On 29th March 2017, the publication of yet another report was released examining the operation of our child protection and wider safeguarding structures in Ireland. The Case Review for Mary involved a child left in a foster care placement where the foster father had prior allegations of sexual abuse. Despite other children being removed from the home, Mary was left under his care for almost two years even though the allegations had been deemed credible by TULSA within months of the original report in 2014.
The review was undertaken by an independent reviewer, Dr Cathleen Callanan, a former Child Care Manager within the HSE, and was assisted by two senior staff nominees from the HSE and Tusla. The purpose of the review was to (i) establish the facts of the case, (ii) consider, in particular, the issues of safeguarding and risk assessment in respect of the case, (iii) set out findings in this case with regard to risk, safeguarding and best practice and (iv) identify specific and general issues to inform any necessary learning, having regard to best practice in managing risk and interagency engagement.
The Review, is defined at the outset of the report as:
“A review jointly commissioned by the HSE and Tusla into the circumstances whereby a vulnerable young adult (“Mary”) with an intellectual disability, in receipt of services from both agencies, continued to reside with a former foster family following a report being received of a retrospective allegation of abuse, which did not relate to residents in the foster home.”
The Report was commissioned in May 2016 and completed in July 2016 and the Reviewer should be commended on this timeframe. However, in respect of the delay in publication, the reviewer notes that:
“…the commissioners (Tusla and HSE) made submissions to the independent reviewer, in the period between October 2016 and January 2017. These (separate) submissions were concerned with addressing matters of factual accuracy and seeking clarity around some of the findings of the report. In particular, the Tusla submission was concerned with what it perceived to be an imbalance in the review, insofar as it did not adequately acknowledge attempts made by Tusla to refer the case to the HSE, and focused attention on the activity of Tusla in the case, without giving due regard to the responsibility of the HSE Disability Services. The reviewer responded to the submissions and this document constitutes the final report.”
The reviewer ultimately notes in respect of the report’s limitations that “The reviewer is not aware of the circumstances that allowed for the lapse of time until the final submission of the report.”
Whatever the reasons for delay the Government discussed the report during a cabinet meeting with some strong, but unfortunately, all too familiar recommendations; namely, interagency cooperation and record keeping.
As a child ‘Mary’ had been placed, by Tusla, in foster care with ‘Mr & Mrs. A’. Due to the level of her intellectual disability, it was agreed that Mary would remain in this setting after turning 18, which she did only a few months prior to the allegation being made. The allegation at the centre of the concern was that “In January 2014 (by which time Mary was an adult), information was received anonymously by the social work department of Tusla in Mary’s locality, alleging that Mr. A had, around fifteen years previously, sexually abused two young teenage girls within his extended family.”
This information was classed as a ‘Retrospective Disclosure’, in other words, a referral made by an adult relating to abuse which they experienced as a child. Retrospective referrals and inefficiencies in respect of their assessment by Tusla formed the basis of the recent controversy surrounding the allegations against Sgt. Maurice McCabe and Tusla’s handling of same.
Unfortunately, we see some inefficiencies in respect of these referrals again here in this case; from the Chronology in the Review:
“an anonymous allegation was received by Tusla on January 10th in the locality where Mary was living. This information was not passed on by the duty team to Team Leader1 for a further five weeks; it came to the attention of Team Leader1 because there was another child in that placement who had an allocated social worker. There was no suggestion that this or any other child in the placement had been harmed and the allegation did not concern any child who had lived in this home. At interview Team Leader1 acknowledged that given the level of demand on the service, the delay was regrettable but understandable.”
Despite the delay in assessing this matter it must be, and is in the review, noted that Tusla acted appropriately in respect of the children in the foster home:
“Two team leaders, one from Tusla child protection and one from Tusla foster care services, were nominated to conduct an enquiry into these allegations. They found the allegations credible and acknowledged in their subsequent report that Mr. A had denied the allegations, and had been supported by his wife in doing so.”
The children were removed from the home and the foster carers were removed from the register of foster carers later that year. However, ‘Mary’ remained in the home despite this ‘credible’ risk being determined and the removal of children being deemed necessary.
