A significant number of children in foster care in Ireland continue to have no social worker assigned to them and as a result, these children are "not receiving a good quality service", the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) has said.
It has just published a report into its inspection and monitoring of children's services during 2019. According to its findings, while there were marked improvements in some areas, issues such as risk management and quality assurance in a number of services need to improve.
Foster care was one area where a number of concerns were raised. HIQA inspectors visited 72 foster care homes and met with 176 children in foster care, as well as foster carers and parents
HIQA noted that when children were allocated a social worker, they received a good quality service and children tended to speak very positively about their social worker.
However, it also pointed out that some areas had "significantly high numbers of unallocated children in care and as a result, these unallocated children were not receiving a good quality service and were not being visited in line with the regulations".
Out of 11 areas, four areas were each found to have over 60 children in care that had not been allocated a social worker, and another three areas had between 20 and 30 children without an allocated social worker.
"Of significant concern was that two areas had a small number of dual unallocated cases, whereby neither the child nor the foster carers had an allocated social worker," the report noted.
While the matching of children to carers who had the capacity to meet their assessed needs was evident in the majority of areas, "there were backlogs in completing long-term matching in several areas".
Meanwhile, there were also backlogs of child-in-care reviews, and a high number of care plans were found to be out of date and of varying quality.
"Risks in some children's services remain and, without doubt, Tusla (the Child and Family Agency) continues to face a number of key challenges. These challenges primarily relate to the pace of implementing a workforce strategy that both involves attracting more social workers into the service and retaining current social work staff. There is limited capacity to meet the demands placed on social workers," commented HIQA's director of regulation and chief inspector of social services, Mary Dunnion.
The HIQA report also looked at children's residential centres. It found marked improvements in many, but also said that improvements were needed in areas such as monitoring and oversight.
"Good governance is intrinsically linked to good outcomes and experiences of people using services. It also means that the individuals with responsibility for managing a service are assured about its quality, that they are confident they can respond to identified risk and future challenges, and that they can consistently sustain an effective, child-centred and safe service.
"In a well-governed service, the provider and managers do not lose sight of the fact that they hold the primary responsibility for the quality of the service," Ms Dunnion noted.
The report found that overall, children receiving centre-based care felt supported and listened to. They talked freely about their placements and the people who were caring for them and said that they were encouraged to participate in decisions about their care.
However, when it came to risk-based inspections of child protection and welfare services, issues around the quality of care and timeliness of the services were clearly evident, with many delays flagged.
HIQA inspectors found that there were major demands across some service areas for children to receive initial assessments of their protection and welfare, "with lengthy waiting lists in place in the areas where risk-based inspections were carried out".
HIQA pointed out that there was no national approach being taken by Tusla to manage waiting lists for children and families awaiting a service from it.
"The resulting cumulative effect of these challenges on children, their families and the children's carers, particularly the limited staffing resources in some service areas, has led to variations in the quality and timeliness of the services that children, their families and foster carers have received," Ms Dunnion added.
Overall, HIQA carried out 51 inspections of child services in 2019, including 26 inspections of statutory residential services, 12 inspections of statutory foster care and seven inspections of a child and protection welfare service.
Its report on the these inspections can be viewed here.
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