Governance and Control Procedures in Tusla - Child and Family Agency: Discussion

I welcome Mr. Fred McBride, CEO of Tusla, and his colleagues Mr. Jim Gibson, chief operating officer, Mr. Cormack Quinlan, director of policy and strategy, and Ms Tara Downes, legal services. I thank them for coming before the committee today.

Before we commence, in accordance with procedure I am required to draw your attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of your evidence to the committee. However, if you are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and you continue to so do, you are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of your evidence. You are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and you are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, you should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I remind members and witnesses to turn off their mobile phones or switch them to flight mode. They interfere with the sound system, make it difficult for reporters to report the meeting and adversely affect televised coverage and web streaming.

I would also like to remind members of the provisions of Dáil Standing Order 59(3) which states: "a matter shall not be raised in such an overt manner so that it appears to be an attempt by the Dáil to encroach on the functions of the Courts or a Judicial Tribunal" and Seanad Standing Order 47(3) which states: "a matter shall not be raised in such an overt manner so that it appears to be an attempt by the Seanad to encroach on the functions of the Courts or a Judicial Tribunal".

I also advise witnesses that any submission or opening statement they have made to the committee will be published on the committee website after this meeting. I understand that the witnesses will make a short presentation, which will be followed by questions from members of the committee. I invite Mr. McBride to make his opening statement.

Mr. Fred McBride

I thank the Chairman for introducing my colleagues and members for the opportunity to address the committee. I will preface my opening statement by saying that as of yesterday we have received formal notification from the tribunal of inquiry team that we will engage with, which has asked for a range of information. We are now in formal engagement with the inquiry team. While I and my colleagues will do everything we possibly can to be helpful to this committee, I am sure members will understand that I will need to exercise some caution in not going into matters that will be covered by the terms of the inquiry.

Many members will know that in January 2014 Tusla - Child and Family Agency, became a separate legal entity to the HSE. It was established on the back of some 29 inquiries and over 550 recommendations on how child abuse and child protection services should be managed in Ireland. These multiple inquiries generated much debate and engagement as to how to best protect the children of the country. They recommended that a new approach was required. A dedicated State agency was created to try to embark on a major reform and transformation programme to improve the lives of children and families who engage with child protection services.

It was a difficult start and the agency was set up carrying an €18 million deficit. At the time, my predecessor, Mr. Gordon Jeyes, submitted a three-year business case to the Department of Children and Youth Affairs, perhaps aptly named, From Survival to Sustainability. In 2016, some additional investment was made to help the agency move towards a sustainable footing. While we did not receive all of what we asked for in the business case, the additional investment was very welcome and we have put it to good use.

However, as anyone who has embarked on a transformation and change programme of this scale will know, it takes longer than three years to fully complete and embed into practice. Nevertheless, we can report that the first three years of improvement has taken place. For example, in January 2014 there were close to 9,000 unallocated cases, that is, children awaiting allocation to a social worker. By the end of December last year, the figure had reduced to slightly under 5,500, a reduction of almost 40%. Within that, the reduction for cases that were deemed to be of a higher priority was closer to 80%. We are not at all complacent about that. Far too many children are awaiting allocation to a social worker and we will continue to invest in front-line services until this figure reaches zero and every child who requires a social worker has one.

The committee will know that working in the field of child abuse and neglect is extremely challenging and complex. Unfortunately, children are abused or at risk of abuse or neglect every day in Ireland and elsewhere. Our staff deal with very complex human relations, which often involves unpredictable and sometimes violent behaviour. In the vast majority of cases where we have to intervene in private family life, we deal with that intervention appropriately, proportionately, professionally and sensitively in an effort to try to maintain people's confidentiality, respect and dignity. The over 4,000 Tusla staff around the country who work in very difficult circumstances get the intervention right on most occasions.

One particularly challenging area of work that has emerged for us over the past few years is what we call historical allegations. These cases involve adults coming forward to disclose information on abuse when they were children, usually around sexual abuse. It is especially challenging because the legal framework around this area is not specific enough. We have been, and will continue to be, in discussion with the Department of Children and Youth affairs as part of what will be a fundamental review and overhaul of the Child Care Act 1991. We will work with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to ensure that overhaul produces legislation that is fit for purpose.

In the meantime, we are operating on the basis of inferred legislation as a result of case law. There are currently two cases in the court process which are challenging Tusla's role in allegations of abuse. We await developments in that case law.

In the current circumstances, we are required to try to ensure that an alleged victim is supported while at the same time ensuring fair and due process for the alleged perpetrator, in addition to assessing whether any children may be at current risk of harm. This is an extremely difficult balance to strike. Traditionally, child protection social workers have been focused, through their training, on the protection of children and have not been skilled in dealing with or trained to deal with forensic-type interviews of alleged perpetrators. We are beginning to develop that skill set, but it is very specialised. We have created some posts and teams to try to develop that expertise.

It is in this very challenging context that we are dealing with cases which are understandably the focus of much debate and concern on the part of the public and in these Houses. At this juncture, I would like to clearly reiterate our apology to people affected by our mistakes and for the distress and upset they have endured. I accept that public confidence in the system may well have been undermined because of that, but what has happened is not reflective of the high standards that staff hold themselves to or that I as chief executive hold them to, in particular in regard to the handling of sensitive information.

It is important to point out that I have no knowledge or evidence that Tusla staff acted with any malice of intent.

I also make clear that if I did receive such evidence or information, I would intervene personally, immediately and publicly. As we know, mistakes were made and we very much look forward to working with the tribunal of inquiry in addressing this matter in its totality. As far as I am concerned, the inquiry cannot come soon enough in order that all the facts are known and responsibility and accountability can be properly and fairly attributed.

