Foster Care Services: Discussion

I welcome Ms Catherine Bond, CEO and Ms Breda O'Donovan, director of finance, HR and communications, Irish Foster Care Association and Ms Karla Charles, policy manager, and Ms Fidelma Guinan, advocacy officer, EPIC. I thank them for appearing before the committee today. I also welcome their colleagues in the Public Gallery.

Before we commence, in accordance with procedure I draw the attention of the witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the Chair to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they 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 Houses or an official, either by name or in a such a way as to him, her or it identifiable.

I remind members and witnesses to switch of their mobile phones or to put them on flight mode as they cause interference with the broadcasting equipment and make it difficult for the parliamentary reporters to report the meeting. I wish to advise the witnesses that their opening statements and submissions to the committee will be published on the committee's website after this meeting. By way of agenda, the committee will hear short opening statements from the witnesses following which there will be a questions and answers session.

I now invite Ms Bond to make her opening statement.

Ms Catherine Bond

On behalf of the Irish Foster Care Association, IFCA, I thank the committee for the invitation to address it. My name is Catherine Bond and I am the chief executive officer of the Irish Foster Care Association. I have over 30 years of professional experience working in the area of children and families. I am accompanied by Ms Breda O'Donovan, director of finance, HR and communications, IFCA. Ms O'Donovan has worked with IFCA for over 15 years and was a foster carer for many years.

I do not propose to read through all of the information on the Irish Foster Care Association, IFCA, and fostering in Ireland as this information has been provided in our full opening statement. In the interests of saving time, I will give a brief overview of what we do and then I will move quickly on to the issues and challenges in foster care today.

The IFCA is the representative body for foster care in Ireland and promotes excellence in foster care. It has 1,600 members comprised of foster families, social workers, social care workers, academics and those with an interest in foster care. The IFCA advocates for excellence in foster care and services to members include advocacy, a national support helpline, learning and development and support to members involved in local branches and regions.

Foster care is the backbone of care for children who are in the care of the State in Ireland. We need to celebrate the fact that the majority of these children are growing up as happy, confident young people who attend school every day. Indeed, some will be focusing on the upcoming State exams in the coming weeks. Children in foster care are thriving and foster families are offering secure, happy and fulfilling childhoods to children, supporting them to reach their full potential in life.

Our national support helpline, which offers callers information and support, is the pulse in terms of issues which impact on foster carers as well as social workers and others involved in foster care. The national standards for foster care set out a range of standards to be attained for the child, the foster carer and Tusla. Specifically, there is a requirement for the child to have a dedicated social worker who is responsible for the safety and welfare of the child. There is also a requirement for the foster carer to have a dedicated link social worker who provides support to the foster carer. In March 2017 approximately 6 % of children in general foster care and 8% of children in relative care did not have a dedicated social worker. This equates to over 400 children. At the end of 2016, 18% of general foster carers and 20% of relative foster carers did not have a link social worker. It is critical that this situation is addressed.

Foster care is complex and involves many stakeholders. The IFCA’s national support helpline statistics frequently cite poor communication as an underlying factor in the relationships involved. Foster carers often express a lack of respect for the role which they offer. It is critical for proactive, respectful and trusting relationships to be fostered, promoted and maintained. The majority of children in the care of the State, many of whom have experienced traumatic early life events, reside with foster carers who offer stability and consistency to them. It is also critical to have a robust infrastructure which supports foster care. The IFCA advocates for the development of policies and procedures which underpin the work of Tusla and to provide a consistent approach to all aspects of foster care. The IFCA is aware that Tusla has commenced a review and redevelopment of policies to inform practice in foster care and welcomes this. It is critical that when policies are developed that they are disseminated throughout Tusla fostering teams, that staff are trained in the understanding and implementation of those policies and that regular monitoring and reviews of implementation are conducted.

The IFCA welcomes the announcement by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, of the introduction of the provision of after care plans for every child preparing for adulthood while in care. The IFCA made a comprehensive submission to Tusla on the development of the after care policy and welcomes its implementation. Many children who grow up in foster care continue to live with their foster care family. Foster carers will require additional supports, for example, a carer's allowance where a young person remains living with them who may not attain complete independence in adult life as a result of complex emotional or social needs. One way to prevent homelessness among this group of vulnerable adults is to offer a financial incentive to foster carers to modify or build living accommodation where a young adult can live independently, but with the safety net of the wider foster family surrounding him or her, as is normal in many households across Ireland.

During 2016, a predominant theme coming through on our national helpline was the handling by Tusla of allegations of abuse made against foster carers. There were inconsistencies in the way such allegations were handled and the time it took to complete investigations was far too long. Research indicates that allegations can be made against any foster carer. This is a distressing event for everyone involved - the child, the foster carer, the foster carer’s own children and the birth family. It is therefore essential that the process is open and fair and underpinned by the rules of natural justice. For many years the IFCA has advocated for one national policy in responding to allegations made against foster carers and welcomes the publication of the policy in May 2017. It is vital that this new policy is implemented consistently across all Tusla areas, that social workers are trained in its implementation and that there is continuous assessment of its implementation.

Research indicates that prior to the making of an allegation of abuse against a foster carer by a child, the foster carer noted increased behavioural problems and many requested respite support prior to the allegation being made. Similar circumstances occur prior to placement breakdowns. Responses to such requests are not always provided but it is critical that foster carers receive timely supports by social workers and other professionals when they seek such support. They know the child, are aware when behaviour changes and when a timely intervention, such as a time away during the day or a short respite will alleviate the tension within the placement. Foster carers must have access to ongoing support, information and training and the IFCA plays a central role in this within the confines of its budget.

The recent development of placing children with foster carers long distances from their place of birth has introduced a new paradigm into foster care. The placement of children great distances from their home of origin requires foster carers to travel long distances to support access arrangements. The shortage of social workers has also resulted in foster carers being requested to supervise access arrangements which is not part of the foster carer’s role. The IFCA has highlighted the inappropriateness of such requests with Tusla.

The IFCA welcomes this opportunity to share its knowledge and experience of foster care in Ireland with the committee. We believe that focus on the following areas will assist in supporting all of those involved in foster care in Ireland: policies and procedures which are developed, fully implemented and monitored; timely supports to foster carers to enable them to care for children with very complex problems, on behalf of the State; and the allocation of dedicated social workers for all children in care and the allocation of link social workers to foster carers. We would also suggest that the IFCA's national support service be enhanced to offer longer opening hours and a wider range of supports to foster carers.

I thank Ms Bond for her contribution. I now invite Ms Karla Charles to speak on behalf of Empowering People In Care, EPIC.

Ms Karla Charles

I thank the Chairman and committee members for their invitation to address the committee this morning. My name is Karla Charles and I am the policy manager in EPIC. I am accompanied by my colleague, Ms Fidelma Guinan, who is an advocacy officer.

EPIC is an independent organisation established to advocate with, and on behalf of, children and young people in care and with care experience. A core part of the work of EPIC is the provision of an individual advocacy and support service for children and young people with care experience. EPIC welcomes the opportunity to discuss issues of foster care with the committee today. EPIC would like to draw members' attention to a number of issues that we feel merit further attention. These issues have been brought to our attention through our direct advocacy work with children and young people in care.

The first issue is the cost of private versus Tusla-registered fostering. There are a number of private foster care organisations operating in Ireland. Placing a child through one of the private foster care organisations costs the State an average of €58,000 per child per year versus €17,900 for children fostered with foster carers registered directly with Tusla. EPIC would encourage the committee to look into the disparity of cost between private providers and State agencies. We would like to see greater analysis of costs versus service provision for children. Currently, it seems to be more attractive for foster carers to register with private providers because they offer services like 24 hour phone support, which is particularly helpful for new carers and link foster care workers seem to have smaller caseloads. Therefore, they are able to provide a higher level of support to foster carers.

I would like the committee to bear this in mind.

Placement breakdowns are sometimes inevitable but in order to learn from such breakdowns there needs to be greater oversight on the number of placement breakdowns, the reasons for the breakdowns and what could be learnt from such breakdowns. It is imperative that such data be collected and analysed as a matter of priority. EPIC is calling for a national review of disruptions to maximise early intervention, and that all have a foster link worker.

Placement breakdowns should also be challenged. In EPIC’s experience some breakdowns can and should be avoided. Lack of training and poor management of difficult behavioural situations can lead to damaged relationships. In foster families this can sometimes result in placement breakdown. More consistency needs to occur when matching the needs of the child with the strengths and abilities of the foster carers. Unfortunately this does not always occur. Furthermore, adequate supports must be provided to children and foster families to ensure that stability and placements are maintained, where possible.

