Foster Care and Complaints Process: Tusla

The witnesses are addressing the committee from meeting room B in LH2000. I welcome Mr. Gloster and his colleagues, Ms Kate Duggan, national director of services and integration, Mr. Pat Smyth, director of finance, and Mr. Ger Brophy, chief social worker. I thank the witnesses for providing an overview of the functions of the organisation for the information of members of the committee. This information was circulated to members, along with witnesses' opening statements, in advance of the meeting.

Before I invite witnesses to deliver their opening statements, I wish to advise them of parliamentary privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the presentations they make to the committee. This means that they have an absolute defence against any defamation action for anything they say at the meeting. However, they are expected not to abuse this privilege and it is my duty as Chairman to ensure this privilege is not abused. Therefore, if witnesses' statements are potentially defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that witnesses comply with any such direction.

The purpose of the meeting is to engage with Mr. Gloster and his colleagues on the following agenda items; recruitment of social workers, foster care families and foster carers; and the complaints process following a referral of a complaint, in particular complaints submitted by schools.

I invite Mr. Gloster to deliver his opening statement, followed by questions and answers from members in the order in which they indicate.

Mr. Bernard Gloster

I thank the Chairman and her fellow committee members for the invitation to appear before the committee today and for prioritising the Child and Family Agency, Tusla, so early within the committee's agenda and wide-ranging brief. I am joined today by my colleagues Ms Kate Duggan, national director of services and integration. I want to welcome her to the agency having joined us in August. I am also joined by Mr. Pat Smyth, director of finance, and Mr. Ger Brophy, chief social worker.

The clerk to the committee pointed out to me that there are several new Members of the Oireachtas in the committee and that it would be helpful to have some general overview information on Tusla and its brief. In this regard I have provided via the clerk a presentation slide deck which I used earlier in the year to brief Oireachtas Members on the 2019 annual report of the Child and Family Agency. I hope the Members who were not at that presentation or are new to the Houses will find the information helpful. I am happy at any time, as I have done since coming to Tusla in late 2019, to engage with any individual member of the committee or indeed the Oireachtas on any aspect of the work of Tusla.

I am aware the committee wishes to discuss some specific matters today, and I will be happy with my colleagues to address those both in this statement and in any questions might arise.

I would like to address some of the key issues that have been a feature of Tusla in recent times. Tusla is considered an essential service provider within the meaning of the Government plans for managing the response to Covid-19. In March of this year when it became obvious that normal life and activity for all of society would be fundamentally altered, I prioritised and have maintained focus on three essential services: front-line child protection; supports to children in care; and response to domestic and sexual gender-based violence.

In the first phase of lockdown significant and serious concerns emerged in these three aspects of our work thereby justifying the focus on them. Of concern was the initial significant reduction in referrals to the child protection and welfare system, our restricted ability to visit children at home, challenges in maintaining contact between children in care and their families, and a then anticipated surge in domestic violence-related need.

Significant planning and crisis management on a 24-7 basis were used to mitigate some of the attending risks. To give members some indication of the concern, we saw instances of referrals going from an average of 1,500 per week to 960. Visiting children at home reduced to 30% of normal activity and while many remote means were used to connect with children and families this was nonetheless a concerning time. However, I can assure the committee that those cases requiring priority response and visit received them. Contact visits, known as access visits, for the majority of 5,900 children in care were in the main replaced with remote technology.

Now that we have reached level 5, we must remain focused on these priorities. However, we are now receiving referrals of 1,300 per week. We are visiting children at home on a routine basis and access visits for children in care are routinely happening. Domestic and sexual gender-based violence services continue to report high demand and activity.

Tusla’s education support service has been working to support children, families and schools to adjust to the new and challenging circumstances as they returned to school. Additionally, our alternative education assessment and registration service noticed a significant increase in applications for home education in recent months.

I pay tribute to our staff, their representative organisations, Fórsa and the INMO, our partner organisations and statutory colleagues for their enormous flexibility and hard work as we continue to provide essential services during the pandemic. I pay particular tribute to those in the community and voluntary sector who continue to support many children and families for whom the pandemic brings additional vulnerability.

Regarding improving services and performance, many members of the committee will be familiar with periodic commentary and reports on different aspects of the performance of Tusla across a wide range of services.

In the context of an ever-increasing demand, the agency continues to make improvements and these are often validated by external sources such as HIQA.

When I joined Tusla in September 2019, I assured the previous committee and the public that I would work to a position whereby Tusla would increasingly identify its own challenges, openly communicate these with the public and take the necessary steps to address those issues. One recent system-wide example of this was in respect of the obligation of Tusla to report suspicion of child abuse to An Garda Síochána. Tusla identified a problem in its Kerry services; however, the approach was not, as traditional, in responding to this as an isolated incident. Tusla immediately conducted a self-assessment nationwide, identified a 13% problem in this obligation and put in place the necessary corrective actions and audit to be assured in the future. There was open and responsive engagement with key partners, the public and the media on this problem.

I fundamentally believe Tusla must continue to approach its problems and challenges in this fashion. Serious issues and challenges arise for the agency, whether that is in compliance with the high bar set in regulations overseen by HIQA, achieving improvement in GDPR, which is a particular problem, or in consistently providing a timely quality service to all children in our brief.

The single biggest challenge in Tusla is consistency and whereas progress is and continues to be made on many fronts, we cannot be complacent because we know that the improvements are not everywhere. In this context I expect we will continue to learn of problems and issues for some time to come while we work towards achieving this consistency. It is for this reason that the reform of the agency on three fronts is critical. These are practice, culture and structure, which all require attention and change.

I am aware that the board of the child and family agency is seriously concerned at the pace of progress in respect of the change of the governance structure that we have decided, and which requires approval outside of the agency. This change is central to addressing several deficits, including in performance and accountability. The current structure and organisation of the agency is, to put it simply, not good and while it remains, many problems will continue to occur and will require an overly centralised reactive response. The board has raised the matters with the Minister, who has been very supportive of Tusla in his short time in office, and we look forward to an early and positive decision on this critical matter.

On the subject of the mother and baby home commission database, members will be aware of the recent attention to the mother and baby home commission database and the Government’s intention for Tusla to be the host organisation for the database, pending new legislation to deal with many challenges for many people regarding their information and identity. I am conscious of the commentary about Tusla during recent weeks. I assure the committee that notwithstanding the very complex legal issues that remain to be resolved, the only focus of Tusla regarding adoption information will be to give the maximum support to all people, to treat them with kindness and understanding and to respect not only the rights but the needs of all. The absence of legislation to deal with the provision of information will continue to be a source of great anxiety for people and the resolution of this issue is beyond the reach of Tusla. We welcome intended legislation to address this.

Committee members had some additional specific matters which the clerk brought to my attention and I will briefly address those here and in our subsequent discussion. With regard to social work recruitment, Tusla now has for the first full year a clearly understood pay and numbers framework. This ensures that there are clear targets for recruitment by grade and profession, there is clear certainty as to what the agency can afford and not, there is a more realistic investment of energy in workforce planning and there is a greater likelihood that new resources can be allocated in an evidence-based approach.

The target workforce for 2020 is 4,784 whole-time equivalents, and with 4,698 in place at the end of the third quarter, this is the most stable the agency has been in respect of almost full employment since its establishment, and this is a significant milestone. I expect in the coming weeks to be able to add to that number following the recent welcome budget decisions of the Government.

Of the 4,698 whole-time equivalents in place, 1,674 are social workers, which is approximately 100 below the funded target. Of the staff, 1,360 are social care workers and the increasing emphasis of any new developments has and will be in front-line grades.

I advised the previous committee shortly after taking up post that I was concerned about the dependency on agency staffing, which then stood at more than 650, and I undertook to address this matter as a priority. By March of this year we had completed a large-scale conversion of agency staff to Tusla employment, and more than 400 took up that offer. Agency staff use is now set at a maximum of 250 for the entire organisation, and we have in fact consistently operated below that since March. This has not only had financial benefits to the public purse and benefits to our overall approach to retention but has also contributed to improved continuity of service for the children and families we serve. Social work graduates are relatively low in number for the needs of the country as there are now many employing authorities all seeking social workers. One hundred graduates this year expressed an interest in working with Tusla, some 70 of whom have been successfully hired. Overall, 238 social workers started with the agency in the first nine months of this year. That is more than the total for any full year since 2015. In the same period there have been 130 leavers, including 14 retirees. I have recently met the new Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science regarding the possibility of increased supply, and the board of the agency will consider corresponding measures to attract new graduates to this most complex area of work. I also wish to note that in addition to this work being complex, I am concerned about the increasing threats and intimidation of individual staff. While this comes from a relatively small cohort of people and we enjoy good relationships with so many, the online treatment of some individually identifiable staff is a source of serious concern.