This also highlights the fact that a credible referral of sexual abuse lay unassessed on a retrospective wait-list for five weeks before action being taken. I have argued previously, and continue to do so, that it is time to treat retrospective allegations like all other referrals to social work departments and seek to discharge our ‘proactive duty’ to care for and protect children and vulnerable adults alike.
“On foot of the information passed on to her in February , Team Leader1, having sought legal advice, agreed on the need to inform Mr. A that such information was now on record.” Again, this is a delay that we don’t consistently encounter with ‘so-called’ current child protection concerns. Social Workers, rightly, use their authority under Section 3 of the Child Care Act 1991 to ensure safety and protection, they contact parents, they call out to houses if no response or as follow-up to phone calls and they, in a relatively short space of time, put the concerns to the alleged offender. This doesn’t happen with retrospective disclosures and in all my years of researching this issue I have yet to receive an adequate answer as to why not! Other than staffing and resources there is no legitimate reason why retrospective referrals of abuse should be treated any differently than those deemed to be current concerns.
While the Review highlights that there should have been a clear written referral from Tusla to the HSE Disability Service regarding the potential risk posed by Mr. A to ‘Mary’ the receipt of this information in any form at any level should trigger an appropriate response. If the protection of children and vulnerable adults is to be everybody’s business, then the sharing of soft information or conducting of ‘informal’ conversations between professionals regarding risk need to have consequences and effect an appropriate response.
And this is where the main body of the Review places its focus; inter-agency communication and response between Tusla and the HSE Disability Services. The Review does state that Tusla attempted on a number of occasions in 2014 to have the relevant voluntary services assess risk in respect of Mary given Tusla’s own lack of legal remit in respect of those over the age of 18. Despite this, Tusla still had an ongoing input into Mary’s life in terms of provision of Aftercare services and the extent of a legal duty of care attached to provision of these services needs to be fully examined following this the publication of this review. In fact, it was the input of a specific Tusla Aftercare staff member that triggered an internal review of the matter within Tusla in 2015:
“…The file of Manager1 (with oversight of aftercare) states that in January 2015 the Aftercare Coordinator alerted him to the situation whereby a vulnerable adult continued to reside in a placement with foster carers whose names had been removed from the panel of foster carers, from whom other children had been removed. The file of Manager1 indicates that he then sought and received a copy of the original assessment of the allegations completed by Team Leader1 and Team Leader2 in 2014.”
Initially, prior to the allegation at least, “the placement was considered by the Tusla social work department and the foster care department to be a successful one.” “There were other children also in foster care with Mr. and Mrs. A and they were considered to be receiving a high level of care.” There appears to have been confusion between the agencies whereby the HSE Disability Services state they were informed by Tusla that there was no risk to Mary, following the allegation, while at the same time Tusla were continuing to request the HSE to carry out a risk assessment.
While both agencies are committed to the roll-out of a new joint protocol that will seek to clarify roles and routes of communication, ultimately, the arbitrary age cutoff of 18 and the stark lines of demarcation between services need to be examined and, where appropriate, dismantled in the best interests of service users whether they be child or adult.
In lieu of such proactive developments the Review does states that “In the area where these events took place, an Aftercare Steering Committee has been established by Tusla “to fulfil the requirements of planning, implementing and monitoring a comprehensive, integrative Aftercare Programme for each young person leaving care” (internal Tusla document, 2016). This committee is multi-agency in nature with representatives as follows:
- Disability Services: HSE
- Non-Government Organisations
- Education/Training e.g. SOLAS
- Residential Service: Tusla
- Fostering Service: Tusla
- Children in Care Team: Tusla
- Primary Care: HSE
- Department of Social Protection (Community Welfare Office)
- Tenancy sustainment provider
This seems like an excellent multi-agency initiative if a reactionary development can be classed as ‘initiative’, but why is it only established in the area where this incident took place? Bolting horses come to mind!
Findings of the Callanan Review:
While the review itself details the extent of confusion and contact between the relevant agencies the findings are ultimately that:
- Promotion of a shared awareness of intersecting policies and procedures for interagency working including the HSE Safeguarding Policy and the Tusla Aftercare Policy will facilitate a mutual understanding of roles, responsibilities and referral pathways, which would assist the management of complex cases
- Formal arrangements to include meetings to address complex cases pertaining to people with disabilities with multi-agency involvement would facilitate improved management or shared management of specific cases
- Requirements with regard to record keeping standards are an identified deficit requiring attention. Clear guidance needs to be provided to staff in relation to good record keeping practices.
