I thank the committee for its invitation to attend today and to brief it early in my tenure as CEO of Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. I am joined by my colleagues, Mr. Pat Smyth, director of finance; Ms Kim Hayes, interim director of human resources; and Mr. Brian Lee, director of quality assurance. I want to place on record today my thanks to Mr. Smyth for his work as interim CEO of Tusla over the past year and his extensive support to me during the transition. This has made for a very smooth handover of what is a complex and important public service. In its invitation, the committee indicated that there would be two sessions - the first dealing with my appointment as CEO of Tusla together with my plans for the organisation and the second to provide the committee with an update on issues arising from the "RTÉ Investigates" programme on early years services, which was addressed by Tusla officials before this committee on 30 July 2019. This opening statement covers both of today's sessions.
I was appointed CEO of Tusla following an open public competition conducted by the Public Appointments Service. Following the announcement by the board of my appointment on 28 June last, I took up my position on 16 September. It is an enormous responsibility but, equally, a privilege to lead a key public service provision to Ireland’s children and families, some of whom we encounter at their most vulnerable.
I come to the position of CEO of Tusla from a background of more than 31 years in the public service, all of it in Ireland’s health and social services as provided by the HSE and its predecessor health boards. My career spans a range of assignments but, was, broadly, in two disciplines. For the first half, I was a professionally trained social care worker working with children in care and at risk of coming into care. For the second half and since 2003, I have been a senior health service manager holding portfolios in primary care, mental health, disability, services for older people, social inclusion and acute hospitals. I am also professionally trained in management as a discipline. While having a background in social care is helpful in my current role, it, by no means, is a requirement for or the principal skill-set for the post. My established competence from long experience in senior public sector management is central to my role as CEO of Tusla and from that I bring to the agency a range of skills in service design, change, operational management, crisis management, communications and industrial relations.
I want at the earliest opportunity to say that I am grateful for the welcome afforded to me over the past seven weeks since taking up post, which has been from many quarters internal and external to Tusla. I have had the opportunity to meet many people on a one to one listening basis and this has helped to shape my thinking. These views have been from children, young people who have left care, foster carers, senior managers, front-line staff and regulators. I am continuing with this process and indeed am happy to confirm that I am available and open to meeting any individual member of this committee who might wish to share his or her views and perspectives with me. During the course of these engagements, I have been informed in my thinking regarding my three key priorities for the agency, which I set out on the day I took up my post. It is clear to me that Tusla requires a clear focus on three interconnected aspects of improvement. These are my high level priorities for the agency. In summary, they are improved quality of services for children and families in all aspects of the Tusla remit; an improved staff environment necessary to achieve the purpose of the organisation; and improved public confidence.
In dealing with the overall issues internal and external to Tusla, I want to be unequivocal with this committee, as I have been in all of my engagements in the past weeks. I believe there is a critical need for Tusla to be at the forefront of informing the public about its work, its successes and its shortcomings. This is a critical issue for the future of the agency. It is my firm belief that the agency, albeit somewhat understandably, had become overly defensive. This in turn has resulted in a public space where there appeared to be little or no appetite to hear of the extensive and very good work carried out by Tusla staff and partner organisations across the country in hundreds of thousands of interactions with children and their families each year.
Building public confidence in the agency will be a slow but steady process requiring Tusla to evidence and articulate clearly what is working and what is not and its plans to correct poor performance. The view and judgment of the agency can only be correctly informed by both the strengths and weaknesses at the same time and not one overriding the other in public discourse. There are many in the world of media and politics, where public opinions are often informed, who can assist us with this task. We have to start first ourselves, however, and give others confidence to justify their support for us.
It is a fair question of the committee to ask about my plans for the agency under my direction as CEO. I will set out briefly some of the key approaches I have taken to pursuing change even at this early juncture. I have publicly articulated already that I believe Tusla needs to become a more local organisation with local ownership, integration and the accountability that public services require to be effective. Tusla as a single national agency for child protection is unique in comparison with other jurisdictions, and this has added not only to individual cases being escalated disproportionately but also to a centralised and siloed approach at times. The current arrangements need attention combined with my earlier reference to addressing a defensive culture. Such focus is necessary if overall system improvement is to be achieved.