I note also that Tusla is subject to a very high level of regulation and oversight. We are one of the most regulated services or agencies in the country. This scrutiny is done internally by area reviews and audits, sub-committees of the board, the board proper and the quality assurance directorate. Externally, this regulation is carried out by, for example, the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, the Office of the Ombudsman for Children, the national review panel, the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, the body that regulates and registers qualified social workers, known as CORU, and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Moreover, HIQA recently completed a two-year governance overview in which all 17 of Tusla's operational areas received a child protection inspection and which visited our headquarters to carry out a review of our corporate governance arrangements. We have seen and are commenting on the first draft of this report, which notes some significant improvement in services and staff morale.

To give members an idea of the volume of business Tusla deals with, we received approximately 120,000 referrals in the first three years of our existence. More than 51,000 of these referrals relate to abuse and neglect. It is, therefore, extremely important that we remain focused on the much needed transformation and reform of child protection services. We owe it to the children who are the subject of the referrals and their families to provide appropriate, proportionate and timely responses to any concerns raised.

As we know, almost every inquiry into serious cases of child abuse in this country and elsewhere, including cases where children have died, has highlighted the lack of information sharing across key agencies as a key contributing factor to things going wrong. Appropriate and responsible information sharing is the cornerstone of all child protection systems everywhere in the world. It ensures children receive the specific intervention and response required. I reassure the families with whom we work, members of the public and politicians that Tusla always endeavours to use this information responsibly and with the best intentions in the interests of protecting children.

Child protection is everyone’s responsibility. One State agency on its own cannot achieve the best outcomes for children. We rely on families, communities, politicians, Government and the media to support us in this task. I urge anyone who has a concern about a child to report it as responsibly and accurately as possible.

While Tusla must learn from mistakes and make continuous improvement, through the dedication of staff, which I see as I travel around the country, and by working in partnership with key stakeholders and wider civic society, I believe we will be successful in completing our ambitious transformation programme to reform child protection services and improve outcomes for the most vulnerable children in our country. The evidence available to me thus far is that children are safer today than they were before the Child and Family Agency was created.

I thank Mr. McBride for his opening statement and acknowledge the speed with which he responded to the joint committee's invitation to appear. I believe the invitation was issued late on a Friday evening and was accepted first thing on the following Monday morning. I thank Mr. McBride for that without hesitation. As everyone will understand, the reason we invited him to appear before us was that the confidence of members of the joint committee, as individuals and parents, in Tusla was shaken to its foundations by a high profile revelation in the media. In the meantime, a tribunal of inquiry has been established to investigate the matter. As Chairman, I am conscious that it is my responsibility to ensure the committee does not cross over into the work of the tribunal of inquiry as it investigates the high profile case reported in the media in recent weeks. I advise members that this is my responsibility under Standing Orders and precedent. For this reason, I will not allow specific questions to be asked on the case reported in the media because we cannot prejudice the work of the tribunal of inquiry as it seeks to get to the bottom of that matter. Notwithstanding those remarks, the joint committee is concerned to find out about the practices in place in Tusla. All members have a shared concern for the welfare of children. We would appreciate, therefore, if Mr. McBride would be as helpful as possible and answer questions to the fullest extent possible. I do not wish to stifle discussion, other than to ensure we do not stray into the high profile case of recent weeks. I ask Deputy Rabbitte to lead the way in a responsible manner.

I, too, welcome Mr. McBride and his opening statement. The Chairman has presented the background to the joint committee's decision to invite him to appear before us. I acknowledge the speed with which he responded and welcome his open and honest statement in which he identified various issues that have been in the public domain in recent days.

I will steer my questions in two directions, namely, the issues of confidence and retrospective or historical cases, both of which Mr. McBride covered. I propose to ask some pointed questions on the issue of confidence. Is Tusla satisfied with its internal information technology system? Mr. McBride will be accustomed to being asked that question as I have been asking it for a long time. Is Tusla satisfied with the framework in place for sharing information? If, for example, a child leaves Galway and moves to Dublin, how is this dealt with by counsellors? I have some doubts about whether such connectivity is in place. Does Mr. McBride have confidence in this regard?

Is Tusla satisfied with multi-party involvement? By this I mean if a sufficiently good sieving mechanism is in place for sharing information among responsible persons. When an allegation is made does Tusla have a sufficient number of qualified staff to investigate it? Mr. McBride's statement that there are 4,000 Tusla staff is news to me because the Minister was unable to answer when I asked her a question on staff numbers in the past two weeks. Does Tusla have enough staff to do its job? In 2015, it was allocated an additional €6 million to recruit more staff. Have staff been hired to deal with the large number of retrospective cases identified in the detailed report completed in 2015?

Does Tusla have proper checks and balances in place to deal with people coming forward with allegations? I assume the figure of 150,000 allegations, of which 50,000 related to allegations of sexual abuse, has since declined. Are proper checks and balances in place to check and verify allegations?

On the issue of historical or "bottom drawer" cases, as I like to call them, does Tusla have a sufficient number of staff working on these? Mr. McBride indicated the number of such cases had fallen dramatically in the past 12 months. When I asked a question on adult disclosure cases on 5 July 2016 I was informed that a large proportion of the 8,865 such cases that were live in 2015 were still in high priority listing in 2016. How many of these cases are still identified as high priority cases?

Are cases involving historical disclosures prioritised immediately as either high, medium or low risk? I ask this question because an abuser could potentially be at large until a case is fully investigated.

How does Tusla categorise the original allegation that comes forward? Is it in a high, medium or low risk capacity? My understanding is that when retrospective cases come forward they are deemed to be low risk whereas I thought they would be high risk until they are investigated fully. Does Tusla have the manpower to deliver on that?

I thank Mr. McBride for attending in such an expeditious manner before the committee and for his apology, which I believe is sincere but which I would have to say is cold comfort to the affected family in the case we are all aware of but on which we cannot go into the specifics.

In his opening statement, Mr. McBride referred to the level of regulation and oversight in Tusla, both internal and external, but in terms of what happened recently, and other people have spoken about confidence in the organisation, it speaks to another situation. Everybody here, and the public at large, needs reassurance from Mr. McBride on the procedures that have been set up even in the interim. Whatever about the tribunal, there are ongoing cases of a very serious nature in the interim. I am sure that every person involved in a case being dealt with by Tusla would be concerned to know it is being dealt with in the appropriate manner.

