On average each year, the ISPCC’s Childline service answers 400,000 calls, texts and online contacts. On average, between 70-75% of these occur between 5pm and 9am. Childline’s roster reflects this, and additional resources are put in place out of hours due to this demand. The charity knows that life isn’t 9-5, that it is outside office hours that vulnerable children need their help the most.
Yet our country’s child protection services do not reflect this, as demonstrated by this week’s report by Dr Geoffrey Shannon, which shows the urgent need for a directly accessible 24/7 social work service.
The report looked at the Gardaí’s ‘exceptional powers’ to enter any place without warrant, and remove a child to safety. It examined harrowing cases of neglect, when Gardaí acted as first responders in protecting ‘at risk’ children.
What it found is that Gardaí go to great lengths to treat such children compassionately, for instance staying long beyond their rostered working hours to organise the care of a child. But it also found serious systematic failures not just across the Gardaí but, of course, within the child protection agency, Tusla, which was only established 3 years ago yet seems to be embroiled in controversy near-constantly.
The report found that Gardaí receive little, if any, child protection training, and are failing to record detailed information about these cases. It also found that in the majority of districts, the Garda station is used as the de facto ‘initial place of safety’ for children removed from their homes, hardly a suitable environment for an already traumatised child.
The report shows that children who are at their most vulnerable are being dealt with regularly not by Tusla, or trained professionals, but by the Gardaí, with a lack of adequate out-of-hours social work services, and “low levels of meaningful communication between agencies”. No surprises there.
The ISPCC has been calling for a comprehensive 24-hour service standard for over a decade, but when faced with serious instances of neglect or abuse ‘out of hours’, referrals have to be made directly to the Gardaí, with no access to any out-of-hours social work services.
Ireland’s record on child protection remains a pitiful one. No snappy soundbites from the new Fine Gael leader can change that.