Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 7 May 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children
Child Protection Services in the Midlands: Tusla
This session is a meeting with representatives from Tusla, including Mr. Gordon Jeyes, chief executive officer Mr. Fred McBride, chief operations officer, and Mr. Brian Lee, director of quality assurance, who I thank for attending at such short notice. The purpose of this meeting is to receive an update from Mr. Jeyes on a very serious matter raised last week at the Select Sub-committee on Children and Youth Affairs on child protection services in the Laois-Offaly area.
I wish to draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, they are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to this committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence relating to a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of the proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that where possible they should not criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I ask Mr. Jeyes to make his opening comments.
Mr. Gordon Jeyes:
I welcome this opportunity to update the joint committee on the matters of concern which the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs shared with the select sub-committee regarding certain aspects of service provision in Laois and Offaly and the immediate actions taken. I will make a couple of points by way of general background before turning specifically to Laois-Offaly.
Since its inception, Tusla has been engaged in a process of consolidation of best Irish practice and reform and this has not been without its challenges. I would be doing all of my colleagues a disservice if I did not record at this committee the extremely challenging context in which they work with limited resources. I refer to front-line services, support for front-line service delivery and establishing a new agency. This is a new legal entity established from scratch.
Since it was established in January 2014, the key priorities for Tusla service delivery has been the implementation of the service delivery model and the implementation of the reform programme. These initiatives were designed to deliver greater consistency across Ireland and better quality service. As the process has been taken forward, the evidence shows that where the reform has been followed, the service has improved, confidence is up and the regulators note that. In the first instance, a single line of management has been developed for all services in order to ensure an integrated approach to child welfare and child protection. In tandem with this development, there has been the introduction of a system for the measurement of service activity in order to ensure a consistent national approach to services.
When the agency was launched, I said it was time to act. In respect of accountability, consistency and transparency, we are getting there but there is work to be done on the aspect of consistency. What I tell my colleagues is that I do not like the use of the term "waiting list" because it implies in people's minds that the length of time is all that matters. What is going on is much more sophisticated than that.
I have two other introductory observations. Following detailed consultation with staff and their trade union representatives, we decided there should be a single area-wide management structure covering the following areas: duty and intake, that is, the front door in terms of the information we receive; child protection and welfare; children in care; support for fostering; and family support. This model is based on the international best practice and designed to best suit the Irish context.
Mr. Gordon Jeyes:
Put simply, this is a model of practice which ensures there is efficient throughput of referrals based on prioritisation from the duty team to a social work team in as responsive and effective a manner as possible in proportion to the needs of children and based on the strength of families.
The second aspect of this is what we term "measure the pressure". Alongside service reform and against a background of restricted resources, it was vital to develop a consistent measurement of service pressure to ensure that every piece of information we receive is prioritised and cases are monitored. This measurement of intake or front door activity called "measuring the pressure" is undergoing review by the director of quality assurance.
He has recently conducted a national review to ascertain if thresholds were being applied consistently to ensure that intake effectiveness, and pressures because of resource deficits, were being monitored. This was reported to the board on 24 April and the report found that in 88% of cases thresholds were being applied accurately, good but not good enough. It recommended there should be a flexible intervention resource to assist where there were backlogs to raise quality and check monitoring of cases not yet allocated from duty. In responding to events in Laois-Offaly we have taken that approach forward and that is what we are piloting as response.
We still operate in 17 areas. Laois-Offaly is part of the midlands area, along with Longford-Westmeath. In the process of restructuring the midlands area, a newly appointed principal social worker reported concerns about the number of files, and a number of figures have been going around but the best phrase to use is, "the status of which was unclear". Not knowing is a failure and I regret that.
I was informed by the director of quality assurance of these particular concerns on Friday, 24 April 2015. Following discussion with him it was agreed that the Department and HIQA should be informed of the concerns which were being investigated by Tusla staff. In particular, as a consequence of the April introduction of a central intake team in Laois-Offaly, it was noted that there were at least 1,200 files or referrals or pieces of information, the status of which was unclear. There were also 822 unacknowledged Garda referrals. It was unclear whether this represented merely "a failure to acknowledge", which unfortunately has historical precedent, or whether these files and information remained unassessed. That was a matter of concern and is being addressed by staff with the assistance of An Garda Síochána.
