Business of Committee

I thank everybody for their very useful interventions. We are ad idem here. We want to make our country safer for children. We all acknowledge that our history in this regard is nothing to be proud of, as many people have pointed out, and we continue to wish to improve our legislation to reflect the need for us all to be alert when it comes to keeping children safe. It is a matter for all of us, not just one person because they happen to be in charge or charged with the care of a child. We should all be alive to the issue.

I also wish to inform the committee of an issue-----

This is the select sub-committee so the Minister may proceed.

A matter came to my attention in the past number of days. On Monday, 27 April 2015, Tusla notified my Department that it had identified evidence of significant risks in how referrals were managed in the child welfare and protection service in the Laois-Offaly area. Tusla subsequently furnished a draft report on 28 April indicating that a significant number of referrals to its social work service have not been responded to in accordance with established procedures. Tusla indicated to me that this issue came to light at local level and was notified recently to Tusla senior management. On being notified of the issue, I met with the CEO of Tusla on Tuesday and I also discussed the matter with the chairperson of the board of management of Tusla. I have sought assurances and have been assured by Tusla that necessary measures to deal comprehensively with the situation have been or are being put in place.

My immediate priority is to ensure that no child is at risk of harm. I consider it appropriate that this matter is brought into the public domain at the earliest opportunity, which is why I am using this opportunity to inform the select sub-committee. I have been provided with details of Tusla's action plan to deal with the issues that have been identified and will meet with Tusla again tomorrow to review progress in ensuring that all necessary actions are taken without delay. Tusla is being assisted in this process by two external independent child care experts in dealing urgently with the referrals that have come to light. Tusla is committed to working closely with An Garda Síochána and other partners in this area. I will consider in due course whether an independent investigation into this matter is warranted, including the circumstances that gave rise to the unassessed backlog of referrals and to include the lessons to be learned to ensure that such a situation is not repeated. My view of the seriousness of the issue is shared by Tusla. I have asked Tusla to expedite its examination of the various issues as a priority. Tusla is in the process of establishing the precise number of referrals that have not been appropriately responded to and will provide me with an update in this regard as a matter of priority.

I wish to ensure that any individual or organisation that is currently concerned about a referral they have made to Tusla in the Laois-Offaly area can be reassured. I have asked the CEO of Tusla to provide a contact telephone number so that any person who has a child protection concern about a child in the Laois-Offaly area can make contact immediately. I am assured by Mr. Gordon Jeyes that he has allocated additional social work staff to respond to any calls.

The issues involved primarily relate to the management of unallocated child welfare and protection referrals. Tusla provides data on a monthly and quarterly basis in respect of the management of referrals and unallocated cases. The matter has been the subject of much discussion, including in the Oireachtas in recent months. Given the importance of ensuring there is absolute clarity with regard to unallocated access and the management of any associated risk, I have in recent weeks asked Tusla to arrange for a national audit and to ensure complete verification and validation of all known cases awaiting allocation to a social worker. This was done prior to these issues becoming known to me as part of a standard letter I sent to it a couple of months back. Tusla is due to furnish me with a report in this regard shortly. While I know the meeting is technically over, I am happy to take questions insofar as I can answer them but we have limited information.

I was going to ask Deputies Troy and McLellan to respond but, technically, it is not a matter for the select sub-committee. Given the fact that this is an extremely serious child protection issue, it is important that we ask Tusla to come before the joint committee next Thursday if possible and that the Minister brief the Opposition and possibly forward the information he has to the committee. If Deputies Troy and McLellan wish to make any comments now, I would be happy to hear brief comments because it is not part of our remit as a select sub-committee.

I appreciate the leniency of the Chair and I appreciate the Minister using this opportunity to update us. The Minister said that his priority is that no child is at risk of harm and I welcome that. Can he tell us categorically that no child is at risk of harm? How many cases are we talking about in terms of failure to report?

In terms of ensuring that there are sufficient numbers of staff to deal with this issue, have staff been redeployed from another area, are agency staff being taken on or must we go through the process of recruitment? I welcome that there is a contact number and the external experts. I am only trying to take it in, to be honest.

