Thursday, 21 October 2021
Child and Family Agency (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
I welcome the introduction of the Child and Family Agency (Amendment) Bill 2021. The purpose of the Bill is to give full effect to the Taoiseach's announcement on 27 June 2020 that oversight of certain education and welfare functions would return to the Department of Education. Those functions, namely, the functions vested in the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth or under the Education Welfare Act 2000 and the administrative functions in respect of the administration of the home liaison scheme and the school completion programme, were transferred to the Minister for Education by the transfer of functions under SI 588 of 2020 with effect from 1 January 2021.
Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, is responsible for the delivery of these services under the Child and Family Agency Act 2013, through the Tusla education support services, TESS, and the alternative education assessment and registration service, AEARS. The Child and Family Agency Act 2013 currently provides for the governance and oversight of Tusla by the Minister for Children, in respect of all Tusla functions.
The proposed Bill will amend the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 to provide the Minister for Education with the appropriate governance and statutory oversight in respect of education welfare functions exercised by the Child and Family Agency. It will provide the Minister for Education with appropriate powers to provide policy guidance, direction and prioritisation parameters for Tusla in respect of education welfare matters. From 2021 onward, the funding for the education welfare functions performed by the Child and Family Agency is to be provided by the Minister for Education, all of which is welcome.
As noted, the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 provides for the governance and oversight of Tusla by the Minister for Children. This is also a good opportunity to consider how Tusla is working and serving the needs of Ireland's most vulnerable and families. Coincidently, the CEO of Tusla was with us at the Committee of Public Accounts this morning. One aspect that stuck out was the very high rate of turnover in frontline staff. The Minister is familiar with that. We have some 500 social workers currently in Dublin and it seems 100 of those, or about 20%, are new recruits. This very high level of turnover raises questions about the culture, management and resources within the organisation. I have no doubt that the people joining the organisation are committed to their role and do good work, but I cannot help but wonder if they are being let down by the system as a whole. In our engagement this morning, in fairness, the CEO of Tusla committed to looking at different aspects of how the organisation responds to service users. This is crucial. Given the feedback that I and other Deputies have received, certainly over the past months in this House and particularly in the height of the pandemic and during the post-pandemic period, there is big room for improvement. Are there sufficient senior social workers available to supervise and support those new staff, that 20% of new recruits I spoke of? Within An Garda Síochána, a sergeant and experienced gardaí are always on hand to support new recruits, as they usually work in pairs in the community. I do not expect the Minister to reply on this matter today but it would be good to see some comparative statistics published, and perhaps the Minister can ask his officials to review the recruitment and retention issue and send on the information if possible. Ultimately, it is the children and families who suffer where there are insufficient social workers, or where there is a high turnover of social workers.
I am personally aware of one case where a vulnerable mother is currently on her third social worker in nine weeks and has been unable to see her children in that time. She has had to retell her story of domestic abuse each time to each social worker, while wondering if she will be believed. This is simply not good practice. She has struggled to send information to Tusla as the social workers will not provide email addresses, and in one case told her no mobile number was available. This is actually contrary to what we heard from the CEO this morning at the committee, whereby every single member of front-line staff has a mobile phone. If the State is paying for that then surely there must be a better form of communication. I am happy to send on the information to the Minister, but I would be worried if this was happening on a wider scale than that.
We were also told at the committee today that social workers are not even provided with business cards by the agency. It was as if this was a revelation to the CEO. I am aware that he has only been in the role for 24 months, but this needs to change. I do not believe that such a small operational issue should need to be raised on the floor of the House, but such is the importance and simplicity of that request I feel I have to do so.
I would also like to raise the lack of family support workers in Dublin to supervise court ordered access visits. The service is under the Department of Justice via the Courts Service. These are important to de-dramatise court ordered visits and I would like to see them introduced in Dublin. I ask the Minister to raise this with his colleagues.
I would like to see more information about the research being carried out by Tusla on the outcomes of cases across various socio-economic communities to ensure equality of treatment for all children. Can copies of the reports be forwarded to the committee and if not why not?