The service director responsible for the midlands area, along with the director of quality assurance, met with HIQA on Monday, 27 April. HIQA was informed in full detail of the nature of the concerns and it was agreed that we would provide by 1 May, that is the end of that week, a copy of our ongoing action plan. The Department was informed on that Monday evening and requested an initial or draft report. The position was still becoming clear. This was provided on the morning of Tuesday, 28 April and a meeting was subsequently held with the Minister and his senior officials to provide an account of matters to date and to report on information being sought by Tusla senior management and the action that was being taken.
I regard these findings as a matter of very serious concern for Tusla and no doubt for this committee. I have assigned a team of experienced social workers to review the situation, ascertain the extent and nature of the problem, and take immediate action where required.
Screening of the files has been almost completed and the urgent allocated. Cross-checking is now being undertaken. This work and the case management to follow are being conducted by staff external to the area. This will allow local staff, under new leadership, to concentrate on today’s pressures and not to allow the backlog to recur. If the only focus was the backlog, as can happen, then the fundamental issues could remain unresolved. The detailed action plan to deal with the backlog including the case management of issues that come through to establish a robust duty and intake referral system and for the director of quality assurance external to the area and region to undertake an investigation, existing management and reporting processes and practices, will be closely scrutinised.
Screening of the backlog began with the immediate scrutiny on 29 April of several files. Additional staff have been brought in and the process of screening all the referrals and information, pulling it into our care and database of files is almost complete. I express my gratitude to our colleagues in An Garda Síochána who have assisted Tusla staff in reviewing Garda notifications in order to ensure that none of the unacknowledged Garda notifications related to an urgent case or one not already known to the social work service.
The safety of children is the priority for Tusla. It is important that Tusla as an organisation has the integrity to stand over its commitment to put children first. I am determined that Tusla will set standards for being open, accountable and a reforming organisation, with staff who are strong in their commitment to children and courageous in identifying and addressing practices where failures have been identified.
Across the country, management, accountability and service delivery are improving. I understand the impatience with the progress, which is sometimes slow as a consequence of resource and demand issues. This work is challenging. It seems extremely difficult at times but the reform under way needs to continue. Too many children were failed in the past as a result of institutions which did not acknowledge and address failings. I wish to assure this committee that a comprehensive review of all factors which led to this situation will be undertaken so that Ireland’s children and families can be assured of a good quality service. I shall be happy to take points of clarification and questions.
I thank Mr. Jeyes. I have received a copy of the IMPACT letter to the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs which states that it was not correct to say the files were new. It claims that they were in the system for several years and were revised and reviewed. I am sure Mr. Jeyes has seen the IMPACT letter and he might refer to that in his reply.
I welcome Mr. Jeyes, Mr. Lee and Mr. McBride. I acknowledge the swift action they took when this information was brought to their attention. It is very important that we operate this in an open and transparent manner and I acknowledge that is what the witnesses are doing.
Mr. Jeyes said all files would be assessed by 8 May. Is he satisfied that target will be met and that, this having been brought to Tusla’s attention, no child in Laois-Offaly is in a vulnerable situation today? That is very important. It is unbelievable that 1,200 files could be left with status unclear. These are not a couple of dozen files misplaced in an office somewhere. It is not a system failure. There is a serious dereliction of someone’s duty. Who ultimately will be held accountable for this?
Mr. Jeyes talks about putting a team of specialised social workers into this area. That is welcome. Mr. Jeyes is on record as saying he had concerns in respect of the Tusla budget. Is part of the problem resource issues, not having sufficient staff on day one? Will the additional staff now being put in here be taken from another location because it is important that they are not? We have debated in this committee and in the Dáil the serious situation arising from the shortage of social workers. Can we be confident that these are additional social workers, that they are not being taken from another area and can Mr. Jeyes confirm whether he believes part of this problem was a resource issue? How many other Laois-Offalys are there?