I accept that. I do not wish to wrong-foot anyone but I am treating this so seriously, having only found out about it in the past 48 hours, that I want to ensure that no child is at risk. At this moment in time, I cannot confirm that. The point of making this public and having that phone number is that anybody who made a referral and who is concerned that it might fall into this category will have an opportunity to ring this number that will be made available by the Child and Family Agency in a statement to follow shortly.

Have they taken appropriate action thus far?

Thus far, I have met them and made clear the seriousness of the situation as I see it. I think they accept that as well. They are bringing in additional staff from other areas. They have experienced social work staff going in to review the cases as quickly as possible to ensure those risks, if they should exist, are mitigated as quickly as possible.

I wish I was able to respond to Deputy Troy, stating no child is at risk, but I cannot. Part of the reason for making this public is not to alarm people in any way but to afford those who may be in a situation, wondering about a child and still not happy, that appropriate action is being taken. In the Laois-Offaly area, they have the opportunity to ring this number and have that reassurance that the matter has been looked at.

Is it confined to that area?

The only way to answer that question is to put to the Chairman that HIQA began inspecting children and family services in 2013 and it has inspected the Tusla child protection services in 12 of the 17 integrated service areas, ISAs nationally. Eleven of these reports have already been published and the twelfth report is expected to be published shortly. The committee will be aware that HIQA found five of the areas were performing to a high standard in how they managed referrals but it found some problems in the remaining seven areas, mainly in the length of time a child had to wait for an allocated social worker. However, the duty system was managing the risk in an acceptable way. That is critically important. On many occasions we have had the discussion, that although it is a high priority, it does not mean it has not been assessed because emergencies and immediate risk are dealt with immediately. HIQA found, as I stated, there were profound problems in three areas with how referrals were being dealt with and the local area has put in place an action plan to deal with the problems.

I take seriously any issue regarding the safety of a child and I am glad to say that HIQA provides an independent reassurance on the standard of service provided to vulnerable children. These inspection reports are published on the HIQA website.

In answer to the Chairman's question, in the main most of these services have been inspected but there still remains some outstanding ones. Therefore, I cannot give a cast-iron guarantee.

Are we talking about many cases? Are we talking about an individual who failed to do his or her duties, or was it merely a complete breakdown in the Laois-Offaly area?

The Minister stated that the Child and Family Agency will make a statement shortly providing a contact number. I presume that will be a headline shortly and we all will pick up on the contact number there.

In response to both Deputy Troy and Deputy McLellan, who asked the same question, I cannot specify with any degree of certainty at this early stage what number of cases there are because the figures have changed at least three times in the past 48 hours. I am happy to say the figures are travelling in the right direction.

Does the Minister have a ballpark figure?

It is several hundred.

Several hundred cases?

There were several hundred referrals.

Referrals?

Let us be clear about this. I will make a couple of points which may reassure people, but I do not want to diminish how seriously I view this. There has been a situation for some time where not all referrals, particularly, for instance, from gardaí, are acknowledged, but it does not mean they are not dealt with.

Deputy McLellan asked if there was a specific individual.

Who was, I suppose, in dereliction-----

With regard to fairness and natural justice, I would want to consult. I do not want to give any details of that.

It is not really the committee's business this morning.

I was merely wondering if it was only a staffing issue or if it was down to staff who just did not-----

I ask the Deputy to bear with us on that.

I emphasise the reason I have raised this issue is that my primary and most serious concern is that our children are safe.

I ask the Minister to ensure that the joint committee be apprised of the situation. While it is not the select committee's business, the joint committee is to hear from Tusla on Thursday morning next. The select committee is not empowered this morning to discuss or make decisions on this issue. Given what was involved, I allowed the Minister to make his statement. It is a matter of child safety, which is what we are all concerned about and which was the purpose of this morning's meeting. The joint committee has to take a different role and I will recommend that on Thursday morning. The clerk to the committee will be in contact with Deputies McLellan and Troy after this meeting.

Are there any other questions the members want to ask today?

Will the Minister make his statement available?

I have asked him to do that.

I ask the Minister to apprise the Opposition spokespersons as well.

I will. That is not an issue.

I thank the Minister and all of the officials, Ms Michele Clarke, Ms Marie Kennedy, Ms Dolores Moran and Ms Moira Griffin, for their work, assistance and co-operation this morning. I thank them for being here.

The select sub-committee adjourned at 11.47 a.m. sine die.