As for foster care recruitment, we are very fortunate in the Irish context to have an alternative care system which is an international leader when it comes to the numbers of children placed with foster carers as distinct from residential care. More than 90% of children in State care are now with foster carers, and increasingly we see a strong representation of relatives as foster carers. There is little doubt but that recruiting foster carers remains a challenge. The agency has recently completed its second annual national campaign aimed at raising awareness and encouraging others to consider fostering.

As for the making of reports to Tusla, I understand and am aware of the interest of the committee in the steps after a referral - or what the committee refers to in its invitation letter as a complaint - is made to Tusla and information or feedback that goes to the person making the referral, particularly where this comes from a school. The agency receives a very substantial number of referrals from schools, both mandated and welfare, and local staff will support the school as part of the overall approach to ensuring safety for children. Schools have, and use regularly, access to our local duty teams to discuss approaches to concerns in addition to the actual formal referral being submitted. I am happy to address with my colleagues any more specific questions on that process.

The Child and Family Agency has many challenges in one of the most complex areas of personal social service provision. Despite these challenges, enormous good work of a very high quality is carried out every day by our staff in responding to 20,000 open cases, 6,000 children in care, 6,000 children in education support, many thousands in receipt of family support and specialised teams upholding regulation in more than 4,000 crèche and preschool services. There are many other discrete parts to Tusla providing important services. I am happy to take any questions and, again, I thank the committee for the invitation to attend.

I thank Mr. Gloster. We can hear him very well but, unfortunately, the screen seems to have frozen. Could he perhaps try turning off the camera and then turning it back on, the age-old solution to all technological problems? Aha! There we go. That is excellent. We could hear him perfectly, just to reassure him of that.

I will now open the floor to Members. Our first speaker is Deputy Cathal Crowe. I remind members to keep their contributions to five minutes if possible.

To what extent have the Covid level 5 restrictions and the social distancing and other restrictions we had previously impacted Tusla's capacity as an organisation to investigate and follow through on complaints and referrals relating to abuse, neglect, etc.?

Mr. Bernard Gloster

The point I was making in my opening statement was that the impact was much more significant and severe in the first phase of lockdown, which we associate with 12 March, when the decision on school closures was made.

That was because schools were closed and a lot of other services were not routinely seeing children. All of that combined led to the very substantial concern that I talked about and was reflected in the significant reduction in our normal referrals by almost 540 per week for a number of weeks.

By the time we had reached level 5 we had attuned our services to ways of working. We also accepted that we are an essential service provider in the sense of public and statutory services. So we could not enter level 5 countenancing that we would substantially reduce our work, particularly because schools, crèches and preschools were all open. Therefore, with all of the normal activity associated with what we do, the schools being open was a game-changer in terms of child protection.

I was a primary school teacher up until February so I have quite a detailed knowledge of the workings of Tusla. There is a lot of frustration among those who are mandated to refer complaints due to a lack of consistency, which is something Mr. Gloster mentioned in his opening statement. They feel that there is a lack of consistency, particularly regarding thresholds. As to when complaints come in, depending on who one deals with on a particular day, he or she either follows through and comes back very rapidly.

Increasingly, a lot of schools have found that Tusla is bouncing back on principals and designated liaison persons with the child ultimately losing out. In the words of one designated liaison person in a school, "there is a cover your ass culture in Tusla.". They take a complaint, one will hear something back but, invariably and increasingly, it falls back on the school staff who have training but training that does not equal what Tusla personnel have in terms of competency. I have heard about that failing from the grassroots up in terms of education and those who are mandatory reporters. I hope that the witnesses can address this matter, particularly the consistency of thresholds. Is there consistency within counties, regions and public health regions? Does Tusla look at cases where it has come up short and train people inhouse in its support centres?

Mr. Bernard Gloster

The Deputy is 100% correct that there is no consistency. That is why I have pointed it out as being the significant challenge for Tusla and that is what Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, pointed out to us. Is there an improvement agenda? Absolutely. We have a nationwide practice model called Signs of Safety, which is central to our approach to protecting children. I am not a social worker but the model is very significant to our professional staff and is progressing.

I share the Deputy's concern about thresholds. With 55,000 referrals a year, the processing of those does, unfortunately, end up ensuring that the most critical and higher end cases come first. There is an increasing attempt to make pathways for all of the other concerns, including the use of extensive family support services. The chief social worker will now comment on the school referral issue.

Mr. Ger Brophy

When referrals come in to the social work department from schools and a variety of other sources, and schools are one of our top two referrers, the referrals are assessed in the first instance. As Mr. Gloster has said, we have introduced a programmed called Signs of Safety. Teachers may experience a series of questions that come from the duty intake social worker who, again, is trying to establish if harm is present. We have gone around each of the 17 areas to ensure that there is more consistency than what there has been in terms of the application of thresholds. That means, with the Signs of Safety model, we ask more questions, establish whether harm has happened and provide appropriate support. Often times that would be welfare services that are based in the local community. Working through that, if concerns continue, schools are perfectly free to, and often do, come back and have that discussion with duty staff on the second or third occasion.

Is an inhouse document on threshold criteria circulated to people when they are put on the payroll of Tusla? I ask Mr. Gloster to supply the document to this committee. Moreover, the document should be circulated to those who are mandatory reporters. I ask for that because the inconsistencies are devastating, particularly when one must go back to a family or child and basically say the issue has fizzled out so nothing will happen.

It is devastating and there must be full clarity and consistency in that. I will speak later if another round of questions is possible.

I wish to make some points and ask a number of questions based on the opening statement. I note that time is against us, so perhaps Mr. Gloster can respond at the end and he could send me written responses to any questions he cannot answer. I would appreciate that.

The first issue is the significant drop in referrals to Tusla and the child protection and welfare system during the restrictions. As Mr. Gloster said, referrals dropped from 1,500 to 960. What supports were put in place for children at risk given that many of the usual supports, such as crèches, schools, sports clubs and other activities and agencies they are involved in, were not available to them? What has he learned from this process and what would he do differently on the next occasion? In addition, Mr. Gloster referred to the increase of referrals to 1,300 per week, but that is still a drop of 200 on the number before the pandemic. This concerns me and raises a red flag because in other sectors we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of those trying to access services such as mental health services, addiction services and domestic violence services. The reduction goes against the norm so perhaps Mr. Gloster will comment on that.

To return to domestic violence, there has been a dramatic and heartbreaking increase in the number of people seeking help due to domestic violence. I have been in contact with refuges in my constituency and they have been inundated. They often operate above capacity and have had to place mothers and children in hotels to keep them safe because there is not enough room in the refuges. Tusla received an increase of €68 million in funding in the last budget. How much of this will be ring-fenced for domestic violence services? For what, exactly, will the money be used?

I note Mr. Gloster's comment that the structure and organisation of Tusla are not good, and appreciate him acknowledging it. I wish to focus on two areas. According to data I received in a reply to a parliamentary question, at the end of August this year there were 3,799 children waiting to be allocated a social worker. There is a clear pathway for a child to be allocated a social worker, and Mr. Gloster can correct me if I am wrong in this regard. First, a concern is raised that a child is at risk. That could be by a family member, member of the public, a teacher or youth worker, for example. The case is then screened and if it is decided that there is still a risk, it is referred to the duty social worker. If the duty social worker decides there is a risk to the child, the case is sent for assessment. After the assessment stage, the child is put on a waiting list for allocation of a social worker. At every stage from concern, screening and duty social worker to awaiting allocation of the social worker it is deemed that the child is at risk. Having 3,799 children at risk while waiting for a social worker is simply not good enough and must be addressed.

I was also shocked to see that the area I represent has the highest number of children waiting for a social worker. Some 833 children in Dublin South-West, Kildare and Wicklow have gone through the process I outlined and are deemed at risk, but they still have not been allocated a social worker. Too many children are falling through the gaps. What changes will be made to address this issue and to ensure that the position improves dramatically and very quickly?