To err is human. My background is in medical negligence and it is the only area I can think of to compare this to because a doctor can do something, with the best intent, to take care of a patient but the end result can be that somebody is seriously affected or even dies. In those cases, the doctors have the full rigours of the law to face, and often there are huge financial payouts etc.

The mind boggles as to this error and how it could have occurred. We cannot go into specifics but I would make the comment that regardless of whether it was a copy and paste error, all of us find it very difficult to believe.

I have to stop the Senator. To be fair, she understands where she is going with that comment but she will understand my interjection. I ask her to broaden her questions out from the particular incident because-----

I will ask more general questions.

-----to be fair, I will not allow the witnesses to answer any of them-----

It is frustrating for us.

-----so there is no point in asking them. It is the law; it is not my law.

What immediate changes have been made to ensure incidents such as this one do not happen again? That is the most obvious question. It is imperative that the reputation of Tusla does not become permanently tainted. What steps are being taken to ensure damage control?

Under section 5 of the Protections for Persons in Reporting Child Abuse Act 1998, it is an offence to make a false allegation of child abuse. In incidents where false accusations are made, what actions are taken against individuals? In cases of alleged child abuse that were deemed to be unfounded, how many times has Tusla investigated the motives of the accusers for making such allegations? What responses has Tusla received from the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to its lobbying with regard to the historical allegations and statutory instruments to tackle such cases? What assurances can be given to families on whom Tusla may have sensitive information that their data are protected and have not been breached?

I thank the Tusla representatives for coming in. I will preface my remarks by saying that comments have been made about the Garda in recent weeks and months but regarding Tusla, it is also important to say that despite all the controversies with regard to Tusla it is worth recognising the very hard work, commitment and professionalism of the vast majority of its staff in what is very challenging work. Notwithstanding that, confidence in Tusla has been shaken by recent events and many people are very concerned about that.

I have some specific questions. Section 7.2 of the Children First guidelines states that it is essential that the Health Service Executive, which I presume in this area is now Tusla, and An Garda Síochána designate personnel at assessment, investigation and management level who will remain involved with the case until the assessment and investigation is completed. In that regard, are forms relating to those processes completed upon receipt of every allegation and in every case? On that basis, can we assume that it would be relatively easy to identify the designated persons in each individual case, ensuring accountability and oversight of files held?

In the event that it was alleged that a file had been created maliciously, would Tusla be capable of disproving that? Is it Mr. McBride's understanding that an administrative error of any nature regarding such a file should be reported as a data breach to the Data Protection Commissioner? Does Mr. McBride believe there is systemic data protection weaknesses in his organisation? Is it correct that the Data Protection Commissioner is carrying out an investigation into Tusla due to its failure to report administrative errors?

I want to underline the comments made by Deputy Rabbitte and Senator Noone on historical cases. I, too, query whether those cases might be treated as lower risk cases and whether that might be contrary to the Children First guidelines. With regard to historical cases, are there processes in place to ensure a review and that the cases are returned to rather than simply left lying on a shelf? Are they investigated at least in some manner, and what does such a process involve? Does the form template for allegations of abuse require that allegations of abuse are deleted from the form before being saved again as a template?

How many times since the establishment of Tusla have clerical errors led to files being held which falsely alleged abuse, and in what circumstances could that happen? In the event of allegations of abuse being found to be without basis, at what stage are files generally deleted by Tusla? Similarly, how long are files relating to allegations held in the event that no evidence is found to support an allegation and a case is not progressed by the Garda or the Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP? Is there a time limit, and is there a file retention policy?

I would like to join in the comments made by the previous speakers, which I will not repeat. My questions follow on from the question of the retention of files raised by Deputy Ó Laoghaire, particularly where there is no evidence to support an allegation. Are those files retained or left open? What happens to them? Are they stored somewhere? Can Mr. McBride give us an update on that?

If I recall correctly, Mr. McBride mentioned 122,000 referrals, 51,000 of which related to abuse or neglect. What would be the general trend with regard to the other 70,000? Given the fact that there is a good deal of data and information involved in that amount of material, has Mr. McBride identified any trends regarding the figures with a view to pushing that back to us, as political representatives, to formulate something around prevention, in particular, and the mental health area that might integrate with it? We are always looking for research and we have databanks of information but identifying the trends from that seems to be an issue. If Mr. McBride has identified anything in that, I would be grateful if he could share it with us.

Mr. Fred McBride

My colleagues may assist me as I go along. Deputy Rabbitte asked if we had confidence in our IT system. I am afraid the answer to that question is "Not yet". We have inherited 17 areas as part of the HSE. A number of those areas had different systems. Some had paper systems. We are now attempting to roll out what we call our national child care information system, which will be our client information system. It will be national and will produce management information. We are making some progress in rolling that out throughout the course of 2017 and into 2018.

Suffice it to say, the investment in ICT infrastructure has been insufficient for many years. Some investment is now available to us to take our national child care information system forward. That project has been a big priority for us over the past couple of years. Our board identified one of our top organisational risks as not having a national information system. In answer to Deputy Rabbitte's question, we are not satisfied with the national system at the moment but we are working very hard to roll it out.

The Deputy also asked about multi-agency information and a sifting mechanism. In terms of allegations of abuse by adults, as I said in my opening statement, child protection social workers would have ordinarily, through their training and education, been focused on how we protect the child. The determination of the veracity of an allegation against a perpetrator is a much more specialist skill. We must now develop specialist posts and teams to undertake that skill. Traditionally, child protection social workers are not trained in the skill. We must upskill ourselves and training is beginning to be put in place in most areas.

