Foster Care Services: Discussion (Resumed)

Cuirim fáilte roimh na hoifigigh ó Tusla anseo ar maidin. Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leo as a bheith anseo linn. I welcome from Tusla Mr. Fred McBride, chief executive, Mr. Jim Gibson, chief operations officer, and Mr. Cormac Quinlan, director of policy and strategy, and thank each of them for appearing before the committee today. I also welcome our colleagues in the Public Gallery and thank Senator Conway for his attendance and for facilitating us.

Before we commence, in accordance with procedure I am required to draw the attention of the witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to 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 asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise nor 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 such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

I remind members to switch off their mobile phones or switch them to flight mode.

The witnesses will make a short presentation, which will be followed by questions from members. I invite Mr. McBride to make his opening statement.

Mr. Fred McBride

I thank the Chair and the members of the committee for the opportunity to address the committee today to discuss current issues arising in foster care services in Ireland.

The written statement is quite detailed so, with the committee's approval, I may summarise certain paragraphs rather than read every line.

Mr. Fred McBride

By way of introduction and context, I thought it would be useful to give an indication of the volume of business that Tusla - the Child and Family Agency - deals with. In 2016, Tusla received over 47,000 referrals. Only 43% of these proceeded to initial assessment following preliminary inquiries. This highlights that a large amount of social work activity is occurring in screening and initially assessing cases that do not always require ongoing social work intervention. However, many of these cases may require access to lower-level family support services. The latter are sometimes led by our own services in Tusla and sometimes by other relevant agencies and supported by Tusla. A key objective for Tusla is to ensure children and families receive the right service at the right time and in the right measure and that we maintain statutory social work input only for those children who require that level of intervention. Later, I will discuss Tusla’s recently developed child protection and welfare strategy that will underpin this work and also our plans to introduce risk-sophisticated practice in the way we intervene in people’s lives.

Regarding the provision of foster care services, there were in total 6,300 children and young people in care at the end of the first quarter of 2017. Of these, 92% were in foster care with both general and relative carers. This means that each of those 5,819 children and young persons who, for one reason or another, cannot live at home is being cared for in a family setting, often by their own extended family and within their own community setting, with all of the associated benefits of educational continuity, access to their friends and regular social activities and so on. Ireland's performance in this area compares extremely favourably with that of jurisdictions such as England, for example, where only 75% of children in care are in family settings. The figure for Northern Ireland is 80%.

As the committee will be aware, Tusla was established in 2014 following a recommendation made by the task force. It was established on the back of some 29 inquiries and reviews and 551 recommendations contained therein. We always endeavour to be open and transparent if we make mistakes, and we do make mistakes. We are not dealing with an exact science. A number of cases have recently been the subject of media attention - a matter to which I will return later - but there is evidence that children are now safer as a result of the establishment of Tusla. I will set out some of the evidence for that.

We have established a child protection notification system, known in some jurisdictions as a child protection register, which contains information about children who may be at risk. This means that members of An Garda Síochána, emergency hospital staff and out-of-hours GPs who have concerns about children presenting to them have access to information on vulnerable children and families. They will have information about what category they are registered in - whether it is neglect or abuse - and they will also have information regarding whether the child was previously on the notifications system.

Since the establishment of Tusla, we have reduced the number of unallocated cases by almost 30% and those in the category of high priority have reduced by 70%. All of those children and young persons who have had their cases managed and who have now been allocated a social worker or referred on to appropriate services are safer. These reductions are in the context of a significant increase in the number of referrals. Between March 2016 and March 2017, there was an increase in the number of referrals of approximately 35%. That fluctuates throughout the year. The average increase of referrals during the year to March 2017 was in the region of 10%, but there was a very significant increase in the first quarter.

Last year we introduced and amended our special care processes and ensured enhanced governance of the special care services, including an ongoing reduction in the number of children approved and awaiting special care intervention. When I first came here, typically a dozen people were waiting for special care and the High Court was becoming very frustrated with that situation. As of today, there are no children waiting for special care in Ireland. Those who require special care beds get them when they need them. We have extended coverage of our emergency out-of-hours service and we believe this will enhance the safety of those children and young persons presenting outside core office hours.

During 2016 there was an increase of approximately 51% in the number of early years services inspected by Tusla. These services were inspected by Tusla to ensure compliance with early years services regulations and to enhance safety of children who attend them.

Close to 4,000 children accessed and were supported by our educational welfare service. We hope they have been assured better outcomes as a result of our interventions. Over 24,214 children and nearly 17,000 families received family support services in 2016. This work is part of Tusla’s prevention, partnership and family support work. Hopefully, it prevents children having to enter the care system and provides the supports required to maintain them safely in their own homes, schools and communities.

I will comment on the national approach to practice. I do not deny that gaining consistency of approach across the country has been a challenge. One of the things we are trying to do as part of what has been the most comprehensive reform of child protection and early intervention ever taken in Ireland is the launch of the State's first child protection and welfare strategy. I will not go into all the details but the signs of safety approach to practice is intended to be in place by the fourth quarter of this year. It is an innovative, strengths-based, safety-organised approach to child protection casework grounded in partnership and collaboration with children, families and their wider networks of support. It is quite a significant change from what was perhaps a rather paternalistic way in which the State would provide services and interventions to families as though it always had the answers. This approach is very much based on helping families to come up with their own solutions in conjunction with professionals support. It is very much about giving power, control and choice, wherever that can be given to families in order to maintain their dignity when we have to intervene in private family life. All the qualitative and quantitative evaluation and research and the administrative data from jurisdictions around the world that have implemented this signs of safety approach consistently indicate the following outcomes: families feel more empowered and are able to understand and address the concerns of child protection authorities to keep children safe; the number of children removed from families reduces relative to the numbers who are helped to build safety around the children at home; and, importantly, practitioners report greater job satisfaction due to the clarity of the approach, the usefulness of the tools and the impact for the children and families and professionals spending more time in direct, face-to-face work with children and families, which is what they were trained to do.

As I mentioned earlier, it is about risk-sophisticated practice. Tusla operates in an environment of uncertainty. It is often uncertain about what has happened to the child and the impact this has had on the child. It is also uncertain what will happen when we intervene to try to protect them. We also operate in an environment of risk and risk management and when things go wrong are unforeseen or could not have been prevented or predicted, of course an emotional response is provoked among the public. We understand that and have to take account of that. As part of our reform programme, we hope to work with our key partners to develop risk-sophisticated practice and help to define the agency’s and the State's risk appetite. Through this work we hope our Departmental colleagues, our politicians, our partner agencies and our regulators to engage with us to ensure a collective understanding of what an intelligent response to risk management looks like.

We have no problem in being held accountable but we need to move away from the any notion that risk management means risk eradication. There will always be children at risk.

We need to change the rather unrealistic expectation that all children will be safe all of the time. We need to move away from a blame culture that resulted in defensive practices where people start to hide behind processes and procedures for fear of making a mistake. That does not lead to intelligent interventions and protection of children. It also creates recruitment and retention difficulties as well. While my staff and I accept accountability, we should be judged by reasonable standards and not blamed because hindsight has a distorting effect and makes it seem obvious later that a child was in danger. Furthermore, if we collaborate in risk sophistication with those who make referrals to our service then perhaps we can start to address the more than 27,000 referrals received each year that are screened out of our service, all of which need time and the associated capacity and resources to be checked and screened.

In terms of foster care in Ireland, as many as 92% of all children in care live within a family setting which compares favourably with other jurisdictions. I acknowledge at the outset my respect and admiration for foster carers who open their homes, families and lives. Some of them dedicate their entire adult lives to caring for other people's children. As in other jurisdictions, foster carers are the backbone of our child protection and child in care system.

The provision of foster care is part of a continuum of services provided to children and young persons. Tusla strives to adhere to the national standards for foster care that were developed in 2003. Given that it is now 2017, I contend that the standards require to be updated at this juncture. There are particular challenges in delivering foster care, some of which have been highlighted during HIQA inspections. I shall outline two particular challenges. First, allegations that are made against foster carers, which are quite tricky situations to deal with. The other challenge that HIQA highlighted was the assessment of relative carers.

On the first challenge, Tusla is developing a clear national policy to deal with allegations against carers in order to have a consistent approach across the country. We are also developing a shortened assessment for relative carers. We do not believe necessarily that relative carers need to go through the full assessment process that general carers must undergo because relative carers are looking after their blood relative. We think a differential approach is required in terms of the assessment of relative carers and we are beginning to put that in place.

Keeping children in their local communities is a challenge. Sometimes moving a child to a relative means he or she must be moved to another community. Such a move sometimes results in discontinuity in education and social networks and so on. These are difficult judgments to make but we try to do so in the best interest of the children.

In respect of private foster care, the committee asked a number of other questions that we have answered. Suffice to say that foster care provided by private agencies is governed by the same range of legislation, standards and regulations as statutory care. In Ireland, 6% or 384 children in foster care are placed with private providers. There are a range of factors that give rise to private placements, only one of which is the availability of foster carers. When placing a child or young person in a private placement, consideration is given to the level of support required by the child. It is often the case that in complex cases, additional levels of therapeutic support are required that are not always available directly from the State. Furthermore, private providers often have the capacity to provide 24-hour helpline support to their carers, respite services and additional therapeutic services. It is worth noting that 10% of the 384 placements in private care are separated children seeking asylum, while another proportion of them are young people over 18 years of age who Tusla continues to support and there are some children with a disability who require specialist care.

Earlier I mentioned services out-of-hours. Since November 2015, we have established an emergency out-of-hours service. I wish to clarify that there have been dedicated out-of-hours teams in the greater Dublin area and Cork for a number of years but the rest of the country was not covered. Since November 2015 Tusla has provided an on-call service that covers the rest of the country. It is available to An Garda Síochána in order to provide specialist guidance, advice and information should the Garda request when it seeks to invoke section 12 of the Child Care Act, which is an emergency intervention.