Last night I was contacted by a person who was concerned about a certain region. I will bring the matter to the attention of Mr. Jeyes after the meeting. What measures is he taking from a national perspective to ensure this scenario is not replicated in any other region? I take it from his opening address that an official from Tusla will carry out the independent investigation, but I would have concerns about this. Someone who is totally independent of Tusla should carry out a full investigation. I look forward to Mr. Jeyes's replies.
I welcome Mr. Jeyes. At the risk of sounding repetitive, in his presentation he mentioned limited resources a number of times. When he spoke to us prior to the budget, he said he needed a certain amount just to stand still, but he did not even get it. How much of this, therefore, is down to the lack of resources?
What was the staff turnover ratio in County Laois during the lead-up to when the problem was identified? Has this been repeated in other areas? What measures has Mr. Jeyes taken to ensure similar practices have not been followed elsewhere?
Mr. Jeyes has said he has brought in additional experienced staff, but were the staff in the midlands not experienced? From where did the additional experienced staff come? If they came from other areas, did it creates gaps in them?
Can Mr. Jeyes tell us why this happened? Does he know what the shortfalls were? Was it due to a lack of experience? Was the person, or persons, involved inexperienced? Were there unsafe practices for a long period?
Does Mr. Jeyes have an update on the 822 unacknowledged Garda referrals Tusla is going through? Were they just not acknowledged or is the issue more serious than this?
Mr. Jeyes mentioned a figure of 88% and that where certain practices had been followed there were improvements. However, I am concerned about the other 12%. What measures has he put in place to ensure the figure will reach 100%?
Mr. Jeyes is most welcome. I first wish to clarify that the joint committee has agreed to engage periodically with the Child and Family Agency, but this meeting does not count as part of that process because we are dealing with a specific issue.
Last September we had a good engagement and it would be useful for committee members to receive an update on the progress made in reaching the milestone targets in the agreed priority areas. I am sure Mr. Jeyes has the information but committee members do not.
In preparing for the meeting I was trying to put the matter in context. I had asked the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs a question in February. From the reply, we could see the number of social workers was not necessarily going to go up, but we can see the increase in the number of referrals. While there is pressure on the agency, we do not necessarily see resources being provided. The figures I was given in February were to the end of November 2014 and are the latest ones I have available to me. They made me think of Donald Rumsfeld's "known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns." At the end of November 2014 we knew that 8,451 cases had not been allocated to social workers. Of the "known unknowns", we know that 2,844 cases were classified as high priority, children at immediate risk of harm, including being abandoned, beaten or sexually abused. In the case of Laois-Offaly we are talking about 1,200 files, the status of which is unclear. I am trying to understand the age range and types of case involved. Does Mr. Jeyes have anything to tell us about what we are looking at?
As regards the 822 unacknowledged Garda referrals, does that mean the Garda did not acknowledge them, or were they referred to the Garda which did not refer them back to the Child and Family Agency? Will Mr. Jeyes explain to me what is meant by the term "Garda referrals"?
Does Mr. Jeyes have any idea of the percentage of files that involve retrospective disclosure of abuse of adults? Members of the committee are obviously concerned about the issue, but I am trying to understand the figures. If the report will be available tomorrow, I wonder why we are meeting today without all of this information being available. I am searching in the dark not knowing exactly what the figures are. From the recent HIQA report, we know that the Child and Family Agency had difficulties in investigating retrospective adult referrals and that some are not being investigated. I have questions in that regard.
People have contacted me about how we can ensure that when children are referred, the pathways will be absolutely clear. One example concerned referrals to the CAMHS. This can only be done by a GP, which makes the pathway difficult. Headstrong and Jigsaw, for example, have a consultant psychiatrist among their staff, yet a GP must refer a child or young person to the CAMHS. By the time he or she gets to the CAMHS which I know does not come under the Child and Family Agency, although it should, the case may have been referred to other services. People have asked me what happens at 5.30 p.m. when one knows a child at risk needs help. What out-of-hours service is available?
My colleagues have mentioned resources for the constituency of Laois-Offaly, but are there children in other corners? Where are the dark places where the spotlight is not shining? Nobody wants to be in this position, but we want to know what the figures are. My difficulty is that I cannot grasp them. I am hearing the right words, but how will I know when we have achieved success in order that we can applaud Mr. Jeyes? How will I know when I need to ring the alarm bells, when we should all be shouting from the hilltops that children are at risk?