My last point relates to retention of staff. In my previous role as an addiction support worker, I attended numerous case conferences with Tusla. These often occurred over time. The people in attendance were the parent or parents of the child at risk, the teacher, support workers like me, social workers and area managers from Tusla. Often the area manager and social worker who attended the follow-up meetings were not the same people who attended the first meeting. This would have an impact on the continuum of care and continuity in the process. I was the same support worker and the parent and teacher were the same, but the representation from Tusla was not always the same. As Mr. Gloster mentioned, up to September this year Tusla has hired 238 new staff, but in the same time 116 people left Tusla and are not returning. What is the impact on the service provided to children at risk of losing so many experienced people and replacing them with people who are only learning the role? What will Mr. Gloster put in place to retain staff and ensure the continuity of care I mentioned earlier?

I did not need much time and I will take any answers I can get to my questions.

Mr. Bernard Gloster

The questions I want to deal with first are the unallocated cases and the issue of domestic violence. Perhaps Ms Kate Duggan would briefly address those and I will attempt to address the other questions and if time runs out-----

Even if it is at the end of the meeting. I would appreciate that.

Mr. Bernard Gloster

Yes, no problem.

Ms Kate Duggan

I thank the Deputy for his questions. I will deal with two aspects regarding the unallocated cases and the provision regarding domestic, sexual and gender based violence, DSGBV, services. As the Deputy said, the number of unallocated cases remains a concern for us. However, 94% of children in care have an allocated social worker and 75% of other children in care also have an allocated social worker. Of those who are awaiting allocation, 44% of them are active on duty. That means - to return to the Deputy's reference to the risk of harm or of abuse that may be in place - actions are being undertaken for those children's care by a dedicated duty team, social workers or by a rotating social worker off the roster. It is a significant challenge for us. It is one on which we have put a significant focus. Certainly, since I joined the agency in August it has been a priority for me. Since January to date, there has been a 31% decrease but, as the Deputy said, there are a number of areas with respect to Dublin-South-West, Kildare-west Wicklow and Dublin South-Central where it still remains a problem for us. That is linked to a number of factors, including increased referral and the staffing rates within those areas. Towards the end of the year we allocated initial once-off funding of about €150,000 and have taken in additional staff to address that need. Regarding additional resources in the allocation for 2021, the chief executive officer, CEO, might deal with that. Our focus will be on those specific areas where the unallocated cases are a problem for us. I reassure the Deputy those children who may not have a dedicated named social worker are actively being managed by the social work service within the Department.

Regarding DSGBV services, we all share the concerns in the demand we have seen for them in the context of Covid-19 and throughout the pandemic since March. In terms of our services, I will leave it to the CEO to talk about the additional funding in the 2021 budget. However, directly in respect of Covid, Tusla funds 60 agencies currently across Ireland to provide DSGBV services. In terms of the accommodation we support, currently there are 143 accommodation units open, 103 of which are our normal units. As the Deputy said, with the impact of Covid, there has been a reduction in about 36 with respect to social distancing and staffing. There are 103 of the original 139 allocation. We have funded 25 additional off-site units and an additional 15 safe homes. The capacity currently is for 143 units and 106 of those are currently occupied. Certainly we do share the concern about access being an issue, particularly in certain parts of the country. We have commissioned an accommodation review which Tusla is undertaking, which will be finished in quarter 2 of 2021. It will map out the existing accommodation units that are available in terms of geographical location and the type of service they offer, also identifying, as part of that, the future requirements, including the service model, as we move beyond 2021. I will defer to the CEO to deal with the additional budget.

Mr. Bernard Gloster

Briefly, the funding for domestic violence services within Tusla is a spend of €25 million. That is the current core budget. The budget is increasing next year essentially to €30 million, which is what the Deputy would have heard the Minister refer to in recent days. That money is essentially broken into a €2.7 million increase in core funding and another €2 million will go directly to the funded agencies providing services as part of contingency support for them, as we see how the impact of Covid unfolds in the first half of 2021. The impact is as much in the post-easing of restrictions as is it during the restrictions. That addresses the money aspect.

I take the point about the structure and the Deputy was acknowledging what I had said.

On referrals, we are running at between 1,300 and 1,350 per week and we had previously been up between 1,490 and 1,500. Those variations can happen, partly because the schools are settling down in the reopening phase and a lot of health professionals who would have been seeing children in routine circumstances are not seeing them in the same routine way because the health services are significantly redeployed and focused on different parts of the response to Covid-19. There are a variety of reasons for that and it also has to do with catch-up in our system. Once the referrals started to recover, the concern eased.

I mentioned the support for children at risk during the first lockdown. I thanked the community and voluntary sector, in particular, as well as the school completion programmes and our staff in centres around the country. The amount of work that went into making contact with and keeping an eye on children and families in a supportive way was extensive and I am satisfied with that response. In addition, I mention children who might have been seen as being at risk in the context of the domestic violence space. The Garda's Operation Faoiseamh was an outstanding contributor to public safety for some of the most vulnerable people during that March and April phase. Now that schools and everything else are open, that is the most significant change. I know there was a lot of commentary and discussion about schools as we were going into level 5. Everybody clearly understands and accepts the need to keep the school system as open and safe as possible, not just for the educational benefits but for all the other issues that have been mentioned.

I could not agree more with the Deputy about the retention of staff. It is part of the consistency issue that I and the agency are seeking to address but it takes time. Our retention rates have improved, however, and our capacity to increase recruitment has improved. The Deputy mentioned the additional funding in the budget adjustment of €61 million to Tusla. Part of that is correcting a deficit of €13 million that was already there but I envisage being able to deploy approximately 100 to 120 additional front-line staff in 2021. That would go a substantial way towards addressing the concern the Deputy expressed about the allocated cases because that is exactly where the resources and money will go.

I have a lot of things to ask about but I will try to focus on five minutes' worth of issues. The agency conversion was good work and it has helped with that stability of staffing and workforce, which is so important for all sorts of reasons.

The investment in mobile working through laptops, remote access, Wi-Fi dongles and so on not only reflects the way social workers work and enables them to work but it has been a major benefit in the face of Covid-19 to enable working from home and working remotely. That has to be highlighted as a success of Tusla in recent years.

On the targets for the workforce, I would love to know more about the figure of 4,784 and how Tusla got that. If one looks at the UK, a huge amount of work goes into trying to estimate the demand for social work services, both in staffing and in fostering and recruitment. There are measures of flow in which one can guess the number of children who are likely to come into care based on demographics. We have measures for the pressure so we know how many cases a social worker should be carrying. Therefore, we should be able to work out how many social workers we need. However, what I hear from social workers on the ground is frustration at the lack of administrative support. The cases they carry still have a huge amount of paperwork. I hear frustration from some senior managers on a hiring freeze and a struggle to get posts filled. I would love to hear more about that kind of work from the witnesses because that ties in with all of the important points that were previously raised.

One of the other matters I would like to jump to is fostering. How many people within Tusla do nothing but recruitment? Recruitment of general foster carers is on a knife-edge.

We have an excellent system with excellent carers who provide an excellent service to vulnerable young people and it is really on a knife edge if we cannot keep recruiting. How many people do nothing but recruitment? How many of them come with a marketing or similar background? My concern regarding keeping the service going is that we will rely more on private fostering, which has a significantly higher marginal cost, and children placed in private care also tend to be placed further from their home, which has all sorts of other impacts. We also have huge runaway costs in terms of private residential units, so any information Mr. Gloster has on steps being taken on cost control for private fostering and private residential units would be useful.

Mr. Bernard Gloster

That is a long list. I will do the best I can to quickly respond. Deputy Costello is correct that the agency conversion was very significant and it brought many benefits. Our mobile technology went from about 3,800 people at the start of Covid and we took it right up to the maximum of about 4,300 to ensure that we could remotely work across the system and that has brought huge benefits.

To be clear, the workforce of 4,784 is not indicative of need. The Deputy is quite right that is not based on a needs assessment. What I am talking about is the funded workforce within Tusla. In other words, that is the number we have money to employ. There are lots of models around need and need identification. I will let Ms Duggan speak in a moment about some of the approach taken to 2021 because the approach up to more recent years was somewhat historical.