I am currently working with the board of Tusla and believe it is possible to demonstrate a new approach to the organisation at the year end. It is the case, however, that even the most efficient organisational changes can take time, and therefore parallel to designing any new arrangements, I have set out new management arrangements to take effect before year end and to continue during any more medium to long-term change. The intention of all new approaches is local ownership supported by national leadership in the interests of the children and families we serve.
In simple terms the new immediate changes to management activity will bring the centre of Tusla and its local entities together in a completely joined-up way such as will ensure effective performance management of the system and a more immediate response to system shortcomings. This is entirely focused on children and families. In these new system management arrangements, I as CEO will personally chair and ensure accountability in frequent engagements between all local and national leaders across the organisation. In short, it is my intention that all staff in Tusla will be clear on their responsibilities, will be supported to discharge them, and will be accountable for their performance.
Tusla has a complex and wide-ranging portfolio in its statutory remit. Indeed, this is not always understood in the public domain. In 2018, Tusla was responsible for 55,000 child protection and welfare referrals; holding open 26,000 social work cases of child protection, including some 6,000 children in care at any one time; supporting another 24,000 children through family support services; regulating 4,400 registered early years services, with inspection rates over a full year equating to 50% of that number, noting that some services are inspected more than once in a period; focusing on the educational welfare of 6,000 children; commissioning the main services to respond to domestic sexual gender-based violence, DSGBV; and providing aspects of the State service for adoption, including assessment, placement, information and tracing. I believe it is important to move to a position of constant public articulation of this complex portfolio and to give the public assurance as to the level of service provided, the challenges and problems in providing them and, more importantly, honest assessment of what level of expectation the agency believes it can meet and, correspondingly, that which it cannot.
Tusla, as members will be aware, has had workforce challenges in recent years. I want to emphasise the importance of my early focus on this and we are currently finalising details of a proposed major agency conversion that will not only enhance stability and continuity of care but also assist us in what is increasingly a challenging financial space for all public services. I want to record my thanks to the main representative organisation in Tusla, the Fórsa trade union, for its positive approach to this initiative. I want to be clear that agency conversion in the work we do not only reduces costs but, more importantly, increases stability and standardisation of approach, which challenges in our system have already been well-articulated in various HIQA reports. I look forward to early progression of this initiative.
The agency is working through the management of a current year deficit and the mitigation of the impact of the challenge for 2020, recognising that we have received additional allocation in excess of €30 million for the coming year. I am grateful to the Minister and her Department for the ongoing support and work with Tusla in respect of these issues, and our work continues. The 2020 position and plan will be finalised in the coming weeks. While all public services are challenged by increasing demands and costs, I believe we also have a clear responsibility to demonstrate consistently that the children and families we serve benefit to the maximum from the significant public funds we have. Prioritising and targeting expenditure within our wide statutory remit is clearly our focus.
In concluding this part of my statement, I want to be definitive with the members in one aspect of my assessment of the agency to date, which is the workforce. I am in no doubt as to the quality, commitment and potential that is in the Tusla workforce, and because of that, I believe an improved culture and efficient organisation is well within the reach of Tusla. This is what ultimately will keep public service for children and families well supported by the State. All support we can gain outside Tusla as we make changes is welcome and necessary.
When my colleagues last addressed the committee in July last, it was in response to the "RTÉ Investigates" programme. I am happy today to update the committee on progress on issues and challenges within our regulatory function, and through the committee's questions and comments, we hope we will assist in further alleviating public concern.
At the outset of this part of my statement, I would like to advise the members that I and colleagues are more than happy to discuss the issues, themes and challenges. I will not, however, be in a position to comment on the individual services featured in the programme. On the substantive issues resulting from the programme, I want, in addition to any questions the committee has, to address aspects of my focus since becoming CEO and which I believe are directly pertinent to the committee's July meeting and ongoing commentary.