We have unfortunately seen all these recommendations before and with the Government set to introduce Mandatory Reporting by the end of the year it is critical that all agencies who work with children or vulnerable adults begin sharing soft and hard information and begin to establish pathways for referral, feedback and review as necessary.
One mechanism which would enable this process is a coordinated integrated child protection computer database system. Unfortunately, due to arrive far beyond the implementation of Mandatory reporting, “NCCIS is being rolled out on a phased basis and is expected to be fully operational by the end of next year”, according to TULSA’s press release. However, this should arguably be linked with adult safeguarding services in the HSE and An Garda Síochána to ensure a comprehensive response to abuse and neglect and facilitate the possibility of proactive, preventative actions or the raising of red flags.
The Review poses one final question where it states that “In conclusion, the question emerges as to what would have been a proportionate response to the acceptance of the allegations in 2014.”The fact remains that retrospective disclosures of abuse remain within the remit of Tusla. These disclosures, being made by adults, will always contain the potential for further risk to adults, deemed vulnerable or otherwise. The intersection between services and responsibilities needs to be clarified as posed by this Review.
Furthermore, the legislative structures surrounding the safeguarding of vulnerable adults, those with intellectual disabilities and the powers and duties placed upon Tusla to assess risk in terms of adult referral needs to be examined in detail. I originally felt that a review of Section 3 of the Child Care Act 1991 was necessary and we are told by Minister Zappone that this is underway. I fear we may have moved beyond this territory now and that the suitable recourse is for the Law Reform Commission to examine the entire legislative structures surrounding the protection and safeguarding of vulnerable adults and children in Ireland.
Rightly or wrongly, we again find social care and social work professionals in positions where a lack of clarity in law and policy places them under deeper scrutiny where ultimately wider systemic failures are at fault. In lieu of a staged, coordinated re-location of care, Mary was ultimately removed to a residential unit as an emergency measure 21 months after the initial, credible, allegations of sexual abuse and it is with ‘Mary’ that our thoughts should be.
Single Father Adopts Five Siblings from Foster Care System
Back in October of 2020, single father Robert Carter adopted a set of five siblings so that they would never again be separated by the foster care system. Robert became inspired to foster after being split up from many of his own brothers and sisters when he entered the system at the age of 12. Following his emancipation, Robert became legally responsible for two of his siblings, which inspired him to continue to expand his family. He became a foster father to three of the five siblings and quickly realized that it was his purpose to adopt all five children.
A Systemic Issue
There are currently over 400,000 children in the foster care system, two-thirds of whom have a sibling in the system as well. Many of these children are separated from their siblings for reasons including a lack of families able to foster sibling groups, diverse needs of children and lack of resources for finding placements. Other siblings may be more likely to be separated by social workers due to myths that sibling sets will not integrate as well into a new family dynamic or that it is in the best interests of a parentified older child to be removed from their siblings.
Sibling separations, like Carter and his children experienced, often compounds the trauma that children in the system endure. In a foster care system where 63% of children are removed from their homes due to parental neglect, sibling relationships help to provide much needed stability and emotional support. These sustained relationships allow sibling sets to have greater success in school, better relationships with foster parents, more successful permanency outcomes, and better mental health. Yet, until the last couple of decades, the advantages of keeping siblings together were largely ignored from a policy perspective.
In 2008 this changed when keeping siblings together became national priority when the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act was passed. This Act “requires a state plan to provide for reasonable efforts for joint placement of siblings in the same foster care, kinship guardianship, or adoptive placement unless it would be contrary to the safety or wellbeing of any of them.” This act also requires that children who are unable to be placed with their siblings be allowed frequent visits with their other siblings.
While sibling placement is defined as a priority on the federal level, states may interpret the implementation of a plan differently. As of 2018, only 37 states have statutes requiring these reasonable efforts to keep siblings together during the placement process. States may often vary in their definition of “sibling” as well. While children often define their siblings as those who grew up with them, including step-siblings, often state laws only define sibling relationships in terms of blood relations.