The Deputy asked if Tusla had enough staff. We are still trying to recruit staff. In 2016 we filled 514 posts of which 320 were front-line social work grades. There are another 119 posts, of which 83 were social workers who accepted posts. They are due to land in the first quarter of this year. Recruitment is a big challenge for us. Only 250 social work students graduate from Irish institutions every year. To recruit we had to go to Northern Ireland and I, personally, went to the University of Ulster. We are trying to recruit in the UK in order to fulfil our recruitment targets. We are very much in recruitment mode. We have managed to recruit some additional staff and reduced the number of unallocated cases. There is still much more to be done in that regard.

The Deputy specifically asked if we had enough people to work on historic cases. We are beginning to train more people in specific interviewing skills.

The Deputy asked if historic allegations were given high priority. Did I misunderstand her question?

Mr. Fred McBride

It depends on the circumstances of the case. All of our inspections that have been undertaken by HIQA have recognised that where we identified that a child or children were at immediate risk then immediate action was taken. I must be honest with the Deputy about what happens if an allegation is made by an adult about something that happened to him or her 20, 30, 40 or 50 years ago. Sometimes the allegation will be unclear due to the passing of time. It may not at all be clear what the circumstances are or whether the perpetrator is still around and can be located. If we are asked or challenged to prioritise that kind of case over a child who may be at immediate risk of harm we will prioritise the latter.

Senator Noone mentioned regulatory oversight. Tusla is one of the most heavily regulated agencies in the country. In terms of corrective action, we have done a number of things. We have actively tried to engage with the Data Commissioner. Before the current episode emerged we had previously engaged an external body to conduct a high level assessment of data protection practices and procedures. The body has made some findings and stated it was impressed by saying:

Tusla management had demonstrated an impressive appreciation for the confidentiality and care with which personal records and sensitive personal data should be managed across a wide range of services.

The body has made some recommendations and findings that we will act upon.

We have engaged with the Data Commissioner since recent events unfolded. We have issued instructions to all of our areas to be particularly vigilant around data handling issues. In the past couple of days I have invited them to contact me directly if they are aware of any particular issues of a similar nature. The chief operations officer has also set in place the system to allow the areas to identify similar types of cases or issues that we need to be aware of at a senior level. I have outlined some of the things that has been done since.

Senator Noone asked what happens when false allegations are made. If someone within Tusla is found to have made a false allegation I am clear it would result in a very serious process. If false allegations are made by people outside of Tusla then we must find that out first before we do anything. We would then report the false allegation to the Garda. Were there other aspects to the Senator's questions?

I asked a good few questions. Mr. McBride has covered most of them. He can come back to me later.

Can Mr. McBride get back to the Senator in a second?

Mr. McBride can answer the next question.

Mr. Fred McBride

I have written a reply to a question asked by Senator Noone and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs and the legislative framework. I understand there is to be a fairly fundamental review of the 1991 legislation. Tusla has already engaged with and made our views on this matter known to the Department. We think the current section of the legislation that deals with allegations of abuse is inadequate. We hope to influence how the revised legislation is shaped into the future.

I sought assurances for families. Mr. McBride covered the matter by outlining the interim measures that Tusla has put in place.

Mr. Fred McBride

I thank Deputy Ó Laoghaire for his questions.

I have written down quite a few questions. With the Chairman's permission, I shall give my list of questions to Mr. McBride.

Yes, that is okay.

Mr. Fred McBride

My colleagues may help me to explain the details.

Are forms, relating to these processes, completed on receipt of every allegation and in every case? Initially, we would open what we call an intake record or a record of the referral that has been made to us. Not all of our referrals turn into ongoing cases. Therefore, they are not turned into a file like the one I have here in my hand. We have to keep a record of all information that is passed to us. Where appropriate, if it is possible that a criminal offence has been committed, we share that information with the Garda. A template notification form is passed back and forth between ourselves and the Garda to acknowledge the information.

In terms of designated persons in each individual case, we now have dedicated intake functions. I am sorry if the term intake functions sounds a bit technical but it does what it suggests. It deals with the initial referrals as they come in. Normally that means referrals that were not previously known to us.

We generate that record. The team leader of the dedicated intake team would take responsibility for the overview of referrals to the intake process and the decision on which of them needed to be allocated. The majority are screened, that is, someone examines them initially and tries to make an initial determination of the level of risk contained within that information, and then we make a decision to move towards an initial assessment - the next stage of assessment, which is of a higher level - that would normally require the referral to be allocated to a social worker. As we have already acknowledged, some referrals that are not immediately allocated are kept on a non-allocated list. In most areas, the leader of the intake team would review the cases on the waiting list on a regular basis. I have visited to see what the team leaders do. Leaders may make visits to family homes to ensure that everything is okay. They may phone schools to see whether they have any information. They will clock any new information that might push the child up the priority list.

Importantly, it is not the case that children who are awaiting allocation are being ignored. Their needs and priorities are regularly reviewed. That is not ideal. If we have decided that an initial assessment is required, the case needs to be allocated to a social worker, but there is not nothing happening - sorry for the double negative - with these cases. They are largely being monitored. In this instance, the designated person about whom the Deputy asked is the leader of the intake team, who is overseen by a principal social worker.

There is a designated person for every intake record.

Mr. Fred McBride

The team leader takes an overview of every intake record that comes into the intake team.

Mr. Cormac Quinlan

Every intake record has to be signed off by a social worker and a team leader.

I thank the witnesses.

Mr. Jim Gibson

It is beneficial to reflect on where we came from. For example, I worked in the service at different levels - social worker, team leader, principal social worker, child care manager and area manager. Some areas had five points of referral and six people trying to pick up work going back ten or 15 years. Mr. McBride has outlined the service delivery framework, under which it is clear that we have dedicated, specialist teams to receive, review and make professional decisions on matters that are referred to our agency.

There is an interesting number. We are known within communities and counties and everything is referred to us. Some 60% of our referrals are about families in crisis or in need of help. Deputy Neville mentioned prevention and early intervention. We deal with those cases and have developed good processes and service interventions across Ireland that are available to such families. We are connected in the communities. As an agency, we take a lead in the children and young people's services committees, CYPSCs, which include city and county child care committees. We are engaged in collaborative work and have produced good material on prevention, partnership and family support, which assists 60% of those families that are referred to Tusla to get an intervention in a timely and proportionate way.