Administrative staff have substantially increased in terms of grade 3 and grade 4 clerical officers, who support social work teams. While there was an increase, it could always be more because, as the Deputy is aware, the regulatory burden on child protection services is very high. The paperwork requirement is very high, but the situation has improved substantially from what it was.

I find the reference to a hiring freeze a little bit frustrating because since I came to Tusla there has been anything but a hiring freeze. What there has been is complete clarity for each of our regions as to what its affordable workforce was, and they were allowed to recruit to that. In 2020, that included an agreement with the Minister not to reduce any services because we had a deficit. The deficit has now been dealt with in the allocation coming into 2021 but we were going to finish 2020 with a deficit and that was going to happen because we were not going to cut services. The hiring freeze is somewhat debatable.

I will ask Ms Duggan to talk about the fostering campaign in terms of fostering recruitment. I do not have the exact number of people solely focused on the recruitment of foster carers. I will have to come back to the Deputy on that. We do have communications experts involved. Ms Duggan might wish to briefly comment on the recruitment of foster carers and recruitment generally.

Ms Kate Duggan

As the Deputy said, the foster caring service performs very well internationally in terms of the overall number of children in care and those that are in foster care. Within Tusla at the moment, there are approximately 5,913 children in care in Ireland and 91% of those are in foster care. Some 29% of them were with relative foster carers and 71% were with non-relative foster carers. Approximately 8% are within private foster care. As the Deputy referenced, there has been a small increase in the number of children within private foster care placements. That is linked either to the availability of foster carers within a particular area or within the match that is required in terms of the presentation of the particular child or children within the family. Our priority within Tusla, as the Deputy is aware, is to provide the best placement for a child, relative to what the child needs or requires.

To date in 2020, we have 194 new foster carers approved within Tusla and 28 private applications for foster caring. That is compared to 226 for the whole year in 2019, which was 193 approved within Tusla and 33 private foster carers. I share the view that we need to look at fostering staff having almost an expertise in marketing because we are up against the private agency in terms of its capacity and the type of marketing it uses to attract carers and families within geographical regions.

What I can say is that in this year's Tusla fostering campaign, called Raising Amazing, a significant amount of work went into it from a marketing perspective, particularly in relation to debunking some of the myths that exist about the types of people who we want to become foster carers within communities. A lot of work was done in respect of attracting minority families and letting them know that we want them to apply and to become foster carers. Within that campaign we received a total of 311 enquiries, which was up 67 on last year's total. A huge part of the campaign this year was around social media, and we had social media expertise supporting us on that campaign. We had around 240,000 hits across all of the different social media platforms in Tusla, so we recognise the need to move into a different space in terms of attracting foster carers to Tusla and in debunking the myths so that people across Ireland, from all different types of families or units, understand that we want to hear from them in expressing an interest in becoming foster carers for Tusla.

I thank the witnesses for their opening remarks and their answers so far. We missed slightly the explanation Mr. Gloster was providing for the funding increase, because the signal went at the beginning of that piece. He was telling us about the €30 million available next year for the DSGPV sector. I ask him to clarify this. He was giving us a breakdown about how that is going to be spent and we only heard the last bit of it, so I would appreciate him going over it, and perhaps sharing his thoughts on how that relates to Safe Ireland and what it has put forward as being a national services development plan.

Mr. Bernard Gloster

On the issue of funding for the DSGPV sector, the total funding available to Tusla for domestic, sexual and gender-based violence services in 2020 was just over €25 million - €25.3 million, I think. The Minister has now determined and announced an increase for 2021 to a total provision of €30 million. Of the €25.3 million provided in 2020, the majority of that, about €23.5 million, has been given directly to the 60 provider agencies that operate on our behalf in the space of domestic violence response, including Safe Ireland and many others. All of the increase in funding in 2021 is going directly to that sector, so Tusla's own internal direct spend is not increasing. The increase will essentially break down as follows. A total of €2.7 million will go into what is called core funding, so from January, the sector will increase by €2.7 million. The actual allocation to individual agencies has not yet been finalised within that because it is not simply a case of dividing €2.7 million by 60 agencies, because although they all have needs, some have different pressures.

That funding takes the funding for the sector up to €28 million, and in addition to that, provision has been made to set aside €2 million specifically to support the sector through those organisations to respond further to what are unknown challenges that Covid has yet to bring for the sector. However, all of that €2 million will be spent, made available and utilised within the sector in 2021, so that will bring the total spend in 2021 to €30 million.

My next questions concern the general data protection regulation, GDPR. On the issue of the mother and baby homes commission database, has the data privacy impact assessment, DPIA, on that been published?

Mr. Bernard Gloster

No, it has not been published yet. In fact, I had a meeting with the team about it just before I came here today. It is very active in terms of completing a full and robust data privacy impact assessment, which everyone would accept is required in the context of what is at issue here. The database itself has not yet physically transferred to us, so that makes the data privacy impact assessment a little bit slower and more considered.

What I anticipate happening, if there are no obstacles, is that we will have concluded the report, based on everything known to us about a data protection impact assessment, by about the middle of December, or around 18 December. Due to the public interest issues and the significance of the report, I intend to then publish it on the Tusla website. The data privacy impact assessment is of itself an iterative process. In other words, what we publish is open to further commentary and contributions from people and if it requires further amendment as we go on, we will do that. My intention is that the data privacy impact assessment, from the best call we can make on it, will be published and available by around 18 December.

I appreciate that excellent clarification. My final question is on the training around GDPR. On 4 November, the Data Protection Commissioner published a finding against Tusla in relation to three breaches. Two of them related to giving the details of foster carers. The third was very serious, although I acknowledge that it was inadvertent, and involved someone giving the address and details of a child to an accused abuser. Can Mr. Gloster reassure us as to the training provided on GDPR by Tusla?

Mr. Bernard Gloster

I can certainly reassure the Senator about the training but I would not for one minute give her any significant assurance about the scale of improvement that has yet to be achieved. This is a very complex matter and I have addressed it in the public domain on a number of occasions. I have sat in front of some of the people affected by the more serious data breaches, including some cases to which the Senator referred. All I can say to her is that one could not be indifferent to the impact on these people, regardless of the breach being accidental or unintended.

We had a very complex GDPR programme in the agency over the last while, in order to develop much of the technical expertise, but the reality was that we also needed to get out to the front line more quickly. We started a process in late September of training 30 people per session, in two sessions a day, up and down the country. It is online, fully interactive and taught by expert staff. It is a good training programme on which there is very good feedback. Our target is to reach over 3,000 front-line workers by the end of January and to date we have reached around 1,100. A huge effort is going into it but we are some way off reaching a satisfactory level of GDPR compliance because we process information in tens of thousands of interactions throughout the year. We are coming from a historical base, we are challenged and we have 350 locations across the country so there is a way to go. However, I assure the Senator that no effort is being spared in this matter.

I thank the witnesses for joining us today. I begin by thanking Tusla for the work it does. I thank all the area managers, the individual social workers and all those in the emergency services who work day in, day out with very vulnerable children who are going through a lot in their lives. I can see that these people are under a lot of strain and I thank them because they are providing our society with an invaluable service.

I have a few questions about aftercare. What is the fallout for those who do not go into education or training? Where do those children go? Are there any supports for those young people? Recently I have noticed that there is a lot of sexual and gender-based violence towards the children who are coming into care. Maybe that is something we need to teach in all our schools or go through with parents. I do not know how Tusla will deal with that. Many of the children coming into care now are struggling with their sexuality or struggling with having those conversations with their parents, who may not be as understanding as we would like them to be.

That is when relationships can break down. I was not aware of the family support services that exist in Tusla. I want more information on them because they are new to me. I understand there is a support service for existing family units that may be struggling with issues. What supports does Tusla put in place for those families, rather than having them break up?

I am concerned about the 1,300 new inquiries being received weekly. That is a massive amount. Considering Tusla's staffing, there will be children who will not be seen as quickly as they should be. It is important that children and young people know that if they are suffering, they should speak to the one good adult in their life who can be their voice in a very tough time, and that they can seek refuge somewhere. Some people take the young people to Garda stations and they are taken into care under section 12 in that way. There is help for children and young people who are suffering and it can be immediate if they are in danger. I want people to know that. Some people think there is a long wait for care, but that is not the case. The services kick in very quickly when a child or youth is in danger.