I thank Mr. Jeyes for his submission on what is a very serious matter. In his opening statement he spoke about the newly appointed principal social worker who had reported their concerns. Whoever they are, they should be commended for expressing their concerns. Who was the principal social worker before this new appointment was made and where are they now?
Some 800 files do not fall out of the sky on a Monday morning. There has obviously been systematic evasion or distortion of what is coming through the duty system, if files are unacknowledged. From my time in the service, referrals come through the duty system and are dealt with either by the team leader or at a team meeting with the principal social worker. They are directed in a particular way because sometimes there will be a network check and a case may be closed off. We are not even sure how many, but the number of referrals seems to be in excess of 800, particularly from An Garda Síochána which generally does not make referrals lightly. When gardaí make referrals, it is often because of the absence of a social worker after 5 p.m. if it is an emergency. That is not always the case, but it is much of the time when gardaí are dealing with cases outside normal social worker hours.
I would like to know what was going on in Laois-Offaly before this new principal social worker was appointed.
My question relates to the practice. As I stated, 800 files or 1,200 files do not fall out of the sky. Who was the manager? In terms of the structure, whom does the principal social worker report to? I am not out to hang anyone out to dry.
I am Deputy Sean Fleming from Laois. I am not a member of the committee but Mr. Jeyes will understand my concern. It is sad that this situation has arisen and it is good that it has been highlighted.
Last week, in his statement, Mr. Jeyes mentioned 700 unidentified files. Now he says there are 1,200 on which the status is unclear. The basic question I want answered is, what are Mr. Jeyes's staff numbers in the Laois-Offaly area and the average case load, how many of the full complement of staff there are on leave for a variety of reasons, including administrative leave, perhaps arising from this issue, and how many vacancies for staff are there?
I noted from Mr. Jeyes' opening statement that the procedure is what he terms "prioritisation from the duty team to a social work team" but that a principal social worker identified this as a problem. What happened the duty team that they did not identify the problem and that it took the social worker, who was probably picking it up from some other areas, to identify it?
This is the saddest part of this. I am a Deputy in Laois for quite a few years and I had substantially given up on the service. I did not think this service exists because various gardaí have said to me over the years when they made referrals to the child service, both before and since Tusla was set up, that they never heard anything back. They had no faith in hearing back. School principals have said the same to me. When cases came to their concern, they sent them in to the building in Portlaoise and heard nothing back. Public health nurses have also said the same to me. The gardaí, school principals and public health nurses have said this to me over a period of time. These staff, the most senior State officials in other public bodies, had not faith in Tusla's system. As a result, I did not even go chase those queries. I was asked why by some constituents. We all had given up on the system it was so bad.
Mr. Jeyes mentioned in his opening address that in Laois-Offaly he was "piloting" something. Is this merely the start of a process for the 17 other areas, because that word was used here earlier?
Mr. Gordon Jeyes:
I will take Deputy Ciara Conway's point of clarification. As part of the reform, we want to make lines of accountability clear. In a integrated system, they were not always. The principal social worker reports to area managers, and there are 17 of them. The area managers report to four service directors, who reported previously to me and report now to the chief operations officer. Principal social workers are four steps away from the staff the members have before them. There are clear lines of accountability now.
I will answer in order as best I can but clearly there were some overlapping questions which we will address as we go along. I have seen the IMPACT letter. I choose my words with care. Unfortunately, I take the Donald Rumsfeld reference - not knowing is the greatest failure - that is occurring here. The status of this information was not clear. There was insufficient system and overview and, therefore, numbers move around.
For the unions to say some of this was known is correct but we must move beyond the tradition of there being a risk, therefore I tell you there is a risk and as a result the risk gone. Those concerned are supposed to monitor the risk, ensure that work is prioritised and ensure that those who cannot be allocated immediately are reviewed on a regular basis because things change. With the committee's permission, we will come back to the issue of where we are in terms of what we have always openly reported - the cases that are waiting full allocation. That was one point the unions made.
