By Noel Howard
Noel Howard is a retired social care worker and manager. He is the founder member and secretary of Social Care Ireland and is Chair of Care Leavers Ireland. He has written on social care work and edits publications for the Irish Association of Social Care Workers. The book Social Care ; Learning from Practice which he co-edited with Denise Lyons was published in Dublin in June, 2014.
Ireland’s new Child & Family Agency – or is it?
For many years in Ireland and particularly in the light of so many damning child abuse reports there have been calls for the Child & Family Services to be removed from the tentacles of the monolithic and bureaucratic Health Service Executive which is responsible for all health and personal social services in the Republic of Ireland.
On coming into office in 2011 the coalition government appointed Frances Fitzgerald, a former social worker, as Minister for Children. This was the first time that a minister with responsibility for children would have a full cabinet portfolio.
Minister Fitzgerald set out her priorities which many thought were overly ambitious. One such initiative was to create and legislate for a separate Child and Family Agency with its own CEO, staff and budget. This meant that what was a dysfunctional adjunct and sometimes the very poor relation within the overall health service would now become Ireland’s answer to all those who believed that real progress would never be made without radical action.
The cynics said such a move would be a logistical and industrial relations nightmare and was simply moving the deck chairs on the Titanic; others said whatever emerged could not possibly be any worse than what was already there and the optimists believed that this would be a new dawn.
True to her word, Ms Fitzgerald was able to announce that January 1st 2014 would see the establishment of TUSLA ( loose Irish translation = New Day) the Child & Family Agency.
The Agency’s website describes it as follows:
On the 1st of January 2014 the Child and Family agency became an independent legal entity, comprising HSE Children & Family Services, Family Support Agency and the National Educational Welfare Board as well as incorporating some psychological services and a range of services responding to domestic, sexual and gender based violence.
The Child and Family Agency is now the dedicated State agency responsible for improving wellbeing and outcomes for children. It represents the most comprehensive reform of child protection, early intervention and family support services ever undertaken in Ireland. It is an ambitious move which brings together some 4,000 staff and an operational budget of approximately €600m.
The Agency operates under the Child and Family Agency Act 2013, a progressive piece of legislation with children at its heart, and families viewed as the foundation of a strong healthy community where children can flourish. Partnership and co-operation in the delivery of seamless services to children and families are also central to the Act.
The establishment represents an opportunity to think differently, where appropriate to behave differently and to seek a wide range of views regarding the most effective way of working together to deliver a wide range of services for children and families. An approach which is responsive, inclusive and outward looking.
Coming within the new agency’s scope are:
- Child Welfare & Protection Services, including family support and alternative care services;
- Existing Family Support agency responsibilities;
- Existing National Educational Welfare Board (old school attendance) responsibilities;
- Pre-school Inspection services;
- Domestic, sexual and gender based violence services;
- Community based services related to the psychological welfare of children and families.
Criticism was levelled around some significant and indeed inexplicable exceptions not coming within the remit of the new Agency such as
- Public health nursing;
- Speech and language therapy
- Child and adolescent mental health services
- Children’s detention.
While an obvious deadline had been set in terms of the establishment of the new agency, the Minister was under some pressure in defending the new “Child and Family” service which did not include so many aspects relative to children and families on a daily basis. In reply to parliamentary questions she did not rule out integration of some or all of the excluded services at a future stage and noted that the practical implications of the scale of the organisations excluded them from coming within the remit of the new agency.
However, the worry for those who have worked in this area over many years is that the Minister’s solution is what might very well be described as a “back to the future one.” She indicated that “A joint protocol for inter-agency work… when established, has been prepared following extensive Child& Family Services, Primary care, Disability Services and Mental Health services discussions. The protocol aims to ensure a consistent national approach to service delivery where two or more services are involved in the same case.”
While a joint protocol for inter-agency work sounds good it is merely repeating what many of us heard for so long and so often in the past when different departments (mainly those of Health, Education and Justice) had shared responsibility for children on the margins and those in need of residential care. I recall one Junior Minister announcing to great acclaim at a child care conference in the mid 90s that officials from the Departments of Health, Education and Justice would meet with him once a week to ensure that the necessary integration of services would take place where responsibility for different aspects of a case regarding deprived children appearing in court overlapped between departments.
What happened? At times there was the expensive spectacle of a set of lawyers appearing for each department in the children’s courts when particular cases regarding children and their placement needs were heard. The lawyers were not there to argue for a solution and accept departmental responsibility but to argue why the particular department they represented bore no responsibility whatsoever. It then fell of course to one of the other departments’ legal team to argue the opposite. This expensive, buck passing charade took place while a child and its family as well as child care workers and social workers looked on in bewilderment. It proved beyond doubt that government departments will at times go to any lengths to ensure that, even though ostensibly they do have responsibility, they will not accept it and act accordingly.
I have little doubt but that “a joint protocol for inter-agency work” where cases concerning different agencies overlap may well perpetuate the same scenarios similar to what we saw so often in the past. While not all cases may reach the courts there will be many consigned to the cauldron of inter- departmental and inter-agency wrangling so familiar to many who work with children and families. We don’t have to ask who the losers will be.
While a large swathe of services for children and families do, as above outlined, come within the remit of the new agency it may well be those not there (especially child /adolescent mental health services and children in detention) that may ultimately prove the Achilles heel for the new agency if specific, long running or intractable cases arise. That would be unfortunate since much has been achieved at a practical and logistical level to establish something that a short few years ago seemed beyond achieving.
Rather than depend on different outside agencies cooperating, the objective now should be to do all that is necessary to bring those services not included within the scope of the new agency and really make it what it now purports to be now but isn’t fully.
Politics being what it is, Ms Fitzgerald was moved from the Department of Children to become Minister for Justice on May 8th when a whistle blowing scandal engulfed the police, the then Minister for Justice and his department. She was replaced by Charles Flanagan who is a former solicitor. Ms Fitzgerald’s legacy in the Department of Children is her success in getting the Children’s Rights referendum passed in 2012 and the establishment of the Child & Family Agency. The changes to the lives of children and families envisioned by both remain to be seen.