Healy O'Connor

Children in Care – Victims of the System Set up to Protect Them?

In recent days, the National Review Panel (NRP) which has been charged with investigating the circumstances of child deaths while in care, has revealed that 46 children known to care services have died since the start of 2010 including 13 in the first four months of 2012 alone. The HSE who is responsible for children while in care has stated that improvements were needed to the service in particular in relation to suicide prevention in children in care. Dr. Helen Buckley, chair of the NRP, stated that there had been pressure on services, people had been placed on waiting lists, that there were delays being experienced in referrals and in contacting family members and also highlighted shortcomings in the management of services. Dr. Buckley also stated that case conferences had been under utilised while inadequate assessments were also being made.

The NRP stated that Neglect can be the most harmful type of child abuse. However, neglect in often de-prioritised by the HSE. In one case involving a 16 year old boy who died in an accident, it was reported that he and his siblings suffered neglect in the home where drug use and criminality became commonplace. However, the children were allowed to continue to live with their parents who were clearly unable to exert any control over the children. It was highlighted that no case conference or formal strategy was implemented by the HSE nor did it follow the Children First Guidelines. In another case investigated by the NRP, a child in his early teens committed suicide, despite the fact that he had been referred to the HSE Children and Family Services. While known to the HSE, he had engaged in self harm and attempted suicide. Notwithstanding, he was treated as low risk by the HSE who failed to accord him due care.

Fergus Finlay of Barnados has echoed the growing urgency to reform the HSE services in relation to the manner in which it exercises its powers under the Child Care Act and associated legislation and provisions in order to better protect and promote the interests and welfare of children, in particular, those in care or at risk. In March 2012, the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) produced Draft National Standards for the Protection and Welfare of Children. These standards are aimed at the provision of safe and effective child protection and welfare services. HIQA invited submissions from interested persons in the public in order to inform the development of the National Standards for the Protection and Welfare of Children. The closing date for submissions was May 17th last.

These Standards will drive improvement in child protection and welfare services. The standards provide for example for the necessity of involving children and their families in child protection conferences. The importance of this standard cannot be underestimated given that, in practice, the HSE has at times implemented child protection policies in denial or in ignorance of the rights, interests and welfare of children. The Standards also provide that a review of the implementation of procedures is carried out by persons not involved in the assessment and management of cases. This standard is also imperative to ensure objectivity and independence in the implementation of procedures.

However, it would seem that the draft Standards could be improved in many ways. For example, the Themes of the Standards would appear to be too generic in nature and will need to be made more specific as to their meaning and to the manner in which they will function. This is imperative in order to prevent the HSE in exercising huge scope in the implementation of its powers, at times to the detriment of the rights, interests and welfare of children. It is crucial that the HSE respects and enforces the rights of children and families to timely access to interventions and that it responds and adapts to their changing needs in a managed way. Too often  in the past, it has failed to do so.

Social work teams must adapt the case management process to suit the children and family involved. Full and informed consultation with children and with their families is a pre-requisite. There would seem a lack of awareness in certain Social Workers about the impact of administrative decision making on the lives and rights of children and their families. Indeed, in certain cases, the children were invisible in the decision making process of the HSE, in particular its Social Work Department who either ignored the interests of the children and/or did not accord priority to the children’s interests.

It is hoped that in light of the Report by the NRP and with a timely introduction of National Standards for the Protection and Welfare of Children, the interests, rights and welfare of all children will be better protected, promoted and enhanced.

Family and Child Law Department,

Healy O’ Connor,


Cork and Dublin

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