Inter-agency collaboration is the cornerstone of Tusla's child protection work. It includes collaboration with doctors, teachers, public health nurses, An Garda Síochána, mental health services, disability services and so on. I would like members of the committee to note that I am personally on record as calling for a duty to co-operate clause in terms of a review of the 1991 legislation. I want agencies to be duty bound to co-operate with one another. I mean not just referring matters to Tusla but to stay involved and be part of the support plan for children and families. A duty to co-operate clause is not uncommon in other jurisdictions.

With respect to liaising with An Garda Síochána specifically, at a local level there is regular liaising between Tusla staff and the force in terms of discussing individual cases. At a national level there are quarterly liaison meetings between Tusla officials and senior gardaí. As a result of this work, a joint working protocol on arrangements during office hours and out of hours is being finalised in line with the new Children First guidance. Ultimately, we plan to have joint child protection teams across Tusla and the Garda and again, such teams are evident in other jurisdictions. We are currently assigning senior managers to work closely with the Garda to help develop proposals in this regard.

Tusla works with other State agencies and our partners in the voluntary sector to keep older teenagers out of residential care. Many of them are in private residential care where the outcomes are not always good. We try to provide intensive flexible support into the evenings and weekends in order to keep them connected with their homes, schools and communities.

Members have asked questions about recruitment and retention so I shall briefly comment on both aspects. For the first quarter of 2017 we have begun to recruit social workers at a much faster rate than we are losing them. I shall give some specific data and numbers, if requested. The retention of staff remains a challenge. Tusla must compete for social workers with the Health Service Executive, the private sector, hospitals, and the probation, community and voluntary sectors because, unfortunately, there are only so many graduates per year.

As someone who has managed services in all of the care groups, I can state that child protection social work is by far and away one of the most challenging roles for a social worker. We are examining creative ways to recruit graduates from our own universities, as well as from other jurisdictions. We are also in discussions with the Department of Children and Youth Affairs to scope creative ways of recruiting and retaining social workers, including examining terms and conditions and the rolling out of senior practitioner status to keep experienced workers in front-line practice.

Media coverage is particularly challenging for Tusla. For confidentiality reasons Tusla cannot go into details about individual cases and sometimes that gives rise to stories in the media that lack context. Tusla needs to stop simply saying that it does not comment on individual cases because I think it is not particularly helpful to the media, the public or politicians. We cannot comment on the detail of individual cases but I think, much more, we will have to get into giving general messages about the circumstances in which children find themselves and the decisions we make about these circumstances without necessarily going into details about an individual case.

As I have said already, Tusla has been criticised for leaving children in a placement or at home and sometimes we have criticised for removing them from home. It is extremely important to realise that there are no risk free decisions.

Removing a child from home or a foster placement can inevitably cause significant trauma and loss. Therefore, the need to protect children needs to be carefully balanced with the loss they may experience by removal. There was a particular case where two foster children were in the same placement, one allegedly harming the other. It is not a reasonable proposition at all to protect one child by damaging another. We have a responsibility to both children and their needs and best interests need to be balanced. There are extremely complex and difficult judgment calls around these kinds of issues.

There has also been some commentary in respect of children returning home following their removal by the Garda under section 12, which provides for emergency interventions. It is important to understand that a range of factors contributes to a decision about whether a child can be safely returned home. A significant proportion of these children, approximately 60%, are in the 15 to 18 years age bracket and often present with complex behaviours, including addiction and mental health issues. It is not always safe for these young people to be placed in a foster home or even a residential home. Sometimes, immediate medical treatment is required. However, returning a child or young person home, once the crisis has been dealt with, can be an extremely positive outcome. We want children to return home where it is safe for them to do so. As an interim exercise, the chief operations officer conducted between January and May 2017 an audit of section 12 cases where Tusla had become involved in the follow up. We can report that in the particular county in question, there were 14 occasions where An Garda Síochána invoked section 12. In all of those cases, we provided very robust social work support and follow up, even where the children were returned home. We do not just return children home or see that they have returned and forget about it. We follow that up with intensive support.

I have alluded to the Shannon report once or twice throughout my statement. I confirm that the report was commissioned by An Garda Síochána for An Garda Síochána and that no member of Tusla staff was interviewed as part of its production. However, I also confirm that the findings of the report, when completed, were discussed with Tusla. Tusla has requested An Garda Síochána to provide identifying details, if possible, for all of the cases where section 12 was invoked in order that we can follow up and make a judgment as to whether the way we followed up in those cases was appropriate and satisfactory. We have offered to do that.

I thank the committee for inviting myself and my colleagues to appear in front of it today. Hopefully, it has provided some clarity and context to the work that we do, specifically around foster care and associated issues. We are, of course, happy to answer any questions.

I thank Mr. McBride for that comprehensive presentation. We move now to questions from members of the committee, starting with Deputy Jan O'Sullivan.

First, I apologise because I have to go at 10 a.m. I am on the eighth amendment committee which is having a short meeting at 10 a.m. after which I will be back. I thank Mr. McBride for his presentation. I have read carefully through the documentation he provided to the committee in advance of the meeting. While we can all acknowledge that children are safer, if one looks at the broad numbers for the last couple of years, and while we understand the pressure Tusla is under, I have some concerns. I accept there is always risk in these situations but I must express some concerns and ask questions on the presentation. We have all noted in the committee the importance of recruiting social workers and the fact that while targets were set, they have not been reached. In particular, the ISPCC has expressed concern about the out-of-hours service and the limited availability of support for the Garda when they have to intervene. The ISPCC has referred to the need for a comprehensive out-of-hours service in which social workers are available. Tusla has told us that there are difficulties recruiting people, which we understand. Even though Tusla says and we agree that children are safer now, we need to ensure that they are as safe as possible and that we have the best possible service. That is what the committee wants to achieve.

The Signs of Safety programme was discussed by Mr. McBride. Over 70% of section 12 interventions by the Garda were repeat interventions. It was the same families and children as I understand it from the programme. There are some 680 interventions per annum by the Garda under section 12. It happens frequently. Can Mr. McBride explain the relationship between An Garda Síochána and Tusla in respect of children at risk? I understand that more than 50% do not get screened out at an early stage. The ones that really concern me are those where children are genuinely at serious risk, which is why I want to ask about the Signs of Safety procedure. Mr. McBride said it would be introduced in quarter 4, but I understand it is already in use in some cases. Is the Signs of Safety programme already in use in some cases and, if so, have social workers and other professionals like gardaí, public health nurses and teachers been trained in respect of it?

I am concerned about language like "risk sophisticated practice" and the agency having a "risk appetite". There are some children in situations where it is extremely risky for them to return to or stay in their families. Mr. McBride should give the committee an assurance that the Signs of Safety procedure will not be used according to this sophisticated language such that children are left with or returned to families where they are at risk and the information gardaí and others have suggests they are at risk. Is there an escalation or appeals procedure available to the Garda where there are serious concerns about case management and has Tusla received any escalation of complaints about cases in respect of which the Signs of Safety system is in use? If so, how has it dealt with them?

I am pursuing this in detail because I have done some research. "Panorama", the UK series, did a programme on the Baby P case and Signs of Safety was part of the management of that case. That child died. This is coming in and is implemented in some cases so my questions are specifically around the particular methodology. While I can understand its use in low-risk situations, I would be very concerned if it were used in high-risk situations. Can Mr. McBride answer the specific questions around that?

In light of the fact that the Deputy must attend another meeting, we might go straight back to the Tusla representatives for answers to those questions.

Mr. Fred McBride

I can kick off and colleagues can assist if necessary. I reassure the committee that the Signs of Safety approach is not some naive, soft approach. This is very much about a detailed examination of risk factors and the capacity of a family to put a safety plan in place around a child. It does not mean we will not remove children from high-risk situations. Indeed, the approach is used where children are already in care and already separated from their families. This is a detailed examination of the capacity of the families to receive those children back into their care. It is not always applied when the children are at home. It very much means we will still have to remove children from risky situations. I offer that reassurance.

There are aspects of it that have been used in practice in Ireland but it has never been used as a whole-system approach and a whole-system change.

That is the approach we are now proposing.

My colleague, Mr. Cormac Quinlan, will speak to the level of training that has been taking place in Tusla. We will subsequently reach out to partners to provide training. The reason that we alighted on this particular approach is that there was or is a cohort of social workers in Ireland who are broadly familiar with some of the tools and practice approaches and while we are using parts, we are not using the whole approach. I apologise for the jargon but we are planning integrity to the whole approach as part of a whole system change. It is not just about front line social work practice but about aligning all of our policies and procedures with that approach. It is, therefore, a much wider and deeper change. Perhaps Mr. Quinlan will give us an indication of what is involved in this as he has been leading out the training around this. We are using experts from abroad who designed this whole approach. They are currently living in Ireland and working with us intensively as we roll out this approach.

Mr. Cormac Quinlan

I will be pleased to clarify the signs of safety approach. Signs of Safety is a way of working with families and a rigorous assessment process and very effective way of engaging with parents and children right through the process of assessment and intervention in addressing critical concerns about harm to children. In terms of training, we will start Signs of Safety in what we call our front door service or our duty intake service and it will extend right through to what we call child protection conferencing. We will train 2,800 staff across the organisation. All of our front-line staff will engage in a two-day training course, with many having already completed it. All our practice leaders, which includes our team leaders, principal social workers and area managers have been included in a five-day training programme, which also has an additional two-day introductory piece.

We have committed to implementing the Signs of Safety approach in the next couple of years. Its implementation will not be achieved by training alone. One of the key goals of the child protection and welfare strategy is to develop a learning organisation, which is what we are trying to achieve. Over the next two years, we plan to develop a learning trajectory for all our practice leaders. We will bring them back and reflect on how they are using the approach, how effective it is for them and what are the challenges we face in implementing it. We will also address the issues and questions they have and support them throughout that journey in the next three years.