The second was about resources. I confirm what they say that, in line with many other parts of the country, the social workers had said this is a resource issue and we do not have enough resources. The contention would be this is not a matter solely of resources. We are charged by the Government and the Dáil to make the most efficient and effective use possible of the resources made available to us by the Irish taxpayer. I am very disappointed by Deputy Sean Fleming's remarks, which underpin what we see, and from which we cannot duck, that in other areas the resources were being far more effectively managed. In other areas, the instruction we were given was being followed and we now have evidence that as a consequence services improved, and that was not happening here.
The most constructive discussions are in their proper place and we will continue the discussions with the union. What their letter does not mention is that there are also protracted discussions stating that there needs to be a change in the way in which services in the midlands - Laois, Offaly, Longford and Westmeath - are managed and that we were prepared to invest in that. Instead of only having two geographic principal social workers in charge of each of the two halves, there should be three. Duty and intake are connected with the role of social workers. The principal social worker referred to was the principal social worker who, in April, took up for the first time responsibility for a centralised intake, which is what happens across the country. In the midlands, that had been resisted with union support and, therefore, there was no consistency.
Mr. Gordon Jeyes:
I am not saying that. I am saying the status of them was unclear. The union is correct in saying some of them were known, but there is also the question of how much they had been reviewed and how much they had been screened. In addition, other information was becoming clearer. It is a combination. The union was correct that some were known but how much they were managed because of lack of system was not known. They are correct in saying the issue of resources were raised. I am saying it was not only about resources. We were in debate about the management structure which had been far too protracted - all compliant with Haddington Road and other consultation agreements. By April, we had said, "Enough. We implement".
Mr. Gordon Jeyes:
On the three issues, the letter, challenging my figures and mentioning that a number of the files were known, it is one matter to be known but another if one does not actually do anything with it. That is why I used the phrase, "the status of which was unclear". We need to pull all of that together and cross-refer it. They are saying that staff had raised resource issues and they had, but the resourcing in Laois-Offaly is no better or no worse than anywhere else. I would contend that was also a third aspect connected with the union, which was not in the letter, which is that we have been discussing with staff and with the union the question of reform, improvement and investment through redirected resources in how they are supported.
In response to Deputy Troy, of course, the word "file" is loose. We are pulling all of the information together. Often it can be pieces of information about the same children. They all have been screened but I cannot yet report the figures to the committee because they are still being cross-referred. Clearly, many of the 822 Garda notifications will be the same as those of school principals or staff from the health service. Clearly, not being a responsive service, as Deputy Sean Fleming described, is unacceptable. I do not wish to be too technical in terms of language, but they have only been screened and they have not been assessed. A number of them have been deemed urgent and they have moved on. A number of them will now be assessed.
We talk about staff coming from outside the area so that the casework can be dealt with. I readily acknowledge that they have come from other tasks and that is not sustainable. It is sustainable for this because it has to be dealt with. If we did not do it, and the new duty team and others dealt with this, they could deal with the backlog and lo and behold another backlog would emerge. There are things going on in parallel.
I referred to pilot work. What I want to do, and I will be making a business case to Government, is to have a flexible resource that can go in when an area is in difficulties because of staffing or whatever and sort it out while we stay apace with the 15 referrals from Portlaoise that come in on a daily basis.
I agree that being as unclear as we were is unacceptable. There are practice and management issues. I take guidance from the Chair. I need the discussions to be objective and constructive. There are ongoing processes. People will be held to account. However, in terms of fair process, it is not appropriate to discuss that here.
In response to Deputy Troy, as I have already stated, fundamentally, there should have been a better service in Laois-Offaly - again, I look to Deputy Fleming's testimony - irrespective of the resources. There are resource limits. We report on a monthly basis on the measure of the pressure. The report on the measure of the pressure in February stated that there were 7,920 cases awaiting allocation. These cases are held in that monitoring way across the country. We believe that a number of these cases could have been closed or that the thresholds had not been fully applied. The director of quality assurance has concluded a review and that is where we get the figure of 88%. The remaining 12% should not even be in the system. They do not register as needing social work assistance. Some within the 88% could be diverted to other community organisations, such as Barnardos, the Daughters of Charity and so on. That is our model of work.
