I thank the committee for the opportunity to present the findings of my audit into the exercise by members of An Garda Síochána of section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991.
I will commence by expressing my public support for Senator Freeman's Bill. It is hugely important and significant legislation. Many of the themes that emerged from my audit touch on many of the themes addressed in the last session. After listening to the evidence given by the previous speakers, I felt compelled to associate my name with the significant development that has taken place. I look forward to participating in the consultation process.
One can measure any democracy by the manner in which the needs of the most vulnerable are considered and met. Nowhere is this more evident than with the most vulnerable of children who are subject to emergency intervention by the State over weekends and after 5 p.m. in the evening. I welcome this morning the publication by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, of an implementation plan for the audit. It is my view that reports such as the one I have undertaken are meaningless unless there is implementation. I urge the committee, if I might be so bold to suggest, to invite me back before it a year from today's date to give an account as to what has happened during the intervening period. As somebody experienced in writing and producing reports, I sometimes become frustrated at the fact that the pace of implementation is far slower than I would like. It is my view that childhood does not stand still. Sometimes the approach adopted does not reflect the limited nature of childhood.
The audit was commissioned by An Garda Síochána. It was a response to the Ombudsman for Children's investigation in respect of two discrete cases. It is unique in its comprehensiveness as a systemic review, in that it paints the national picture. I would like to state publicly that I had commendable levels of co-operation from members of An Garda Síochána in conducting the audit. In terms of the scale of the audit, I understand that this is the largest worldwide audit of the exercise by a police force of its emergency child protection powers. The audit provides us with insight.
In terms of ensuring the integrity of the information that I produced, I sought international validation of my recommendations. For the record, it is important to mention that I sought the assistance of Oxford University. Professor Laura Hoyano in Oxford has said that my report will break new ground in terms of empirical techniques in the field. I had asked her to review my document in its entirety. In her analysis of the report she stated in terms of the overall audit, it seemed to her to employ sound empirical methodology, which was then carried out with admirable thoroughness and was very well written. She considered that the findings were all borne out by the data he reported. It is important to state that in the context of the integrity of the data and the findings I made as a result of the data. A further review stated the report was an outstanding piece of work that was extremely well-written and careful. This was the international assessment of the work that I have undertaken. The committee should be in no doubt that this is a large-scale audit. I have spent two years and perhaps thousands of hours of work and have spent virtually every weekend over that period travelling to Garda stations. This was an active piece of work and it is the one of which I am proudest as both a researcher and a professional. I hope that after the outrage there will be action.
I shall outline the extent of the work undertaken as part of the audit. I travelled right around the world. I had very impressive co-operation from the police authorities in the UK. I met the Metropolitan Police. I looked at the child protection services and the interaction between child protection services and police forces, not only in the UK but in New York in respect of the New York Police Department, NYPD. I had very impressive co-operation from the NYPD and viewed state-of-the-art facilities in the Bronx. As a result of those visits, I have compiled a series of recommendations. My recommendations are not just based on a paper-based exercise. They are based on my experience of travelling the length and breadth of this country to review how children experience the section 12 process. In addition, I talked to individual gardaí and travelled around the work to look at other models in order that we can come up with a model that meets the cultural needs of Irish children.
I hope the legacy of my report and what I think of today are the children who are subject to section 12. Many people, in the aftermath of the audit, talked about the fact that they found the accounts in the audit profoundly disturbing, distressing and upsetting because many of the case narratives documented children's shattered lives. I appreciate that child protection is complex and challenging. The impact of early trauma can have significant consequences. The cumulative adverse experience of early years can have considerable consequences even where intervention by social services follows. I am of the view that when a child is taken into the care of the State, the State is saying it can do a better job. If the State fails a child a second time, this can have devastating consequences for the child. My audit provides us with a unique insight as to what happens when parents fail children, when the State fails children and children are allowed to drift rudderless within the system. No child should suffer to protect an institution. We have heard many accounts of children being subjected to institutional abuse. I would also say that no child should suffer at the hands of parents and no child should be made to live a life of unspeakable abuse to protect his or her abusive parent or parents. Many of the case narratives in the audit shine a light on some uncomfortable truths. Child protection is often invisible to families and their communities. My report shines a light on an unpalatable truth for Irish society about how life is lived for some of its citizens. This audit also indicates that the prevalence of domestic abuse, and that does not necessarily mean physical violence, has sadly not abated.