The methodology attached to the relationship between the child protection service and the family support service has been worked up well. In one area, for example, there were 300 plus referrals from the child protection intake team to the prevention and family support team. Of those referrals that went out to families that required a family support service, only 7% were returned to the child protection system. That is a good indicator that the professionals were getting it right in their initial screenings and assessments. With good standard operating procedures between those two services, we ensure that such welfare-type family support cases are handled. This creates more time and space for the intake assessment team to examine more serious child protection cases and take corrective action.

We have a robust and good child protection notification system. Case conferences on child protection issues are held throughout the country. Some welfare issues do not arise out of wilful neglect by parents, but because parents have mental health problems, issues with drugs, etc. Our staff are trained to work with those parents through a difficult process so that there can be changes within their families and children can remain in their families and communities.

It is important to stress that these are the things that we have achieved since our establishment. We have set up specialist teams across the country and are continuing with that innovation.

Mr. Fred McBride

What Mr. Gibson said may answer Deputy Neville's question on the 51,000 child protection or abuse referrals. The balance of the 122,000 referrals are what we call general welfare concerns, which are usually lower level concerns than specific allegations of abuse.

Deputy Ó Laoghaire raised data protection questions.

In the event of there being designated persons and an allegation that a file has been created maliciously, is Tusla capable of disproving that?

Mr. Fred McBride

That is a difficult question. If information came to us from the outside, we would normally take it as it stood. We would speak to families and, in following due process, alleged perpetrators. Trying to determine the veracity of the allegation is a part of our job. If someone deliberately created malicious information and sent it to us, discovering it immediately could be difficult. Even if we reviewed the intake records in the process that I described, we would have to accept the information that was given until we could get into the detail of the referral and had reason to doubt it.

This is more about the malicious creation of a file by a member of Tusla's staff. Would Tusla be capable of disproving it?

Mr. Fred McBride

People can act maliciously if they are so minded. We have the systems and processes in place to follow up on matters and know whether information is malicious, but it would probably come at the point where we had taken the referral to the next stage, that being, the initial assessment, which sees a deeper level of assessment.

I might ask Mr. McBride to move on, as I want to allow the other members to ask their questions. I am tying to get through them as quickly as I can.

Mr. Fred McBride

I have been reminded by my colleagues that, where information suggests that a crime has been committed, we must pass it to the Garda.

Which would obviously examine it.

Mr. Fred McBride

Yes.

There were further questions, those on data protection. We would normally report any data breach to the Data Protection Commissioner. I believe that the question of whether a specific breach occurred in the case in question will form part of the inquiry, so I will leave the matter at that. We have engaged with the Data Protection Commissioner. That office has written to us to confirm that it will conduct an investigation into our data protection systems and processes.

We very much welcome that. I do not think there was a specific suggestion that data protection problems were systemic. It wrote to us saying that it wanted to clarify whether there were any systemic problems, so we very much welcome the engagement of the Data Protection Commissioner.

As I said earlier, we carried out a high-level assessment and there were findings and issues that we need to deal with. Hitherto, as regards data protection and freedom of information functions, we have been reliant on the HSE through a memorandum of understanding when Tusla was set up as a separate body. I am now determined that we need to invest in our own management capacity around data protection, freedom of information and the like in order that we are completely self-sufficient in these matters and not relying on another State agency. That is where we are up to with that. I do not know whether my colleague would like to say any more than that concerning data protection.

Mr. Cormac Quinlan

To reiterate, I have spoken personally to the Data Protection Commissioner's office. It has not yet clarified what specific investigation or order it is going to conduct but, as Mr. McBride said, we welcome it completely, look forward to its findings and will co-operate with it fully.

Mr. Fred McBride

We have already engaged with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs on the lack of legislative clarity. We will continue to engage with it as part of the process of reviewing the 1991 Act and we hope that clarity can be brought to the legislative framework around this.

Mr. McBride can skip one question and go to the following one.

Mr. Fred McBride

On the question of whether it is the case that where there is not a specifically named child at risk, these cases are treated as a priority, than where a named child is at risk, I explained earlier the answer to that is "yes" unless there is very specific information that a child or children may be at current risk. In that case the child would be treated with the same priority as any other child who may be at current or immediate risk.

Can Mr. McBride deal with Deputy Neville's questions?

Mr. Fred McBride

In the case of historical allegations, are there processes that ensure review and that the case is returned to rather than just lying on a shelf and that it is investigated at least in some manner and what does this process involve? This is really part of the challenge. Perhaps the chief operations officer can comment on this. We have no specific power to compel. For example, we cannot compel a person against whom an allegation is being made or any third party to talk to us about these allegations. Sometimes what we have is an allegation that relates to a period of time 20 or 30 years ago. On occasion, we have no means of following up with the alleged perpetrator and, therefore, these situations are left in a quite inconclusive manner unless further information comes to light. This is part of the challenge we have in trying to balance fair and due process for a person against whom an allegation is made on the one hand and looking at the level of risk that may be contained in an allegation. It is part of that balance and it depends on the quality and nature of the information we receive.

In terms of the template form for allegations of abuse, does it require that allegations of abuse are deleted from the form before being saved as a template again? We correct any information that comes to light that is found to be incorrect. We would take it down from any kind of electronic system. Therefore, it would be corrected, but not necessarily destroyed because there are data protection issues around that.

How many times since the establishment of Tusla have clerical errors led to files being held which falsely alleged sexual abuse? I am sorry but I do not have a number on that. We would need to come back to the Deputy on that. I would not have a number in my head.

In the event of allegations of abuse being found to be without basis, at what stage are files generally deleted by Tusla? Similarly, how long are files relating to allegations held in the event that no evidence is found to support an allegation and no case is progressed by the gardaí or the Director of Public Prosecutions? Deputy Neville also asked if there is a time limit or file retention policy. As I said, we do not hold false information on people. The information is corrected but there are data protection issues about that information being completely destroyed. That is something we will have to discuss with the Data Protection Commissioner's representatives when they come to visit us.