Many foster families have lifelong relationships with the children that they foster even after the children leave their home, but some placements do break down and come to abrupt endings. EPIC believes there should be built in support mechanisms to prevent this from occurring, and that where it does, young people are supported through this difficult transition. Children approaching their 18th birthday are particularly vulnerable because they are going through a lot in their own lives from sitting leaving certificate exams to aging out of the service. It is a turbulent time. They may be pushed to make independent decisions with little support or preparation. EPIC has experienced several cases of children approaching their 18th birthday and having to abruptly leave their foster placements and move back in with their birth parents on some occasions, who were previously deemed unsuitable carers. The fact that such decisions cannot be challenged or that supports or interventions did not occur at an earlier stage is unacceptable. All children experience difficulties and challenges during their teenage years, particularly in the home setting, but these can be more difficult for children and young people in care. Such problems should be pre-empted and relevant supports provided to avoid the tragic abrupt ending of placements at a crucial time in a young person's life. If a placement is going to end, child-centred planning must be a priority. It is not simply a matter of finding another bed for a child.

EPIC is aware that Tusla runs targeted recruitment drives for specialised carers. Similarly, compulsory training for foster carers does occur but it is EPIC’s opinion that more of it should be of a specialised nature. EPIC recommends for example that Tusla develop a training module on LGBTI issues. The need for such training is evident through our advocacy work and our publication on this issue entitled ‘Coming Out in Care’, which was a collaborative piece of work between EPIC and BeLongTo, was extremely well received. More consistent support of targeted recruitment of foster carers would be beneficial as children placed in foster care often have specific needs. More options, for example, for older adolescents going into care, such as supported lodgings, should be promoted.

Through our practice, EPIC has noticed that there is an increasing number of younger children under the age of 12 years being placed in residential care. We are aware of nine, ten and eleven year olds being placed in residential care. While there was a dip in the number of younger children going into residential care for a number of years, this appears to have reversed of late. There was a clear practice by Tusla not to place children under the age of 12 in residential care because it was deemed inappropriate. If would be of grave concern to EPIC if this was no longer the case.

If a child is in care under a voluntary care agreement, Tusla must consider the parents’ wishes in relation to how aspects of the care are provided. It is EPIC’s opinion that a child who has been in care for a number of years should have their voluntary care agreements reviewed and a decision should be made as to whether or not it is in the child’s best interest to remain on a voluntary care agreement or if a full care order should be sought. The birth parents of children on voluntary care agreements can adversely disrupt the lives of their children in foster care, and there are instances where the mothers and fathers, often due to their own personal difficulties, may seek to disrupt their child’s foster care placement. Keeping children on voluntary care agreements in the long term does not provide the child with a sense of security or permanence in their foster care placement. The following are examples of where birth parents sought to exert control over the lives of their children and the foster family, causing disruption to the detriment of the care placement: a mother insisting that permission should have been sought from her before giving her daughter a birthday cake on her third birthday; a mother insisting the foster carers use her buggy and not the one they already had; a mother refusing to allow her son’s very long hair to be cut; and a mother refusing to sign passport forms because she did not want her child going on his first holiday abroad with the foster family.

Gaps are noticeable in aftercare planning and service provision for those young people on voluntary arrangements versus full care orders because these supports and services can be court-appointed. That is very important for young people's transitioning out of care and into aftercare. Parents of children growing up in foster care have been a largely neglected group in policy, practice and research, in spite of the fact that these parents are often vulnerable adults themselves who experience a profound loss and threat to their identity when their child is taken into care. Parents’ involvement through contact is also likely to have an impact on children’s stability and security in the foster family. Where foster parents and birth parents have a good relationship, research has shown that there is a far better outcome for those children. Birth parents should therefore receive greater supports in dealing with the trauma of having their child taken into care, as well as learning coping mechanisms to help them to focus their attention on what is in the best interests of their child.

The recently published HIQA inspection report of Dublin South Central found that foster care reviews were not taking place as required and this presented a significant risk. This is unacceptable and reviews should occur sooner and more regularly to ensure that the child is being well looked after and that any difficulties are overcome before they escalate. All children and their foster families should be treated equally in terms of the minimum level of supports that they receive. Unfortunately this does not always occur with some people receiving a better level of support than others. Where children require extra interventions the foster families should be supported in providing these. EPIC recommends that Tusla is adequately funded to have the full complement of staff nationally and that staff receive adequate training to provide these interventions and adequately support young people and their foster families.

All young people should know that they are entitled to make a complaint and how to go about making one. The Department of Children and Youth Affairs has developed an outstanding resource known as TACTIC, Teenagers And Children Talking In Care. These are packs which should in fact be distributed to every child in care. These packs are a tremendous resource for children in care, be it residential or foster care. However, EPIC is aware that this does not always occur.

Some 15 fora have been set up around the country by EPIC with the support of Tusla to hear the voice of the child in care. These are proving to be a great success. One forum with 11 children and young people based in Donegal, for example, is creating and producing a booklet that will be given to all foster carers to fill in prior to a new child or young person moving into their home. The booklet contains questions and information that young people feel is needed to help support them in moving to a new placement and to alleviate some of the stress and anxiety about the move. Some of the questions in this booklet include the following: "Do you go to mass and, if so, is this expected of me?", "If there is Wi-Fi, what is the code?", Who visits the house regularly that does not live there?", "Can I decorate my room?", "Is the house in the country or in a town?", "Do I get extra pocket money if I do chores?", "Can I go to events like discos or school trips?", "What activities, sports clubs or youth clubs could I join?", "What are the top five house rules?". These are simple things that young people themselves feel would make their transition into a home easier.

Where possible siblings are placed together in a foster family, but this is not always possible, especially with larger families. A good level of access with a sibling is considered to be about one visit a month, perhaps for a few hours at a time. This is not, in our opinion, nearly enough time on which to build a strong and lasting relationship with a sibling. Siblings should be placed within a maximum radius in order to maximise the opportunity for sibling contact. This is of particular significance in rural foster care placements because it can greatly impact on the foster carers' ability to support access. Financial considerations should not be a limiting factor to maximising sibling contact. This contact is invaluable and must be given greater focus. For example, 18-plus year olds who are no longer in foster care may not be financially supported to attend sibling contact with younger siblings in care and this makes contact difficult for them to maintain.

EPIC has had experience of several cases where situations were allowed to reach a crisis level before funding was found by the HSE disability services to provide full-time disability support for a young adult leaving care. It is very welcome that Tusla and the HSE have recently agreed a joint protocol for inter-agency collaboration between the Health Service Executive and Tusla Child and Family Agency to promote the best interests of children and families. The new Child Protection and Welfare Strategy also clarifies and sets out the respective roles, duties and legal requirements of the HSE and Tusla in relation to children and vulnerable adults with a disability or mental health issue. This will help to address many of the co-ordination difficulties and will improve inter-agency working between Tusla and the HSE. This strategy is a central part of Tusla’s ongoing programme of transformation and Epic supports this transformation. It includes a new national approach to practice, the Signs of Safety. EPIC looks forward to seeing the impact of such developments on the ground.

However, EPIC would also like to see dedicated mental health teams, for example, for children in care who should receive a priority on CAMHS lists. Provisions should always allow for exceptions and flexibility if it is deemed in the best interest of the child and this should be borne in mind in any holistic system.

We have highlighted many of the challenges around foster care that have been brought to our attention through the course of our advocacy work. However, we also acknowledge the positive developments that continue to occur in foster care in areas such as cultural awareness and identity. These improvements should be highlighted and EPIC acknowledges all the positive work being done by foster families, foster care organisations, including the Irish Foster Care Association, Tusla and the social workers working directly with these children and families.

I will close our presentation with the words of some children and young people about the positives of foster care: "I have two families"; "My foster brother is funny"; "There is another foster child here"; "Having someone to talk to"; "Getting more presents"; "Someone else to talk to"; "Having no worries and feeling safe"; and "Knowing someone is there for you when things go wrong".

I thank Ms Charles for her presentation.

Ms Charles provided a great deal of information, much of which relates to softer interactions or the communications side, as opposed to hard data. I am surprised that some information on best practice, even unofficial or informal, is not provided for foster families, for example, booklets or brochures for households that foster children or information on "dos and don'ts" or what can or cannot be done. I ask the witnesses to excuse my ignorance if I am using the wrong terminology. Do private organisations provide such information?