One of the biggest challenges facing Irish society is the adverse consequences for many children posed by parental alcohol abuse. Drug and alcohol abuse by parents can be very damaging on their ability to consistently parent their child. The failure on the part of society and Government to properly address the alcohol problem as a fundamental threat to the proper functioning of individuals and communities leaves the child protection system dealing with insurmountable consequences. I am conscious of the fact that a Public Health (Alcohol) Bill is currently being discussed. We do not have time to address this issue but is a national crisis. If there is anything to emerge from my report, it is our ambivalence towards alcohol and those who promote alcohol and yet the consequences are devastating.
Another key theme to emerge from the audit is in the area of inter-agency co-operation. It is essential that those who operate under the umbrella of child protection services can share information on vulnerable individuals and their families.
Throughout the audit, over a lengthy period of time, agencies kept saying to me that there were confidentiality problems and data protection issues. My view is that confidentiality is sometimes a bogus issue. What I found was poor inter-agency communication and co-operation. I am conscious of the fact that, since the audit, there has been an attempt to say that there are very good lines of communication within the upper echelons of organisations, but I found this bore no reality to the perception gleaned from talking to individual members of, for example, An Garda Síochána. What I found is that inter-agency co-operation was overwhelmingly inadequate.
I would like to address the currency of this audit, its breadth and whether it is relevant to the present. This audit looked at more than 500,000 fields of PULSE data. It was a thorough and comprehensive review of PULSE. I understand that I am one of the first people to have had access to these data, over the period of 2014 to 2015 in particular, but also from 2008 until the end of 2015. I also conducted questionnaires on all gardaí who exercised their powers for the 2014 to 2015 period. There were 560 cases, with a full response rate by members of An Garda Síochána, which is commendable and of enormous assistance for drawing conclusions. I conducted a random audit in September 2015. I attended the national headquarters of the child protection unit in Harcourt Street and randomly selected cases to obtain a temporary picture as to how the system was operating. I then interviewed those gardaí subject to the random audit to get an understanding of how they felt. Those interviews were lengthy. I heard reference to the fact that Tusla introduced a national out-of-hours service in 2015. I want to make it very clear for the record that I conducted focus groups in late December 2015 in the aftermath of the introduction of the national out-of-hours service. Those focus groups were conducted with both senior and rank-and-file members of An Garda Síochána in order that I could get an understanding of the position. I continued to liaise with members of An Garda Síochána, up until the earlier part of this year. Perhaps I was a source of incredible frustration for those within An Garda Síochána, because I continually updated the report, and tried to present as accurate a picture as I possibly could. I think it is important to emphasise that point.
To return to the issue of inter-agency co-operation, it is essential that children do not slip through the net, and we heard that in the previous presentations. It is a question of pulling children back from the brink. We need greater links between agencies. There is reluctance in this country to look at much broader structural reform. This is a real problem and this committee has a central role in solving this problem. Looking at the international models, the solution to this problem is co-location. Every professional that has a role in child protection needs to feel equal. No-one has an exclusive reserve on child protection. A very good example is the state-of-the-art facility opened in the Bronx, where the equivalent of Tusla, the New York Police Department, NYPD, a forensic paediatrician and the prosecution service sit around a table making decisions about children. That is relevant to the out-of-hours service. If a garda and social worker are co-located, then the out-of-hours service does not become such a big problem. Be in no doubt that I do not believe that the national out-of-hours service is currently fit for purpose. Look at the evidence given before this committee last week, which I have read with great care, the fact that there are service providers for four locations, and the suggestion that we look at demand for services in other jurisdictions. I would point to my own report, which comprehensively documents demand. On page 50 of the report, I provide an analysis, county by county, of the number of section 12 incidents between 2008 and 2015. What more information do we need to determine what is necessary for an out-of-hours service? My view is to ask why a child in a county that is less populated should receive an inferior service because the child lives in that jurisdiction rather than a heavily-populated area? We need equality across the entire country. That is something that we deserve. We passed a children's rights referendum. It has to mean something for all children, not just some children. We did not pass a referendum just qualifying that. It is important to emphasise that point.