I want to know about aftercare and foster care recruitment. I attended a number of meetings. It is incumbent on people who are involved in the foster care system to encourage other parents and other family units, regardless of what they are, to get involved and to provide a safe, loving and caring home for a young child. Recruitment meetings are really important and getting testimonies from parents and foster parents is the key to winning over new foster parents. It is probably one of the best things I have ever done. Sitting here is important but there is nothing quite like creating a safe place for a child. I do emergency care now. That is really important. Parents, families and individuals need to know that they can make a difference in a child's life. What is Tusla doing about recruitment, which is so important? It is much better for a child to be in a family unit or family home than in a residential unit. How many residential units are in the State?

Mr. Bernard Gloster

The Senator's commentary based on her lived experience probably says far more about the value, benefit and necessity of foster care than I ever could. I am genuinely very grateful to her for the comments she has made in the position she now holds.

Aftercare supports for young people leaving care are very extensive. In many cases, these supports are provided up to the age of 23. I am concerned that many of the supports are sometimes limited within the parameters of traditional continuing education. There must be other options for people in this category. We provided a great deal of additional supports during the Covid-19 response. We extended all the dates on which people might have been due to leave care or exit formal aftercare. We have extended those dates right up to Christmas to ensure that additional vulnerability was not brought to them. There is no doubt that there is an increasing need for additional aftercare supports. I am very glad to see it on the agenda, being driven by care leavers along with many groups such as EPIC and Aftercare Ireland that we engage with. I think that is really important.

Before I bring in the chief social worker to speak to the question around sexuality for children in care and the impact of domestic violence as a feature of the lives of children coming into care, I will ask Ms Duggan to talk about family support. The Senator is quite right that many people are not aware of it. Some 24,000 people received a family support service from Tusla in 2019, as opposed to a child protection-type service.

After Ms Duggan has spoken about that, Mr. Brophy will speak about the issue around sexuality and the challenges for young people in care, and the director of finance, Mr. Smyth, will answer the question about residential units and spending on residential care paths. We will try to do that as tightly as we can in the time available.

Ms Kate Duggan

I thank the Senator for her acknowledgement of all the staff in Tusla. As Mr. Gloster outlined, a significant number of children and families access Tusla welfare services. Those services are delivered by Tusla staff in conjunction with the community and voluntary sector. Mr. Gloster referred to that when he spoke about how we have supported families and children in the context of Covid-19. Simple examples would include how services, staff, and the community and voluntary sectors worked in partnership in each of the 17 local areas to support families during Covid-19, for example by providing advice and guidelines, offering food parcels or helping people to access online education at home. It is very much around supporting families within the area of welfare.

Prevention, partnership and family support, PPFS, is a significant service in Tusla which looks at children and families who do not meet the threshold of being at risk of harm or abuse when there are concerns about supporting them to remain as a unit or access education or helping them to meet any of their wider holistic needs. A significant part of that programme is the Meitheal assessment, which is done with families with inter-agency involvement to assess the particular needs of a child who is presenting with a welfare need, for example, or has a complex disability and is living at home. It is a question of how the services in a child’s life wrap around the child in identifying what they best need to support them and their families at home and prevent them from reaching a threshold for protection services or coming into care. In the first six months of 2020, over 1,075 Meitheal processes were requested, which is an increase on last year. Each of the 17 areas has family support networks that wrap around the child. The needs are very much around welfare in relation to care, being able to access education and early intervention.

Another very significant group in relation to welfare are the children and young people's services committees that are in place in the various areas. Again, this is a multi-agency approach to responding to the needs of particular families and communities. It is very much around Tusla working with the community and voluntary sector to meet those welfare needs.

Mr. Ger Brophy

On sexuality in care, particularly for the LGBTI community, I am particularly conscious of a survey done by BeLonG To during the Covid period, which was published in June. It raised significant concerns about the mental health of the members of the LGBTI community in their own homes. We are very aware of that and are raising it through our own services so that people would be additionally aware of it. People in that community need to circulate and socialise outside their own families, because sometimes they do not feel accepted in a more community setting. Our fostering services are really attuned to the needs of each child in care and for those who have particular needs in terms of sexuality, they would certainly be addressed. Over 90% of children in care have an allocated social worker. They would be very attuned to those needs and they would be taken into account in case planning and care reviews that come up annually.

Mr. Pat Smyth

I wish to draw the Senator's attention to an excellent document on Tusla's residential services which was prepared during the summer by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I refer to the spending review. In very simple terms, approximately 500 children avail of Tusla's residential services at any one time. The care of those 500 children is split, with half in private residential care and a third each in our own services and funded agencies. We can answer any questions about that. It is quite a comprehensive report and will provide the Senator with a lot of information on care.

I welcome the witnesses. I would like to start with foster carers. How many additional foster carers were recruited as a result of the awareness-raising campaign?

Mr. Bernard Gloster

Recruitment arising from the awareness-raising campaign is just beginning. The campaign happened in the autumn. We received several hundred initial inquiries. They have to be followed up before the number of people interested in entering the assessment process becomes clear. As Ms Duggan said, we are talking about issuing between 150 and 200 new approvals per year. We will also lose people during that time. Staying on top of this is constant work.

I thank Mr. Gloster. I would like to draw his attention to a recent report by the Health Information and Quality Authority, HIQA, on services in Cork. The report identified unacceptable delays in respect of the child protection notification system. Has there been an improvement in those services? What improvement has arisen from that report?

Mr. Bernard Gloster

As the members will know, HIQA regularly inspects our childcare, residential care, foster care and child protection services. The inspection in Cork was very specifically concerned with the child protection notification system. Approximately 1,000 children in Ireland are on the child protection notification system today. They have been through a very specific process. HIQA's concern was about organisation, governance and the process of following up on the details of those cases. A very detailed plan for this area was drawn up. The plan was tested, scrutinised and monitored by HIQA and was to that body's satisfaction. The plan has been accepted by HIQA and is well under way. As I said in my opening statement, if I was asked for one word to define all the challenges that arise throughout a complex system like ours I would say "consistency".

To be fair to the Deputy, a report like that can crystallise concern in the mind of the reader and rightly so. However, there are very significant examples and validated reports of very good work done by Tusla in Cork. I would not want to lose sight of that balance. The real test will be whether HIQA is satisfied with what it sees. There are other concerns in the Cork area and other parts of the country, concerning not only child protection but the children in care service, the follow-up to care plans and so on. Unfortunately, we do not see the very significant number of positive HIQA reports. One was published today on foster care in the Louth-Meath area.

I would like to move on to Kerry. Recent media reports highlighted the failure to refer 365 cases of suspected child abuse in the Kerry area.

One report in The Irish Times said some delays were attributed to "efforts by social workers to substantiate the abuse allegations before making a referral". In asking these questions one tries to be as sympathetic as possible to those on the front line who had to go through each of the cases. I understand that 122 cases related to suspected abuse of children under the age of 18. Of these, 19 were given a high priority. I understand that about 115 cases were deemed to be of medium priority.

Mr. Gloster used the word "consistency". I have highlighted it in his submission to the committee. Where do services in Kerry stand now as a result of this noted failure? One does not want to attribute blame but if there are delays we must ask why. Are delays a function of people within Tusla being overloaded or overworked? Is an excessive burden placed on individuals or teams seeking to ensure these cases are dealt with appropriately and in accordance with protocol and law and that they are watertight? Are people in Tusla getting the resources they need to triage these cases?

Mr. Bernard Gloster

I will let Ms Duggan address issues concerning Kerry.

Ms Kate Duggan

I thank the Deputy for his question. As he rightly stated, in late 2019 Tusla became aware of an issue concerning the timeliness of referrals to An Garda Síochána. Such referrals were not being made within the desired timeframe. We have to deal with approximately 1,200 cases per year in the Kerry area. This audit indicated that of that number, 365 referrals were not made to An Garda Síochána in a timely way. As the Deputy noted, 122 of those were current cases and 243 were what we call "retrospective cases". It is unacceptable that the Garda notification was not made in a timely manner in 122 current cases. However, a social worker would be actioned to deal with any identified risks.