Ms Charles stated that fostering a child costs on average €58,000 per annum when done through a private foster care organisation and €17,000 when done through a foster carer registered directly with Tusla. Do the private organisations operate a business model that provides, for want of a better term, a five star service when compared with the benchmark?

Different models of parenting apply. Some parents will shelter children more, while others will take a much more liberal approach. Where does Ms Charles find the dividing line?

From listening to Ms Charles, there does not appear to be hard data or research on the reasons children move into foster care in the first place. What are the triggers and issues? What are the specific reasons? Are they drug and alcohol addiction, physical and emotional abuse or a combination of factors? Are there any data available on this issue? From my work in mental health, I know we are struggling for data and we need to put some analytics behind it.

Ms Charles spoke about matching children with the needs of a foster parent. This reminds me of my work as a recruiter for eight years. We used to refer to matching as introducing people to people to see who fits with whom and with what job. Is there any kind of due diligence around that? Are there any contingency criteria that would best match this or is the system struggling for numbers and trying to find the best place for the child, as opposed to finding the five star treatment, to which I referred, in other words, an exact match? In other areas, one will always find a 70% or 80% match in terms of culture but obviously when two bodies come together they grow into a new culture.

Unfortunately, we will have to suspend briefly to allow Deputies to vote in the Dáil. That should give the witnesses an opportunity to digest Deputy Neville's contribution. I apologise for the inconvenience.

Sitting suspended at 10.35 a.m. and resumed at 11.17 a.m.

I apologise again but suspensions are unavoidable at times. However, we try to avoid them when we can. The good news is that there will be no further disruption because voting has finished.

I thank the delegates for their presentations. I want to follow up on some of the points made by Ms Bond from the Irish Foster Care Association. We all support her view that there is a need for more social workers. She has made the point that 6% of children in general placements and 8% of children in relative care do not have a dedicated social worker. I want to follow up on that point and another she made about it being critical to have robust infrastructure in place to support families and ensure knowledge is disseminated among Tusla's staff. In dealing with crises will she give us a picture of what happens, say, at a weekend when one of the major issues is that there is not an appropriate out-of-hours service available? I understand that while there is a telephone line service available to access a social worker, the social worker on-call is not part of the local team who might know the circumstances of the family involved. Could either or both groups give us a picture, from their experience, of the shortcomings in the service and why it is so important to allocate social workers to all children and to have an out-of-hours service available? A report published this morning by the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, ISPCC, highlights the fact that 75% of the calls made to Childline are not made between the office hours of nine-to-five but at other times, including weekends or in the evening. I want to get an understanding of what it is like for the families and children who find themselves in these circumstances.

I also want to follow up on the points made about after-care plans mentioned by both groups. I can only imagine what it must be like for a young person who has already had a traumatic life having to leave a home on reaching the age of 18 years. Ms Bond suggested that, in some cases, a carer's allowance or funding to assist in the provision of accommodation attached to a home might be provided. None of us could imagine what it would be like if our 18 year old had to leave home and lost contact with us. The representatives might follow up on what more what should be done to help young people who have reached that stage in their lives.

First, I would like to say how enormously important is the role that foster carers play. I have said at previous hearings that our care system would effectively collapse without foster carers. We are all grateful to them and to EPIC, which is an excellent organisation. I have had some engagement with it.

I have some questions on a few different topics. The presentation touched on the difference between the costs in the provision of public and private fostering agencies. There could be two things going on there, or it could be somewhere in the middle. Is it that it is a wasteful expense and, perhaps, that we are spending too much on these private agencies, is it the case that we are under-investing in the publicly-provided fostering agencies or is it somewhere in the middle? This would help to get a sense of approximately what it is we should be spending or what would be appropriate. I would imagine there is an element of under-investment at the very least.

The IFCA presentation referred to modifications to homes, which is an interesting point. Is this along the lines of converting a garage adjacent to the home to accommodate partially independent living? This is an interesting proposal and it would probably not require a huge amount to bring such a policy back into operation.

The foster care committees are obviously a big part of the entire regime. There are major obligations under section 7 of the Child Care Act 1991. It came across in both presentations that perhaps individual foster carers do not feel they have the kind of support that they necessarily need and that they could go for significant periods without being inspected or visited by foster care committees. Do our guests feel that the foster care committees are meeting their statutory obligations, is the regime that is in place adequate and do the people on those committees have sufficient training and qualifications to allow them to fulfil their obligations? It seems that this is a potential weakness in the system.

I agree with EPIC. I would very much support the idea that children under the age of 12 should not be in residential care. That is not appropriate.

My final two points relate to aftercare and regulation. Would the witnesses have a view in respect of the requirement that someone who is leaving care would have to be in full-time education in order to receive aftercare and aftercare payment? There seems to be a very sharp cut-off point for a person who, hopefully, would have been receiving a substantial amount of support and then, on reaching a particular a birthday, he or she receives very little support. This is an issue.

My other point comes off the back of the previous set of hearings on this topic with HIQA. The latter certainly seems to feel that the area of fostering requires regulation, an issue which is outstanding. It has restricted HIQA's ability to escalate matters where it felt there was risk and to follow up on risks. Perhaps the witnesses could comment on this. I am mindful of the fact that, obviously, it is important to ensure that children are safeguarded and the highest possible standards but that balance is also in place. We want regulation to be such that it does not totally discourage people from entering into fostering, particularly as it is such an important function.

I thank the Deputy. There is a lot in that. I will take answers to those questions first and then come back to other members.

Ms Catherine Bond

I will address Deputy Neville's question on the criteria for matching. My colleague from EPIC, Ms Karla Charles, will take the other questions.

The national standards for foster care require that children are matched to foster carers. Every child who enters foster care must have a care plan that outlines all aspects of his or her needs. Equally, foster carers who are approved through the foster care committees should have certain skills or expertise. They might be parents of mature, older children and have a lot of parenting under their belt. They might be parents of younger children with particular expertise in that. One is, essentially, matching the needs of the child with the skills of the prospective foster carers. Current regulations allow that a child is placed with foster carers and then a match is made. What we really need to see is the match happening before the placement occurs. If a child is coming into care in circumstances where we know his or her explicit needs and where we have a set of foster carers with the skills to meet those needs, this would be the optimum in terms of best practice. The reality is, however, that often there are not enough foster carers and there are children constantly coming into care. If we receive a child into care today under an emergency care order, he or she needs to be placed somewhere. The social work fostering team will see who has capacity today and see how, within the pool of capacity, the child's needs can best be met. Often the most immediate needs of the child relate to safety and security. The child is then placed with foster carers.

The matching process takes place at a later stage. The optimum for best practice would be that matching takes place before a child is placed. If one is looking for a long-term foster care placement, then one is looking at the long-term needs of the child. However, many children actually come into care on the basis of an emergency care order. Initially, it would be classified as a short-term placement but then move into long-term placement. If we have all the resources in place, then we can go for the best practice and go for the gold, but sometimes - on the day and in the moment - we must work with what we have. If we are working with what we have, then it is about identifying and discussing the needs of the child with the foster carers and discussing how best those foster carers can be supported in meeting the needs of the child. That might be by attending an additional training course or by higher levels of supervision and support from their link social worker. This is why it is critical that every foster carer has a link social worker. If they are experiencing stress in respect of a placement, the foster carers should be able to contact their social worker to discuss the problem and look to see how the foster family can meet the needs of the child.

Are there figures regarding how many foster care children there are per social worker? What is the ideal number or is it one on one?

Ms Catherine Bond

It is always one child-----

I know it is one child to one social worker, but what is best practice? Does a social worker look after two children or three?

Ms Catherine Bond

The Deputy means the caseload?

Ms Catherine Bond

Tusla would have its own figures on that.

What is the ideal from the witnesses' point of view. We are saying there are not enough social workers and I am trying to get my head around the figures.

Ms Karla Charles

I suppose-----

We can come back to that point. We will continue to deal with answers to the questions already asked. That is a difficult one and probably another question for Tusla because it depends on the child.

I would like to know the witnesses' opinion on it.

That is fine but I am just making the point that it varies a lot because much depends on the needs of the child.

We shall allow Ms. Bond to continue in order to have the other questions answered.

Ms Catherine Bond

I shall move on the questions asked by Deputy Jan O'Sullivan around the infrastructure relating to foster care. IFCA looks at the wider infrastructure such as the educational needs and the mental health needs of children in care. Looking at the core needs, every child coming into care is required to have his or her own social worker.