Can Mr. Quinlan remind me about the file retention policy?

Mr. Cormac Quinlan

Yes, we have a records retention policy in place in the agency. All records created under the child correct system - a lot of these records would obviously pertain to that - are to be kept in perpetuity.

Can Mr. Quinlan address Deputy Neville's outstanding questions?

If a false accusation has been made against someone, a file has been created, there is no evidence behind it and the person is innocent, is it correct to say that Tusla corrects the file but the file is retained?

Mr. Cormac Quinlan

There is provision in the data protection legislation whereby if someone contacts us to say that there is false information on the file, we can amend that record or erase it if this particular circumstance is covered by the Data Protection Act.

Mr. Cormac Quinlan

Or erase it. If we erase records we are obliged to keep a register of the records that we have erased.

I have a second question relating to a false accusation. Mr. Quinlan said that Tusla initially creates a file. There is a vetting process and it moves to the next stage. When Tusla is vetting those files at the initial stage, obviously it is vetting them in regard to risk or immediate risk to a child, which I totally get. Are there any control mechanisms in place to assess the risk of false allegations, or are these files just allowed to sit?

We have the questions, so I am going to move on. Can Mr. Gibson deal with that as briefly as he can? I have to be fair to the other members. I want to move on.

Mr. Jim Gibson

A really good example of where that occurs is where there is marital breakdown. Sometimes parents or their partners make allegations in respect of how the parent who has custody of the child or children is looking after them. We face that on a fairly regular basis within our service and would make definitive decisions about those cases. Many of those cases are also before the family law court. Under section 20 we would provide reports to the court in respect of that.

I have two quick questions. Do I get the sense from the presentation today that there is Tusla of the early years and Tusla of the modern years? Is there a legacy issue pertaining to some of the issues which have arisen and which have broken down people's confidence in the organisation? Is there a historical legacy issue from the transfer from the HSE and the setting up of Tusla? Has it emerged that there are a number of discrepancies and issues arising that no longer pertain to the agency? Is that what Mr. McBride is saying? He might clarify that for me.

Could there be a file on me in Tusla of which I would not be aware? At what stage would Tusla make me aware of a file that existed with my name on it and an allegation, be it true or false? How long could that file potentially exist in Tusla, with my name on and containing an allegation, and of which I would not be aware? Mr. McBride might address those matters.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations. The crucial issue is about the delicate balance between the constitutional right of the child to be protected and the right of the alleged perpetrator to their good name. I want to follow up on the series of questions that others have asked and focus, in particular, on the right of the alleged perpetrator. I note with some concern that Mr. McBride said Tusla's social workers are well trained in dealing with the child. I understand that because Tusla's primary purpose is the protection of children. However, I am somewhat concerned because he said that he is developing specialist posts and upskilling staff to deal with alleged perpetrators.

To follow up on the Chairman's question, if an allegation is made against an individual, serious concerns arise over his or her right to have correct follow-up procedures in order to protect his or her good name. I wish to ask some specific questions about that.

In response to Deputy Ó Laoghaire, the witnesses said it is first a matter of an intake referral and that, if there is a possible criminal offence, the information is shared with the Garda. In the witnesses' presentation, they referred to appropriate information sharing. Obviously, there is appropriate information sharing and the referrals that come to the agency will come from a variety of sources. They are all channelled into Tusla. I understand the constraints based on Tusla being newly established and that there is a shortage of staff. At what point does Tusla share information with the Garda? If an accusation is made and there is a judgment that there may be an alleged criminal offence, at what point does Tusla share the information with the Garda? Is it at the stage of the making of the judgment? How does Tusla update that information? The witnesses have given us some detailed responses on how they keep and update their own files and how they make corrections where there is wrong information in a file. How does Tusla update the people with whom it shares information, specifically the Garda?

There is a concern over the protection of one's good name. Who speaks to the alleged perpetrator when information is shared? Is it Tusla or the Garda? How is a person notified that a complaint has been made against him or her about activity that may be of a criminal nature? What are the agency's procedures in that regard?

We cannot talk about the specific case but I would like to refer, however, to a very general quotation in some of the correspondence on that case: "Given the demands on the service at the time [It is a particular point in time], the case remained on a waiting list to be assigned to a social worker". We all know there is a large number of cases that have not been assigned to social workers because of shortages, etc., and that targets were not met by the end of 2016. Where a social worker was involved previously in respect of a case, why would that case be put on a list of cases awaiting the assignation of a social worker? In other words, if there has been a social worker involved in some stage-----

Could the Deputy broaden the question somewhat and use general terms?

The witnesses obviously know where my concerns are coming from but my question is general. Could there be cases on a waiting list for assignation to a social worker that might already have been referred to the Garda?

In the written presentation, the agency stated it would co-operate fully with the HIQA investigation announced by the Minister. The presentation states:

HIQA has recently concluded a two-year review of Tusla's child protection and welfare services, including child protection inspections in all 17 operational areas, and the governance arrangements in place to ensure an effective, timely and safe service. Tusla is currently liaising with HIQA in relation to its report on this review and while there are findings and recommendations which require a response from Tusla, the overall feedback is very positive

I presume that report will feed into the other but I am not very clear on the difference between the two investigations by HIQA.

I welcome the witnesses. We are here to discuss governance issues following the recent high-profile case, which we will not go into. I have several questions. If I am jumping from one topic to another, I ask forgiveness.

What is the time taken between Tusla's being informed of an allegation of child sex abuse and the passing on of the information to the Garda, taking into account any correction that needs to be made? Is the timeframe between nine months and 12 months? Could the witnesses confirm that? Does Tusla have or is it in need of a comprehensive and robust legal framework that could assist with and prescribe its legal limits and obligations? Is this not absolutely necessary at this point?

