Seanad debates

Thursday, 25 January 2018

10:30 am

Photo of Michelle MulherinMichelle Mulherin (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Katherine Zappone, to the House.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Dublin South West, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I am delighted to be here. It is a privilege to be the Minister who made mandatory reporting of child abuse a reality in this country, ending 20 years of debate across five Departments. My decision was not an easy one. There were sleepless nights before I decided to act. In truth, there were also many sleepless nights after I made my decision.There had been many predictions that services would not be able to cope and that the system would collapse. I had to balance the readiness of our front-line services to respond to mandatory reporting with my own personal view that no effort should be spared to reach, support and protect every child in danger. My decision to introduce the remaining parts of Children First from 11 December was not taken in isolation. Before giving the go ahead, my Department and I used budget negotiations to secure the biggest ever budget for Tusla. This year for the first time it will pass €750 million. This investment provides for 300 new posts within Tusla. I also listened carefully to the views of leading figures such as the Ombudsman for Children, the special rapporteur on child protection and groups such as the ISPCC and Barnardos. They not only shared the firm belief but were adamant that it was time to bring this long-running saga to an end.

Visits and discussions I had with children, young people and social and care workers right across the country helped inform my decision. As Minister, I was also briefed on the huge level of preparations made not only by own Department and Tusla, but also by teachers, gardaí, medical staff and all who interact with children on a day-to-day basis. An interdepartmental group, involving every Department, had been preparing for this moment for two years. Tusla, in advance of commencement, had to put in place the structures and processes necessary to facilitate the intake of mandated reports. In addition, online training has been prepared. I encourage Senators to take time to access this training through the Tusla website.

Taking all of these factors into account there was no doubt in my mind that we were never more ready to take this hugely important step. It could be argued that if we were not ready on 11 December then we would never be ready. I acknowledge, of course, that there were those who warned that mandatory reporting would lead to a big spike in reports and put our front-line services under pressure. However, that argument leads to the very real prospect that children in danger who have not been identified would be left outside the system with no protection and supports. As an Independent Minister, as a social justice campaigner and, I have to say, as a woman I found that prospect completely unacceptable and I rejected it. We are now six weeks into mandatory reporting and yesterday I received an update from Tusla. The figures are preliminary and I want to underline that.

However, the leadership of Tusla says that just over 1,100 mandated reports have been received. Even with the health warning that the figures are preliminary, it is clear that the anticipated spike has not yet happened. Thankfully, the negative impact on children’s services has also not materialised. Of course we cannot be complacent. I am asking my officials to provide me with constantly updated figures so that we can respond to any increases which may occur. We had those discussions with the Tusla board and senior executives yesterday afternoon. Today's debate highlights the significance rightly attached by this House to child abuse.

I will now give a brief outline of the provisions of the Children First Act 2015 before addressing in more detail those provisions relating to mandated reporting of child abuse. In order to give Senators as full a picture as possible, I will also set out how those provisions co-exist with the non-statutory provisions of the Children First guidance. The enactment of the Children First Act 2015 in November 2015 marked the achievement of a key programme for Government commitment to put elements of the child protection guidance on a statutory footing. Commencement of the Act was on a phased basis to allow the necessary preparations to be made and all of the remaining provisions of the Children First Act 2015, including those relating to mandated reporting, were fully commenced on 11 December 2017. The aim of the Act is simple. It is to improve the care and protection of children by raising awareness of child abuse and neglect. The Act represents an important addition to the child welfare and protection measures already in place and will help to ensure that child protection concerns are brought to the attention of Tusla without delay.

There are two key elements of the Act. The first relates to the obligation on providers of services to children to keep children safe from harm while availing of their services, to undertake an assessment of any potential for risk of harm to a child while that child is availing of their service, and to prepare and publish a child safeguarding statement in accordance with the Act. This statement must set out the procedures that are in place to manage any risks that have been identified. The relevant services to children that attract an obligation to produce a child safeguarding statement are set out in Schedule 1 to the Act. Senators should note that the obligation attaches to both private and public sector services.

