Tuesday, 10 December 2019

Questions (58)

Kathleen Funchion


58. Deputy Kathleen Funchion asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs her views on whether the background checks being carried out on potential foster carers by Tusla are robust enough to ensure the protection of vulnerable children and that concerns raised regarding the safety of children in foster care are being dealt with appropriately; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [51552/19]

View answer

Oral answers (6 contributions) (Question to Children)

The question concerns whether the background checks being carried out on potential foster carers by Tusla are robust enough to ensure the protection of vulnerable children, in particular given concerns have been raised regarding the safety of some children in foster care, and whether all of this is being dealt with appropriately.

Children in care are among the most vulnerable in our society, and it is the responsibility of Tusla to ensure they are placed in safe environments. While it is not possible to remove every risk, Tusla makes every effort to assess thoroughly all people who wish to be foster carers.

The approval process for general foster carers can take several months. The assessment is carried out by a qualified social worker under the supervision of a social work team leader. The assessment focuses on the capacity and suitability of the applicants to provide safe, secure care to a child. An essential part of the process is to undertake safeguarding checks on potential foster carers, to include references, medical assessments and Garda vetting. This information is included in the report prepared for the foster care committee to assist them in making a decision regarding approval. Children are not placed with the foster carers until they are approved. The process includes ongoing Garda vetting for foster carers and adult family members, including their own children when they reach 16 years of age. An important part of the assessment process is that potential foster carers attend at information and training sessions, which include sessions on how to keep children safe in foster care.

In the case of children placed with relative foster carers, the child care regulations state that for an emergency placement in foster care, the assessment must take place as soon as is practicable. This is in recognition of unanticipated situations for some children, where their best interests may be met, at least initially, by placing them with relatives. However, the standards are clear that safety checks, including Garda vetting, must take place before the child is placed.

As many of the children who are placed with foster carers have previously been neglected or abused, foster carers are advised on ways to be particularly mindful in how they care for the children in this respect. Foster carers have a link social worker, which is separate to the child’s social worker, who provides support and supervision and is attentive to the impact of the fostering situation on all members of the foster carer’s family. The protection of children in foster care from harm is of the utmost importance in all circumstances.

One reason I asked this question is that we have seen various cases recently - I would include Scouting Ireland - where it is clear vulnerable children were let down by various organisations and the State. We have a history in this regard in this country. A first ever national fostering week was recently organised by the Child and Family Agency. While I do not have a difficulty with this, it obviously led to a huge increase in the number of inquiries. This is a good thing, on the one hand, because we definitely need good foster parents, who do an excellent and difficult job, one I do not envy and I do not know how many of them do it. However, we need to ask the questions, not just about background checks, but also about supports for those foster parents and whether those supports are ongoing. Other Deputies also raised the question of resources. For example, if we do not have enough social workers and aftercare workers, are we really in a situation where we can monitor foster care on an ongoing basis and do we have the resources to do that? That is the crux of the matter.

The Deputy mentioned the recent campaign Tusla conducted to see if it could get more people interested in providing foster care. As the Deputy indicated, it resulted in some 350 inquiries, which are now being followed up. That is substantial and I congratulate Tusla for doing that, in particular as it was the first time.

One of the reasons it did that was in regard to resources and the best way to spend them. The Deputy and others have raised previously the difference in cost between private placements for children in care and the cost of public foster carers, who are supported by Tusla. Given that difference in cost, Tusla ran this campaign to see if it could get more people interested in becoming foster parents. While it was not necessarily just cost driven, it was conscious of that. Obviously, the more foster carers or parents there are who are providing that service with Tusla, the more resources will be better spent in supporting those providing foster care.

Part of the reason for this question is that foster parents contact us and say they do not feel there is a huge amount of support. Particularly when people have been foster parents for a long time and they are well known as a good placement, they get asked to take emergency cases with very little support, and an emergency case can then turn into months and the children are still with them. People are often left with a lot of unanswered questions. I am always conscious of our history and how much we have failed children in the past. I hope we are starting off on the right foot. If it is going to have these types of fostering weeks and information sessions, this would always need to be followed up robustly and it has to be ongoing, not based on one check. First, foster parents themselves need support and, second, we need to always ensure that the most vulnerable children in our society are in a totally safe environment. That is my concern.

As I have indicated, the child has a social worker and the foster carers have a link social worker, and those are considered to be forms of real direct support. I hear the Deputy's point that some foster carers may be making representations to her that they feel they could use more support. I will communicate that to Tusla. However, that should not stop Tusla from going out and looking for more. At the same time, it should be integral that if are increasing the numbers, we need to ensure there is additional support.

Question No. 59 answered with Question No. 52.