Tusla has swiftly apologised for what has happened. The public will thank it for that. This contrasts with the other scandal of our time, that of the Catholic Church, which demonstrated an inability to apologise immediately. There has been a decline in people's trust and confidence in the Catholic Church since the old days. The implication is that Tusla's credibility has been shot to pieces. I rate it at 10%, if that. Perhaps that is being generous. Public and staff confidence has declined. The staff to be employed and those waiting to be posted will need much more reassurance from the agency. The agency has given an outright apology but the witnesses should be aware that this matter could be ongoing until it is resolved. I do not know what the resolution will be but the agency's credibility is certainly at stake.

Can the witnesses assure the committee categorically that there is no undue, nefarious influence on any of Tusla's staff to skew or act with malice in any of the cases that have been presented to them?

I caution the Senator about asking a question like that. She is going into a realm that is not appropriate because it is subject to investigation by a tribunal. I ask the witnesses not to answer that question.

Is the Chairman sure?

I am certain.

It is an important question.

The Chair has made its ruling. It is not negotiable.

It is not negotiable.

In my professional life, I have been reporting to Tusla continually. As public representatives, we receive telephone calls from constituents who have been reported to Tusla by various individuals, such as partners or neighbours. They plead, "They have got it wrong, they have got it wrong, they have got it wrong". Most of us at the other end of the telephone, whether councillors or public representatives, say, "Well, we do not think they have got it wrong. I do think you have got it wrong".

How can allegations of child sexual abuse be investigated when the agency lacks a proper framework? What is the practice for informing alleged perpetrators who are being investigated? Is there such a practice given that Tusla has now acknowledged that social workers need extra training? I acknowledge this has been touched on. Is there a timeline and structure for informing the alleged perpetrator?

Is it the witnesses' understanding, in line with Children First, that if a health professional or member of the HSE becomes aware of abuse allegations, he or she should contact Tusla before any other agencies? I do not know if this is endemic. In certain circumstances, it does not seem to have occurred.

Clerical and human errors do occur, of course, by nature. We have been asked to believe fantasy in recent days, however.

The Senator is going to have to refrain from all the comment. To be fair to everybody else, could the Senator just get to the questions? We are not here to hear the Senator's views on the issues. I ask her to stick to questions.

To err is human. In this regard, I include myself. I will concentrate on my last question, or perhaps my last observation. Tusla's priority is rightly to focus on children currently at risk. It is, however, swamped with historical allegations.

Could the witnesses give me some idea of the percentage of staff who are involved in the investigation which needs to be put on the back burner or in abeyance for a time when children at risk is the priority? Does Tusla need another sub-section or agency to deal with these historical allegations which, we hope, in time will peter out?

All the questions have been asked and I will not rehearse a group of questions that have already been answered.

I want to make the point that a lot of people who I and many of the public representatives would deal with are parents who are voluntarily putting their children into care because they know it is best for them for a period of time. It is important to make the point that it is a big step for such parents to contact social workers and there is a major stigma and taboo around the social worker and what that carries with it. What has happened in recent times has shaken those parents' confidence in the organisation. Tusla should not underestimate the task it has to restore their confidence. There are people with allegations. Obviously, they will not work with Tusla. However, there are many parents who are trying to do right by their children and they know that involves putting them into care, as difficult as that is. It is important to remember them in everything that is going on.

I certainly echo those final comments and would welcome any contribution from the witnesses in that regard.

Mr. Fred McBride

My colleagues will help with some of these questions.

I am sorry to interrupt Mr. McBride but Deputy Rabbitte asked could she raise a quick supplementary.

I thank the Chairman.

Returning to the commentary on the posts that need to be created around historical cases, has Tusla a framework of what is required? Has it the framework set up? Is it in train or at what stage is it? Has Tusla all the staff there? I acknowledge that in itself is a considerable piece of work.

I understand there is no policy or strategy from Tusla on how to deal with adult disclosure cases, the so-called section 3 referrals. While we have the draft document that came out in September 2014, that is not a finalised piece of work. Are the section 3 referrals not completely finished with or has the matter been moved on?

According to the HIQA report, which-----

Deputy Jan O'Sullivan mentioned.

-----Deputy Jan O'Sullivan mentioned, while the current guidelines on dealing with adult disclosure cases by social care workers' offices are not fit for purpose, the guidelines do not take cognisance of the effects of abuse on adults coming forward to disclose. HIQA's assessment of the north Lee and south-west services in 2015 stated that the system in place to manage concerns of a retrospective nature needed significant improvement. I refer only to one particular report. I have read through many more of them. I want to know about the policy because that is the piece we need to work with and support to go forward. We also need to know the number of posts that need to be created.

I ask Deputy Ó Laoghaire to be quick because we have not a lot of time. We have five minutes left.

I seek clarification on the contact points. Mr. Jim Gibson made reference to multiple contact points. In the past, was there more than one designated person in regard to a referral?

On my question on administrative errors being reported as data breaches, the witnesses stated normally they would be reported. Would it always be reported to the Data Protection Commissioner where a clerical error related to a file of allegations of sexual abuse?

In regard to my first question on this slot, the witnesses stated, when responding earlier, they did not have that information. Will they come back to me on it?

Mr. Fred McBride

If I can begin on the Chairman's question about legacy issues, I suppose the straight answer is "Yes". We have inherited, as I alluded to earlier, a number of different systems and processes in 17 areas which have led to difficulties. We have endeavoured to put together a standardised - Mr. Gibson referred to it - service delivery framework with dedicated intact points, which picks up Deputy Ó Laoghaire's question. There would have been multiple intake points previously. We have also endeavoured to put together a system for moving information from initial screening to initial assessment where that is necessary to ongoing allocation.

We are not yet fully confident to say that none of these issues pertains any longer. We are three years into a transformation programme. We think we have made significant progress but we also believe there is still some progress to make.

The issue of letting people against whom an allegation may have been made know that this information has been given to us is very much part of fair and due process. We should be letting them know as quickly as possible. That does not always happen when we are dealing with unallocated cases.