The child's care plan identifies the needs of the child including any additional educational needs such as a special needs assistant, mental health needs, speech and language therapy or occupational therapy. When the State takes a child into care, it becomes the corporate parent of the child. All parents work to ensure that one's child's needs are met. That should be the standard for every child coming into care. We would consider the wider infrastructure in that regard.

In terms of dissemination of information, we strongly feel that while policy development is critical and necessary, it does not stop there and there is a process to it. Everybody who is using a policy needs to know what it is about, what it means, how it is understood and implemented and whether there is a clear and consistent application of the policy across different areas. There needs to be a parallel process of training of everybody who is going to be using policies along with an evaluation of the policies' impact and whether there is an equal application of policies across the board.

The current practice in regard to emergencies out-of-hours, as noted in Mr. Shannon's report, is that section 12 gives the Garda power to respond to crisis situations after hours. Tusla has an out-of-hours policy and out-of-hours support is also provided by the Five Rivers private fostering agency. In a crisis situation, the Garda and the out-of-hours services have responsibility. Tusla has acknowledged that this is an area it is working on. The aspiration is to have out-of-hours support across the board. If a child in foster care absconds, significantly self-harms or has suicidal ideation, there needs to be a common sense approach to consider what is needed for the child. If he or she has absconded, it is not practical for a foster carer to go roaming the streets looking for him or her; instead, the Garda should be called. If a child has self-harmed or had suicidal ideation, the most sensible option is to bring the child to the local hospital.

Can a foster carer contact a social worker directly to discuss issues with him or her?

Ms Catherine Bond

There is no current protocol for that. However, the IFCA is aware that some social workers give their numbers to the foster carers they deal with, as do some area managers. It is not a consistent practice.

Ms Breda O'Donovan

Pockets of the country have an out-of-hours service, particularly over bank holiday weekends and so on, which involve a number being given to foster carers which they can ring if they have a concern. People from some areas where that has occurred have said that when such a number is given out, it does not get a huge number of calls and is only contacted in emergencies. However, the Deputy is correct in what she says. I was a foster carer for many years and all the issues seemed to happen at 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. or over the weekend. That is when one needs access to a social worker to bounce ideas off. I had a social worker friend in Cork who I contacted several times. She helped me out on several weekends and advised me where to go but that was just between friends rather than her acting in an official capacity.

I want to avoid the situation------

I ask the Deputy to allow Ms Bond to conclude her response and I will allow members to ask supplementary questions at a later stage.

Ms Catherine Bond

In terms of our aftercare proposal, several of our foster carer members have been fostering for many years and the children in their care are coming into adolescence and young adulthood. It is an emerging trend for many of these young people, while they might be chronologically 18 years of age, to not be at that level developmentally or emotionally because of their adverse early years experiences. As Ms Charles of EPIC said, a person's chronological age should not be the cut-off date for deciding on their future needs. In the recent past, several of our foster carer members faced that dilemma. When Tusla's aftercare policy was developed, the lead implementation person for Tusla came and met with those foster carers to hear of their most immediate needs. One situation involved a young person with mental health needs who was coming up to legal adulthood and required mental health services. It went right to the wire, the week of her 18th birthday, before her onward placement was identified. We are aware from the development of the aftercare policy that aftercare planning will start when the young person is 18 and it is very clearly identified that it is not a one-time life event but a progression.

We need to normalise foster care and children in foster care homes. We need to ask ourselves whether, if it is good enough for a child in care, would it be good enough for one's own child? All families naturally have a conversation with their own child regarding what subjects he or she will take after the junior certificate, what his or her interests and hobbies will lead to and what he or she thinks about the leaving certificate and what will happen thereafter. Those conversations need to be had with all family members in a very natural home environment. Unfortunately, children in care, when they reach the age of 18, unless in full-time education, are not the responsibility of the State. However, responsibility must be taken for them because many young people do not have the capacity to be independent at that stage. The experiences of our foster carers is that such young people stay in the foster care home placement and do not move out because they are still part of the family even though they may not be in full-time education. That is the dilemma because aftercare is very much centred on the young person remaining in full-time education until he or she is 23. There are one or two very good models that foster carers have initiated on their own behalf. A foster carer in Wicklow has built an annex onto the back of her home and has two young women living there who grew up in her foster care and are now mothers themselves. They are living their own lives independently but still have the wider family network that most families enjoy.

Many children in care do not have the same depth or density of family networks. We propose that a cost-effective solution be found. Several years ago, a grant for childminders was made available under the Equal Opportunities Childcare Programme. The Government was trying to increase the number of childminders. Small grants were made available to modify, for example, a garage at the side of a childminder's house or perform another modification to allow them to provide a childminding facility. This would be a good solution to the continued support of these young, vulnerable people. Currently, if they move out of home and it is not successful, they become homeless. Sometimes they go into apartments and forget to pay their rent because they have not developed self-management skills. We must remember that sometimes the journey for these young people is longer and that while they may be chronologically 18, they are not quite there in terms of their development. It is a solution in terms of protecting the most vulnerable in our society.

Deputy Ó Laoghaire asked about the foster committee. It is charged with the responsibility of approving foster carers. Once a foster carer is approved, he or she is allocated a link social worker or that is how it should happen. The social worker links the fostering department of Tusla and the foster carer.

The role of the link social worker is to provide support to the foster carer, identifying the carer's needs in terms of meeting the needs of the child and also his or her own ongoing training and development needs. The training of foster care committees was mentioned. Tusla has just conducted a review of the foster care committee procedures and policies. Again, IFCA made a comprehensive submission to the development of that policy, highlighting a number of issues in respect of the previous policy. One of them was the 40-year age gap rule which the Minister, Deputy Zappone actually directed be removed from that policy. The foster care committee has responsibility for approving foster carers, hearing the outcome of allegations made against foster carers and reviewing placement breakdowns. It does not have responsibility for day-to-day work with the foster carer. When a foster carer runs into difficulty, the link social worker is the point of contact. They play a significant role if we find ourselves in the position of placement breakdown or of an allegation being made against a foster carer.

The new revised foster care guidelines for foster care committees were mentioned. There is one per Tusla area. We would certainly recommend that training takes place for all foster care committee members. When the original policy was developed in 2014, training was rolled out but of course membership of the committees will have changed since then. It is critical that foster care committees are trained regularly because they play a critical role in deciding whether a foster carer can remain on the panel or whether someone can be approved as a foster carer. Does Ms. O'Donovan want to add anything?

Ms Breda O'Donovan

I think everything has been covered.

The public-private question was asked as well. Ms Charles is indicating that she will take that question.

Ms Karla Charles

I concur with everything that Ms Bond has said and will try not to repeat or replicate information. Deputy O'Sullivan raised the need for more social workers. I am sure the members saw the "Prime Time" programme the other night. There was a social worker on it who said she had a case load of 50 children of whom she was only able to see, on average, about 25 in a month. That is a clear indication of how many cases she should have. She should be able to see every one of her young people at least once a month in order to develop a relationship. We all know that such relationships are key to ensuring the safety and well-being of young people in care. They should have somebody to go to if they need help or assistance or want to disclose something. That takes time and investment.

Deputy Neville was wondering about the caseload that a social worker should have. It obviously depends on the complexity of the cases, which will vary. That is where good management and support should come in. If someone has 15 extremely complex cases, it is enough. They may have 25, 30 or 40 cases if the needs of the children are less complex. There are many very happy children living in foster families who are very well supported and looked after. At certain stages in their lives, they may not need a huge amount of intervention by a social worker. That relationship still needs to be maintained, however. Coming back to my point about the turbulent teenage years, if the relationships start to become tumultuous within the foster family, it is important that the young person has developed a relationship with the social worker, who in turn has a relationship with the link worker, who has a relationship with the foster carers. If these relationships are in place, we can deal with issues, have early intervention and provide training and support to those families. It is common sense. It is what all of us would do in our own family situations if our children had problems or issues that needed to be dealt with.

In terms of numbers, it comes back to management and support depending on the complexity of the cases. The social worker on Monday night's "Prime Time" had 50 cases, which was clearly too much. We solve the problem not only by recruiting more social workers, but also by investing in them and supporting them. We have a lot of young social workers who have not been on the job very long and lack experience. They get overwhelmed because they are not supported. They are at the front line of raw, sometimes brutal, sensitive and traumatic situations. They need support in order that they do not burn out, and in order that they are able to develop their expertise and learn to handle situations better as they progress in their careers. Instead, we have social workers leaving because it is just too much and they get overwhelmed. We need to retain social workers by way of a number of measures. Obviously, we need to make sure they are being adequately remunerated. More important, however, we need to ensure that the infrastructure and supports are there so that they receive proper management and support in dealing with those difficult cases.