Certain states, such as Oregon, have a Sibling Bill of Rights to help protect children in the foster care system. Some of these rights include being able “to live in the same home as (their) sibling if possible” and “to live with foster parents who are trained on the importance of sibling relationships.” Bills like these offer children autonomy and protection when entering the system so that they can advocate for themselves.
As laws continue to evolve to protect children in foster care like Robert and his kids, Robert hopes that foster and adoptive parents will step up to help keep families together. Here’s what he said in an interview with Aol.com:
“A lot of people think you have to be married to adopt or be a foster parent. I want people to know: No matter the situation, as long as you have the means to take care of a child [you can] become a foster parent,” he explains. “We have so many kids still in custody, there are 400 kids in Ohio waiting on forever homes. And I am happy that I was able to help encourage and inspire other people to step up.”
Currently, over 100,000 children are to be adopted, many of which risk being separated from their siblings. You can help to keep these children together by becoming a foster parent for a sibling set and learning more about the adoption process.
If you are unable to adopt or foster right now, research your state’s sibling protection measures and help advocate for policies that support sibling reunification.
Protecting Children from Harm in the Context of Distance Learning
The nation saw an uptick in domestic violence calls in the midst of the pandemic and the shutdown. The convergence of social isolation, economic pressure, and psychological stress created favorable conditions for abuse to occur. Adults are not the only victims of abuse in the home. Children, too, are vulnerable. History shows that violence against children and child exploitation intensify under conditions of isolation and economic pressure. While the pandemic may be temporary, child abuse often has long-term consequences.
School systems play a vital role in intervening in the lives of vulnerable children. In fact, schools make 21% of the reports to child protective services according to The Washington Post. When COVID-19 forced the schools to close, states saw a drastic drop in the number of children being referred to CPS. Unfortunately, this reduction did not mean that the incidence of abuse decreased. Indeed, as reports to CPS dropped, ER doctors saw a rise in more severe cases of abuse. Child abuse not only persisted, but it went unchecked during the shutdown. Without school personnel, community workers, medical and dental personnel, and other mandated reporters, there was no watchdog to report the abuse until children sustained injuries severe enough to warrant medical attention.
Clearly, schools serve a vital function in protecting children from harm. Now more than ever, they need to be alert and responsive to abuse as children return to school virtually. Distance learning presents unique opportunities and challenges that should be addressed proactively. Social workers can and should play a leadership role in adapting child welfare protocols for distance learning and retraining school personnel to identify and report suspicions of child abuse and neglect. This article outlines a proposed curriculum for child abuse and neglect reporting in the context of distance learning.
School personnel should be well-equipped to spot signs of child abuse and neglect in the context of distance learning. Asynchronous instruction affords teachers a glimpse into students’ homes. In addition to any disclosures of abuse, teachers should be especially attentive to:
- Verbal threats of harm, hidden, unexplained, suspicious, and/or repeated injuries
- Suicidal ideation in students
- Sexually inappropriate behaviors or images
- Weariness when an adult is present or approaches the student
- Excessive dirtiness or lack of proper hygiene in the home or the student
- Illegal substances or evidence of impairment in the caregiver
- Evidence of malnourishment in the student
School staff should also note that it is illegal under most state laws for children to be home alone unless they have demonstrated sufficient maturity, and there are safety structures in place. Young children should not be home alone. Furthermore, children with a record of behavior or emotional problems (e.g. frequent suspensions) should not be in the home unattended. Children who are able to be home alone should be able to access safe adults in case of an emergency, and there should not be hazardous conditions or items present. Children who can take care of themselves may not be mature enough or capable of taking care of younger children. School staff members play a critical role in monitoring these conditions. Clear steps should be outlined for reporting any safety concerns or suspicions in a timely and accurate manner to school personnel (e.g. principal, guidance counselor) and child protective services.
Because teachers will be exposed to the live conditions of the home, they have to be prepared to respond to crisis situations. Crisis management in the context of distance learning is different from that in more traditional settings because the staff person is physically distant from the student, and there may not be another adult present with the child for reinforcement. As a result, they are at a disadvantage in terms of their ability to intervene.