We have engaged a number of strong experts in the field to achieve this, including for the next two years Dr. Andrew Turnell, the co-creator of Signs of Safety. Dr. Turnell is delivering the majority of our training across the country. We have also engaged two other consultants, including Professor Eileen Munro, with whom members may be familiar. Professor Munro did a comprehensive review of the child protection system in the United Kingdom and will partner with us. We will evaluate the use of the approach over the duration of its implementation. The consultants will carry out an evaluation and we will seek to commission an independent evaluation of how successful the child protection and welfare strategy has been. One cannot evaluate something until it has been implemented, however, and the evaluation will be done at a later stage.

I asked a question on complaints.

Mr. Fred McBride

Yes, the Deputy asked about escalation. As I stated, at local level, area managers and principal social workers regularly liaise with the Garda to examine individual cases where things may not have gone as well as they should have done or joint working has not been effective. Senior gardaí regularly call me or the chief operations officer if they are concerned about a particular case that has not been dealt with appropriately. As I stated, the chief operations officer, director of policy and I attend quarterly strategic liaison meetings with gardaí at assistant commissioner level. Mechanisms are in place to escalate cases if something goes wrong or if something is not as effective as it should have been.

Does this extend to other parties involved with children?

Mr. Fred McBride

Yes, joint working protocols are in place. We have children and young person services committees, which are multi-agency and involve local authorities, health services and the community and voluntary sector. These are county-based committees that examine the needs profile of the local area and how they will develop services to match these needs. Particular issues and problems can be raised at that level and these can be escalated up the management system if necessary.

Mr. Jim Gibson

I think it is also important to highlight the processes that are defined in our child protection systems. Social work practitioners at an area level engage with liaison sergeants in An Garda Síochána and hold strategy meetings with each other. More high risk cases where it is deemed that children can remain with families in the community are governed by our child protection case conferences. An Garda Síochána is good at attending this forum and participates in professional discussions about child safety and specific child protection plans. There are also built in forums for professionals from other agencies to contribute to the overall discussion because child protection is everyone's business and the best plans are arrived at using this collaborative approach. This also includes cases where it is not right or proper to return a child to a specific situation and the child then remains in care. Those assurances are built into the system. As Mr. McBride stated, other liaison meetings are also held. For example, area managers meet Garda superintendents meet to raise and discuss issues. There is a robust and comprehensive governance structure in place around that.

I will introduce one concept that is valued by all of us who are involved in social work. Every individual has the potential to change and it would be remiss of us as an agency or a professional group in the agency not to continuously consider the potential of parents to make changes. We engage with parents to examine the possibility of their children returning home. For example, where the care of a child is neglectful and tied into the alcoholism and addiction of parents, and the level of neglect leads to the child going into care, if dad and mum recover and prove their sobriety over a sustained period, it allows us to engage with the family and consider the possibility of reunification. This is central to best practice and it is similar to a scenario where a person commits a crime and goes to prison. In such circumstances, the hope is that there will be some rehabilitative programme in place that will allow the person to return from prison without re-offending.

I understand that. I am concerned about more serious cases.

Mr. Jim Gibson

As the chief operations officer, I am also concerned about those cases. The number of children in care is a good example of how seriously we take our business of protecting children. As Mr. McBride stated, more than 6,300 children were in the care of the State due to a protection matter.

I thank the witnesses for their contribution. A gap in the number of social workers has been identified. How can this gap be closed? Has an analysis been done of the recruitment process to identify where the logjam lies or what is the reason for the failure to attract more social workers to take up vacant positions? Has sufficient funding been sanctioned for social work positions? Where are things falling down in the recruitment process?

I welcome the witnesses. This whole process started with the recent publication of a report on foster care in Dublin South Central where I live which showed shocking and significant failures. Tusla has many questions to answer. We must try to separate the media frenzy that occurred in response to the cases of Grace and Mary from the facts.

Tusla has the most difficult job to do in protecting and child-proofing our society and the risk to children. That said, I think the witnesses have failed. I do not say that lightly. I have a professional background in mental health and I know how difficult the job is. I understand there are no risk-free decisions. The protection of children is the most challenging of services. Tusla seems to be firefighting constantly. I come away from my interactions with social workers on the ground in Dublin South-Central with extreme disappointment and anger because I am faced with a complete culture of defensiveness. It is a defensiveness based on telling people to move along, that there is nothing to see, and that Tusla will deal with the evidence, but there is much more evidence in what I am trying to report but I am being asked to move along. That is unacceptable.

I wonder about the culture that is endemic in Tusla. There are so many people leaving and joining and Tusla seems to be a shambles. I regret having to say that. I do not think Tusla is fit for purpose. There needs to be a root-and-branch analysis and there must be challenge and change to it to protect children. Tusla was seen as the bad boy of the service. I do not want to fall into the media frenzy trap. I have said that repeatedly.

Reference was also made to section 12. It is great that the Garda is seen to be responsive, understanding and sensitive. Training is required for that. Foster care and the failures of governance identified in the report kick-started the concerns for me. Will the witnesses comment on the culture within Tusla? Is it an unhappy, unhealthy working environment? What makes it so defensive when the ordinary Joe Soap tries to access it or for elected members to try to access help when they have serious concerns regarding children. I reported two such incidents. I ask the witnesses to focus on the culture of the working environment within Tusla and whether it is fit for purpose.

Mr. Fred McBride

In response to Deputy Neville's question on funding and the recruitment process, for the past two years we have had significant funding investment into the agency and our challenge now is to try to recruit sufficient numbers in line with the investment. That has been challenging, but as I said in my presentation in the first quarter this year, we are recruiting significantly more people than have been leaving the service. That is probably the case for the first time. I can give the Deputy figures in that regard if he wishes.

Could I ask why that is the case?

Mr. Fred McBride

It is difficult to know exactly. We have tried some very creative approaches. We have been targeting third level institutions both in Ireland and in other jurisdictions such as Northern Ireland and in the UK. We have been trying to incentivise coming into Tusla. Previously we had been heavily dependent upon the national recruitment service, NRS, through a memorandum of understanding with the HSE, and we have now begun to build our own capacity within Tusla where we have our own recruitment section.

Has Tusla identified gaps in the HSE model and is it now honing a system of its own to make it better? Is that correct?

Mr. Fred McBride

Yes, we want to be much more self-sufficient in how we deal with some of these matters. The gaps the Deputy refers to are more to do with speed. The national recruitment service system was simply not quick enough for us. We were unable to recruit social workers quickly enough to fill the gaps and now we have developed some of our own capacity to do that.

I am sorry, but I need to get my head around this. Is Mr. McBride saying the length of the NRS recruitment process from end to end was too slow?

Mr. Fred McBride

Yes, it was too slow.

What was happening? Were candidates falling out of it and getting other jobs?

Mr. Fred McBride

Yes, that is correct. We began to develop our own capacity through Tusla to recruit both social workers and management and administrative staff as well. The process is happening much more quickly. That is part of the reason.

I have been travelling around the country. Perhaps this plays into the comments made by Senator Devine. She might say that I would say that, but as I go around the country and speak to not just a few but hundreds of staff, in particular around the work we are doing on signs of safety, I hear nothing but enthusiasm for what we are attempting to do. We do not have everything in place yet, but people are enthusiastic about what we are attempting to do. When Mr. Quinlan and I addressed 250 people recently in Dublin about the Signs of Safety approach, which does involve very much a culture change as well, they said to us that we should not wait but that we should get on with it. That was their response. I have been around the country at up to 11 different local events and I hear nothing but enthusiasm for what we are attempting to do. Social workers are not slow in coming forward to tell us the problems, issues and deficits. Of course that is the case. We hear that, but they are also extremely enthusiastic about how we are trying to address that.

If we have an environment where people are constantly blamed and pilloried in the media and by other sources and commentators, of course they will slip into a defensive mode to protect themselves. Eileen Munro said in her review of the child protection system in England, in the aftermath of Baby P, which a member mentioned, that there is very strong evidence that a number of things happened, for example, the number of children coming into care went through the roof. It was thought in England that if one just proceduralised everything, nothing bad would ever happen again. That was a really bad mistake. Social workers and others went into a defensive style and way of thinking and that was found not to be in the best interests of children. People followed process and procedure and got bogged down in that to the detriment of spending time in front-line, face-to-face contact with children and families. If we do nothing else, let us avoid that happening here.

On Tusla's recruitment practice and what was observed with the NRS, will Mr. McBride give statistics on the current recruitment timeline? Is the process shorter by 40% or 60%? Has the process been analysed?

Mr. Fred McBride

I will not stick my neck out on a figure today but I can certainly get it. I know the process is significantly quicker. We can give the difference in the number of weeks it now takes to recruit people.

I know there is a fine line in the recruitment process in terms of whether a candidate will fall out or move on to accept a role.

Mr. Fred McBride

Mr. Gibson will add to what I say in a moment, but I wish to give an example from the first quarter of this year. We recruited 133 staff, as against a target of 84. Social workers have accepted start dates for another 115 posts. When one adds the two together, that is 248 posts.

What was the target?

Mr. Fred McBride

In that quarter we have only lost 40, so we have a potential gain of 200.

Was that from a pipeline which started in 2016?

Mr. Fred McBride

In 2016, we recruited 365 staff but lost 309, so there was only a net gain of about 40 social workers.

Is Mr. McBride finding that the number of losses, from a retention point of view, are starting to decrease as well?

Mr. Fred McBride

That still remains a challenge. We need to find ways of retaining people. We are now recruiting faster than we are losing staff, but retention remains a challenge.

I understand. What about the staff pipeline? Are more staff coming into it? A recruitment process takes time and there is a period between when someone is offered and accepts a role. The current pipeline is for quarter 2 and quarter 3. Is there an increase in the pipeline in relation to the new practices?

Mr. Fred McBride


I am not asking for the figure now but could Mr. McBride furnish us with figures on the percentage of increased staff in the pipelines?

Mr. Fred McBride

We can.

That will show us what will happen in quarter 2 or quarter 3 of this year.