Immediate action was taken when Tusla identified that problem. The notifications have all been made. Tusla then examined the contributing factors. As the Deputy noted, one of them concerned staffing. There were also issues concerning practice and structure. As the Deputy rightly said, interpretation of the correct timing of notifications was not consistent. Views on when the notification should be made differed among social workers. That can be caused by inconsistencies in practice in a certain area or varying levels of experience among social workers. To immediately rectify that, a practice memo was developed in consultation with An Garda Síochána. That was shared with everybody. A staffing deficit was identified and additional staff have been assigned. Services have also been restructured.

To ensure consistency, Tusla did not just look at the incident in Kerry. The incident was understood as a symptom of a problem that could arise anywhere. Other areas were audited to detect problems with Garda notification. Tusla carried out an audit of 1,535 cases across 17 areas. The organisation determined that there was a timeliness issue in 13% of those cases. The practice memo and the associated guidance was shared throughout Tusla. Our own audit team, which identified the first problem, will carry out another audit in early 2021 to check that this is no longer a problem. We expect the changes to have been made by that point.

Returning to the Deputy's question on resources, the chief executive noted earlier that Tusla has a funded workforce of a certain size. That is not to say that it is able to meet the increased demand arising from the increased number of referrals or the complex types of presentation we are seeing among children.

As Mr. Gloster referenced, there are going to be approximately 100 to 120 front-line posts going into the system in 2021. My office is looking at targeting where that need is. That work involves, for example, looking at the number of social workers per thousand children within the population. It also looks at where there are issues with dealing with matters such as unallocated cases. That is not to say that if we feel there are practice concerns or issues with how things could be done more efficiently, we will not look at those. It is not about rewarding waiting lists but about recognising where there is a real need for additional resources.

In the challenging environment of recruiting additional social workers, we also have to look at the multidisciplinary approach to what a team looks like within a particular area. One of the Deputy's colleagues referenced the administrative burden. A report we have done demonstrates that we would be looking at a ratio of around one member of administrative staff to every four social workers to reduce that administrative burden. We have to look within those extra 100 to 120 extra staff to see where they will deliver the greatest impact and where they are of greatest need to improve resources for 2021.

I appreciate that. If I was to extrapolate from Ms Duggan's answer, it could be argued that there were people who were dealing with cases that arguably were beyond their experience. I think that would be a fair comment. Yes or no?

Ms Kate Duggan

No. I do not think so. It was where there was a different interpretation, and what had to be brought to the agency was a consistency in interpretation so that everybody understood the basis, threshold and level we were talking about when it comes to the point in time in which the referral takes place. That is the variation between being notified, receiving the referral, or maybe doing some of the initial teasing out and substantiation, whereas we have now clarified the point in time in which that referral has to be made.

I have to move the discussion on.

Can I make one more intervention?

Really briefly. I will have to ask for a written response because three other members are waiting to speak.

I apologise. I will ask my question. We are endeavouring to understand how the culture of the Child and Family Agency works. I accept the statement of the CEO today in respect of moving the culture on or changing practices, culture and structures. We accept the bona fides of the CEO in that respect. When we use a term such as "variation", it is meaningless to me. It suggests to me there is a massive variation in practices in different parts of the country when it comes to timelines and to how cases are dealt with. If we are to be helpful to our constituents, we need to have a greater understanding of the culture that exists within. To be frank about it, notwithstanding the CEO's statement today, which I find very helpful, my perception is that there is still a long way to go before a lot of the practices that are happening within the Child and Family Agency are deconstructed such that the services flow more seamlessly, as constrained and all as it is by staffing and other administrative challenges. That is the point, essentially. There is more work to be done and we will have to revisit this.

I can let members back in if there is time at the end. We are moving on to Senator Ruane.

I thank the witnesses for their engagement so far. I missed the start of the meeting as I was at a meeting of the Committee on Justice, so I apologise if any of these points have been touched on previously. I get the feeling that the majority of them may be for Ms Duggan on social work.

Child protection is the biggest turnover and it is the most front-facing part of the profession. Where are we at in the retention of social workers? How many cases on average would a social worker have or how many social workers would a child have, say, in a ten-year period? In many of the families I support, some of the kids are in the system for six to ten years and they are already on their tenth social worker. There would not even be any recognition or acknowledgement from Tusla that the social worker is changing and then a call will be made by the new social worker to introduce himself or herself. Then the process begins again of the same old questions the child has had to reveal for many years. This is a real issue.

Does Tusla have an idea of the average number of cases a social worker would have? Also, what is the average number of social workers a child could have throughout his or her time in foster care or on the files of Tusla? Where can one access the exit interview data of the hundreds of social workers who have left in recent years so that we can fix the issues?

I also have questions on Tusla's view on the imbalance between the foster parent and the child having a social worker but the parent not having his or her own social worker who would be his or her primary advocate and support in what is a difficult situation. Many parents seek family reunification and engage in the process but they are at a complete disadvantage when they enter a room in relation to a social worker's advocacy and who it is for. I would like to know Tusla's views on introducing a system whereby the parent who is looking for reunification has his or her own social worker support and representation. Sometimes Tusla will allow a family member to be present at those meetings but as the witnesses can imagine, many of these families come from disadvantaged backgrounds. While the family member might be able to emotionally support the person, he or she definitely cannot advocate in the same way a social worker can for the foster family or the children.

I would also like to know what supports are in place in regard to family reunification for a parent leaving the prison system, especially if the other parent is absent or may be deceased and if the children are living with a family member. I am supporting two men and one woman who are in the process of looking for family reunification on their release from prison. They have all said the same thing to me, that they are being discouraged at each meeting in regard to the potential for them to have their families reunified, even if they meet the criteria. Given that Tusla states that family reunification is a priority, what supports does it provide and what emphasis does it place on people leaving the prison system in terms of supporting family reunification? I hope the witnesses managed to take note of all those questions. I can repeat them if they did not.

Mr. Bernard Gloster

In the general sense, the average number of staff involved throughout a child's is very variable. The workforce tends to be more stable in rural areas than it is in the larger urban centres. That is caused by a number of factors but I would say that the number of organisations and services across the entire spectrum of social services for adults and children and across the health system that require social workers simply means the job market for social workers is wide and varied. That will always add to the movement of staff. Child protection work is, of itself, extremely complex. It is recognised as being quite a stressful aspect of the work. Many people stay in it for many years but for some the turnover is faster. I might ask Mr. Brophy to address the caseload question and the issue of reunification, including supports for people leaving the prison system.

Mr. Ger Brophy

On the caseload and the numbers of cases, it is hard to have a consistent number because each case depends on the intensity of the case, the number of children involved or the intensity of that child's individual needs. Tusla has developed a caseload management system over the past eight or nine years. We have worked out this system with front-line practitioners where each social worker, with his or her team leader, works out what is a manageable caseload for that particular worker and then we monitor that in terms of manageable and unmanageable caseloads. That is what we are doing to measure whether caseloads are manageable or not.

The Senator also asked a question about the reunification of families, how important that is and providing support for parents. That is a subject that is dear to my heart. We have made great efforts with the introduction of Signs of Safety, which has been a significant move on this. In this, we are involving the networks of families in supporting parents to create safety for children.

It is not just that we want a family member to come in with a parent, for example, but we want parents to actively get friends and family - people who they trust and know, and who are their allies - to be involved in creating safety for children. We will work with that network with the parent.

There is a process involved with this and a series of steps in the Signs of Safety model, including the creation of danger statements and safety goals. We work with children and we use the three houses method to get their views and incorporate them into the process as well. It is a very complex system but it is certainly one in which we are working really hard to work with parents so we can include parents in their own solutions and the creation of safety for their own children.

Mr. Bernard Gloster

Retention is improving but it is by no means without its challenges. I would not in any way want to take the committee down the direction of not being concerned. Exit interviews are not mandatory in Tusla no more than they are in any other organisation. They are attempted and some are done, so they are taken for what they are. They contribute to learning but I do not have any analysis of them with me. I will certainly ask our human resources team what analysis exists from exit-type feedback and I am quite happy to provide it and for it to be as public as it can be.

Turnover is a factor and the Senator hit the nail on the head in speaking about the fact that a child, whether in care or at home in the child protection surveillance system, having to tell his or her story repeatedly to new people is one of the greatest problems or challenges we face. The mobility of the workforce is such now that it is quite difficult to avoid the problem.