The second key element of the Act is mandated reporting of child abuse. The Act places an obligation on defined categories of persons to report child abuse to Tusla. The list of categories of persons who are mandated persons is set out in Schedule 2 to the Act. They are, in the main, professionals working with children or certain categories of adults and include teachers, many health professionals, gardaí, owners and staff of crèches, and trained youth workers. The Act also includes a provision whereby mandated persons must, if reasonably requested to do so, assist Tusla in the assessment of a child protection risk. This assistance can take the form of verbal or written reports, attendance at meetings, or the provision of information or documents.

The Act also operates side-by-side with the existing non-statutory obligations provided for in Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children. These guidelines have been in place since 1999 and were revised and published in October 2017 to include a reference to the provisions of the Act. The guidelines are aimed at all persons who come in contact with children. They set out what constitutes child abuse and neglect, how to recognise it, what constitutes a "reasonable concern" that a child is being or has been abused, and how to report the concern to Tusla.

The distinction between the guidance and the Act is that the obligation in the guidance is to report reasonable concerns, and that is a non-statutory obligation. The legal obligation to report in the Act is at a higher threshold and only applies to specific categories of persons as set out in the Act. The essential distinction between reporting a reasonable concern under the guidelines and a mandated report under the legislation, is that the threshold for a reasonable concern is that one has reasonable grounds to suspect that the child is, has been or is at the risk of being abused. The higher threshold for a mandated report is that in one's view, the abuse is of a level to seriously affect the health, development or welfare of the child. I encourage people to look at the Children First guidance which sets out in more detail the distinction between the two thresholds. There is a very clear laying out of that. One needs a discernment with that guidance in order to make those judgments. However, the aim of both the guidance and the Act is that all concerns about children are drawn to the attention of Tusla as quickly as possible, with sufficient detail to allow Tusla to assess the concerns effectively.

The Children First Act 2015 also provided for the establishment on a statutory basis of the Children First interdepartmental implementation group. As I have already stated this group, established in November 2016, includes a representative from every Department and from Tusla, the HSE and An Garda Síochána. The focus of the group to date has been on preparations for the full commencement of the Children First Act. In advance of commencement Tusla had to put in place the structures and processes necessary to facilitate the intake of mandated reports. Mandated reporters are required to make their reports in writing and have a legal entitlement to an acknowledgement. Tusla has an online portal in place for the receipt of mandated reports.

Mandated reporters can go online, via the Tusla website, register and are then in a position to submit reports directly to Tusla via the portal. I can assure Senators as well that data protection issues have been fully addressed, and that Tusla has consulted with the Data Protection Commissioner regarding fully protecting this sensitive information. The portal is an efficient and accessible way of ensuring that reports of child abuse can be generated as efficiently as possible, including all the relevant information, and can be sent without delay to Tusla.As I stated earlier, the Children First national guidance has been revised and is available on my Department's website and through the Government Publications Office. In addition, a very wide circulation of the guidance to schools, HSE settings, Garda stations and a number of other outlets has taken place in conjunction with the interdepartmental group. Tusla has prepared a number of other resources to assist persons in complying with their obligations under the legislation.

First and foremost, Tusla has made available on its website and free of charge, a 90-minute online basic Children First training module. This is an introduction to Children First and the reporting of child protection concerns. I encourage all those interested in child protection, including mandated reporters, to undertake the training.

In addition, Tusla has prepared a number of guides, which are freely available on its website as follows: A Guide for the Reporting of Child Welfare and Protection Concerns; Mandated Assisting Protocol for Tusla Staff; Guidance on Developing a Child Safeguarding Statement; Child Safeguarding: A Guide for Policy, Procedure and Practice; and Best Practice Principles for Organisations in Developing Children First Training Programmes.