Mr. Fred McBride

Yes. We have a recruitment plan for the rest of the year that is within our business plan. I can give the committee the difference in timeframes for recruitment, as opposed to when we were using the NRS.

I am also interested in the percentages in terms of the increase Tusla is getting in the pipeline because that will indicate what success there will be down the line.

Mr. Fred McBride

I understand.

The second issue is retention. If there is an increase in retention, what is that percentage measured against the parameters Tusla is setting down? Mr. McBride is working on the front line and he is dealing with the nitty-gritty of recruitment. If he is finding discrepancies within the NRS and the HSE and he is finding ways to address them, it would be wise and prudent for them to be shared throughout the HSE afterwards to demonstrate how recruitment can be done better. The HSE is facing challenges recruiting nurses, doctors, etc., and some of those are down to process. Salary is an issue at times. I worked in recruitment for years and people often accepted roles for softer lifestyle reasons such as where they wanted to live, starting a family and so on. Salary is important but it is not the only reason. We need to get into the nitty-gritty of that. I welcome Mr. McBride's contribution in this regard. If recruitment is working and we can find the specifics of where it is working, that should be shared across the system.

Mr. Fred McBride

We will endeavour to get that information to the Deputy.

Mr. Jim Gibson

Another interesting aspect of recruitment and retention of social workers is supply and demand. We have come out of a long period of austerity. We are expanding services. There is Government investment in our services and in other social work-dominated practices in other agencies. There is a strategic development initiative group within our agency. It is like a health check stocktake for each area of Tusla. It will come to Dublin South-Central as well and we will engage with Senator Devine about the concerns there. This helps us to examine the reality of what we need, which is to be more innovative in our recruitment and retention practices. We need to front-load the most experienced practitioners from social work and social care in the front-line intake and be more innovative in using other disciplines such as functional family therapists and public health nurses to provide a collaborative approach. We have moved forward and increased our senior practitioner grades across our service, particularly on the front line.

Through the strategic development group, we are sending messages and themes that emanate from areas into the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. It is clear there are not enough places in universities for social work training and the clear message to the Department is it needs to increase social work training programmes in order that we can look down the pipeline and have more graduates. The content of the courses also needs to change dramatically because we find that newly qualified social workers are not prepared for the reality of front-line child protection work. Recently, we conducted an audit in an area where we noticed a high rate of unallocated cases. We analysed that and what happened was we had mature, experienced workers being promoted or moving to another organisation being replaced by newly qualified social workers who did not have the experience, knowledge and confidence to make key professional decisions. They played safe and put them up as unallocated cases when they could have gone to family support intervention.

Does that go back to the need for practical experience as opposed to academic knowledge?

Mr. Jim Gibson

Absolutely. We have engaged with communities around Dublin. Recently I was in St. Andrew's Terrace and I met a young person from the area who had attended Trinity College. I asked whether many young people in that community had the capacity, intellect and ability to participate in third level education and would be interested in social care and social work for our organisation, and that answer was "Yes". I am meeting a group of these young people and we are looking to be more innovative with regard to employing young people who do not have the financial capacity to attend a third level institution. We will take a good look at them to see if they have the potential during a period of employment with us as a family support practitioner and allow them to think long and hard about whether this is a good career opportunity for them. We want to consider secondment. We want to support these young people, but we also want to say to the colleges that we would like to develop a course with block releases because there would be huge benefits to that.

Is Mr. Gibson suggesting an apprenticeship-type model?

Mr. Jim Gibson

Yes, based on that principle.

Mr. Fred McBride

We are examining more creative ways of getting people into the organisation and, in particular, retaining them-----

While people of that disposition may not be hugely academic, they may have skills a social worker would require.

Mr. Fred McBride

The biggest factor in people leaving front-line practice is fear of criticism and being publicly pilloried. We have witnessed plenty of that. That is the single biggest disincentive for people to stay.

Mr. Jim Gibson

We have done a great deal of work in respect of our organisational culture and we are in the space of being creative and collaborative, but that also means we retain control and remain competitive in different aspects. It is clear from my interaction with our staff that they thoroughly approve of that culture and feel it is engaging and produces good outcomes for young people and staff retention. The majority of our staff are young women who get married and go on maternity leave, which is a major trend. It is difficult to keep up with that in a competitive recruitment market.

Is Senator Devine satisfied that her questions were answered?

No, I am not. I asked the officials to describe the culture and working environment within Tusla and whether they feel the organisation is fit for purpose.

Mr. Fred McBride

We have addressed some of them. The signs of safety approach is not just about a practice model; it is about culture change as well. We are trying hard to give people the confidence and the practice tools. We are trying to encourage openness and transparency in how they practise. Part of the approach is about opening up their practice to other practitioners and agencies, outlining what we think is the right decision in a case and asking them what they think. It is about how we can share ideas, knowledge and experience about the right decision. Some of these decisions are very challenging and they are very much based on a balance of judgment. We try to gather as much as evidence and information as we can to make these decisions. Sometimes the information is partial, ambiguous, conflicting, or old. There is a challenge in trying to get the balance of judgment correct. On most occasions we get it right, but there will be times when we do not. Part of the culture we are trying to create is to make staff aware that they will be judged by reasonable standards, and not by the distorting effect of hindsight, which can make them feel extremely exposed and frightened of public criticism. We are trying to create a management system and culture that supports people. Of course, people will have to be held accountable if something goes wrong. Ultimately, I will be held accountable and I am happy for that to happen provided we are judged by reasonable standards. That is part of the culture we are trying to create.

I apologise for being late and for missing the presentation. I went through the opening statement. I agree with much of what Senator Devine said. I have zero confidence in Tusla. The Shannon report took up a mere paragraph in Mr. McBride's opening statement. What follow-up has taken place in respect of the children referenced in the "Prime Time" programme? Has someone visited them? Are they safe? What follow-up has been done with the social workers who made the decisions?

If a garda makes a decision under section 12 to remove a child, how can anyone, trained as a social worker or not, make a decision two to three days later to place those children back in those homes? I honestly do not know how Tusla can stand over those decisions. I do not accept the point about people being afraid. If they are doing their jobs correctly, there is nothing to be afraid of. The majority of people who are not trained in social work can tell someone it was the wrong decision to return many of those children to their homes and keep a child in foster care when the birth mother made numerous complaints. We have failed children throughout the history of the State and we are doing it again. I thought when Tusla was created it would address many of these difficulties, but far too many children continue to fall through the cracks. The constituents I deal with give me much of the same feedback, unfortunately. This is that Tusla can be heavy-handed in certain cases but it does not seem to care in other situations. There does not seem to be any uniformity of approach.

Are members of staff involved in the Grace case still employed by Tusla? If so, why?

I apologise for being late. I will not ask any of the questions already asked. I will wait for answers to what Deputy Funchion has asked. Earlier Deputy O'Sullivan spoke about the various parties with whom we engage and we spoke about the Garda. I assume we engage with the Department of Education and Skills, the teaching profession and preschool officers because they have a huge role. I would like to hear how we engage with them. I have a particular experience of a case in my constituency where a teacher was not included in a decision involving four children in foster care and they ended up being removed. There were siblings among them and they ended up being divided. Special resource hours had been in place. It was a catastrophe for the children. How do we engage with teaching staff, who have a huge role to play?

What supports and services are available for grandparents in Ireland who take their grandchildren from the UK into care? They do not fall under fostering in Ireland, but they are given an allowance by the UK to mind children here. How do we support these families who take in children from the UK? How will this continue after Brexit? The Department supports children, but given the sterling differentiation where an allowance is paid from the UK, how do we give a wrap-around service to support these grandparents and the staff on the ground?

Tusla has received much criticism this morning. What can the committee do to support it? If it finds the Department or a committee is falling down and we could help, I would like to hear how we could be proactive in helping and supporting it. I welcome the fact Tusla is speaking about apprenticeships because we have a recruitment issue.

Five years ago, the advocacy group in Galway, Youth Advocate Programmes, YAP, had a budget to manage 60 or 70 cases. Three years ago, this decreased to 30 cases because of funding through the Tusla budget. At present, it manages only 25 cases. If it drops to fewer than 25 cases, YAP in Galway will not exist. It is in an ideal position to look after level 1 and 2 children and support the role of Tusla. It has the experience and is crying out to do more work. Why do we not use more of these groups? They have a wealth of knowledge. One does not need to be a social care worker to be very good advocate. How do we engage with professional people such as those working in Sugru, which is non-profit? We have to reach out to be able to look after the 5,400 children who do not have social care workers. The different levels demonstrate the amount of care we need. How do we engage with groupings in order that we can sieve through the cases very quickly to give support?

Mr. Fred McBride

I will answer Deputy Funchion's questions. The chief operations officer and I had a look at the cases on "Prime Time". One of them is still in a court process and is subject to the highest level of scrutiny. We are in constant discussion with the court on the management of this case, and I will not say any more other than this. We have a close eye on these cases. I will also not go into the details of the other case that was mentioned. I mentioned an example of two children in a foster care placement, one of whom was allegedly harming the other. We do not just remove one of the children and potentially cause huge damage to that child to protect the other child. It is much more complex than that. We have an obligation to both those children and some solution needs to be found. I said in the media recently that if one sibling in a family was harming another, the family would not throw out one of them. It would find a solution. The family would increase supervision, have a safety plan and talk to the children. Removing a child is not always the answer, especially when it can create significant lifelong trauma and loss. The notion one child can be protected by seriously damaging another is not a notion with which Tulsa holds any truck. We make much more complicated, complex and sophisticated decisions than that. The extremely simplistic way that some of these things are presented in the press does not help in this situation.

Deputy Rabbitte asked whether there is anything the committee or others could do to assist and support. One thing I would say is committee members should not believe what they read in the media and should not take it at face value, because it is usually much more complex than how it is presented in the media.

That is why we are asking these questions. I have not heard any follow-up about those children.

Mr. Fred McBride

In answer to the question, the chief operations officer and I have had a discussion about these cases. We are familiar with them and we have followed up on the decision-making on them. I cannot go into any more detail than this about them.