Important points have been raised by Senator van Turnhout about historic abuse cases, which require different skills and perhaps we should be looking at developing specialist teams. Within our overall cases that have not been fully allocated, there are several hundred such cases.
In regard to the actual number of cases being held by duty teams and not allocated, we believe the number is just over 5,000.
I want to face members on the issues of Laois-Offaly, which was not just a resource issue. I am on record as saying we have done well. Following the start-up costs and insufficient additional investment, although our budget increased, it did not meet last year's expenditure. Some budget adjustments are still going on. There are budget pressures of two sorts - first, by international standards what we invest in children services is less than elsewhere and second, we have set up from scratch a brand new organisation without additional resources. It was necessary to do this because the country does not have many resources. We are talking about moving from survival to sustainability and that requires modest investment to make our efforts sustainable. We are going in the right direction. We need support.
Some 13 of the 17 areas have had a child protection inspection from HIQA. Some four inspections still have to happen, one of these is the midlands. We have done national audits. We have good knowledge. We have implemented the service framework and we have restructured elsewhere. The discussions in this instance were protracted. I want to get to the stage where we are a learning organisation that self-evaluates. We are having a consultation about quality assurance. The worst thing that can happen after a HIQA inspection is to be surprised. We should know our services better than anybody else. I have confidence in the director of quality assurance to do this. I can understand that Deputy Troy might not have confidence in him. I fully respect that the Minister, as he informed people, reserves his position. HIQA will conduct an inspection or an investigation shortly. I am in no doubt about that. It would be foolish not to share everything transparently because it will see it anyway.
Those are the issues of resources. The staff, including their share of the Ryan posts, is just over 80. There are 79 staff and one vacancy. There are some on leave, including in the manner referred to. The experienced additional staff are to ensure we can go forward. We are getting staff, who know how to screen, from other areas. I agree this is not sustainable, but I think we can learn from that and see if we can set up a capacity to intervene elsewhere.
We work with the Garda Síochána on notifications. The gardaí are now our most effective partners. They apply the guidelines on Children First extremely well and they have the PULSE system. They can give us more detail. I am looking for their support for that.
We need a system here. It is not the lack of IT that has caused this but the lack of IT has not helped. There has been no IT investment in the midlands, with shared desktops and lack of databases. It is a paper and pencil system, which gives rise to particular risks. We got no transfer of resources or a revenue budget for IT. We are still dependent on the HSE, which has its own priorities and reforms. We fall to the bottom of the queue. There were 270 IT staff in the HSE and none transferred to us.
Mr. Gordon Jeyes:
The HSE provides Tusla with a service but we have not got to a stage for the shared services where people are given their budget-----
Mr. Gordon Jeyes:
The service we get in terms of revenue support for IT is as if we were a continuing part of the HSE. The only IT officials I have are managers - the two excellent colleagues I inherited from the education and welfare services. The specialist resource I have for IT is two managers who coped with an organisation of 100 people. We have 4,000. I have had discussions with them on how to get a specification right for us with the resource to be agreed. We can then have discussions with the chief information officer and others to go for a managed service. The important element is to get the specification right because if one rushes through that sort of contract, one is stuck with it.
Mr. Gordon Jeyes:
We need to have at least sufficient staff so that we can be a smart client. We will be putting in immediate investment into this area. There is a major gap. We can work closely with the Garda Síochána. When one does not have an IT system, some cases were not acknowledged. A number, but I cannot give the figure, were reported.
On the issue of IT, am I correct that the child protection service has its own database and method of collecting information for when somebody presents or is it still operating a paper based system? I know one was piloted in 2003-2004.
Mr. Gordon Jeyes:
We have been seeking to introduce standard processes throughout the country. We are trying to achieve consistency. The first phase of the introduction of the national child care information service has taken place in Limerick and the surrounding area. In the rest of the country, some areas had invested in IT systems but there has been a lack of investment in recent years for reasons with which members are well versed. Some have an old fashioned system while others are still paper and pencil. The pace of change is inhibited by the resources.
