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.