Will Mr. McBride at least confirm the children are in a safe environment?

Mr. Fred McBride


If there is a situation as outlined by Mr. McBride with two children in foster care whereby one is not removed but supervision is increased, how long does that system continue before Tusla takes the proper action?

Mr. Fred McBride

What I said is we may not necessarily remove one child. In some circumstances we might have to. It is not always as straightforward as it is sometimes portrayed. It is a much more complex decision that involves balancing the interests, care and protection of two children for whom we have responsibility. On some occasions, we may remove one and on other occasions this may not be the best thing to do.

How long would a situation be monitored before it is decided it is not working? What is the system?

Mr. Fred McBride

There is no specific length of time. We would monitor it. All children in care have to be allocated a social worker, who visits regularly. The foster carers should have a link worker, who is their own social worker, to help support them, and regular reviews of care plans take place every six months at least. People visit the household regularly, speak to the child and foster carers, review whether the safety plan is working and, as far as possible, try to ensure the child or children are as safe as possible.

Are Deputies Rabbitte and Funchion satisfied they have received answers to their questions? They might have another chance to ask further questions later.

What supports are in place for grandparents, uncles or aunts fostering children from the UK or another jurisdiction?

Mr. Fred McBride

Some of my colleagues can help me. I believe the Deputy was asking about supports for relative carers. They receive an allowance from us in respect of caring for these children.

Mr. Cormac Quinlan

I think the Deputy is referring to-----

Mr. Fred McBride

Was the Deputy referring to children who have moved to Ireland with relatives?

Yes. Just to explain my question, I am asking about situations where the family network is in another jurisdiction but the grandparents, for example, are living in Ireland - a situation where a care order has been given in another jurisdiction for those grandparents to care for the children, resulting in the children moving here. While they are getting a small allowance from another jurisdiction, it might not be an awful lot with which to maintain and support the children. What support does Tusla provide to them? I know that Tusla is supporting them, but they are not getting enough financial support.

Mr. Cormac Quinlan

The Deputy is referring to two categories of cases. Where children are in care in another jurisdiction and there is an agreement to move them here under a formal care arrangement, we will look at those cases. There are bilateral agreements with countries under Brussels II, EC Regulation No. 2201/2003, so that a proper transfer is arranged. Those children could potentially come into formal care under our system and be supported through formal payments. There is another category of cases to which I believe the Deputy is referring, in respect of a kind of special guardianship. This is in place in the UK, but it is not in place here.

Mr. Cormac Quinlan

Those grandparents may avail of other social welfare payments which might be available to them. The children are not technically in care in Ireland so they are not able to access the foster care payment. They are however able to access our meitheal support services and our family support services. We can provide prevention and support services if the grandparents need additional services or support in caring for that child. They can access any service available through us, but financial payment would be a matter for social welfare because the children are technically not in the care of the State.

All right. I am talking about a specific case here so I apologise. It is something I have come across only very recently. While the case is exactly as Mr. Quinlan has described the second category of cases, we are talking about grandparents doing their very best with four kids but, because of the currency exchange rate at this moment in time, they are falling short by an awful lot. While Tusla is giving all those supports that Mr. Quinlan has spoken about, they are still falling short financially. The people in Tusla are looking for supports, trying to support the family and trying to keep the whole unit together, because it is working.

Mr. Cormac Quinlan

Absolutely. In this case the family has agreed to an arrangement that does not result in those children coming into care, therefore we do not have the same formal role in terms of being able to administer foster payment in this situation.

I thank Mr. Quinlan for that answer.

To preface my remarks, I absolutely accept that Tusla's job is very difficult. It is worth saying that Ireland has a very unhappy history in respect of child protection. Generationally, we have failed children and there is no doubt that Tusla came into a very difficult situation. At the time that Tusla was being established and the legislation to do so was passing through Dáil Éireann, our position was that we favoured the idea but we were concerned that if the resources were not going to be provided and the social workers and recruitment were not going to be up to scratch, it would not be able to succeed in achieving what it was intended to achieve. To a considerable extent that has unfortunately been borne out.

I accept the point that people need to be judged against reasonable standards and not with the benefit of hindsight and that individual cases are useful in terms of getting a sense of the kind of considerations that might be involved. What concerns me most in the reports from HIQA, the Shannon report, a number of other reports and the information we have received through parliamentary questions, are the structural weaknesses that exist. This is not something that can be contextualised by missing information. It is almost an objective fact that there are structural weaknesses.

Tusla was initially invited before the committee in the context of foster care, although wider issues have since emerged. In the last fortnight a report into south Dublin and Wicklow stated that 84%, or 188 of 223, foster care households in that area had not been subjected to a performance review in the past three years, despite child protection concerns being reported in a number of those settings. Some of those foster parents were not even familiar with what that process involved. It is structural issues like that which create significant concerns for people like us and weaken our faith in Tusla to deliver.

I accept that there are recruitment issues, but it is also an issue that there are still - according to the last statistics I have seen - more than 1,000 high-priority, unallocated cases. There are always individual cases and considerations to be considered, but even in the opening statement returning a child home was mentioned as a positive outcome. In a number of these cases, including one particular case featured in the "RTE Investigates" show, somebody was returned to a person against whom allegations of abuse had been made. Perhaps the witnesses can enlighten me, but I cannot think of a single mitigating circumstance in which that could be acceptable. It seems there are structural issues, issues with recruitment and perhaps there are management issues, but some of it also seems to be cultural. I publicly welcomed the new child protection strategy and I believe there is a lot of good in it, but there are still significant cultural issues as far as I can see. Certainly, I have received a lot of feedback to that effect.

On recruitment and retention, I do not need a comment back on this, but I want to briefly relay suggestions that social workers have made to me. They have suggested that there should not be the same difficulty in recruiting administrative staff and that doing it should assist in freeing up social workers. It appears that recruitment has now surpassed the issues with retention. Does that specifically refer to the child protection social worker category? Are there more child protection social workers being recruited than are being lost? People also felt that central recruitment was not working and that local recruitment was more effective. There was also a sense that the applied social work practitioner grade, which has essentially lapsed, is something that should be considered.

I express my continued concern at the issue of outsourcing. The level of reliance on the Five Rivers agency is still very considerable. It is even mentioned in the statistics the witnesses provided today. I am particularly concerned that cases under section 12 will inevitably become a very serious category of incident. Five Rivers apparently reserves the right to refuse children with difficult behavioural issues. That potentially means people will end up in Garda stations when that is not necessarily the right place for them to be. I express my continued concern about the reliance on outsourcing.

The issue of inter-agency co-operation has been touched on and perhaps there is improvement on the way. The Shannon report continued into 2016 in respect of the focus groups. At that stage there were a number of comments. The audit into section 12 found that there were "low levels of meaningful communications between agencies", that co-operation and co-ordination were largely dependent on good personal relationships, that a critical theme of notification not being communication was emerging and that there was a lack of feedback to Garda members. As far as I understand those focus groups continued right up to 2016. I would still be concerned about that particular issue.

The out-of-hours service was also touched on in that report. There is progress in certain areas but it is stated in the report that there continues to be no comprehensive social work service that is directly accessible to children and family outside of office hours. That is also a concern.

My last questions are relevant in the context of what the witnesses have said happened after the Baby P case in Britain, when an overall review of social services found that there has perhaps been an overreaction and things had became very process-oriented. Geoffrey Shannon's report, which has been valuable, focused on a very discrete area of child protection issues in terms of section 12.

Does Mr. McBride believe there is a value in a similar audit being taken of the full remit of Tusla's responsibility and child protection structures in order that we can get a full picture of where the structural and perhaps cultural deficiencies are?

Mr. McBride said of the Shannon report: "In respect of the Shannon Report I can confirm that this was commissioned by An Garda Síochána for An Garda Síochána and no member of staff was interviewed as part of the methodology for conducting the review or writing the report." In the context of the publication of that report a press release was issued then withdrawn with the intention of dispelling any doubt about whether Tusla was trying to undermine the report or making adverse comment on it. I would be slightly concerned that this comment is a restatement of that first press release. It seems to be very carefully worded when it reads "no member of staff was interviewed as part of the methodology for conducting the review or writing the report". Was the rapporteur, Geoffrey Shannon, in contact with Tusla seeking data and information while compiling that report and was there ongoing communication between the rapporteur and Tusla?

Mr. Fred McBride

I have written to the rapporteur saying that in no way were we attempting to undermine that process or criticise it. We were trying to be clear about the fact that none of our staff was interviewed as part of the process. He was in discussion with our director of policy about the findings. Once that was done he may have requested some information for the purposes of the report but at no time were we interviewed about contributing to the substance and writing of the report. I was just trying to set the record straight on the facts of that. I have since written to Dr. Shannon saying we absolutely accept the process and have no difficulty with it and in no way were we trying to undermine it. We accept the report as produced.

Mr. Cormac Quinlan

To further clarify that, in April of last year Dr. Shannon engaged with us because he was proposing an extension to the audit to follow through on some of the work and we participated in that with him throughout that discussion on a second stage but we were never interviewed about any of the 91 cases that he reviewed. No staff were ever interviewed about what was the follow up on any of those matters from a Tusla perspective. He met us on 2 November and read segments of the report but did not go into any detail of the 91 cases. He was more focused on some of the issues he touched on in his report in respect of legal issues around use of section 12 and how it fits within our structures and services and particularly in respect of the use of Five Rivers and some clarifications on that. He sought some information from us on the contract we have with Five Rivers and some data and information about the current emergency out-of-hours service, which we provided to him. That was the extent of the engagement on that issue.

Does Mr. Quinlan feel he should have been interviewed?

Mr. Cormac Quinlan

I think the focus of the report was on the Garda-----

Mr. Fred McBride

We did not commission the report.

Mr. Jim Gibson

There is follow-up work for us as an agency in respect of Dr. Shannon's report. We gave a commitment to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs that we would review the 91 cases outlined in that report. We have communicated on two occasions with An Garda Síochána with regard to seeking the identifiers and the geographical location of those section 12s. That allows us to undertake an audit of all the cases that were in the report to satisfy ourselves that the contacts and the professional decision making did occur.