It is very important to emphasise that the Children First Act 2015 forms part of a suite of child-protection legislation including the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 and the National Vetting Bureau (Children and Vulnerable Persons) Acts 2012 to 2016. Taken together, these three pieces of legislation significantly improve the child-protection landscape.

I remind Senators it has taken two decades to reach this moment. Their interest, support and contribution to child protection are very welcome. I look forward to hearing their contributions and assure the House of my commitment to child protection and continually improving outcomes for children, in particular the most vulnerable of children, who may be the subject of reports to Tusla.

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister for her presence. I acknowledge and thank her for her work in this area to date. Fianna Fáil welcomes any change that increases child protection. We support the introduction of mandatory reporting, but it must be backed up by training and resources, a key issue to which the Minister alluded.

Under the mandatory reporting requirements of the Act, mandated reporters are persons who, by virtue of their training, responsibilities and experience, should have an awareness of issues relating to child protection. These professionals either work with children or young people, or are in a service sector that encounters adults or families and children where there is a risk of abuse and neglect. Mandated persons must report to Tusla if they believe or have reasonable grounds to suspect that a child is being harmed, has been harmed or is at risk of being harmed.

While I welcome the introduction of mandatory reporting, I must raise some concerns. Various experts, not least Mr. Fred McBride, the Tusla CEO, have raised concerns about the resource implications of mandatory reporting. Resourcing has been and remains an issue at Tusla. Chronic lack of staff has left the agency struggling to meet our children's needs. Mandatory reporting could increase the number of referrals to Tusla by an estimated 150%. I know the Minister has given some preliminary figures that would contradict that, but it is very early days.

To add another layer on top of this already embattled service, albeit with the best of intentions, would be short-sighted and detrimental in the long run. In October 2017, there were 5,212 children awaiting the allocation of a social worker. Of these, 752 are designated as high priority. It is very unfortunate that when it comes to our health sector, priority does not mean immediate or urgent assistance. The resourcing issues at Tusla are both financial and recruitment matters. Despite asserting that it would need an additional €38 million for the introduction of mandatory reporting alone, the 2018 budget falls well short and expects more to be done for less.

In recent years Tusla has struggled to recruit and retain social workers. As with our graduate nurses, GPs and teachers, approximately 250 social workers graduate in Ireland every year and a high percentage of these take up employment abroad with other agencies. As a result, Tusla has struggled to manage its existing workload and has been forced to outsource a number of foster care placements to private agencies.

The idea of having statements here in the Seanad is very welcome and as I said at the outset, I very much welcome the Minister's work in this regard. It gives us an opportunity to voice our concerns so that we can flag issues such as the ones I have outlined in the hope that they might be addressed. I ask her to take these on board and I hope she will continue her good work with Tusla and its CEO, Mr. Fred McBride.

Critically the Minister's aspirations and those of her Department must be backed up by adequate resources. It is the least our children deserve. If we fail in this, we will fail our children.

Photo of Joan FreemanJoan Freeman (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

It is lovely to see the Minister here. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak briefly on the mandatory reporting provisions that were commenced in December. As far as I am aware, this is the first time that the mandatory reporting of child abuse has been put on a statutory footing for professionals. It is important to acknowledge that this is an excellent development for the safety of our children. It recognises the unqualified duty professionals should have towards children and ensuring that nothing goes under the radar, as it has so many times in the past.

Schedule 2 to the Act places the obligation on every person in our community who comes into contact with our children, including doctors, teachers, therapists and nurses who provide services for children. The necessity for information sharing between agencies is vital when protecting our children. Based on the documentation I have received about the Act, I know that the recommendation for mandatory reporting went as far back as the recommendations made after the Kilkenny incest investigation in the early 1990s. In the 20 years that this has been hanging over us, what has happened to the children who were abused, but that abuse was not reported? As part of this Government, I am ashamed to be aware of this situation and that we have done nothing about it until recently.