Mr. Gordon Jeyes:
Senator van Turnhout made the point that the worst failure is not knowing. This is what is at issue. We have argued that part of the difficulty was not having a centralised intake team and a service. I have always argued against a waiting list but I have never tried to tell staff there are no pressures. I need to report those pressures objectively and accurately to the joint committee, to the Department and the Minister. Shroud-waving is counter-productive. The Garda Síochána was alerted. There is a number of adult retrospective referrals. We have gone with those referrals, which number about 80, to the first stage, which is not a full investigation but making sure that children are safe. Many of these cases are of historic events and the people are elderly. This is still part of our work but at times social workers will determine that this is not the top priority.
Mr. Gordon Jeyes:
The point Senator van Turnhout makes about child and adolescent mental health is important but it may be an issue for another day. It is not our responsibility. I think we have created a no-man's land, where we have clear responsibilities for child welfare up to a certain point and the child mental illness services begin at that point.
Mr. Gordon Jeyes:
The Minister of State, Deputy Lynch, has made these points, so perhaps it is time for a review. I believe we are establishing credibility. I believe we should have a broader base. If we only have the crisis services, we will stack now and again, limited resources. The veil will be undressed and one will see some of these crises. Mr. Fred McBride, chief operations officer, will discuss the out-of-hours services. I expect the out-of-hours service to be started shortly.
The point was made about the spotlight. We are the spotlight. We are not part of a large organisation. Our modus operandiis the safety of children. We are putting the safety of children first and we need to address it.
I will now respond to the points raised by Deputy Conway. We need to restructure, so that we do not have two geographic areas covering everything. We feel that child protection and welfare services should be covered by a team, duty and intake covered by a team and children in care and fostering covered by a team. We have had protracted discussions, going through the normal process and coming to an end with the need to implement that system.
As I indicated, in many ways, I found the questions raised by Deputy Fleming, who is committed to his area, the most distressing. While a helpline was established, there was one telephone call a day and none over the weekend. Other Members have approached me to continue with this service. There are cultural and leadership changes and people need to accept that we have had discussion, we have reached a collective view about how to do things better and how we should be treating our clients with respect and how we should be responding to referrals. From my discussions with senior members of the Garda Síochána, and I am meeting the Assistant Commissioner tomorrow, they tell me that the situation is improving across the country, but there are some pockets where it is not improving and this is unacceptable. Acknowledging the situation is important but it is how we close the loop later on and how we can share the information about the child with the public health nurse and the school principal.
If Deputy Fleming is saying, and I am a former school teacher, that a school principal, social worker, a public health nurse or local member of the Garda or a juvenile liaison officer does not have the confidence and the perception is why bother, that culture needs to be changed and we need to see that people on the ground have confidence.
Mr. Gordon Jeyes:
I was going to go in a different direction. I think the Chairman is absolutely right. That is what will have to come out of it because people have to speak up. I should have met Deputy Fleming. If any Deputy is unsatisfied with the service we are providing, we have to know about it.
Mr. Gordon Jeyes:
I am not trying to duck this issue in any way but there are points of the country where I am so proud of the quality of staff who have regained their confidence, who see problems and try to do things differently. Let me give an example. What is happening in Waterford is quite the opposite and feedback loops have been created, schools and family resource centre and other community partners are taking action. This is happening at the right level, so in fact the number of referrals to social workers is going down. That is movement in the right direction. We have got to bring back confidence. I am distressed to know that anybody can give up on this service. This is hard work. People walk away from this work. We will not give up on this service. I would welcome a further conversation with Deputy Fleming. We trade on people being confident. We need to restore credibility. I think we have done some of that in some areas but not enough.
May I raise the issue of shared services? We have looked at the IT. Are there other shared services, such as HR? We see the agency as independent and put a lot of effort into it. Are there legacy legal costs?
Mr. Gordon Jeyes:
We are completely committed to shared services. Transactional services being provided elsewhere is a good thing but it needs to be part of a proper internal market where we are recognised as a customer not merely receiving the same service designed for somebody else. We now have financial systems and a payroll system that we purchased from health business partnerships and that works well. HR is a whole other debate. We still get HR services from the HSE but we need to have a system designed for our needs, speeding up recruitment.