As chief operations officer I took it upon myself to do a snapshot audit of one county in Ireland that Mr. McBride mentioned earlier. There were 14 cases, which were quite interesting because they showed the span of cases that arise out of hours. I needed to assure myself that staff were following up on section 12s. All of the 14 cases in the county were responded to and some children came into care. Some young people who fell out with their mum and dad because they were drunk at home and were put out of their homes were placed in the local hospital by the gardaí, and were returned home the following day but with a support plan and an intervention plan. To give a real idea of how we would do that and would like to mentor young people who have a difficulty with drugs or alcohol, instead of placing them in residential care where they do not have a good outcome, we coach parents in how to engage with that young person who is full of drugs or alcohol, and to wait for the appropriate time to deal with those issues. For example, in the north west a member of an organisation in the voluntary and community sector is contracted with us to do intensive parenting coaching for adolescents. If there is a pattern of the young person arriving home drunk every Friday night and having an argument with his mother, who might be a single mother, kicking the TV in or ripping the door off, then being told to leave and wanting to come back because he has nowhere to go, we coach a social care or youth worker type of individual to come into the family home to show the mother how to parent the situation. The mother is told to get the young person to bed when he comes home, get him to settle down and not to confront him or create a scene which might give rise to verbal or physical aggression and then to make a nice breakfast in the morning. The youth worker will come and coach the mother in how to engage with her son and raise the issues of concern to her, that he is drinking, that he is with the wrong crowd and so forth. Creating those supports works really well.

That is outlined in the documentation which we will give to the committee. It details Tusla's initiative on creative community alternatives which is building an integrated approach to the multiple issues that young people and children experience. As one agency we cannot resolve those. We need an integrated response. Many young people known to our service are also known to the gardaí for petty crime or to the Probation Service because they are on an order in the youth diversion scheme, or to the mental health services. By creating a team in communities we can collaborate with other agencies to put a wrap-around team in place to intensively help that young person and their family get a better outcome, as opposed to removing the person from the family and community. That is the very important work we need to get on with, promoting and engaging with other key agencies in and around communities.

Mr. Fred McBride

In response to some of the Acting Chairman's questions which are very searching, I absolutely accept there are still some structural weaknesses. We are an organisation of more than 4,000 people. We have embarked on a broad and deep transformation for just over three years but we cannot fix every structural weakness in that time. It takes longer. I accept there are areas where there are some structural weaknesses, for example, reviews in foster care. Some of those children are with relatives, they are settled and we believe they are safe, or as safe as they can be. There are not necessarily any immediate risks. There are some mitigating factors there. I do not deny there are structural weaknesses and changes we need to make after three years.

I accept some of the Chairman's points about recruitment and we are doing something about that. We accept that recruitment of administrative grades is equally important so that we can support social workers and free them up to do the work they need to do. We have an ambition to create a senior social work practitioner in every social work team in the country. We plan to roll that out as soon as possible. Inter-agency communication remains a challenge. As the chief operations officer has said, we have some mechanisms in place such as child protection case conferences that several professionals attend.

We need to get better where a teacher, public health nurse or garda refers the matter to us and wants to hear back about what we have done with it. We are not always good at doing that. Often, we deal with a referral and do not give sufficient feedback to the referrer to let him or her know what has happened. Interagency communication is an ongoing challenge.

The outsourcing of foster care was mentioned. Only 6% of children in care are with private foster carers. Private foster carers have entered the frame because of a deficit in direct State provision. They have been with us in this and many other jurisdictions since the 1990s and much earlier in others. They have become a reality, a fact of life and a fact of the range of provision that exists. Inevitably, they will be used when some of our foster carers are unable to take particularly challenging youngsters.

A question was asked about whether we needed a full-blown out-of-hours service covering the whole country. We have a full team in the greater Dublin area and Cork and the rest of the country is covered by an on-call service. We undertook a demand analysis before we set up that service. There is not usually a demand in rural areas for a permanent team of social workers or others who are sitting around waiting to be called. It could be argued that, if there was a team, people would use it. That is probably a fair point, but if we were to have a full-blown out-of-hours service covering every area in the country, it would require significant further investment and we would have to ask whether it would be fully used. That would have to be analysed and tested.

Regarding a full audit of Tusla, we are subject to five or six separate scrutiny processes. HIQA is investigating nine of our areas and we are participating in the Charleton commission of inquiry and the commission of inquiry into the Grace report, which is covering many years. The Data Protection Commissioner will examine our data protection systems and processes. A large number of substantial scrutiny exercises are under way simultaneously. That said, if a decision was made that a full audit of Tusla's current position and where it needs to reach should be undertaken, I would be happy to participate in such an exercise provided that it did not detract from our day-to-day business of protecting children. I have made the point publicly that there is a real risk that the level of scrutiny that is being visited upon this agency - five or six different processes simultaneously - is beginning to draw time, attention, resources and social workers away from practice. We are happy to participate in audits, but we need to keep the service going.

Mr. Jim Gibson

The agency is on record as welcoming independent and robust scrutiny of our services. We welcome that because it reaffirms our assessment of some of the situations. Some of the main themes that have come through the HIQA reports include relative assessments not being completed within a timeframe that was set ten years ago by way of regulation, Garda vetting not being on file, the reviews of foster carers after a period of three years and the management of abuse allegations. I will categorically state that we take on board that commentary and have responded to it. We have ready for sign-off a new assessment framework for relatives because there is a distinct difference between going around the corner to stay with an aunt or uncle with whom one has a good relationship and attachment as opposed to a stranger in general foster care. Garda vetting has been an issue. We have let ourselves down, in that we had the Garda vetting but we did not have it on the file in the area. With e-vetting now in place, we are confident that we have set up a procedure with the Garda vetting bureau in Thurles to process applications more quickly.

Regarding the management of allegations of abuse, the main finding by HIQA was that there were inconsistent practices. It did not necessarily say that we never dealt with those complex issues. I issued an interim protocol that brought consistency to the area and my colleague on policy and strategy is working on a more comprehensive policy document.

We respond to the findings and themes that emerge from HIQA reports. We do not nonchalantly ignore them. We have identified reviews that need to take place, mitigated risks and put a plan in place to undertake the reviews. As chief operations officer, I am involved with service directors and area managers on ensuring fitness for purpose. Under one of the initiatives deployed in areas where HIQA identified difficulties, we set up a governance performance and oversight group to ensure that the action plan that we agreed with HIQA was thoroughly and exclusively dealt with in that area. There are fine examples within our agency of serious and benchmarked improvement.

I welcome Deputy Rabbitte's query about providing an opportunity to showcase some of the good stuff that we do and to remind the committee that, when we were established, we set ourselves the target that every child in care would have an allocated social worker. We have hovered around the 90% to 95% figure of children in care having social workers. As the chief operations officer, that is an exceptionally good standard to achieve internationally. The other 5% figure relates to the recruitment and retention issues that we have been experiencing.

We have numerous young people in foster care who are at university, abroad, on sports scholarships and so on. They comprise the silent majority whom we never get the opportunity to showcase. I receive correspondence from children in care thanking me. When one young person who left care in a city in this country got married to his girlfriend, his foster carer asked him whether he would like to buy a house. She could buy a house for that young chap because she had kept the maintenance payments for 15 years. These are the positives.

I asked the area managers to give me a portfolio of all of the good occurrences in foster care because the level of scrutiny of past events is impacting on our capacity as an agency to recruit and retain foster carers. I told Ms Catherine Bond of the Irish Foster Care Association when we met to discuss recruitment that, given all of the bad publicity and loose comments about foster care, it might be about marketing foster care rather than recruitment. We are forgetting about the silent majority of children who are doing exceptionally well in families and communities, attending school and having a good outcome. I welcome the opportunity for us to showcase to the committee the good, positive elements of foster care.

Mr. Cormac Quinlan

I might address a point. A number of members have mentioned the culture issue.

Before Mr. Quinlan speaks, one or two matters are outstanding. A specific question was asked about an audit and I welcome the comment in that regard, but the question was on whether the retention level of child protection social workers had surpassed the departing number.

Regarding the cultural issue, the Shannon report made a specific point about social workers supposedly leaving the reporting of cases until late on a Friday evening.

That resonated very strongly with all of us. Perhaps the witnesses will comment on that also.

Mr. Cormac Quinlan

I will address the culture issue first. Fred McBride has touched on this already. The child protection and welfare strategy which we have talked about, and obviously signs of safety are a part of that, took almost two years to develop. We conducted a very extensive review of all the reports, inspections or otherwise. It was a thematic review and analysis of all the critical challenges and the things that were working well in the system to allow us to build what I believe is a very effective strategy for the next five years to deliver real change. In addition, it meant that Fred and I met hundreds of our front-line staff throughout the country. We visited many areas to talk to them about what they considered to be the particular challenges the agency was facing, what they believed was working well for their practice and how they wanted to see the agency change. That also included engagement with key stakeholders. We met with officials from our Department, the HSE and the Garda. We carried out a comprehensive analysis and engagement with all staff. The staff told us that they wanted to work in a much more creative and collaborative environment, and we are modelling that.

I have also been at the front of rolling out this training programme with staff around the country. We have exceptionally skilled and enthusiastic staff who wish to work in this agency. They do not believe they are failing people, and certainly we do not believe we are failing people in that context. There are challenges and issues, but all the information we have presented today highlights that there is a huge amount of positive work taking place in this organisation. There are problems but the nature of child protection and welfare work is problematic, and we are seeking over time to address those difficulties.

With regard to the comment around culture, it would be absolutely inappropriate for staff to engage in a process where they would try to bypass the responsibility. That would not be the intent of the organisation. If that was a concern, we would address it with staff to prevent it from happening. Our work is to try to collaborate as effectively as we can with the Garda to get better outcomes for children.