In terms of aftercare, I concur with everything that Ms Bond has said about supported accommodation for 18 year-olds and the transition period. We have made numerous submissions on aftercare over the last few years. We brought a group of young people into the then Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, now Senator James Reilly. He had a very frank discussion with them directly. It is a big problem for EPIC that young people leaving care who are not in full-time education only receive supports until the age of 21. They are generally the most vulnerable group. They are the ones who had tumultuous childhoods, were probably in different residential homes and foster families, had very broken educational experiences, may not have done a leaving certificate or, if they did one, did very poorly. They are not in a position to continue on in education and have not been shown any examples of what areas they could pursue instead. We have always said that this very vulnerable group of young people needs to be better supported. To be giving them less support than those in full-time education is counter-intuitive. It is going to create greater expense for the State and greater problems further on. Scotland has invested much more significantly than we have and is a good comparative example. It is now supporting young people up to age 25 and 27 in terms of aftercare supports. That is a minimum. Under Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, BOBF, we are supporting young people up to the age of 25, yet we are no longer supporting the most vulnerable of our young people in care at 21 or 23 if they are in full-time education. I would be very happy to provide more information on this. We have material up on our website. We would be very happy to meet with the Deputy in respect of aftercare at another time.

On the cost issue of public versus private foster care, the main point I was trying to raise has to do with analysis. We just need to look at what is being provided by the private foster agencies and what is being provided by Tusla. The priority must be the well-being of the child in question, regardless of the cost. If it is going to cost much more in terms of what the private foster companies are providing, then that is what is needed.

However, it has definitely been noted that foster carers prefer to be with a private foster care organisation because they receive better helpline support after hours and their link workers tend to have smaller case numbers. Therefore, they are going to receive more support. In terms of the foster carers themselves, they get more support from the private providers than from Tusla currently. What we really need is greater analysis and a breakdown of what is being provided in those figures. This is information I have footnoted in my opening submission as coming from an article in The Irish Times recently. What we need is a great analysis of what that includes. Does it include the cost of the social worker and payments to foster carers? It would be beneficial for the committee to raise this as an issue to find out what is being provided and what value for money is being obtained.

EPIC sits on two foster care committees. Our advocacy manager sits on one and another of our advocates sits on the other. Their feedback is that it is hugely beneficial and that the committees are extremely thorough. A great deal of time and effort goes in from everyone on them and they are an invaluable resource to have. I concur with what IFCA said. It is about ensuring the members on the committees are up to date and are given time. There is a great deal of background reading and investment from the individuals involved which must go into preparing for each committee meeting and they should be supported in that regard in order that the decisions they make are the right ones.

Deputy Neville asked about triggers for young children moving into care. There is a body of research and data which I will not go into. Generally, the hard data relate to emotional, physical, sexual and neglect issues. They are the common reasons. Tusla holds data on this. There is a wide and broad body of available data.

On the booklets and best practice, we should have all this sorted by now, but we do not. There is certainly very good practice. I will defer to my colleague, Ms Guinan, who will talk a little bit more about some of the work we have done in EPIC through some of our fora.

Ms Fidelma Guinan

EPIC stands for listening to young people and young people have told us many things around not understanding what care is, the terminology of care reviews and not using age-appropriate language for young people. Our fora are doing fantastic work in line with Tusla. Dublin north city is developing an A to Z of words for children who are taken into care. It is sad in a way what happened in Donegal where the Donegal forum had so many placement breakdowns and emergency moves. Social workers in that position have two different stresses. They have to find a bed for a child and ensure he or she is safe, with child protection guidelines being followed. All the young person wants to know is that he or she is going to another place, what the Wi-Fi code is and whether he or she can eat his or her own food. These are the things that get lost. We have to remember that child-centred placements and planning must come first.

We tried to get the following question clarified before we came here. It is a question we want to ask. TACTIC and the Department of Children and Youth Affairs developed an amazing booklet which was launched two years ago. It is a story booklet containing guidelines for children entering care. It is age appropriate for two different levels of younger and older groups entering foster and residential care. We would love to see that. Tusla committed to giving the booklet out for any admission to care but we are not sure that is happening. We would love if the committee could look into it. We are just waiting on the answer. It is an unbelievable resource which, and this is key, was developed over two years by care leavers and people in care who are the best experts.

We would love if young people coming into care were told about EPIC and of their entitlement to an independent advocate. We would love to see our materials forming part of any booklet sent out when admissions to care occur. That is not happening currently and we have trouble, as do all our sister organisations internationally, accessing children in foster care because of data protection and the gatekeepers. We have direct access to every residential and special care unit and we provide a visiting service at Oberstown, but we would like to see improvements around our access to children in foster care. The core work we do is listening to children in care, and we would love that to be mentioned.

Ms Karla Charles

I will go back and deal with the question on regulation from Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire. The main point about regulation, which HIQA brought up recently before the committee, is that it only goes so far. We support a certain amount of regulation. However, while one can regulate for infrastructure elements, one cannot regulate for the qualitative aspect. It is about quantitative versus qualitative and what one can and cannot regulate. Some of it cannot be regulated. It is not a panacea for everything. While we support HIQA in its drive to have regulation, it is only one element.

Many members have not spoken and I am anxious to bring them in. I will come back to Ms Bond and to Deputy O'Sullivan on the issue of on-call duty. I will also return to Deputy Neville if he has anything further. However, I am very conscious of the members who have not contributed.

I thank the witnesses for their contributions this morning and I acknowledge the hard work their organisations do. Having listened to the questions and answers, I will turn to detail. How many visits do members of the Irish Foster Care Association receive from social care workers annually? I am sure all this data has been built up by the organisation. How many visits do children in care receive annually? If there is a child there for 12 months, has he or she received 12 visits? There have to be standard guidelines and best practices.

Has the IFCA highlighted regularly the lack of resources and consistency? Page 10 of its report refers to the lack of correspondence from social care workers. Surely, the IFCA is part of the chain of engagement and follow-up. How much social care interaction does it actually get? We talk about the link worker, but that is for the foster carer. I am talking about the social care worker for the child in relation to the communication IFCA is getting. That communication seems to be vital because what came out of Dr. Geoffrey Shannon's report yesterday was the lack of communication and consistency within the various organisations. We are dealing with complex cases which may involve not only the family but An Garda Síochána and other bodies and we need to know the dots are connecting.

I attended EPIC's conference last year. On the voice of the child, they are very clear that we do not listen and that the children's voices are not being heard. The one thing that struck me at the conference related to aftercare. There is nothing there for the child who chooses not to go to school and who wants to take the year out. I have heard Ms Bond and Ms Charles advocate for that. What can the committee do for that gap year if we want to normalise it?

We give the children a gap year in normal circumstances to see what courses they might want to take up, but if they do not proceed to third level at 18, there is nothing for them. Reference was made to private foster care organisations. I do not understand the distinction in this regard. Is it that private foster carers offer a home as opposed to children being placed in an institution? I need to understand that because that will help me to understand the placement of 12 and 13 year olds. A 17 year old and a 13 year old are quite different and there is also a significant difference in cost. When they hit 18 and foster parents want to keep them because there is a bond, they can build an annex and so on. Does that mean foster children do not get the same opportunity in another set-up? Where lies the duty of care to the children not just at 18 but into the future on the part of the State? What is EPIC's vision in this regard? What proposals has it made to the Department on it?

I thank both groups for their work. Their compassion and passion for our vulnerable children comes through clearly. Does EPIC agree with the statement that, given the emotions of children, institutional care is of a lesser quality than direct foster care in a home? There has been an increase in the number of children under 12 being placed in institutional care. Is that due to the lack of foster carers or is there another issue?

I refer to difficulties for foster carers with birth parents. In my experience, if a birth parent has an addiction, for example, the child often ends up with a relative as his or her foster carer. The carer then gets a knock on the door at 4 a.m. demanding money for drugs or demanding the baby. That is stressful and frightening and if this happens every two weeks, I imagine the child becomes fearful of his or her parent coming along trying to take him or her away if there is no money. It is almost like a ransom situation. It sounds odd but it happens frequently. The need for foster care is greater in disadvantaged communities, much more so than in other communities, and it is intergenerational.

