.
  • Tusla will continue to work rolling out its National Childcare Information Systems, which will significantly improve the information available in relation to vulnerable children.
  • In relation to the Gardaí, the Garda National Child Protection Unit will carry out an audit at local level of the child protection operations between Tusla and an Garda Síochána.
  • Divisional Protective Services Units are being established in all 28 Garda divisions and effective liaison with Tusla will be a feature of these units.
  • A joint protocol is being finalised between Tusla and the Gardaí on the operation of section 12.  This will provide clear and extensive guidance on a range of issues in relation to children at risk. This will address many of the issues raised in the report today.

What does remain outstanding however, is a full audit of child protection services throughout the State.

As such, I am encouraged that the Minister has committed to taking a review in a year’s time of the recommendations made by the inter-agency group of a strategic liaison committee between An Garda Síochána, Tusla and the HSE as to whether they have been implemented and whether they have been moved forward.

There are a number of other reviews that are going on in the context of Tusla and it is my understanding that the Minister must look at those first before making a decision to call for a wider audit in order to see whether or not there would be overlap in that regard.

In addition to the high-level Garda and Tusla strategic liaison committee, Tusla has put in place dedicated intake teams that monitor and manage section 12 cases, including consideration of the repeated use of section 12.

It has set up a team to review the contextual and situational factors and their actions in the 91 cases cited in Dr. Shannon’s report and to consider the common themes arising. The actions in these specific cases and the overall concerns raised in the report will be examined by the Tusla team. The team will also consider specific cases to clarify the number of and reasons for repeat applications of section 12. The report will be completed by the end of June.

In line with best child care practice, the majority of emergency accommodation is provided with foster family carers. This meets the needs of the majority of children admitted in an emergency situation. There are some situations where family care is not suitable, including where the young person is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or is exhibiting suicidal ideation and may require medical assessment or treatment in hospital. I have been informed that social admission to hospital only takes place in exceptional cases and where such a placement is for the safety of the young person.

When looking at child protection in its entirety, however, taking into account recent cases such as the Grace case and Mary case – I believe a thorough overhaul of the current system needs to take place.

As such I am very much encouraged the Minister will be meeting Dr. Shannon within the coming week to discuss further the matters raised in his audit and look at child protection in its entirety and not just a focus on Section 12 cases.

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