On another question about timescale, there is no specific timeframe. We should be trying to deal with these pieces of information as quickly as we possibly can and letting people know that we have information about them. That should be the ideal standard.

Is Tusla letting them know? Mr. McBride states the agency should be letting them know. Are persons being let know?

Mr. Fred McBride

They are. Where we contact people, my colleagues can go into the detail of how we do so. There were questions on how we go about doing that. We let people know.

Would Tusla always let them know if it was referring to the Garda?

Mr. Fred McBride

Yes. Often the information goes to the Garda simultaneously.

Would Tusla always let the alleged perpetrator know that it was referring his or her file to the Garda?

We will ask Tusla to give more detail on the process. Does Mr. McBride want to finish?

Mr. Fred McBride

Picking up on that issue, perhaps I will leave to my colleagues the matter of what we share with the Garda.

On the question about the Minister commissioning a further process with HIQA, I have not yet seen the terms of reference of that and I cannot quite answer how it relates to the two-year review of our governance arrangements that HIQA has already done. One would hope that one would fit with the other. I would anticipate that such would be the case.

I absolutely accept the issues of public confidence and trust that have been raised by a number of committee members. We will be working extremely hard to communicate with children in care and their families that we work with to absolutely reassure them that we have their best interests at heart. We will share the work that is done with the Data Commissioner. We will feed our own findings from an internal review into the public inquiry and it will be made public in that way. People will be able to see what we have done. They will be able to see the mistakes we have made. They will be able to see what we have tried to do about it. They will be able to see these in the context of the significant change and transformation that we have been trying to undertake.

In regard to the issue of malicious intent, I have already made it public and have said already today that I have no information or evidence that anyone in Tusla acted out of malice. That is a matter of public record. If I find that information or that comes to my attention, I will deal with that personally, openly and publicly.

A point I would make before I bring in others relates to the contact points. We have now got dedicated contact points, as I stated already, with a team leader who has overview of all the referrals that come into that area. That would not always have been the case. There would have been a number of different contact points dealing with these issues and that was a legacy issue that we have tried to resolve.

For the last minute, we are up against the clock.

I had detailed questions about what Tusla shares with the Garda, etc., that have not been dealt with.

If there are questions that are still unanswered, we will get the reply by e-mail afterwards. I am up against the clock.

If Mr. Gibson wants to try and address as many as he can, let us give him a chance.

In fairness, we are not really worried about Leaders' Questions.

I am sorry. I will finish the meeting at 12 o'clock. I ask Mr. Gibson to be as brief as possible to try and cover as many of the questions as he can.

Mr. Jim Gibson

With regard to the historical allegations, we were asked when we would make an action from what we receive.

It is really important to stress that individuals come forward to Tusla and it is easy to say something about the past and sometimes it is difficult to ensure engagement with that individual to get the information that provides the opportunity to make a professional decision on how we manage that. If we are going take action and talk to any third part in respect of a historical allegation, we have a policy set down which Deputy Rabbitte referred to and which embodies good procedures to observe constitutional rights to fair procedure. It is very applicable to historical allegations and even our language today is a moving, sort of progressive way in which we should work. We should not use the words "alleged perpetrator" because then that sometimes becomes "alleged offender". When someone is subject to an allegation of historical abuse, that is the language we use and how we think, which ensures fair procedure for any individual who is referred by another about an abusive or an alleged abusive incident in the past. To be very clear, we write to the person who makes the allegation because sometimes these people present in a distraught state to our service.

I am sorry but we have very little time. My question was not about the person who makes the allegation, it was about how Tusla continues to share information with the Garda to make sure that whatever information it has goes to the Garda and the person who is the alleged perpetrator, because that it the only language that I know to use, is actually informed of what is on the record.

Mr. Jim Gibson

If Tusla makes a connection with An Garda Síochána with regard to a historical allegation we would make every attempt to discuss that matter with the person against whom the allegation has been made. That is set down in our policies and procedure. If there is an immediate risk of significant harm to a child, we would take steps which ensure and enshrine that the child is paramount to everything we do. Our priority in the first instance is to protect that child but we would also then engage with that person.

I am still not clear how Tusla protects the alleged perpetrator in terms of sharing information.

Mr. Cormac Quinlan

I would like to pick up on some of those points. We report any suspected abuse to the Garda. Once we believe we have suspected abuse, we report that matter to the Garda as we are obliged to do so under Children First. That can happen at different points in the assessment process but once we suspect abuse we inform the Garda. The Garda investigates that matter separately to us because it is looking at the criminal elements whereas we are looking at the protection of children, but there is ongoing liaison between us in each individual case.

There is ongoing liaison.

Mr. Cormac Quinlan

There is ongoing liaison and we have structured meetings with the Garda at a management level in each area in regard to the review of notifications between both services. I reassure members that happens on an ongoing basis. We have a responding to allegations of abuse policy and there are very set procedures laid down in that policy. We start by interviewing the person who is alleging that he or she has been abused and we go through a respectful, open process with the person to try to gather as much information as we can on the alleged abuse. Then the alleged perpetrator is afforded his fair procedures. We write to him outlining all the detail of the information that is alleged against him to provide him full opportunity to respond to those matters and we take into account any other information that either party might bring to our attention. At the end of that process, we determine a provisional conclusion and we share that with the alleged abuser and with the person who is allegedly being abused. There is another opportunity at that point to provide additional information to further consider that point until we reach a final conclusion. Individuals are also afforded the opportunity to appeal at the end of that. There is an independent appeal process. It is quite a robust procedure to ensure we protect children and we afford individuals fair procedures in that regard.

If no one has any points to make, we will finish this meeting. If there are any issues members believe were not addressed, they should feel free to e-mail the clerk to the committee and I will ensure they get a satisfactory response from Tusla.

I thank the witnesses for their co-operation, attendance and for accepting the invitation so quickly. We wish them continued success in the important work they do.

The joint committee went into private session at 12.05 p.m. and adjourned at 12.20 p.m. until 9 a.m. on Wednesday, 8 March 2017.