Will the witnesses comment on the 3,000 children who are homeless? I looked out for two families who were sleeping in their cars when the crisis was beginning to dawn on us several years ago. If I rang the local authority on their behalf, I was told social workers would be sent out and the children would be taken into care. That was a frightening response and they treated it as a threat. That prevented many homeless parents reporting where they were sleeping. It is different now as these people are accommodated in hotels. However, I imagine the need for foster care is high among homeless children and I would like the witnesses to clarify the position. Are there many demands on EPIC's services from homeless families and agencies advocating for them? I also include refugee children in this regard.

Dr. Geoffrey Shannon's report was shocking and distressing. He urged us all to become aware of the extreme heartbreaking cases that exist, as parents and as a nation. This raises the issue of whether HIQA needs more enforcement powers in certain circumstances in centres.

With regard to the privatisation of foster care, my ideological outlook is that such services should be provided by the public sector in order that they are accountable. There is a dearth of social workers, nurses and other health and social care professionals in the public system. The private system seems to have the capacity, especially in nursing, with more terms and conditions and less chaos and stress. Who would not take a job in this sector?

What about investment in the public system? Linn Dara mental health facility is closing half its beds. How easy is it for children to access mental health services given it is tough for the adult population?

It was well said by Ms Bond that we do not abandon our own children at 18. They all rely heavily on family networks and we allow them to explore their future from a safe distance. That has to happen for children who reach the age of 18 in foster care.

The committee will meet Tusla officials in two weeks. What would be the top three issues to raise with them regarding children in care and foster carers from the perspective of both organisations?

What is the witnesses' source of funding? What support, if any, do they receive from Tusla? Following the commentary in recent times, do they have confidence in the agency which has come under a great deal of scrutiny?

Are the witnesses aware of the work being done by Maria Lotty in UCC on early childhood trauma? If so, do they have a comment on it? If not, that is fine. It is a new development and it represents a breakthrough for the future in investing in children while they are in care to deal with trauma, and equipping foster carers in how to recognise that and so on.

Would they favour abolishing 18 as the age at which foster care ceases, given it is an arbitrary age? Perhaps it should not be provided for in legislation. As Senator Devine said, in this day and age, none of us as parents abandons our children at 18. Many of us know children who stay at home until they are aged 30.

I am interested in Ms Bond's comments on aftercare and providing on-site accommodation. Many children in care do not have the wherewithal to live independently. For example, a foster parent came to my clinic. She had an adult child exiting care at 18 and was worried about her future. She had saved every penny of the allowance she had received from the State to buy an apartment for her foster child in order that she could live independently near her. That is an extraordinary commitment from a foster carer by any standard. However, the aftercare issue needs to be tackled because every child is headed that way.

Ms Fidelma Guinan

Deputy Rabbitte referred to aftercare. We have made numerous submissions to the Department on the importance of increasing the age of support for those aged under 21 who are not in full-time education. We neglect to think about the learning that all of us as service providers need about the effects of trauma and neglect on the education of these adults. They are not the same as their peers in the general population who grow up in loving homes. They are predominantly late to education and sometimes aged over 23 and, therefore, not entitled to services. They take courses that they do not necessarily want in order to access aftercare funding. This needs to be examined. We can forward to the committee recommendations that we have made.

The provision regarding the age of 18 should be abolished. These are the most vulnerable children in our society. We have a responsibility and a duty. It is not only services across Departments that have a responsibility but society as a whole. We are not doing a good job of looking after these children and we all have to look at ourselves, including statutory services, and consider how we can improve the provision of services to those children.

Ms Karla Charles

In terms of whether 18 is an arbitrary age and whether we should get rid of it, from a legislative perspective, a person under the age of 18 is legally a child so we cannot get rid of it. What we can do is provide exactly the same supports up to and beyond the age of 18. At a minimum, we should be looking at 25 or 27. If we look at the general population, they tend to leave home, on average, seven to eight years later than children in the care system yet these children have been brought up in supportive and loving environments that have been structured, have been attending school and have been given options, possibilities and examples of how to be confident and contributing members of society. For the most part, children in care do not have this or have had a certain element of it if they have been lucky enough to get into a wonderful foster family. Therefore, they need greater supports. EPIC does not have an upper age limit, so anybody who has had care experience can contact our organisation and receive support. That is the way it should be. Even a young person in their late 20s who has been in care and suddenly finds himself or herself at a difficult point in his or her life should have somewhere to turn in order to receive support. There should be no upper age limit and a downward slope of supports should be provided as young people find their feet. We should be looking at the individual needs of the young person in a holistic fashion and taking it from there.

Ms Fidelma Guinan

The greatest number of people on my caseload are aged 18 and 23 and are in the various stages of aftercare support. They always tell us that as soon as they turn 18, it is a case of it being up to them to take up support and that aftercare is voluntary - they did not answer their phone for the past three weeks so, therefore, they missed their meeting and might then miss an aftercare payment. There is so much pressure and responsibility on them on the day they turn 18. The language relating to aftercare needs to change and the support around aftercare definitely needs to change.

A new aftercare policy is being drawn up. The Minister said that, from September, all young people will be entitled to an aftercare plan. While an aftercare worker will be guaranteed to those leaving care, there is no guarantee that aftercare workers will be allocated to those leaving foster care. From what we can tell, the policy is saying that they will have access to a drop-in service but they will not be guaranteed access to aftercare workers. We think this needs to be changed as well and we recommend that this take place.

Could Ms Guinan repeat that?

Ms Fidelma Guinan

Our understanding of the new policy is that everyone leaving residential care will automatically be entitled to an aftercare worker but that those leaving foster care will not. They will have access to drop-in centres around the country in every area where they can access duty aftercare workers. To our knowledge, however, they will not all be allocated aftercare workers.

So there is a difference between those in residential care and those in foster care?

Ms Fidelma Guinan


Will Ms Guinan clarify for Deputy Rabbitte the difference between private foster care and Tusla foster care?

Ms Catherine Bond

Within the national standards for foster care, there is provision for a State agency to contract out services. That was the origin of private foster care agencies. Foster care is foster care. It is a child being placed in a home with a family. The distinction is that the private agency is a business - a company - that employs staff to deliver services. Tusla has its own direct services. I am trying to draw a parallel.

A person can apply to Tusla or a private company to become a foster carer but cannot apply to both. If someone applies to a private company, he or she then deals with the company, which allocates a link worker to the person and manages his or her affairs as a foster carer. The approval of a foster carer for the private company or Tusla is managed by Tusla but people can foster through a private company which issues a payment to them and so forth and deals with the social worker.

Ms Breda O'Donovan

If someone is a foster carer with a private agency, the link worker is provided through the private agency but the social worker for the child is still provided by Tusla regardless of the area the child has come from. The child may not be placed. In respect of a foster carer with a private agency in Limerick, the child could have come from Dublin or any part of the country and the child's social worker may still be placed on that team in that area so it limits the contact with the child but the wraparound service is with the private agency. The foster carer's support is with the private agency.

Does Ms Bond wish to continue to answer some of the questions?

Ms Catherine Bond

Does that answer Deputy Rabbitte's question?

Moving on to the number of visits, the nature of foster care is complex. There are many players on the field. Every child would have a children-in-care social worker, who is a Tusla-designated social worker, and every foster carer is allocated a link social worker. No requirement is set down for the number of visits, for example, that there must be 12 visits per year. In respect of the journey of a placement, if a child is moving into a placement, the initial stages would require high levels of support on the part of the child's social worker with the child and by the link social worker with the foster carer if a foster carer has one. When the placement has settled down, it might go nicely and contact could involve phone calls or visits. It would be very important for the child's social worker to see the child at all times.

It is important for the child's social worker to come into the family home, to see the environment in which the child is living and to have an opportunity to speak to the child and hear his or her views about his or her placement, such as whether he or she is happy and whether his or her access visits with his or her family are frequent enough. Equally, it is important for the foster carer to be able to say how things are. Things could be fine for the moment but, as we know, in family life, we can hit bumps on the road. A child might be having separation or anxiety problems. He or she might be experiencing attachment difficulties and he or she may generally be displaying behaviours. This is, again, when the level of support would need to go up. One is essentially looking at the level of support for the level of need. Generally, when children become very settled in placements, it is then that they begin to think "This is okay, I can be my real self here". Sometimes the true self steps up and children can then display all levels of behaviours because they are pushing the foster carers to see whether they will still want them. It is a case of "If I do this, will you still want me?" or "If I push it another little while, will you still want me?". It is about the foster carers and children, particularly the children, finding themselves within the foster care home and finding out where they fit, how much they are wanted and the degree to which this adult will fight for them. It is complex. What we are essentially saying is that the needs of the children must be central to everything and all services should be led by the needs of the child.