What about the specific question about child protection social workers?

Mr. Fred McBride

We are recruiting social workers across the board but, as the chief operations officer said, we are trying to prioritise getting social workers, and experienced social workers where possible, into our front door for the initial assessment and decision about whether a child or a family needs ongoing support from a social worker or where it can been diverted to family support. That is where we are prioritising our recruitment. We have not broken down the numbers coming in the door by team, but we are recruiting social workers across the system - intake, which by its name and nature is where initial referrals are made, child protection, children in care and foster care support social workers.

We will aim to conclude by 11.30 a.m. so there will be another round of supplementary questions. I call Deputy Jan O'Sullivan first.

I missed some of the answers. I wish to pick up on the culture issue. Mr. Gibson has rightly told us about the large number of placements and so forth that are good, where the children are being well looked after. We know that is the case with most of the children who are in care in one way or another. My initial questions were focused on where that is not the case and where there is a serious risk. That is why I asked the questions around where there is an escalation when somebody expresses a concern from the outside. Will Mr. McBride give us an undertaking that he will, and does, respond in those situations? That is the reason I raised the issue of training as well. The witnesses spoke about a collaborative approach with the Garda, education, the community, families and so forth. That will only work if people feel their concerns are receiving a genuine response.

Deputy Funchion and Senator Devine spoke about people feeling closed off when they raise these matters. They are being told, "we are handling it so go away". I wish to pursue that point with the witnesses. Where there is genuine concern, and it is nearly always a genuine concern although there might be very occasional situations where it is not, that decisions might be putting children at risk or leaving them in risky situations, there should be an openness that complaints will be followed up and responded to and an openness to engaging with the people who express those concerns. That is what concerns me. I acknowledge the good work we have heard about from the witnesses this morning. However, we as public representatives have a duty to ensure that there are no children falling through the cracks and being put into serious situations. I seek an assurance that the witnesses will respond where there are concerns from outside sources.

I will continue in the same vein with regard to the escalation, where if the schools have an issue that they wish to raise they will not be shut down straight away. They must feel that the door is open. They are minding children for seven hours per day and they know the foster parents who are coming to the school. If they want to lend support or to be engaged, they do not need teachers getting a telephone call in return telling them that they could lose their job for referring something to a politician. That is not what we need to hear. We are talking about people who are looking for help and who feel they are doing a very good job.

According to a reply to a parliamentary question I tabled last March, there are currently 5,200 children in need of a social worker, social care worker or a level of intervention. Of those, 20% are priority cases. How many staff have to be recruited? I am aware there will be a shortfall, so what is the plan for engaging with advocacy groups to get through it as quickly as possible? Finally, there is a fear factor for people who want to become part of the team. That fear factor is that the tools are not in place. In mentioning tools, which are totally outside of the witnesses' control, I refer to the computer database system and how there can be reference from county to county. I have raised this numerous times with the Department. Does the fact that social care workers do not have the tools to do their job feed into the fear factor of them not being able to document correctly?

Mr. Fred McBride

I thank the Deputies for their questions. I said earlier that we need to get better at ensuring that people who refer matters to us are kept in the loop so they know what is happening with that referral, even where they do not perhaps have an ongoing role to play. When teachers, public health nurses or gardaí refer matters to us we often want them to continue to be involved in supporting the child and the family. We do not want them to just give us a piece of information and then walk away. We want them to stay involved. That is the reason we invite them to a range of multi-agency discussions, child protection case conferences and child care reviews if the child is in care. I am very open to these other agencies playing a full part where it is appropriate in the ongoing care of these children and families. However, I have acknowledged that we need to get better at keeping people in the loop. If we do not see that there is a further role for them we do not always keep them informed of what we are doing about the situation, and there is scope for us to do that. I accept that.

We take concerns from outside sources seriously. I can give an assurance, as far as an assurance can be given, that where we deem a situation to be high risk and a child in some type of imminent danger we will remove that child. The HIQA inspections across the piece relating to child protection and welfare have all said that where a child needs an immediate protective response they get one. All of the reports have said that. I can offer that level of reassurance.

However, as I said, there are many decisions which are not at all clear cut in regard to balancing risk against the damage that might be caused by removal. These are delicate balances of judgment. We have to weigh up evidence, information and the impact on the child. An independent judgment has recognised that if a child is at immediate risk, we take immediate action. That is reflected in HIQA inspection reports.
In regard to how many staff we would need to clear the unallocated list, we have a caseload management system which tries to keep social workers' caseloads at a manageable level. If we were able to recruit all the social workers we could recruit within our current investment level and do something about the retention issue, we could reduce the unallocated cases very significantly. I do not know whether the list would ever get down to zero because there will always be a time gap between a referral being made and its being responded to. However, we are confident that if we address those recruitment and retention issues within the investment that we have, we can get those unallocated cases down significantly. We have introduced a further category of case which we are calling being actively worked on duty. The duty team or intake team, which the committee has heard us mention a couple of times, is the team that deals with initial referrals. Of the 5,000 cases Deputy Rabbitte mentioned, between 1,500 and 2,000 are being actively worked on and we have criteria to define what that means. To that extent, I could argue that they are not unallocated.
The children in those may have more than one social worker visiting them, which I accept is not ideal, but there is not nothing happening with these cases. People are monitoring, visiting and working to progress the safety plans. If one took that 2,000 as a separate category, then the figure of 5,000 unallocated cases would come down to 3,000. Therefore, we are already beginning to make inroads into that. There has been some recent evidence that the number of unallocated cases was beginning to go up after about two and a half years of constant reduction and we are trying to diagnose the reason for that. It is in the context of increased referrals, as I mentioned earlier, which means more business is coming in our front door. However, we are considering how we prioritise these cases and, as I said, a significant proportion of them are being actively worked by a team rather than an individual social worker. We have been slightly unkind to ourselves by calling them unallocated as they are being actively worked. I am not trying to play silly with the figures, I am just trying to be absolutely clear and honest with you about the reality for some of those children's cases.

I used that word based on the response I got to a parliamentary question I tabled. I was not trying to be disingenuous.

Mr. Fred McBride

The Deputy also mentioned the escalation issue and the computer database.

That is correct, the NCCIS programme.

Mr. Fred McBride

That is our national child care information system, NCCIS. Technology in Tusla began from an extremely low starting point. The infrastructure was not there. Several of our areas are still largely paper-based with bespoke databases in operation. However, I am pleased to report that we are making very significant progress in the rolling out of the national child care information system which will contribute to some of the issues we have been talking about today such as consistency of practice, sharing of information, ensuring that if a child moves from Dublin to Donegal, the information will follow him or her accurately and in a timely manner and so on. We are making significant progress in rolling that out. It is currently beginning to be rolled out to a number of areas. Again, it is work in progress but our experience of undertaking a transformation reform programme of this scale is that one cannot pull it off in three years. It takes a long time. My colleague reminds me that the NCCIS is due to be fully functional by March 2018, approximately nine months away. I am not sure if I have missed any other questions.

Mr. Jim Gibson

Deputy Jan O'Sullivan raised an issue in regard to a member of another organisation escalating a concern to us because they were unsure or unhappy or wanted to flag their serious reservations about a plan agreed by the Child and Family Agency in respect of a child protection matter. As I said earlier, there are different levels of interaction and liaison between team leader and liaison sergeant, between area manager and superintendents and in regard to Mr. McBride, Mr. Quinlan and me attending the national liaison group meeting. However, I give the Deputy an assurance that if a superintendent rang me, as has happened on occasions when Detective Superintendent Daly has flagged situations he felt were of concern, we would immediately review and engage with the area social work team regarding that case.

Would the witness go back to the sergeant in that situation? That is important.

Mr. Jim Gibson

Yes, absolutely.

Mr. Fred McBride

And vice versa. We also raise concerns with them.

Mr. Jim Gibson

I hope that answers the Deputy's question.

Mr. Cormac Quinlan

There was another question in regard to advocacy groups. We hugely value the role of Atlantic Philanthropies, AP, Extern Ireland and various other organisations. Mr. McBride mentioned initiatives he is trying to develop to consider more creative community solutions to see if young people who may currently be in residential care could be supported in a more robust way at home or in the community setting, and those organisations may have a role to play in that. We have to be careful because a concern has been raised by the committee that Tusla does not pass on its statutory responsibilities to other organisations. Therefore, we still have to lead those interventions and a social worker or social care worker may still be needed to lead that intervention with the support of an advocacy group or others.

It does not need to be just the social care worker, one can also have a community development worker as well. Sometimes we get hung up on titles. If the person has the right skill set, that benefits the whole community.

Mr. Cormac Quinlan

One of the key initiatives, particularly in terms of safety, is informal and formal networks in terms of creating effective safety for children in a community. We want to make sure we are keeping grannies, grandads, uncles, aunts and so on wrapped around children as best we can to ensure effective safety and then bring in relevant services or otherwise to support those situations. However, the people who see children on a day-to-day basis are the most important people for keeping children safe. Services are really important but they do not tend to stay involved in children's lives indefinitely and therefore we must ensure that we are building effective safety around children by connecting them to the naturally-occurring networks around them.

When will the witness roll out the training for------

Mr. Cormac Quinlan

It is currently being rolled out.

When will it be rolled out to people other than Tusla employees?

Mr. Cormac Quinlan

We are developing our own practice mentors and then there will be briefings for extensive stakeholder engagement pieces. We will be briefing the Garda and many other stakeholder groups. We have to have a briefing for every organisation we engage with and those will take place as we roll this out.

I am conscious of time pressure. We will move on to the final questions. I call on Deputy Funchion.

Are members of staff who were involved in the Grace case still employed by Tusla? That question was not answered.

I wish to make an observation that possibly does not need a response. The committee has had representations from Empowering Children in Care, EPIC, the ISPCC, the Irish Foster Care Association, IFCA, and the Children's Rights Alliance. The gender balance is quite striking. I want to make that observation today.