Still, there are measures staff can take to manage the crisis from afar. In the event of an imminent threat to the safety of a student, staff can adapt telehealth protocols such as:
(1) call local 911/EMS while maintaining contact with the student
(2) identify bystanders who may be able to assist by providing information, monitoring the student, and/or intervening, as appropriate
(3) obtain the student’s physical location, an alternate contact in case of a disconnection or other technical issue, and contact information for the student’s caregiver
(4) while maintaining contact with the student, contact the caregiver to advise him/her of the situation
School personnel has an important responsibility in monitoring student attendance. Countless children can be lost to human trafficking and exploitation if schools falter in this duty. As such, the onus is on the schools to locate children who do not report for school. Students should be expected, at a minimum, to check in occasionally so that school personnel can check on their well-being.
Finally, school administrators should be cognizant of the increased risk of exploitation by school staff when supervision and monitoring are lacking. Clear codes of conduct should be put in place or adapted to guide online interactions between students and school staff. Outside meetups should be prohibited unless they occur at school during school hours with proper supervision. Administrators should ‘‘float’’ from class to class to monitor interactions and conduct in the virtual classrooms. Caregivers should also be encouraged to monitor online learning. An adult should be present at all times during synchronous sessions to supervise and provide support.
Schools play a critical role in protecting our most vulnerable population. Critical attention should be given to adapting child welfare protocols for distance learning so that school personnel can make the necessary efforts to be effective in this capacity under these unprecedented conditions. Social workers should proactively address this issue and retrain school staff in child welfare protocols.
Normal Childhood Behaviour Misconstrued and How Assessments Are Helpful
There is a quote attributed to Sigmund Freud, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar”. So too of childhood behaviour and incidents; they may be simply within the range of normal childhood life. However, in the context of high conflict separated parents, the simple explanation can get transplanted with extraordinary suspicions and theories.
Normal childhood development has toddler-age children exploring their bodies, discovering the genitals and anus and taking pleasure from self-touching. They are at the toilet training stage of life and hence are drawn by normal parenting behaviour to attend to these body parts. In intact families as children are observed to engage in self-stimulation and genital play, they are simply redirected to either stop or to engage privately at appropriate time and place. In the context of high conflict separated parents, there is a risk to ascribe these childhood behaviours to sinister behaviour on the part of one of the parents. So a parent may inadvertently bring greater attention to the child’s behaviour and thus actually reinforce the concerning behaviour themselves while at the same time alleging sexual abuse at the hands of the other parent.
As preschoolers, children take flight on playground equipment. They may be learning to ride their two-wheeler. Hence this is a time of childhood injuries, particularly bruises, bumped heads and broken arms. In the context of high conflict separated parents, a parent may be suspicious of child-abuse in view of injuries and use the situation to allege physical abuse or at least neglect. However, and again, even in intact families, children can get hurt; bump their heads and fall from bikes and playground equipment.
As school-age children try to get their own way, they naturally try to pit parents against each other. They will use whatever strategy works. Kids may tell you that other kids are getting or doing what is desired or they may tell you that the “other parent” let’s them do as requested. In intact families, parents simply call their children on manipulative behaviour or at least check with the other parent to determine if what the child is saying is true. However, in the context of high conflict separated parents, a parent may take what a child says at face value and believe that the other parent is undermining their own parenting or the values of the child.
In intact families or even between separated parents with good communication, normal childhood events tend not to escalate with suspicion and drama. Issues are nipped in the bud and children are redirected to appropriate behaviour. Injuries are attended to without additional fanfare. A parent may feel guilty for a child’s injury, but not blamed per se.
In the context of high conflict separated parents, normal childhood behaviour and incidents can take on epic proportions. Otherwise, normal behaviour can lead to suspicion or be used against a parent to undermine care and custody. As one parent cries foul, the other cries parental alienation syndrome. The fight is on and heats up to the point of boiling over. The child is caught in the middle and their behaviour escalates as a result. Both parents then use the child’s behaviour as evidence of their own claim against the other.
Here is where a good assessment is so necessary. The assessor will tease out normal from abnormal childhood behaviour and incidents and determine how much of a child’s behaviour is attributable to just the conflict between the parents versus truly sinister behaviour deliberately aimed at harming or neglecting a child.
Parents beware though. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, despite suspicion.
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