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.