In terms of legal costs, we have no involvement with the HSE. I manage that and I hope we will appoint a head of legal services next week. We are under-resourced and we have put proposals to the Department to discuss with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform that we would have a more cost efficient legal service if we had competition among the lawyers who represent us and if we had what is called contestability - in other words, how would salaried people compare with payment by the hour. Our legal costs are outrageously high, particularly for the unreformed and unregulated guardian ad litem system.
I am speaking up for my former profession in that it is very easy to blame the social workers. What Deputy Fleming said is very distressing - that people give up. However, as professionals who work with children, we all have a responsibility to protect children.
If gardaí, public health nurses or school principals give up on these referrals, the existence of the children's services committee means the superintendent regularly meets the principal social worker and probation service staff, and often the same families are involved. If a build-up of 800 Garda referrals went unanswered it would stand to reason the inspector, or whoever is attending the children's services committee, would ask the principal social worker why he or she was not getting back to the Garda.
Mr. Gordon Jeyes:
That is absolutely correct. There should be child protection co-ordination because it is everyone's responsibility. We have had very good discussions with the Garda about boundaries because those of superintendents and our managers do not overlap terribly well. This was escalated locally and I need to look at why it was not acted upon because it needs to escalate further. I have an excellent relationship with the Garda and I co-chair regular meetings with the Assistant Commissioner. We are discussing having a process whereby if a superintendent states a problem has happened in a particular area I know about it.
Often when we respond to a crisis we focus on structures. My concern is this must be about the practice, which gets lost. I am delighted Mr. Jeyes meets the inspectors. This all happens at senior level but the children about whom we are speaking live in Laois or Offaly and not in a boardroom in Dublin. The change needs to happen locally. I understand Mr. Jeyes has a responsibility to lead this change, but if we do not see it filtering down to the workers on the ground, who get the blame for everything, it is not good enough. We owe it to the children, whoever and wherever they are, because it is a concern there are other unknowns throughout the country.
We had a meeting on child care after the "Prime Time Investigates" exposé on crèches. The focus of the Government, of which I am a member, has been on structural change and not on the practice. The focus must be on the practice.
Mr. Fred McBride:
I wish to update the committee on the out-of-hours service. We would have hoped to have an out-of-hours service in place to cover the entire country by the end of the fourth quarter last year, but discussions with the trade unions were slightly more protracted than we would have liked. I must say they have been positive and we put a number of options to them. They argued for a better deal for their members, understandably. To be fair, a Labour Court ruling on the working time directive meant we had to rethink some of our options with regard to affordability. We are ready to go back in with the trade unions in the coming week or so, and I am confident we can come up with an agreed solution. I must point out that we do not have a completely blank sheet with regard to the out-of-hours service. The crisis intervention service covers the greater Dublin area, an out-of-hours service covers Cork and the surrounding area, and an emergency placement service provided by Five Rivers covers the entire country. It provides emergency foster placement for children who require it.
Mr. Gordon Jeyes:
This is an opportunity to ensure people are clear about the work that has been undertaken. Efforts will continue through our own quality assurance arrangements to ensure consistency. If we give guidance or instruction to staff and they follow it but it does not work out it is absolutely my responsibility. If we give guidance and instruction on how to organise and it is ignored, at the very least the staff are taking much more accountability onto their own shoulders. As we have implemented the service delivery framework there is evidence throughout the country that where advice is followed services improve, and this is reflected in the HIQA reports whereby issues of concern are addressed immediately and areas for improvement moved forward.
It has been a challenging experience for me to establish a brand new agency as a separate entity at a time of recession and austerity, and is an accomplishment. It was the right thing to do and we are moving in the right direction, but inevitably, because of the circumstances, there will be issues along the way when the level of risk we hold to improve services for children gets a little daylight shone upon it by the likes of the committee. I thank the committee.
I thank Mr. Jeyes and his staff, and Mr. Lee and Mr. McBride for being here this morning. I acknowledge Mr. Jeyes is always available and keeps everything open with us. I appreciate this and I thank him for it. I ask him to keep us updated on the review and, when appropriate, any developments relevant to this matter we would appreciate it.
As Senator van Turnhout stated, and we spoke about it before the meeting, it would be opportune and important for the committee to have a regular quarterly meeting with Tusla, as we do with the HSE on health matters.