Investigation finds 'serious shortcomings' in Tusla's management of child sex abuse allegations

Mary Lou McDonald has suggested that "Tusla, as it stands, is not fit for purpose"

Investigation finds 'serious shortcomings' in Tusla's management of child sex abuse allegations

File photo. Picture by: Niall Carson/PA Archive/PA Images

Updated 18.10

Tusla should take 'urgent action to address serious shortcomings' in how it manages child sex abuse allegations, a HIQA investigation has found.

A review of the child and family agency's handling of child sex abuse referrals was ordered by Children's Minister Katherine Zappone last year.

It followed concerns over Tusla's handling of a false allegation of child sex abuse against Garda whistleblower Sergeant Maurice McCabe.

In a report published today, HIQA says it found three main 'defective points' in Tusla's handling of abuse allegations - including inconsistencies in the practice of screening allegations, and in the way people who were the subject of an allegation were communicated with.

It also found that "while some children were adequately safeguarded, others at potential risk were not".

According to the report, there was also evidence of delays in gardaí responding to Tusla requests for additional information, and when gardaí requested written reports from Tusla.

While it says there is good "informal working arrangements" between gardaí and Tusla staff, the child and family agency should work to formalise the arrangements.

The final recommendations include:

  • for the Government to establish an expert oversight group to support and advise Tusla and the Department of Children
  • for an international review of best practice in the regulation of children’s social services to be carried out
  • for both the department and Tusla to work with educational institutes to ensure graduates have potential career paths in Tusla, in order to help "reinforce child protection and welfare services" into the future

The Children's Minister says all the recommendations in the report will be fully implemented.

Katherine Zappone. Photo: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

Katherine Zappone said: "I can't say that it won't happen again. But I will say is that as we implement the recommendations, it will increase the safety of children, and there will be less likelihood for something like that happening again."

'Lack of urgency'

Speaking about the findings, HIQA's Director of Regulation Mary Dunnion observed: "The Investigation found that while Tusla focused on examining current risks to children, this often resulted in a lack of urgency in responding to allegations of abuse involving adults who alleged they had been abused as children.

"This meant that children who are potentially at risk — from adults who are alleged to have abused children in the past, and or who were convicted of child sexual abuse in the past, and who now have access to other children — may be missed."

She added: "Tusla must now ensure that it now urgently addresses the systemic deficiencies identified by HIQA in its governance and support arrangements. This is necessary to ensure the effective and sustainable management of child sexual abuse referrals involving adults of concern, including where adults alleged they were abused as children.’’

This afternoon, Tusla said it accepts the findings and recommendations of the HIQA report.

The organisation has insisted that people are held to account when a 'glaring, unacceptable' mistake has been made, and that a HR process is under way regarding the person(s) who failed to give Maurice McCabe his file for over a year.

Reacting to the HIQA report, Fred McBride, Tusla's chief executive, explained: "Our core mission is the wellbeing of children and families.

"I want to reassure the public that where a child is referred to Tusla and there is an immediate risk they receive an immediate protective response to keep them safe from harm."

He observed: "Our staff are professionally trained to deal with complex human relations and often with unpredictable, irrational and sometimes violent human behaviour.

"Whilst policies and procedures are of the utmost importance, each situation requires and individual response and what is in the best interests of the child in one situation may not be appropriate in another."

Political reaction

In the Dáil this afternoon, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the report shows things need to change.

She argued: "Taoiseach, all of this happens on your watch. The diagnosis is clear: Tusla, as it stands, is not fit for purpose, and what we now need are solutions to ensure that children at risk are properly protected."

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar responded: "The report catalogues failures and enormous shortcomings in Tusla and in child protection.

"The problems that exist around child protection are well known - but they are being dealt with over time, and we will continue to deal with them."

He pointed to a number of measures already implemented - including the appointment of a new chief social worker, and a new recording system for child protection and welfare.

Additional reporting by Juliette Gash