I welcome the witnesses. I will touch on the family resource centre programme and try to get an understanding of the 2021 budget for the establishment of new family resource centres. How many centres has Tusla been involved with over the past 12 or 18 months in establishing them nationally? They are crucial and if there is one lesson Covid-19 has taught us, it is the importance of supporting people on the ground locally, whether it is in mental health services, services for people with disabilities or services relating to social contact and education.

I am involved with one or two committees in Mayo and we are very fortunate to have seven family resource centres located throughout County Mayo. Unfortunately, there is only one in north Mayo and due to the geography of the region, it is not enough. I would like to get an understanding of what is in the budget for the current programme and next year.

Mr. Bernard Gloster

The Deputy was dropping in and out on my feed but I got the general gist of the question, which relates to family resource centres. These are all individually commissioned centres, as the Deputy knows, with their own boards and history. The approximate spend planned for next year on the programme is approximately €23 million. The family support programme allocation increased at the end of 2019 by approximately €1.5 million and this was carried into 2020 and fully honoured.

There are family support services not in the family resource centre programme and I want to be clear about that. When we speak about them we must do so in the context of all the other community and voluntary sector agents involved in family support services. Coming to the end of this year, the family resource type of services and programmes have seen an additional allocation of €700,000. That is in the closing weeks of the year and it is specifically to support the work done and which needs to be done over the winter period in responding to the families we mentioned earlier who are experiencing pressure because of Covid-19. I hope that addresses some aspects of the question.

I welcome those comments. I have looked at reports from 2019 and the allocated budget spend was €16 million so it is good to see it is being increased. I am currently working with the community in Erris and it is working with Tusla officials.

The people involved have set up a steering committee from five local parishes on recommendations from a previous application. They have also done a needs analysis on the region.

This region has issues around access and distance to services. There is also depopulation and lack of employment. The witnesses will hear about this application and much more about it. I look forward to working with Tusla on it because it is crucial that we deliver more services into communities. The core principle of the family resource centre programme is community and that it is needs-led. One action we can take post Covid is to try to deliver services better into communities and let them work and support people on the ground. It is an important element.

Mr. Bernard Gloster

The Deputy describes local needs assessment and local responsiveness, which is a very helpful. We want consistency of approach but with local adaptability. Going to places like Mayo or even the Inishowen Peninsula in Donegal, the type of response and adaptability required is very different from a large urban centre. It is exactly why the reform of Tusla in its practice, culture and specifically the structure, and doing what I call making Tusla "local", is as critical as it is.

I thank the witnesses for coming in today to go through the work. It is a very broad remit, and as a first-time committee member there is much for me to take in. It is great that the witnesses could come in and go through that.

My first question relates to Covid-19. Has Tusla come across many children who have completely disengaged from education because of Covid-19? I know it has been a really difficult time and children who were already finding school harder or had difficulties at school or at home would have found it harder to go back. Has Tusla identified how many children did not go back into education and what level of supports is it providing to those children?

I am trying to work to see what Tusla's processes are and how it engages with different families in different instances. I imagine there are very many difficult positions in which Tusla is involved. From a process perspective, I imagine that for each of the scenarios, Tusla has an identified process that staff would follow. In particular, if there is an allegation of sexual abuse of a child by a party within his or her own family, what process does Tusla follow? Is that articulated anywhere or publicly available?

I have heard anecdotally that families are having different experiences. It is clearly very distressing for families and children. They are wondering if their experience is standard. In the event that families feel they have had experiences that would not be best practice in their mind, what would be their comeback? Do they have anywhere they can go or anybody they can speak to about the experience they had with Tusla?

Mr. Bernard Gloster

As the Deputy knows, we operate the Tusla education support service, which is the former educational welfare officer service. That service continued to work, even during school closures, supporting the vulnerable children who would have already been known to those officers.

Approximately 6,000 children per year are made known to the Tusla education support service because of various aspects of concern around attendance and associated matters. It is a relatively small but nonetheless important number in the context of approximately 1 million schoolchildren in the country. Schools report to us twice per year with a particular emphasis on absence over 20 days. Where the absence over 20 days is explained and understood by the school, it is not an issue for our service. Where it is not explained, the focus of attention must be to ensure children's right to an education. We also want to see that the many other needs and supports that help children to access education are followed through. That is what the service does very well.

We do not yet have full reporting back from schools on the returning to school phase, but in addition to the twice yearly report of school attendance, the service has followed up with a large number of schools and is obtaining data. It has nearly completed that process. These data will identify the number of children who did not return to school after the Covid restrictions. While those data are not finalised and need to be scrutinised with the Department of Education, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, and our own service, the head of the education support service has indicated to me that there is no major concern with regard to the number of children not returning to school after the Covid restrictions, as distinct from the number of children who would have been at risk of dropping out of school even in previous years, outside of the pandemic period.

Having said that, any child dropping out of school is a concern. The support system for children who may not return to school is very extensive. It comprises our education support service, the school completion programmes we fund in DEIS school areas and many other supports. To be fair, the Department of Education itself went a significant distance to recognise the challenge for schools with regard to returning after the Covid restrictions. Quite significant supports have been put into in that space. It remains a work in progress but, at the moment, it seems to be going in accordance with what all the professionals would expect.

With regard to the process around referrals relating to sexual abuse and the different experiences people have had, I may ask the chief social worker, Mr. Ger Brophy, to comment briefly. People do experience different types and levels of service because of the consistency factor about which we have talked. The core process of responding to referrals is quite uniform, and increasingly so. Perhaps Mr. Brophy will comment on that issue.

Mr. Ger Brophy

We are working really hard on an EU model of service provision for children who have been sexually abused. This is called the Barnahus model. Under the EU-funded PROMISE 3 project, we are involved in training with our colleagues right across Europe in respect of specialist interviewing, therapy and follow-up. We aim to have a consistent service throughout the country. At the moment we only have one pilot site, which is in Galway.

With regard to what people experience at the moment, we aim to provide, through a patchwork of different counselling services, support and therapy for children who have been sexually abused. The Deputy may be familiar with some of the bigger services in Dublin. We also fund services provided by the CARI Foundation and a variety of other public and private services. We certainly would not claim that this is consistent. Our aim is to develop a consistent network of three Barnahus centres over the next three to five years and to link therapy and counselling with these centres.

Is that process written down anywhere? Is it available to the families? If the families find that their experience deviates from that process, to whom can they go?

Mr. Ger Brophy

We are more than willing and always delighted to get feedback and complaints. There is no problem with that. People can come back to us and talk to duty social workers or to the managers of the service in each of the local areas. That addresses the complaints element. As to where the process is written down, all of these referrals go through the same process. A referral comes through the front door and then passes through duty intake, where the team deals with it. Generally speaking, if the children concerned are in their own homes, the matter is dealt with through child protection and welfare. We also work very closely with An Garda Síochána in providing services to the family, but again, if they are dissatisfied or if the services they need are not available, they may complain to the local social work department. Those complaints will be dealt with.

For clarity, the process is not written down anywhere it can be publicly accessible.

Mr. Ger Brophy

It is written down as part of our standardised business process. We work from that when going through referrals, preliminary inquiries and screening. I believe some of the Deputy's colleagues spoke about that earlier. We have that process internally.

It is not publicly available, however.

Mr. Ger Brophy

I will have to check. I will come back to the Deputy as to whether it is publicly available.

That would be great. I thank Mr. Brophy for that.

I will ask one or two really brief questions. I know Deputy Cathal Crowe would like to come back in as well. With regard to the new money allocated in this year's budget, about which some people have spoken, is it possible for us to get a breakdown of the €61 million? I appreciate the witnesses may not have that with them today but what is the plan as to how to spend that additional money?

I also want to touch on some of the matters raised in Mr. Gloster's opening statement with regard to consistency. I appreciate that he has made these points and that he has acknowledged there are issues within the organisation. I know he has said there are plans in place and that Tusla is working on it but will he give us a little bit more information? It seems to work very well in certain parts of the country but not so well in other parts. Is there a way to identify where there is best practice and to mirror that in other areas? Perhaps that is something Tusla is doing but this may increase public confidence. Those are the only points I wished to make.