In respect of foster carers and their correspondence with their link social worker, they would not have direct correspondence with the child's own social worker. Communication would take place through their link social worker. Foster carers around the country have different experiences, from very high levels of communication to very poor levels. If I have a difficulty today and need an answer such as whether my child can get consent to go on the school trip next week or an answer regarding a specific aspect of my care, I need it today. Next week will probably be too late. What we are asking for is that systems of communication and protocols be developed in respect of how people communicate and are communicated with in return. Everybody is working to ensure that the placement is successful for the child. That is everybody's role.

That is an area that has been highlighted through our members on our helpline. It is probably the source of most frustration.

In terms of the gap year and flexibility, perhaps we should consider not having cut-off ages for children in care. Again, in terms of normalising, we should always be looking at the norm for every other child when we are benchmarking for children in care. Often it comes down to the child and his or her ability to engage. In terms of the aftercare policy on continuing education and a continuation of financial support up until the age of 23, IFCA is clearly stating that we need to see the criteria involved. Is an apprenticeship acceptable, for example? If a person starts a course but does not like it - as is the case with many young people - can he or she switch to a different course? We need to have a degree of flexibility. A huge amount of thought and consideration has been put into the aftercare policy that has been developed by Tusla. There has also been extensive consultation on the policy. Tusla has offered consultation to IFCA members around the country in recent weeks and months. When the policy is implemented, we will be assessing its impact on the ground. This comes back to the point we made earlier, namely, if we develop a policy it must be streamlined, people must be trained-----

I am sorry to interrupt but we will have to move on. There are lots of questions and we are against the clock.

Ms Catherine Bond

We have referred to the distinction regarding the private agencies. It is quite disappointing to hear about 12 year olds in residential care because we had moved away from that kind of care provision.

Senator Devine asked about relative care and the system to protect relative carers. Relative carers, like general foster carers, need to have link social workers and to have the same support structures around them. As we know, the dynamics of family relationships can be quite complex and if a foster carer is caring for his or her grandchildren, for example, a higher degree of protection is required within that relationship. Families need to be supported and homeless families need higher levels of support. Children growing up in homelessness is a real tragedy for our society. Families should not be fearful of having their children taken from them. We need to be supporting families with their own children.

On the issue of HIQA and the regulation of foster care, as EPIC has stated, this is positive and has contributed significantly to improvement of services, particularly for the most vulnerable in our society. However, regulation in itself does not improve all aspects of services. Foster care, given the complexities of the relationships involved, is based in relational dynamics and sometimes it is difficult to capture the quantum of what that looks like. However, recent Government policies including Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures, the well being indicators for children, children's position within the Constitution and their participation in society should all be taken into account in the context of placing children in care. There is learning from the implementation of the pre-school regulations, which are now almost 20 years old. There were lots of teething problems with that because initially it was about regulating the infrastructure. However, when one is talking about children, one must focus on relational dynamics. One is actually talking about the quality of relationships and the same is true for foster care.

Senator Devine also asked about refugee children and homelessness.

Yes. Ms Bond has touched on the issue of homelessness-----

Ms Catherine Bond

The Senator also asked about access to mental health services. It is challenging for foster carers to gain access to mental health services for young people in their care. It requires a high level of advocacy on the part of foster carers to provide access for children to a service which is their right. Children in care are the most vulnerable children in our society and it should be a matter of right for them to receive services rather than having to lobby or advocate for them. Does that answer all of Senator Devine's questions?

I think so, yes.

Ms Catherine Bond

To answer the Chairman's question regarding the top three issues for Tusla, one would be the development of policies that are consistent in their application and that are evaluated and monitored. Another important issue is the promotion of strong working partnerships. IFCA works very well with Tusla but that is not something that can be taken for granted. Tusla must proactively work to ensure good relationships with partners. The other main issue for foster carers would be the allocation of link social workers and children-in-care social workers. Again, we are aware that Tusla is engaged in a recruitment drive. As the EPIC representatives have said, it is difficult at the moment to recruit social workers. Recruitment is challenging and then when social workers are recruited, retention issues arise. We need to evaluate the caseloads of social workers because their work is challenging. There is a lot of trauma involved and, at the end of the day, social workers are only human. We need to support our social workers in the work they are doing.

The Chairman asked about confidence in Tusla. We respect the fact that Tusla is a relatively young agency and that it inherited a lot of systems from the HSE. A transformation process is taking place. Tusla issued a statement yesterday acknowledging that while a lot of changes are taking place, more work needs to be done. We need to stick with it. We need to work with Tusla and support our colleagues in that organisation. There are people in Tusla who are working incredibly hard but it is not perfect. We have data on the services provided to foster children and their carers and we are the conduit for channelling that information to Tusla. It is by working in partnership that we can address the issues. As long as we have open, trusting relationships that are respectful and we all work in the best interests of children, then I am confident we will get there.

My colleague, Ms O'Donovan, will answer the questions on funding.

Ms Breda O'Donovan

Over 60% of our annual funding comes directly through Tusla. That is our core funding, which covers our office overheads, staff salaries and enables us to provide our services. We have a service level agreement with Tusla that we complete annually, based on our operational plan and our plans for the year. We also receive funding through Pobal by way of its scheme to support national organisations, SSNO, programme for 2016 to 2019. That covers the salary for our head of support services which allows us to expand on that service. Funding also comes from our own activities and from membership fees from over 1,600 members. We obviously develop training materials, including the pre-approval training for foster carers and the foundation for fostering that is used by most Tusla areas as well as by private agencies and we have a very small stream of income from the sale of that material. That is an outline of our funding, more than 60% of which comes directly from Tusla.

I will give members an opportunity to pose supplementary questions. I will then ask the witnesses to answer any outstanding questions and to wrap up. We also have private committee business to deal with and I am conscious that members have other commitments.

I have only one question for IFCA. EPIC raised the matter of the €40,000 disparity between public and private foster care. Has the association reviewed this or brought it up with the Department? What is the plan in terms of reviewing that disparity? I find it horrific to think that we are possibly spending €40,000 on administration. Where is that funding going? Can EPIC answer that question? Has it reviewed it?

Ms Karla Charles

No, we have just-----

Sorry to interrupt but I want to allow members to ask their questions and we will then come back to the witnesses.

I have two questions, one of which is on the ratio of social workers to children.

It was stated a ratio of 1:50 was too high. The service is demand driven. If we are to ask for more social workers to be provided, we will have to be able to give a cost. If the delegates do not have an opinion or figures, that is fine. It is not a witch hunt; I am merely trying to educate myself. Is the ideal ratio 1:20 or 1:25 or is there an ideal ratio? Are the private companies finding it difficult to hire social workers? I understand they have their own. Are they finding that there is a shortage of social workers?

On the ratio of social workers and the number of young social workers leaving because they are burned out and so on, is it a question of more support being needed? Is there a danger that foster carers will be lost because of the difficulties in providing support for them? We can make a strong argument for putting more resources into the system, whether it be people or money. Many children leaving care will end up becoming homeless at a later stage in their lives. That raises the argument about the need for after-care plans.

As a committee, we want to make recommendations. Are there other issues the delegates want to add that would strengthen the case we want to make? Reference was made to Scotland. Are there international models of best practice to which we could point and, if so, to follow up on Deputy Tom Neville's question, how much more would it cost?

I wish to clarify a point. Ms Bond spoke about regulation assisting matters. We heard from the Health Information and Quality Authority two weeks ago that, essentially, the area was unregulated, whereas, if I understood Ms Bond correctly, there is a degree of regulation. To what extent is the area regulated? What exactly is the shortfall to which HIQA was referring? I want to understand the position better.

There are five supplementary questions for the delegates. I appreciate that I cut Ms Charles off midstream earlier and that she had not addressed all of the questions asked. We will have to wrap up in ten minutes. Each of the groups, therefore, will have five minutes in which to respond to the questions asked.

Ms Karla Charles

I will address one or two issues and ask my colleague, Ms Guinan, to address a few more. I hope we will cover all of the questions raised, but if we do not, members can let us know.

On the provision of services for young people seeking to access mental health services, it is a matter of matching the needs of young people with the services provided. The provision of mental health services is crucial for children in care. EPIC would like to see dedicated mental health teams for children in care who should receive priority on CAMHS, child and adolescent mental health services, lists. We sometimes find it very difficult to gain timely access to mental health support services for children in care. That is simply not good enough. If children in care have to wait six months to one year to access such support, it is too long. The trauma they have suffered is, therefore, not being dealt with adequately. Foster families or children in residential care receive support on a day-to-day basis from those around them, but they also need specialised support and intervention services and should not have to wait so long to receive them.

