Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Ceisteanna (55)

Bernard Durkan


55. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs the extent to which all cases of suspected child abuse over the past three years have been fully investigated and cleared to the extent that no remaining threat to the children involved remains; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [30027/19]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Children)

This question seeks to ascertain the extent to which all cases of suspected child abuse have been fully investigated and closed to the satisfaction of the Minister's Department, thereby eliminating any further threat to those children or others.

I assure the Deputy that every referral to Tusla's Child Welfare and Protection Services is assessed by social workers when it is received. Cases of suspected child abuse referred to Tusla can be categorised into four different types: neglect, emotional abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse. Between 2016 and the end of April 2019, there have been almost 180,000 referrals to Tusla’s Child Welfare and Protection service, with over 55,000 referrals in 2018 alone. Approximately 60% of referrals in a year will be for child welfare reasons, with 40% relating to concerns about possible child sexual abuse. The child protection team on duty will assess each referral to see if it meets the threshold for intervention and all urgent cases are assigned immediately to a social worker. After screening, a duty social worker carries out a preliminary inquiry, gathering information about the referral, in order to determine whether the report meets the threshold of harm for child protection. If the preliminary inquiry finds that a child protection response is not required, the case may be diverted for a welfare response at that point. The preliminary inquiry also determines the priority status of each case. Cases that cannot be immediately allocated to a social worker are overseen by duty social work teams and in some cases specific actions are carried out by the social work team, including information gathering and visits to the child in question.

As the Deputy will be aware, the investigation of a crime is a matter for An Garda Síochána. Where appropriate, social workers notify An Garda Síochána, following the procedures set out in the Children First Act 2015. Tusla social work teams work in a risk-heavy environment and it is not always possible to remove every risk to a child. However, in situations where a child is at immediate risk, Tusla will act to remove the child to a place of safety. Where children remain in their homes, the focus is on building networks of safety around a child and ensuring that the source of any risk or threat is managed through planning and working with families.

I thank the Minister for her comprehensive reply. Given the large number of referrals and the possibility of someone falling through the net, as it were, is the Minister satisfied that all cases have been fully and thoroughly investigated to the satisfaction of her Department? Can cases which were referred to An Garda Síochána be followed up on in order to find out whether subsequent actions were taken by An Garda Síochána? To what extent have the families in question had any follow-up to reassure all involved that the system is capable of meeting these challenges?

That is an excellent supplementary question. I am satisfied that the appropriate actions are being taken, particularly in high priority cases where children are at immediate risk and there is potential abuse or harm going on, as distinct from cases involving child welfare concerns. There is a child protection concern in the former. I have described the system that is in place and that system is being followed. It is a heavy-risk environment.

Sometimes, some decisions are not correct and things are not done that ought to have been done, but I feel fairly certain that when there is an immediate risk and priority is given, that the analysis is done appropriately for those children who are at the highest risk within that priority.

Can I further inquire regarding the cases of psychological abuse, for example child sexual abuse, the degree to which the Department is satisfied that everything that could be done is being done and has been done over the three-year period in all of the cases that have been reported? I am not trying to trap the Minister into giving a guarantee that is impossible to give. Is it possible, in general, to be reassured to that extent?

Given the Deputy's phrasing of the question, I would answer "Yes".

The specific role of Tusla is to promote the welfare of children who are at risk of not receiving adequate care and protection, as the Deputy will be aware. Some 40% of the referrals relate to child sexual abuse concerns. An Garda Síochána will deal with any criminal aspects of that sexual offence against a child under the relevant criminal justice legislation. One of the important elements in ensuring all this works in the way that the Deputy is requesting is joint working between Tusla and An Garda Síochána. It forms an integral part of child protection and welfare. We have a number of meetings, as set out in Children First, that form an important link in an investigation by An Garda Síochána of a potential crime. I established an interdepartmental group in 2018, which is currently working to develop a service for child victims of sexual abuse that will bring together social work policing and health services in one site. This provides a solid and good example of the way to work in the future to support the ongoing work between those two agencies. I am satisfied regarding those concerns at a systems and individual level.