Published July 2017
This investigation by the Office of the Ombudsman looks at how the Child and Family Agency (Tusla) handles complaints about the services it provides and at the issues, which form the subjects of these complaints. In particular, it looks at how Tusla has dealt with complaints about the management of retrospective allegations of child abuse, at how current allegations against adults are handled and at interactions between Tusla and foster carers. These represent the main subject areas of complaint about Tusla dealt with by the Ombudsman.Taking Stock Executive Summary (pdf)
The Ombudsman wishes to acknowledge that Tusla has already commenced implementation of some of these recommendations. However, he intends to ask Tusla to develop an action plan in order to monitor the implementation of them all. The Ombudsman will review outcomes within a specified timeframe.
Peter Tyndall, Ombudsman
My role is to consider unresolved complaints against Tusla affecting adults and to make sure that they have been treated properly and fairly. The most frequent complaints arise from foster parents, applicants undergoing assessment for the foster parent role, adults who were allegedly abused during their childhood, and individuals currently accused of abuse.
In relation to individuals accused of abuse, the most common complaints that I have received related to the failure of Tusla to follow due process.
"Failure to apply natural justice and fair procedure can give those who pose a risk the opportunity to continue to abuse and those who are falsely accused can have their lives or careers ruined or, at least put on hold for long periods".
(Kieran McGrath, Child Welfare Consultant, Nota News May/June 2016, "Natural Justice and Fair Procedure in Evaluating Allegations and Risk of Child Sexual Abuse")
In addressing allegations of abuse, the welfare of the child must be paramount. Accordingly, when allegations of abuse are notified to Tusla they need to be assessed urgently and effectively. This is essential in order to establish the credibility of the allegations at an early stage and to determine what risk mitigation measures, if any, might need to be put in place. A speedy response from Tusla is also essential to ensure that adults against whom allegations are made are treated fairly. If this is done as it should be, then allegations of abuse against adults, which are not upheld, will also be dealt with swiftly and effectively. To be falsely accused of abuse can have a devastating effect on the individual, and this places a clear onus on Tusla to follow due process to establish the facts and potential risk as quickly as possible.
When adults who claim to be victims of childhood abuse bring this to the attention of Tusla, they deserve to have their cases handled sensitively and effectively, to ensure that any current risk is managed.
In my 2014 Annual Report (page 20) I expressed my concerns about the handling of cases by social workers, particularly those involving historic allegations of abuse. I reported at the time that my Office was working with the then newly established Child and Family Agency, Tusla, in order to ensure that it put in place clear policies and procedures for the handling of such cases. The primary issues of concern included the need to follow fair procedures and natural justice and the need to carry out assessments in a timely, consistent, fair and thorough manner. The Barr and O'Neill judgments were also a factor in Tusla recognising the need for such policies and procedures.
Since then, my Office has continued to receive a variety of complaints in these areas, which again called into question whether the underlying concerns had been properly addressed. This prompted me to initiate this systemic investigation in June 2016.
The report is based around a number of themes which are illustrated by case examples. In preparing it, my Office drew on a sample of nine particularly challenging complaints covering the period 2012 - 2016, which we had either upheld or partially upheld, and 30 complaint files chosen at random from Tusla's complaints system. While the volume of complaints to my Office is relatively low, nevertheless, the impact or adverse effect on the individuals concerned can be significant. Examples of good complaint handling within Tusla have also been referred to in this report.
I should stress that at all times my Office received full co-operation from Tusla senior management and headquarters staff.
Complaints provide a valuable source of information for any organisation and it is important that they are embraced so that learning can be derived from them. The way they are handled reflects the culture within that organisation. It is essential that where complaints identify failings which are systemic, and by their nature likely to affect others, that there are systems in place to highlight the need for change. It is also important that there is awareness of these concerns at each level of management and at Board level, and that there are systematic approaches used to identify necessary changes, to make those changes and to monitor their implementation and ensure that the desired outcomes are achieved.
The consideration of the nine complaints considered in this report identified serious administrative shortcomings including the failure to follow due process, delays in dealing with concerns, in communication, in record keeping and in other areas. These are suggestive of a service which is over-stretched, which does not have appropriate processes in place in key areas, which can be inconsistent across the country and which has, in the past, been unable to respond with the necessary urgency to allegations of abuse. While Tusla now has a case prioritisation and case management system in place, it is important that these are quality audited to ensure that they are working effectively. I am aware that Tusla has undertaken a number of reviews as part of its quality assurance framework. It is, however, important that the implementation of all policies is subject to regular audit, including complaint handling, to ensure that the complaints process itself is being properly followed. Complaints about children fall properly within the jurisdiction of the Ombudsman for Children. However, I am concerned that the administrative failures we have identified, if not addressed, are likely to lead to failures in safeguarding the welfare of children at risk.
I welcome the recent investment by Tusla in additional social work staff. Well qualified, effectively led and managed, and properly trained social workers are at the heart of the service provided by Tusla. They need to have the time, training and support necessary to deal with the demands placed upon them. This is a vital area of work and places huge demand on those charged with it. Tusla has not up to now, had the level of resource that it requires to discharge its responsibilities.
The report makes a series of recommendations for improvement some of which Tusla has already started to implement. These recommendations have been considered by the management of Tusla, and reflect their views. I am pleased to say that Tusla has agreed to implement them and my Office will be closely monitoring their implementation.
This investigation by the Office of the Ombudsman looks at how the Child and Family Agency (Tusla) handles complaints about the services it provides and at the issues, which form the subjects of these complaints. In particular, it looks at how Tusla has dealt with complaints about the management of retrospective allegations of child abuse, at how current allegations against adults are handled and at interactions between Tusla and foster carers. These represent the main subject areas of complaint about Tusla dealt with by the Ombudsman.
To put matters in context, Tusla received over 47,000 referrals to its Child Protection and Welfare Service in 2016. Some 20,127 (43%) of those referrals required an initial assessment. During the same period Tusla received 1,172 formal complaints, 54 of which ultimately reached the Ombudsman. In 2016, nine of those complaints were either upheld or partially upheld. While the Ombudsman acknowledges that the volume of social work related complaints made to his Office tends to be low, nevertheless many lessons can be learned from individual complaints.
This investigation looked at how nine particularly challenging complaints made to the Ombudsman between 2012 - 2016, which identified elements of poor administration, were handled. As part of the investigation, 30 complaint files internal to Tusla were also reviewed. In addition, the Ombudsman hosted a Workshop which was attended by 30 complaints officers working at a senior level across Tusla services, to explain his role and to listen to what they had to say about the complaints process.
Please note that the names of the complainants have been changed to protect their identities.
The key findings that emerged from this investigation are set out along with the recommendations designed to address the failings.