I am glad to have an opportunity to set out the immense work that Tusla has undertaken since its establishment, the ongoing challenges it is facing and the immediate and longer term actions being put in place as I speak.
Tusla was established in 2014 with the task of bringing together 17 child protection service areas across the country, to operate as one Agency. It must be remembered that the different areas, although all in the HSE, had continued in reality to operate different practices and policies, reflecting their different health board origins. Tusla's task was to reform the 17 areas into a single organisation with new management structures, bring together nearly 4,000 staff from three separate organisations, (the HSE, the Family support Agency and the National Educational Welfare Board) develop national operational policies and realign the new organisation to current need. All of this had to occur while providing the ongoing complex business of child protection services in the face of increasing referrals.
Tusla has been engaged in a programme of reform which involves the standardisation of business processes, the development of quality assurance mechanisms and improved data system to reflect service demand, outputs and outcomes. A National Child Care Information System (NCCIS) was rolled out to all 17 Tusla areas in July 2017. The NCCIS is producing high quality data and making child protection services more effective. Tusla has also implemented a national model for child protection, Signs of Safety, and, through its own auditing work, identifies practices that need improvement. Tusla now has common definitions and thresholds for child protection cases, which, for the first time, provide a true picture of children's need in our country. Knowing where the problems lie is an essential step in delivering improvements.
A major issue for the organisation since its establishment has been achieving a sufficient number of social workers to meet the ongoing rise in referrals for child protection and child welfare services. Tusla are finalising a Workforce Strategy to focus on future need to ensure they are in a position to address their statutory work.
HIQA have rightly identified issues in relation to retrospective cases and safety planning that need to be addressed in their Statutory Investigation published last summer. I established an Expert Advisory Group to advise me and the Board of Tusla on the progress that was being made in implementing actions. I met with the Chairperson of the EAG, Dr Moling Ryan, on Monday last and he provided me with a report identifying progress and areas needing further prioritising.
My officials are currently working with the education sector, including the five Universities and one Institute of Technology involved in qualifying social workers. The purpose of the work is to increase the future provision of social workers.
The Deputy also asks about the number of child protection and welfare referrals that have yet to be assessed. At the end of December 2018, over 6,000 cases were unallocated, representing 23% of all cases. All high-risk or urgent referrals do receive an immediate service and urgent response. Tusla has identified 5 of the 17 areas that between them hold the majority of unallocated cases. I have asked Tusla to make a presentation to me on the special measures it is putting in place in these areas to manage this worrying situation.