Yesterday I commended the Minister on her work on child care. I did not think that 24 hours later I would be commending her again on this amazing achievement. There has been debate about mandatory reporting putting a strain on our front-line workers. It is the most frightening thing I have ever heard that we thought it was more important not to stress out our front-line workers than to save our children.

Photo of Catherine NooneCatherine Noone (Fine Gael)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister to the House; it is always great to see her here. I congratulate her and her officials on all the work they do, especially in this area.

As the Minister and Senator Freeman have said, it is a very significant milestone in child protection in Ireland. Two decades have passed since mandatory reporting was first suggested and it is difficult to understand why it took this long. We must acknowledge that the previous Government was the first to appoint a full Cabinet Minister with responsibility for children. Obviously, it takes time to solve certain historical issues. I give credit to the Minister and her officials for getting us to this point notwithstanding all the obstacles they have to overcome.Over recent years, much work has been done to ensure the successful implementation of this measure. It includes the measures the Minister outlined, such as online training and the information and awareness work, in addition to increased funding, which is crucial. Children remain and will always be among the most vulnerable members of society. It is right that we take every possible measure to ensure their safety in every respect.

For many years throughout our history, child protection was hidden or somehow ignored. This has been discussed regularly in these Houses. It is only by dragging these issues into the light that we can deal with them. This is a good step in that regard.

In preparation for the introduction of mandatory protection, Tusla has prepared online tools aimed at education, as the Minister has outlined. Senator Gallagher made the fair point that education is crucial. Included is a child welfare and protection e-learning programme, provided free of charge. Additional resources have been developed, including a guideline for reporting child welfare and protection concerns and information regarding the development of child safeguarding statements. The Minister has mentioned much of this already.

I welcome the Minister's announcement on additional funding of €40 million in the budget for Tusla. This will mean that the total budget for Tusla, for the first time in the history of the State, will surpass €750 million. This will allow it to carry out its responsibility to a greater capacity and improve the services for those who rely on them. It also plans to expand its operation in 2018. It has set aside funding that will allow it to take on an additional 300 members of staff. I hope that will serve to deal with many of the issues Senator Freeman has quite rightly alluded to.

As a society, we must always be aware of the possibility of child abuse. We can think the best of people but we must always be on the alert. We often see in the media when cases surrounding child welfare arise the shock and surprise in the community. It is, therefore, incumbent on us to be vigilant, educate ourselves and better equip ourselves with regard to potential red flags that may be in plain sight but that somehow go unnoticed. This is most true with regard to teachers and staff of any organisation that provides services to children. Obviously, the default position is that we think the best of people but we need to be vigilant.

Mandatory reporting will require any organisation providing services to children to produce its own child safety statement and report any child welfare concerns to the Child and Family Agency. As such, the agency has developed 17 contact points across the country that are dedicated to receiving these reports. The details of all the locations can be found on the agency's website. Mandatory reporting provides protection to children through those working on the front line. This relates to what Senator Freeman said about front-line services and their importance. Every Member of the Oireachtas shares the same objective regarding this issue. In a way, it is beyond politics. It goes without saying that we want the best for the children of the country and to protect them in the best way possible. We now have a significant framework, new systems, new staff and more funding than ever before. That is extremely positive. In saying so, I am not trying to brush over any negatives. It will bring an end to the long debate that has spanned two decades. In many ways, it is a shame it has taken so long to get to this point but we have to be grateful that we are here.

I thank all those organisations and individuals who worked tirelessly, through lobbying and facilitating the infrastructure in here, to ensure we reached this point. With regard to mandatory reporting, I hope Tusla will continue to enjoy the confidence and support of these Houses, that its work will be acted upon in good faith and that it will continue to safeguard the crucial services and protections it provides.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. I genuinely acknowledge the fact that she is a progressive Minister seeking to make real improvements in a particularly challenging area. Regardless of political differences my party has with the Government, it has to acknowledge that. I am happy to do so today.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Dublin South West, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Senator.