Mr. Bernard Gloster

Plans for the budget allocation for 2021 will be published in the 2021 business plan, which has not yet been finalised. We have only just heard the budget announcement. The board of the agency will consider the outline approach to allocating the funds we have for next year this Friday. To be clear, a significant portion of that €61 million has already been spent. The board of the agency will outline those plans after Friday. I will certainly have no difficulty in providing information on that approach to committee members, even ahead of the publication of the actual plan. We had particular costs this year and last year associated with disability cases in which there was also a child protection interest. That represented a significant part of our deficit.

With regard to consistency, the Chairman is correct. Approaching consistency across practice models has already been mentioned with regard to things like the child protection and welfare strategy, the Signs of Safety, and consistent approaches to family support. The real issue to pursue, which I mentioned in the opening statement and which I have mentioned to Tusla as many times as I could and to the Chair the first time I appeared before the committee in November 2019, is that Tusla is overcentralised, highly siloed and has an out-of-date structure for doing what the agency is charged with doing and tries to do.

We have designed a fully changed structure, which the board of the agency approved earlier this year, at the end of January. Since this involves changes to the structure of the agency and to some of the grading and positions involved in how the agency does its business, as opposed to money necessarily, it will require the approval of both the line Department, the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, and of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. It is between the two Departments at the moment. As I said, I am hoping that an engagement with the Minister very shortly will lead to a conclusion because implementing that type of change takes time and we really need to get on with it. We are, however, continuing will all other aspects of change in the meantime to try to improve consistency.

At the moment, we are operating in 17 areas where we have historically operated, divided into 32 smaller areas. These are supervised through four regional offices and co-ordinated through a national centre. The nature and type of response to cases will continue to be over-centralised. The system is heavily burdened. This adds to the impression of crisis given whenever there is an issue. Child protection systems in most jurisdictions do not operate in this way. There is no doubt but that there are many benefits to having a national agency, but we need to change the structure to achieve what we are attempting to achieve.

I thank the Chairperson for facilitating me. I will take up some of my earlier questions and extend them a bit further. The witnesses may recall that I raised the whole issue of consistency in reporting and in how thresholds are adhered to. It is confusing and incredible that while Tusla has been around since 2014, the Children First Act was enacted in 2015 and training across all tiers of child protection services has been fully rolled out, the very agency that co-ordinates child protection in this country has not achieved consistency. I find that hard to fathom. I speak as someone who received training and who was on the front line in this area just a few months ago. Many of my colleagues in the teaching sector are still very frustrated.

I would like to hear how Tusla will address that lack of consistency in thresholds. It is one thing to train people and to know how to handle sensitive information and relay it up that chain of command but it is an entirely different thing to have confidence that the mechanisms of Tusla are working to protect that child at the end of that supply chain.

Tusla deals with many serious and genuine cases but as with all reporting mechanisms of State, there are those reports that turn out to be false or even vexatious. I received an email in this regard some weeks ago and sometimes in an acrimonious break-up, everything gets thrown across the table in terms of accusations. How does Tusla deal with an accusation that has clearly been established to be vexatious without a shred of truth to it? Does it ever refer cases on to the Director of Public Prosecutions when its time as a State body has been wasted, when court time has been wasted and when real cases are being backlogged and kept out of those courts? I would like to hear from the witnesses on that. It would offer some assurance to people, so I hope for a response.

I want to make one or two follow-up points on workforce planning and pick up on some of the other things that were said. If it is easier to provide a written answer to my questions, that will suffice.

The point was made that Tusla's target was based on the affordable workforce, not necessarily a needs assessment. Has a needs assessment been done? What sort of modelling is Tusla looking at? There was talk of multidisciplinary teams. Do the multidisciplinary teams and the nature of that make it into the needs assessment? For example, if there are no access workers, it is possible that social workers could be looking at transport to and from access and supervising access eating a huge proportion of their time, which impacts on their ability to run other cases and all sorts of other things. I am asking about that balance of the multidisciplinary teams, access workers, social care workers and therapeutic staff as part of that needs assessment. The witnesses can give me a written answer on the workforce planning.

I refer to the family court Bill and the new family court building. The Child and Family Agency will be a significant user of both and I trust that there has been adequate consultation with the Child and Family Agency from the Courts Service and the Department of Justice on both. If there has not been, Tusla can put that in writing to us and we can follow it up.

Mr. Bernard Gloster

On Deputy Cathal Crowe's point on consistency, he has made all the points I have made. On what might be seen as vexatious reporting and the Deputy's reference to family law, in particular, there is a view abroad that Tusla is involved in every family law case, separation and divorce and in every issue in which there is a dispute around children. That is not the case. There are many thousands of those cases in the family courts that Tusla does not come into contact with. There are facilities available to the court under the Act where, if in the course of those proceedings, a concern is expressed about the well-being of a child, the court can direct assessment under the provisions of the Act and Tusla carries out that assessment to the best of its ability. In those cases, because Tusla's primary role is in relation to the safety and support of the children, we tend to look at what the safety and context is for the child, as distinct to looking at whether a particular incident or issue is substantiated or proven to be false or not. I am not aware of any case in which Tusla would have made a complaint to the Garda or the Director of Public Prosecutions about what might be called a vexatious case. There are many avenues for people to do that.

On the schools, I accept the Deputy's bona fides about the difference. I have said that I accept there is a difference. That is why it is extremely important to continue family support as opposed to just child protection.

Where I am anxious to get to in responding to the type of children teachers are concerned about is that we do not get to a stage where we are consistently talking about thresholds and that we are able to start talking about pathways for children. If it is not at the threshold of child protection, that should not mean it is closed or stays standing. It should get directed into a pathway in which the school and the family can still be supported in a meaningful way by the services and the State. That is what the pathway of practice reforming in Tusla is targeted at and geared towards. I accept that, for now, there are many situations in which that is a source of frustration for people and there is no point in me trying to deny that. When a system is being changed, that takes a considerable period of time. The Deputy's concern about the Child and Family Agency having that level of variation when it is, of itself, the protecting agency, is indicative of the history that the agency has come from through the health board and HSE eras to become Tusla, an agency operating across 17 areas of the country.

I will have to look more into the needs assessment issue that Deputy Costello raised. I would not be prepared to commit to saying that a definitive needs assessment of what is needed will be done but there is comparative analysis with Northern Ireland, England and other jurisdictions as to the level of social work that is available in Ireland. We are on the lower end of that. I must confess that I have not heard of any particular activity involving Tusla and the family court building so I would need to check what might or might not be in that and to come back to the Deputy on that.

On the workforce plan, Deputy Costello asked me about recruitment earlier and I know he was talking about foster carers as well. On staff recruitment, we have 22 dedicated staff working full-time in recruitment to try to manage and approve the recruitment process itself. We are doing workforce planning for next year and we are looking at an evidence-based allocation of any new resources. I do not see much point in trying to change the resource allocation of what has existed heretofore. We would lose too much energy trying to move things around that way but workforce planning is critical.

On the needs assessment side, that is all tied into an interdepartmental group on social work education that is looking at that range of issues. I entirely agree with the Deputy on the skill mix transfer of skills and on employing multidisciplinary teams, including social care workers and other staff, led by social workers providing responses. That is as distinct from every child in every situation having to have a social worker assigned in the traditional model.

The inconsistencies are a huge issue. Can I ask that in maybe six months time we would have a special meeting with Tusla again to see where that is at? It would be great work on behalf of this committee and the approach must be one of partnership. I was not here today trying to beat Tusla. I value an awful lot of what it does but it is our job as public representatives to probe and voice what people are saying on the ground. I would love it if in six months time we could see and, more importantly, hear how Tusla is catching up on the issue of inconsistencies.

That is fine. It would be our intention to have ongoing engagement with Tusla anyway. I thank Mr. Gloster, Ms Duggan, Mr. Smyth and Mr. Brophy for appearing today via video link. It is a different experience for us all but we are getting used to it. We look forward to ongoing engagement with the witnesses over the lifetime of this committee.

I propose that we publish Mr. Gloster's opening statement to the Oireachtas website. Is that agreed? Agreed. Before we adjourn, I remind members to vacate the room immediately to allow for the cleaning and the set-up of the next meeting.

The joint committee adjourned at 5.53 p.m. until 4 p.m. on Tuesday, 1 December 2020.