While there is no doubt that stages of the regulatory process and fair procedures mean that information cannot be put into the public domain in a timely fashion for parents, I believe there are four ways in which the organisation can further support parents in their own assurance and confidence. I have asked the regulatory service to engage four actions aimed at giving additional assurances to parents relating to the quality of care provided by services.
The first of these is that we have changed and are changing further in the coming weeks the visibility, simplicity and clarity of our advice to parents on the questions to ask their provider. In response to concerns of this committee that a published report is not necessarily the most recent report, I believe our more visible advice to parents is of assistance. In simple terms we are advising parents when considering a service to examine the following: the last published report on the Tusla website; to ask the provider if that report is the last inspection; if it is not, to query if there were any areas of concern identified by the inspectors; and to ask providers to see their certificate of registration with Tusla.
The second is that when we are inspecting a service, our website will show that we are inspecting or have inspected the service on a particular date. If the published report does not correspond with that date, then the public will know another report is pending. In such circumstances, it is an indicator for parents to ask their provider the status of the unpublished report. This process will commence in quarter one of 2020.
The third is the inclusion of parents in the inspection process, similar to other jurisdictions, where Tusla will seek the views of parents based on their experience of the care provided to their children. Their participation and opportunity to contribute will enhance the inspection findings and judgments. I have set a target of quarter 1 of 2020 for the introduction of a new methodology of voluntary inclusion of parents in the inspection process, and subject to refinement, it is my intention that this will be common across our system by the end of 2020. I want to be clear that this may initially marginally affect the time available to conduct inspections and therefore our overall inspection rate may reduce, but I believe this is merited by the benefits of directly including parents.
Fourth, the committee is aware of previous references to a list of 37 and words such as "critical" and "high" being used. While we cannot name services in regulatory enforcement, I wish to ensure that we are able to describe more accurately what the higher end of enforcement action means. I have asked Tusla's regulatory function to examine a change to this categorisation to offer providers and the public increased transparency and understanding of the categorisation. The committee will be aware of previous references to legislative provision and increases in Tusla's powers to close services. Such measures are under consideration at Department level, but I wish to caution against overreliance on this possibility alone. Tusla believes that improved service provision has been and will be mainly a result of the current regulatory system.
I have been very clear that when Tusla's regulatory function identifies a child protection or significant welfare issue in a service, it immediately engages Tusla child protection, which on assessment can take a different course of action, including immediately informing parents of a concern. This has occurred in one recent case since Tusla's last appearance before this committee. However, I am also satisfied that this practice has been well established for some time.
Regulation is difficult and complex work for the regulator, the regulated and the public in whose interests the regulation exists in the first place. We remain ever focused on improvements in the regulatory approach for children and parents with a view to supporting and promoting service improvement through inspection. There is substantial evidence of a high level of compliance in this sector. However, there will always be a minority which seeks either to circumvent regulation for commercial profit or neglects children through failure to discharge basic responsibilities. At the extreme end this can result in abusive and harmful behaviour. Such behaviour has no place in a care setting and in a service from which parents rightly expect nothing less than positive stimulation, development, care and love for their children.
Creating a regulatory focus that encourages and supports the high level of compliance while having the greatest possibility of weeding out negligent services is a fine balance, particularly in such a sensitive sector. Our excellent early years inspectorate service and the immediate improvements I have listed will all help to achieve that balance further. I want to be clear with this committee and the public, however, on the three key parts of the partnership that makes early years services operate to the highest standards. These are strong, focused and evidence-based regulatory activity on Tusla's part; provider responsibility for the quality and safety of care to children whose parents have entrusted them to that care; and continued parental input at every level.
In concluding this statement, I assure the committee that Tusla's focus will continue to be the children and families we serve. Regardless of the fact that we are often not welcome in the lives of all families in which we intervene, our responsibilities are equal to all. That concludes my opening statement and I am happy to address any questions.