To get things right, we need to take a rights-based approach. There are a number of core rights, including non-discrimination, the best interests of the child, the right of the child to life survival and development, and also the voice of the child. All children should have the right to survive, grow and develop in the context of social, physical and emotional well-being. Every child should have the opportunity to reach his or her full potential. Coming back to the mental health issues, in my opinion the system fails children with psychological or mental health difficulties. The failure to recognise mental health issues at an early stage can have profound implications for the family. Warning signs need to be treated with sufficient seriousness. Referrals need to be timely and appropriate.
I will go through five of the key findings of the audit. The first was the overwhelmingly positive findings that exist in respect of certain actions of An Garda Síochána. The gardaí commit great effort to treating children sensitively and compassionately when a child has been removed under section 12. What I found as part of the audit is that some members worked well beyond the rostered hours to ensure that children removed under section 12 obtained the appropriate care. One of the principal objectives of the audit was to examine the appropriateness, proportionality and legality of section 12 removals. The audit team and I found that members of An Garda Síochána exercise their powers following a period of careful consideration of the circumstances and available evidence. All cases examined involved an appropriately restrained use of section 12 powers. The audit also found that there was no evidence of racial profiling when exercising section 12 powers.
That said, that finding must be tempered by the fact that certain ethno-cultural demographic information was not routinely documented on PULSE. The audit found difficulties with the PULSE system. It found that the PULSE system was not perfect. It also found that there was no routine gathering of ethnic data. That needs to change. If there is a legislative block, that needs to be removed. From a child protection perspective, the audit found evidence of the removal of children under section 12 from the same family circumstances - in other words, repeated removals. The audit also found little evidence of discrete child protection training in An Garda Síochána. On-the-job training seemed to be preferred over formal core training.
The critical thing to emerge again and again was that notification is not communication. If one fills in a form and pushes that on to another office, that is not communication. Communication is shared decision-making. I think that critical theme of notification not being communication emerged at every stage of the audit. The presence or absence of out-of-hours services was subject to considerable criticism. Children had to be criminalised or pathologised in order to gain access to the necessary welfare and support services.
The audit found very positive evidence of the operation of specialist child protection units in An Garda Síochána. That is why I am such a strong advocate of co-location. Nothing predicts like the past. Those who are not aware of history are bound to repeat it. There appears to have been a failure to learn from past mistakes. We need to learn from the shattered lives of those children whose personal stories are reflected in the audit. When a child is the victim of abuse or neglect, it is the responsibility of statutory services or agencies to provide a timely and proportionate response. It is my view that, to protect children, we need to promote co-location.
Co-location has several advantages. In my opinion, there is less system inflicted trauma, better decisions, more appropriate interventions and, in fact, more efficient use of resources rather than this silo mentality where we all are doing something separate. It is no different to passing the correspondence from one Department to the next Department.
Working upstream also has huge benefits. The importance of schools at an early point tackling problems should not be understated because education is the gateway out of disadvantage. Certain behaviours are clear and strong indicators that the child may be at risk. Among these are substance, alcohol and solvent abuse. Escalating patterns of at risk behaviour and poor impulse control should raise flags for all professionals involved and should designate the child as being in need of urgent attention. It is my view that the system is unable to cope with children with emotional behavioural problems. I was deeply distressed by a number of examples where children who had emotional behavioural problems did not receive an out of hours service because the providers would not accept them. Those children inevitably ended up in hospitals or Garda stations. That is a matter of profound concern. Intervention, when it comes, must not be too late to vindicate the right of the child to have his or her welfare protected.
Many challenges remain to be resolved before we can say that we are a country where our children's rights are fully vindicated. It is always a work in progress. It demands new perspectives, renewed efforts and real energy. A system designed to protect children must protect children. The system must be accountable. It must be consistent. It must always seek to minimise the risk to the welfare of the child. It is salutary that one quarter of our population are children. When we talk about the political response to this, we should not lose sight of that fact. They are our greatest national resource. The right service at the right time is crucial, and we must get it right for every family and every child. We need to imagine a Republic where all children are treated equally. Any such republic must necessarily include a robust, 24 hour, 365 day a year service - I am passionately of that view - alongside a properly co-located service. The manner in which society treats its vulnerable citizens reflects not only its qualities but also its sense of justice, its commitment to the future and its ambition to enhance the human condition for the next generation.