I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important matter with Members of the Seanad and to set out the actions that are being taken. Following a recommendation by the Ombudsman for Children concerning the removal of two Roma children from their families, a report of the audit of the emergency removal of children from their families was commissioned by An Garda Síochána to review its handling of section 12 cases. While the report’s focus and recommendations are based on an examination of Garda records and are primarily directed at An Garda Síochána, Dr. Shannon also considers and makes recommendations regarding Tusla and the broader child protection system.
Before I address the report itself, it is important to have a clear understanding of when section 12 is invoked. An Garda Síochána has the power, under section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991, to remove a child urgently from a situation for his or her safety and welfare. This includes a power to enter any premises without a warrant under certain conditions and the child, once removed, is to be delivered to Tusla, the Child and Family Agency. Tusla social workers have no powers to enter a home or to remove a child from a dangerous situation in an emergency. The main issues for Tusla raised in Dr. Shannon’s report can be summarised under the following headings: interagency co-operation and communication; the repeated application of section 12; section 12 and out-of-hours services; and the lack of suitable emergency accommodation leading to young people being admitted to hospital or kept safe at Garda stations. Work has been ongoing and is already under way on these issues.
With regard interagency cooperation and communication, Dr. Shannon’s review looked at PULSE data from 2008 to 2015, all Garda cases where section 12 was applied by An Garda Síochána in 2014 and a sample of Garda cases where it was applied in 2015. Since this time, Tusla has been fully established and has set up processes to enhance interagency working. Both An Garda Síochána and Tusla confirm that there is excellent communication and co-operation at senior management level, both formally through regular meetings of the strategic liaison committee and informally through regular communication. It is recognised that there is always a need to ensure that this is realised on a consistent basis at a local level. In order to address this, both organisations have recently developed a joint protocol on the use of section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991 which, I am assured, will be signed off by the two organisations very shortly.
This joint protocol was developed in line with the new Children First guidance and the Children First Act 2015. It covers: the application of section 12; the process to be adopted during office hours and out-of-office hours as emergencies arise; Garda notifications to Tusla; the medical history of the child; and the follow-up action required. The Garda national child protection unit, in co-operation with Tusla, will carry out a review at local level of the child protection operations between Tusla and An Garda Síochána.
Further noteworthy actions to enhance interagency communication and co-operation have been in planning and will be completed shortly. First, a dedicated Tusla official will be assigned to and co-located at the Garda national child protection unit in the coming days. Divisional protective services units are being established in all 28 Garda divisions and effective liaison with Tusla will be a feature of these units. Where local operational difficulties cannot be resolved through these units, the strategic liaison committee will act as a forum where any significant operational issues can be addressed. Ongoing development of Tusla’s national child care information system is progressing well which, when finalised, will greatly improve the information available both to Tusla and to its partners in child welfare and protection. These actions should facilitate continuously enhancing and improving interagency working between the two agencies with statutory responsibility for child protection.
In addition to the high-level Garda and Tusla strategic liaison committee, Tusla has put in place dedicated intake teams which monitor and manage section 12 cases, including consideration of repeated use of section 12. In response to Dr. Shannon’s report, Tusla has set up a team to review the contextual and situational factors and their actions around the 91 cases cited in Dr. Shannon’s report to clarify the number and reasons for repeat applications of section 12 in the cases examined in the report and to consider the common themes emerging. In order to allow Tusla to identify the specific cases referenced in the report, An Garda Síochána has agreed to provide details of these cases by Friday of this week and I am assured that this work will be completed by the end of June.
Regarding the out-of-hours social work service, a significant enhancement of the service took place in November 2015, the period after which is not covered by the report. Tusla now provides a national service which facilitates 24-hour Garda contact with a social worker in cases where removal of a child under section 12 is being contemplated.
The services provided by the emergency out-of-hours service include: a national call centre where social workers consult with and provide advice to An Garda Síochána; the arrangement of emergency foster and residential care placements for children under section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991 and access by An Garda Síochána to the national child protection notification system. Through this service, social workers are available on the ground at night, over weekends and bank holidays to assist An Garda Síochána in the busiest areas of Dublin, Cork city, Kildare and Wicklow. The call centre is contactable for advice and placement support from all locations in Ireland. In light of Dr. Shannon’s report, I have asked Tusla to look at the current demand for a similar on-the-ground service for the rest of the country and Tusla will report back to me on this matter.
In line with best child care practice, most emergency accommodation is provided with family foster carers. This meets the needs of the majority of children admitted in an emergency situation. There are some situations where family care is not suitable, including where the young person is under the influence of alcohol and or drugs, or is exhibiting suicidal ideation, and may require medical assessment or treatment in hospital. In 2016, there were 41 incidents where a request was made for a social-medical admission to hospital. These occurred, following a discussion between the Tusla out-of-hours service and the Garda, where it was deemed that the child was unsuitable for a foster care placement. There were no social admission cases in the Dublin-Kildare-Wicklow area, as a residential service is available. In the midlands area, Tusla now has access to residential emergency placements and is about to commission additional emergency residential places in the south of the country.
In 2016, there were 12 incidents of children staying in a Garda station instead of an alternative placement. I have been told that this was due to circumstances other than a lack of foster care placement. It may be, for example, that the young person arrives there at 5 a.m. and it is thought better to keep him or her there rather than travel some distance to an alternative placement. It may be that the young person is very aggressive or has been arrested. I have been assured that social admission to hospital only takes place in exceptional cases, and only where such a placement is for the safety of the young person.
The national out-of-hours service is continuing to review demands for different placement types and is considering the need for the development of additional residential placements. Senators will be aware that HIQA inspects and publishes reports on Tusla’s child protection services. This work includes how Tusla handles referrals from the Garda under section 12. We are looking closely at HIQA’s observations and findings in respect of Tusla’s handling of emergency placements.
I look forward to meeting Dr. Shannon in the coming days to discuss his report and the recommendations regarding Tusla. I also intend to talk to the Tánaiste about a joint monitoring of implementation by An Garda Síochána and Tusla of the actions recommended for both organisations in Dr. Shannon’s report. While I note that Dr. Shannon has expressed full confidence in Tusla’s child protection framework, I am absolutely committed to ensuring that all reasonable action is taken quickly to provide for the safety and welfare of children in Ireland. As a result of the various meetings I will be indicating clearly what those actions will be, in addition to the ones I have already indicated.