Is there clinical supervision of social workers? I am not ignoring the children but I am ignoring the whole foundation of Tusla and its capabilities and competencies. Is there clinical supervision? Is it mandatory and regular or, as can happen when one is fire fighting, does it go onto the back burner? Can the witnesses comment on the paucity of care received by six children sent outside the State to St. Andrew's in Newcastle where control and restraint techniques such as prone restraint that are banned in Ireland are regularly used? There is also the over-use of antipsychotic medication, leading to physical illnesses, obesity and diabetes.

These children are sent there for specialist care. Is there oversight of the care - or lack of it as appears to be the case - they are given in St. Andrew's hospital? I would like a comment from the witnesses on that. What level of communication is there between the children and their parents who are separated by countries?

It must be a priority for Tusla to provide 24-hour services in whatever shape that may be. The Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, ISPCC, did a fairly indepth research on this area. It found that in the North, the Six Counties, there is a budget of €4 million to provide 24-hour care, which includes phone contact and home visits. Much of it can be dealt with over the phone and 15% of it requires home visits. To think outside the box and about inter-agency actions, we need 24-hour mental health services. Unfortunately, the reigning Government does not believe that or it fights against it. Such interaction could serve communities and there could be community-based initiatives to develop mental health well-being hubs in our communities that would have child protection personnel, social workers and community staff who could answer questions and who would be able to provide the necessary mental health services. We need to knit those supports more closely together to provide those services.

I do not know if it is possible but can we commission or ask for a report on Tusla's working environment? I know we are examining what the priorities are. Child-proofing society is an important tool that Tusla needs to develop.

As I have been Acting Chairman from only 9 a.m., I am not sure of the answer to the Senator's question. We can discuss it in private session.

That would be good.

If Mr. McBride has meetings and engagements with his 200 staff dotted around the country, will he invite me along to one of those? I would like to go along to see what happens at one of those.

Does Deputy Neville have anything to add?

I have three brief questions and a short answer to them will suffice. Mr. McBride said that he is hopeful that the budget will provide for Tusla to deal with most of the unallocated cases. Can he put a number, even a rough figure, on what net gain Tusla would require at the start of the year?

Mr. Fred McBride

As I mentioned, it is not just about social workers. We have a target recruitment number of approximately 360 staff this year and a number of them would be social workers. The point was also made that we need administration and support workers to free up social workers to do the work they need to do. Some family support workers, social care workers and some of our management capacities would have a contribution to make within that as well. That is the overall figure we are trying to recruit this year. It is an ambitious target but we are making some progress towards meeting that figure.

I will ask my remaining questions and Mr. McBride might respond to them together. I acknowledge that Mr. Cormac Quinlan dealt with the aspect that if there was an issue of people leaving at the very last minute that it would be dealt with. Is Mr. McBride confident that this is not an issue?

Mr. McBride dealt with the issue in respect of Five Rivers Fostering. Will he agree it is unacceptable that it is in a position to turn away people which it considers are difficult and, consequently, those people end up in Garda stations?

Many of the recommendations of the Shannon report apply to the Garda Síochána, but of those that relate to Tusla, would Tusla be satisfied to implement them?

Mr. Fred McBride

The Grace case was mentioned. As it is the subject of a commission of inquiry, I will not say too much about it other than that I spent a long time during the past year or so on many occasions trying to get clarification about the specific identification of the staff mentioned in that report in order to discover whether they were still working for us and whether we needed to do anything about it. It was only relatively recently that we managed to get the identification of these people and we have implemented appropriate and proportionate human resources processes. I will not say any more than that given that the inquiry is ongoing.

The answer to the question about clinical supervision is "Yes", we have a supervision policy. We would expect front-line practitioners and the different levels in the system to receive supervision on a regular basis in terms of looking at the practice and helping them to reflect. The science of a safety model is fundamentally based on clinical supervision, not only on a one-to-one with the supervisor but also in groups. There is a policy in place around that and my answer to that question is "Yes".

Senator Devine mentioned well-being in terms of the community and having local hubs. My colleague can say something about that but we are currently trying to develop our own therapeutic services. Again, we are still largely reliant on the HSE for services such as psychology services, which are still fairly thin on the ground. We are trying to develop our own therapeutic teams on a local basis in terms of looking at the children who have been sexually abused, children who are potentially exhibiting sexually dangerous behaviour as well as other youngsters who require therapeutic support, not only psychology services or psychiatry services, but other forms of therapeutic input to help them to recover from abuse and neglect. That is a work in progress and I welcome the support around that.

In regard to the Acting Chairman's question about Five Rivers Fostering and its refusal on occasion to take in a young person, our carers can refuse to take a young person as well. A foster carer cannot be obliged to take a difficult youngster who is completely out of control on alcohol or substances. If there are other children, especially younger ones, in that foster placement, it would not be appropriate for a youngster in that condition to go into that foster home.

The point at issue is that the more there is a 24-hour service in place, there could be a better and more direct response. The point at issue is that these children are ending up in Garda stations as opposed to anywhere else. Obviously, it is not appropriate for them to be placed with a family against their will.

Mr. Fred McBride

We certainly do not want youngsters to be inappropriately placed in a Garda station. If it was children who were completely out of control, I might well want them to be in a Garda station or a hospital, if they were full of alcohol and drugs, as I would want the hospital to have a look at them to see whether they were okay before placing them anywhere. These occasions are relatively few and far between, and in most instances where the Garda invokes a section 12 and we decide that the youngster needs to be in care, a placement is found for them. We are also increasing the number of emergency residential beds we have across the country in order to try to deal with those youngsters who would not be suitable for a foster placement but who may well be placed in a residential bed. We are trying to increase that capacity. I agree with the Acting Chairman's point that we do not expect the Garda to have to look after children all evening in a cell but, likewise, there are some situations where youngsters are so out of control that perhaps the Garda or a hospital needs to have a look at them.

A question was asked about the St. Andrew's facility which is located in Northampton. Tusla has certainly reduced the number of children it sends there on care orders. The vast majority of them are subject to mental health legislation and some are subject to both mental health legislation and care orders. It is a mental health facility and where children in that facility are also subject to care orders as well as mental health legislation, we visit them on a regular basis. They are subject to child care reviews and we try to facilitate parents to visit them wherever that is appropriate.

Mr. Jim Gibson

It is really important to add that we as an agency do not just send those children to out-of-State placements. There is an absolute process involved. We have psychiatric assessments, we are before the High Court and there is a whole process to be gone through. It is not just Tusla making the decision to send a child out of the State for a very specific treatment-----

I understand that but I am concerned about the oversight while a child is out of the country.

Mr. Jim Gibson

Yes. I satisfied myself, as the chief operations officer, that the units that were subject to the equivalent of a "Prime Time" programme in the UK were not ones in which Irish children were placed. We got assurances from St. Andrew's that the Irish children placed in St. Andrew's were not in the units covered in the programme.

It is concerning, nonetheless.

Mr. Cormac Quinlan

On the question of confidence, I would be confident that staff are meeting their obligations. I am also confident that An Garda Síochána would bring to our attention any concerns they might have. As I said previously, we have very good, strong liaison with An Garda Síochána at a very senior level in the organisation so I would be very confident that they would bring those matters to our attention to have them addressed immediately.

Mr. Jim Gibson

To follow up on the commentary from Mr. McBride regarding therapeutic services, the Child and Family Agency is an evolving agency. It is building new services. In Deputy Funchion's area a pilot project has commenced with a therapeutic, community-based team in partnership with strategic partners, namely a family resource centre and Tusla. We have in place a psychologist and an array of therapists to meet the overall needs of children in our care or children who are known to our child protection services. They can have assessments and engage in play therapy. Deputy Funchion is more than welcome to meet those involved. I can arrange for her to have an engagement with the local team if she so wishes to see the set up of that project, which we would like to replicate across the country.

In terms of my question on the Grace situation, are there staff who were involved in that case who are still employed by Tusla?

Mr. Fred McBride

I have said what I am going to say about that. I worked hard to identify who those staff are and where they are currently based. For those staff that we identified as still being employees of ours, we have put proportionate HR processes in place.

Are some of them still in the employ of the organisation?

Mr. Fred McBride

Some of them are, yes.

I am very surprised to hear that. I think a lot of people would be very surprised to hear that people who were involved in that case at any level would still be in employment, given the horrific nature of that case.

Mr. Jim Gibson

We are reminded, as an agency, of the constitutional right to due process and fair procedure. We have done absolutely everything within a legal framework to address this issue. The staff who were involved in the Grace case, going back a significant number of years, are facing into one of the most robust processes of a tribunal and they have a right to fair procedure and to put their case forward. It would be ridiculous for us to make comment on this. We have adopted a position that is grounded in legal advice. We have been told by the tribunal that we cannot discuss these matters any further. That is the basis upon which we have come before this committee. The committee Chairman made it clear to us and to committee members that this is off the park for discussion.

With respect, I asked whether the witnesses could answer the question. The question was answered-----

Mr. Jim Gibson

Both of us have been told that the questions-----

I am not trying to put the witnesses into a place-----

Mr. Jim Gibson

I accept that.

I have a final observation to make. I do not need a response from the witnesses but simply wish to pass on a point that was made to me by social workers. They have told me that there are significant geographic gaps in terms of placements and, consequently, children are placed quite significant distances from their families, which is difficult for them. I do not need a response on that. I am simply passing on that observation. I thank all of the witnesses for their contributions. It is important to stress that there are many children who have a very happy experience of the care system. I would like to acknowledge the work of Tusla, front-line social workers and particularly foster carers, without whom the system would collapse. I want to acknowledge that good work. I am sure that the witnesses will accept that there is public expectation that we will hold Tusla to account and raise the questions that are occurring to many people on the street and highlight the issues about which our constituents are concerned. This has been a useful engagement and we look forward to continuing our work with further hearings. I thank the witnesses for their attendance and participation today.

The joint committee went into private session at 11.35 a.m. and adjourned at 11.50 a.m. until 9 a.m. on Wednesday, 28 June 2017.