Photo of Paul GavanPaul Gavan (Sinn Fein)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

As the Minister will know, Sinn Féin has long supported the introduction of legislation on the mandatory reporting of child protection concerns. Our concern is related to the ability of Tusla to effectively follow up and investigate complaints. This is the dual concern that Tusla not only does not have the resources or staff numbers but that it also has a poor record in handling cases brought to its attention, which means there is already a lack of confidence in the agency among the wider public. Sinn Féin believes the overall way Tusla operates has failed to earn the confidence of the public and that serious and demonstrable improvements are needed within the agency over the coming months.

The charity One in Four, which professionally supports adults sexually abused in childhood and operates a sex offender intervention programme, has said it is extremely worried that dangerous sex offenders may be continuing to abuse children, even though it has alerted the Child and Family Agency, Tusla, to allegations against them. The service has urged the Government to significantly improve the resourcing of the agency's child protection teams to enable them to deal with notifications nationwide.

I have a background in a trade union movement. I have been speaking to my contacts. I am not saying this to make a political point but saying it out of genuine concern. I am hearing that there continues to be a major crisis with regard to the staffing of Tusla. I hear the turnover rate is absolutely frightening, which in turn is making it almost impossible for the staff in place to provide a service at the level needed and that we all want to see. I welcome the additional funding for staffing but want to raise as a real concern what I have heard, namely, that there is a real crisis in the agency and that it is deepening. I would be interested in hearing the Minister's comments in that regard.

One in Four's 2016 annual report states most of its child protection notifications to Tusla are deemed unfounded. Last year, it sent Tusla 91 notifications based on what it calls clients' "very serious allegations ... about experiences of child sexual abuse". Although 12 clients made full statements to social workers, the report says eight of their cases were either not investigated or deemed "unfounded" by Tusla. The charity says the agency is still investigating three cases but that only one has been validated, meaning that only one of the many accused is now being monitored. One in Four said: "The father who abused his children may now be abusing his grandchildren: the teacher who abused one generation may now be abusing the next." We support a robust system but one instance where a sexual abuse allegation is not investigated thoroughly is one instance too many.

An investigation by the Ombudsman, Peter Tyndall, into how a number of allegations of child abuse by adults were handled found a litany of failings. The investigation, published in July, revealed long delays in dealing with allegations of abuse; the rights of some people who were accused of abuse were breached; Tusla failed to follow its own procedures when keeping social work records; some social workers lacked empathy; and confidential communications were sent to an incorrect address. The Ombudsman said:

My investigation has found that in some cases there have been serious failings in how Tusla carries out its role. However, Tusla has accepted the findings in my report. It has agreed to implement the recommendations which are aimed at improving Tusla's procedures. Tusla has already started to implement some recommendations and I will closely monitor how they are being implemented.

While we very much welcome the action the Minister is taking, can she outline the structural reforms that Tusla intends to carry out in 2018? Does she believe that Tusla will be operating on a satisfactory basis in regard to mandatory reporting by the end of 2018, now that the Children First Act 2015 has been fully commenced?

Photo of Lynn RuaneLynn Ruane (Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Minister. Like everybody else, I welcome mandatory reporting. I cannot be strong enough in saying that. I read the national guidelines on child protection and welfare practice. I read through as much of the handbook as I could because of a particular aspect of mandatory reporting that has arisen frequently in the past year in regard to adults. My history of working with people is one of working with adults, including people with addictions and the homeless, and people in the community sector. What has been arising in the field of counselling concerns retrospective reporting.I was recently approached to help someone find a counsellor. Of the counsellors I contacted, three out of four turned this person away because they were not sure whether they would have to mandatorily report retrospective abuse. This person is an adult and may be talking about something from 20 years ago. One counsellor felt they did not have the capacity or the knowledge of that individual to be able to assess whether any other children were at risk 20 or 30 years on. The counsellor did not know the person well enough and did not have their history. The counsellor did not want to sit down with the individual without having the relationship with them and when that individual might not have been ready to go through a reporting procedure or a procedure with an Garda. A counsellor would have to try to balance protecting potential victims with protecting the individual adult who is speaking about this for the very first time.

