Sister Stanislaus Kennedy talks frankly about child care in Ireland
We have all been outraged in recent years at the dreadful harm done to children in orphanages and institutions. We have witnessed and sympathised with an outpouring of anger and grief from survivors of the child care system. But in our anxiety to express abhorrence of the abuse that went on in the past, we have tended to ignore the problems in the present child care system.
Today, as in the past, what is being presented to the public is the appalling situation of one child, one young person, one centre or institution and it is not seen for what it is – an expression of a dysfunctional child care system.
Children who are removed from their families and taken into the care of the State are by definition our most vulnerable children, but the system that intervenes to provide safety and security for children in crisis is not working in their interests, and their human rights are being violated daily.
Furthermore, because of a lack of suitable places, children are being left for long periods before they are placed in care, or they are being placed inappropriately. This means children end up becoming more troubled and even more difficult to place, and so the inadequacies of the system create more difficulties for it.
It has taken the circumstances surrounding the death of Kim O'Donovan and the closing of Newtown House to bring the problems of the current system to public attention. And those problems are serious, as the report of the first round of inspections of 12 children's residential centres carried out by the Irish Social Services Inspectorate last year shows.
The inspectorate found that many residential centres had problems in finding experienced staff and almost 60 per cent of all full-time staff in residential child care had no recognised qualifications. Even where staff were trained, the training itself appeared to be inadequate in several respects. Support for, and supervision of, child care staff by management was also poor: in one-third of centres, there was no formal supervision of staff at all.
Children need security, stability and continuity in their lives. But the inspectorate found a high turnover of staff in residential child care, which leads to instability and lack of emotional security in children. In one residential centre, 15 relief staff members had been used to provide cover over an eight-month period, and in another there were 30 people working with the children over a three-month period. Part of the problem lies in even full-time staff being employed on temporary contracts.
The inspectorate pointed out a matter of serious concern: the absence of care plans for the children. It found that in more than a quarter of cases the health boards had no care plan and of the care plans that were available only a minority were completed to an acceptable standard, while planning for young people leaving care was left too late, and in some cases did not happen at all.
The health boards were not complying with the requirement to monitor implementation of standards of care. Only in four of the 12 centres had the health board designated an authorised person to monitor the standard.
How can we have got it so badly wrong? In the mid-1980s the religious orders, which had formed the core of the residential child care system, began to withdraw from the work, leaving it to the State to care for children who couldn't remain in their own homes. The State, however, has never been prepared to take on this responsibility.
Health boards are being forced by the High Court to provide for very disturbed children, and they are responding as best they can, but they have no tradition of this sort of provision, and no experience. One result of these developments is that most of the new and planned residential care units are of the high-support type, and this sort of provision will soon come to dominate residential child care.
This is a worrying trend. High-support units can become institutionalised, inflexible, isolated and defensive. This has happened in other countries and they have learned it to their cost, as we will unless we change it now.
What we need now is an integrated approach to child care under one properly resourced Government department working within a strategic national plan for services for children. Child care needs a strategy backed up by proper policies, resources and management.
We need a residential child care service which has a clear philosophy and clear procedures with highly qualified professional staff who have the knowledge, expertise and necessary supports to respond to the needs of young people in their care.
Morale among residential child care workers is at an all-time low, with inadequate training, a young workforce and a high turnover of staff. Staff are often blamed for a system that doesn't work, and naturally they feel undervalued and undermined.
A second priority is putting in place a system for their support, supervision and management and whatever resources are needed to make this operable. A third priority is to boost the inspectorate, to broaden its remit to include the voluntary sector and foster care and to increase its resources so that mistakes can be prevented.
Sister Stanislaus Kennedy is president of Focus Ireland