EPIC is a member of the Children's Mental Health Coalition. I strongly encourage the committee to consider the submissions it has made on mental health needs and into which we have fed with respect to children in care. We have strong ongoing concerns about sending children outside the State to avail of specialist mental health services and raised the issue many times. There may be occasions on which it is the best idea to send a child out of the State, but we rely on this option too much when we should be developing greater expertise, if there is a specific mental health issue within the State. One of the big issues in sending children out of the State for a number of years to receive treatment and support involves their reintegration when they come back when often there is no reintegration plan. If they return at the age of 18 years, aftercare issues arise.

On whether Tusla is fit for purpose, we have all been digesting Geoffrey Shannon's report on the findings of the audit of the use of section 12 of the legislation. Tusla which is a relatively young body is on the road to reform. We must have confidence in it because it has made progress. It is reaching out to agencies such as ours. It is trying to learn from us and our expertise and that of other agencies. It is happy to work with us in that regard, which is all very positive. Unfortunately, however, the rate of progress is a little slow and the public perception is that the agency is constantly reacting to crises. That is unfortunate because a great deal of good work is being done. Tusla is on the road to where we want it to be and we have to support it. That includes support not only from organisations and agencies with which it works but also cross-departmental support. The review of Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures that is taking place should involve an examination of how the HSE, the disability and education sectors can be reinforced to support the work of Tusla, as opposed to people having the view that it is not their job, that it does not involve them, and keeping it all separate because life does not work like that. The statement it made yesterday is to be supported. We must ensure it is provided with everything it needs financially to ensure we can put behind us the child protection horrors the country has witnessed in the past and try to move forward. Unfortunately, there will always be incidents that are unavoidable, but we need to try to ensure they are kept to a minimum. We can only do that by all working together and supporting this relatively young agency.

Ms Fidelma Guinan

I wish to respond to the Chairman's final two questions. If representatives of Tusla are to come before the committee, I would raise three points with them. When we meet young people, they always tell us that they believe they are not listened to and that they are not part of the decisions made about them. All children in foster care should be listened to and be part of every decision made. It is about their lives. Social workers and foster carers move on; the children are the only ones who are static in the process. Second, as stated by the Irish Foster Care Association, all children in foster care should have a social worker, with whom they would have regular contact, and they should all have a linked social worker. Third, a quality service of a national standard should be provided - it is evident from our work that there is no national standard - both for the child and the foster family. It should especially include aftercare services. A lot of work needs to be put into the aftercare services being delivered. They are doing great work, but it is not a national service.

Core funding for our entire advocacy service is provided by Tusla. We receive philanthropic funds for research and youth engagement which come primarily from Atlantic Philanthropies. In latter years we have received funding from the Tony Ryan Trust. We have received the odd grants for which we have applied here and there. We are always trying to secure funding.

Ms Bond will have the final word.

Ms Catherine Bond

I will be brief.

Deputy Jan O'Sullivan asked about other models. There are good models in the United Kingdom in having clusters of foster carers. It is called the Mockingbird project, as part of which clusters of foster carers come together. Two or three foster carers provide respite care and it is a little like a wider family network. Where a foster carer needs support or there is a crisis, there is somebody whom the child knows to provide respite care. It is normal and natural. That is a good model that we should consider.

On the recommendations the committee could make on our behalf, we certainly recommend a review of national foster care standards. In response to Deputy Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire's question, there are national foster care standards, but they are set down in legislation and what we have is inherent in the difference.

HIQA monitors the implementation of the standards but there are recommendations for change. The national standards for foster care are now 14 years old and we will call for a review of them to take into consideration the vast range of Government policy change in the past ten years, taking in the rights of children; children's rights within the Constitution; Better Outcomes, Brighter Futures; and national well-being indicators for children. We could match the well-being indicators for all children and those in foster and residential care, and that would be very tangible work.

Ms Breda O'Donovan

I have a small point on foster carers and concerns about losing them. We have to realise that when children are placed in foster care, it is a family home and very often there are other children in that family home. When we look at regulation, policies and procedures, we must always balance the safety of the child, which is paramount, with allowing the children to live a normal family life in a family home. Foster carers must be supported, as Deputy Rabbitte noted, and they need to see a social worker on a regular basis. The child also needs to see a social worker on a regular basis. There must be a relationship and every family survives when there is a good relationship in the family home and good communication, with people being able to talk openly about an issue if it arises. A foster carer must know that no matter what concern he or she might have, whether it is small or big, he or she can go to the link worker about it, be listened to and there would be action. The child must have a relationship with his or her social worker and be able to talk to the social worker or foster carer if there is a problem.

In my fostering experience, very often children in care will divulge information to other children in the family and not necessarily to a foster carer or social worker. We need to ensure the children of foster carers are supported as well and looked after. With all the regulation and everything coming down the line, it is getting more difficult for foster carers. We had a consultation recently where six out of ten foster carers said they would not recommend fostering to another person at this stage. It is a serious concern for us. When we examine regulation, we must remember that this involves family homes and we cannot over-regulate that. We have health and safety spectacles on when we have children in our care but we are not living in a residential unit and we must remember that.

Deputy Neville asked about the ratio of social workers and the private company hiring social workers. Are the witnesses aware of private companies having more success in hiring those people and is there an ideal ratio for a case load?

Ms Catherine Bond

I am not aware that private companies are having difficulties in hiring social workers. The ratio issue goes back to what Ms Charles stated. There could be a case load of five people but they could be really high level. There should be weighted case loads, with a number and weighting, so if a complex case is being managed, it might have the weighting of two cases.

Tusla would probably be able to give the Deputy a better insight when it comes before the committee.

Ms Fidelma Guinan

It is weighting the cases. A child in special care has a much higher weighting than a young person in long-term foster placement. It is a difficult question to answer.

Deputy Neville was wondering about budgeting and Tusla can answer in that respect.

I just wanted an opinion.

Deputy O'Sullivan asked about social worker and foster carer burnout. Do the witnesses wish to quickly comment on that?

Ms Breda O'Donovan

That is our concern. We must ensure that foster carers are fully supported in the role they do and are listened to. They are living with a child 24 hours a day, seven days per week. They know the child, its aspirations and hopes for the future. They also know of what the child is capable. Foster carers must be part and parcel of this. I know foster care would not be an equal partner but such carers must work in partnership, not only with Tusla but with other agencies, mental health services and everybody across the board. We are involved with a range of issues with our children and it would be the same with a foster child.

Deputy Rabbitte asked about the disparity between public and private.

Ms Karla Charles

We would encourage greater analysis. I only know the information I have shared with the committee today. We must find out more. It is clearly about getting value for money but we are hearing that families dealing with private foster companies are feeling more supported.

It is the €40,000 disparity.

Ms Karla Charles

It is the difference. We must consider if the cost is somewhere in between.

Ms Catherine Bond

The first thing is to consider if we are comparing like with like. In the private foster care costing is the foster care allowance, which Tusla pays anyway. I do not know from the analysis if it is €352 per child per week and inclusive of the €17,500 per annum. We should compare like with like so the true cost can be evident.

The Comptroller and Auditor General has done a document on it anyway that will be helpful for members. We need to go to Tusla with many of these questions. We appreciate the input and comments of the witnesses.

Ms Karla Charles

The profit being made by some of those private companies must also be borne in mind.

As a committee we will take that on to ascertain the difference between public and private.

Ms Fidelma Guinan

Deputy O'Sullivan mentioned that a high proportion of care leavers ended up in homeless services. The only way we can address that is to provide aftercare services and beds. There are very few beds in the country. Care leavers should have the potential to be allocated places on council lists nationally.

Ms Karla Charles

A percentage of the housing allocation should be kept aside specifically for care leavers. The problem is young people are leaving care and going straight into homeless services. Aftercare is not about providing an aftercare plan but implementing that plan. That is key.

I must draw this to a conclusion as we are against the clock and the committee must do some private business. I ask members to stay on as I will be brief in doing that. I thank both organisations for their time and contribution. If there are any queries, members may send them to the clerk and we will send them to the witnesses.

The joint committee went into private session at 12.45 p.m. and adjourned at 12.55 p.m. until 9 a.m. on Wednesday, 21 June 2017.