When I was reading through the HSE's child protection and welfare practice handbook I saw that "all designated personnel should be required to caution clients about their reporting obligations". I read this handbook after I had these difficulties in getting counselling for people. Perhaps that line, where counsellors are warning clients that they will have to report anything they disclose in this regard, causes people to walk away because they are not ready to go through that procedure. I wonder about these knock-on effects in terms of retrospective disclosures.

In another case an addiction worker contacted me in respect of mandatory reporting. This person had contacted Tusla and filed a report about a young girl who was a service user. This girl's drug use spiked rapidly because she was not ready for this to go to that level. She was talking about something that had happened in her past. The length of time it took for Tusla to engage with the report was an issue. It took a number of weeks. I understand that is a resource issue but this individual was not only not ready for this to happen but was also not in a position to know what was going on. Nobody was communicating with her. I know the services at the time really struggled with the level her drug use reached during that period of waiting to find out what was happening. She did not know whether gardaí would show up at her house or at the family house where she had said this had happened to her as a child. There is all this uncertainty both among the people who are making the retrospective disclosures and among the counsellors and workers who do not even know whether they have to make a disclosure so soon or whether they can wait and work with that adult for a period of six to eight weeks or three months in order to get them into a position where they are ready to take on the traumatic experience of following this through and perhaps even, for the very first time, having to let their families know that they can expect a call from Tusla or the Garda.

I also read in section 3.6 of Children First, which is on retrospective disclosures, that it is really up to that individual to be able to assess the risk to other children. Counsellors do not feel they are in a position to be able to do that. They are kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place in terms of what they need to do. There are some niche areas and I would love to put the Minister in contact with some of the people experiencing these problems in order to iron out some of it so that it can be a bit clearer to people working on the ground.

Photo of Katherine ZapponeKatherine Zappone (Dublin South West, Independent)
Link to this: Individually | In context | Oireachtas source

I thank the Senators. All of those reflections, questions and comments were extremely helpful. This is obviously the first opportunity I have had to have a conversation with my parliamentary colleagues since we implemented the mandatory reporting deadline, so it is really great. The Senators are the first in this regard. I will just offer a couple of general comments and answer a couple of questions in light of what the Senators have shared.

In light of the Senators' commentary, much of which has been appreciative of the fact that we now have mandatory reporting and that it happens within the overall suite and set of practices of protecting children, I would like to begin by acknowledging those positive comments and expressing my appreciation to Tusla and the people who work for it on the ground who are at the front line, the coalface, in dealing with these issues on a day-to-day basis with our children and our families. The Senators know from my commentary that the organisation, although it had obviously been preparing for a long period of time, wanted a little more time. I refused and said that we needed to do it now. I appreciate its willingness, once I said that, to rise to the occasion and to be as ready as it could to do the work.

I am particularly grateful to all the various child protection workers; the various non-governmental organisations, including those mentioned by Senator Noone; all those who have lobbied to bring us to this point; and all of the Government Departments. I have met with the interdepartmental implementation group a couple of times. My officials have worked really hard to provide service and support. By the end of the two-year period the members had done a lot of work together not just within the group, but also in ensuring implementation in their respective Departments and agencies. I felt a lot of confidence on the basis of their work. I acknowledge that. As I have already indicated, since mid-December we have had 1,100 reports. That means 1,100 children who may have not been, and probably would have not been, brought to our attention if I had not commenced that part of the Act and if people had not been ready and geared up. I am also grateful for that.

At the same time, I acknowledge Senator Freeman's point in respect of the other years and the number of children we may have missed. I have to carry that as a Minister, as does the leadership of Tusla, but I just wanted to begin by expressing that appreciation. We have had a good number of reports. One of our colleagues here asked the question, noting that it is still early days, whether that number may still spike. Will we get a greatly increased number reporting? That is a great concern among both my own officials and Tusla. Once people are really fully aware of their obligations and start to work through some of the training and so on, such a spike is possible.

One of things I was discussing with the chief executive of Tusla and some members of its board yesterday afternoon, however, is that they have been working for a couple of years to prepare for a national child care information system. I believe Members here know that. They are really bringing Tusla's IT system up to speed and rolling out a new approach so that it will be much easier to ensure that the information that is recorded in respect of children and families across the agency and the regions is shared appropriately and works efficiently. Tusla has determined that should be pretty much completed across the country by the middle of this year. That will make a significant difference to its capacity and ability to respond efficiently if there is a further increase in mandated reporting in respect of children and families throughout the country.

Obviously that addresses the IT part but we also need fantastic professionals who are trained adequately and so on. Both of those concerns were raised. Does Tusla have enough people? What about resources for training? I am aware of that but it needs the IT tools. I met the senior people in Tusla yesterday afternoon and they assured me that we would have that by the middle of this year. I expect and hope that will make a significant difference.

I am aware of the concerns which both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have raised in respect of the people who work in Tusla and their recruiting, retention and training. I hear what they have brought up in that respect very recently. The chief executive told me yesterday that this past month was one of the first periods in which Tusla recruited more staff than it lost. That is a positive sign, although it is still just one sign.It will shortly complete something I have sought for a long time, a workforce development plan, a key aspect of which will be considering the ways it mixes its staff and how staff work together and support one another in order to address in this case the issues surrounding mandatory reporting. There are so many unallocated cases, but putting this obligation on people does not mean the families or children in question will never see a social worker. In any case reported there is an initial assessment; a duty social work team is assigned and the family are monitored until they are seen by an allocated social worker. That is very important. I remember that when the One in Four report was presented, the related issues were identified. Perhaps the officials might update me on the outstanding cases and I would be happy to feed them back to the Senator.

The Senator also asked whether, in terms of the additional structures and processes to be put in place this year, I was satisfied that they would be fully able, ready, etc. by the end of 2018 to deal with children and families who would be brought to the attention of Tusla, as well as through mandatory reporting. Yes, I do believe, in the light of my meetings with it and where it stands in its transformation programme, that that will be the case. There are also many internal changes happening. For example, there is a more solid senior management team in the agency. I have visited several regional offices and met those working on the ground. I am aware of and can identify many changes that they believe will happen as we move through 2018. For example, 1,100 cases have been reported as a result of mandatory reporting. The numbers are lower than anticipated, but 1,100 cases are being processed. It is a good sign that it is dealing with them.

Senator Lynn Ruane raised excellent questions and points, as always, about mandatory reporting, with particular reference to adults and the additional time that might be required to ultimately ensure no child would be at risk. That is the most important point which was identified by the Senator. If we want to make sure there is no child at risk as a result of sharing information on abuse that took place in the past, we have to get it into the system. Things have to start to tick over and we need to make sure people wll stay with us. I have noted the questions posed and will ask the officials to send them to Tusla to hear how it will respond to them. I will make sure the response reaches the Senator. We will look for gaps and determine what is the waiting time. Could additional supports be provided, particularly for counsellors? They are excellent questions and it is well worth our time investigating and reflecting on them.

I have covered most of the points raised by Senators. Tusla has a sum of over €750 million. It has money available to hire more staff. Let us see it do so and how it will spendsthe money as the year passes. I meet the senior management team and the board quarterly and they know what my priorities are. I hope that their willingness to rise to the occasion on mandatory reporting will not collapse and that they are taking in what is in the additional reports. That will be a good sign for 2018.

Sitting suspended at 1.35 p.m. and resumed at 2 p.m.