At the beginning of 2011 the IASCW (Irish Association of Social Care Workers) biannual magazine, CURAM, which is the Gaelic word for CARE, featured on its cover the words 2011 Cautious Optimism? The words stood out against a background of the years going back to 2000. Many of those years would have seen failures and scandals characterise the Irish child care scene. Indeed, late 2010 saw the publication of another damning report from Roscommon in the west of Ireland outlining years of neglect and abuse suffered by a particular family.
CURAM’s editorial in January elaborated on the cover’s question and pointed out that any optimism for the future in relation to the work social care workers do might well be misplaced because of political uncertainty, dire economic warnings in general, cutbacks in staffing and a rigid moratorium on recruitment.
However, the editorial went on to argue the opposite and essentially outlined a number of reasons why 2011 might not, after all, be a bad year. The sometimes overlapping approach of three organisations closely involved with social care was being tackled and a launch date of mid-2011 was indicated despite some work yet to be done. The educators (Irish Association of Social Care Educators), managers (Residential Managers Association) and practitioners (Irish Association of Social Care Workers) amalgamated after many years of the idea being mooted. On 20 June last a new association –Social Care Ireland- incorporating the three organisations mentioned was actually launched by the new Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Frances Fitzgerald.
Coincidentally, the new Minister is a former social worker. She was able to announce at the launch that the legislation setting up the new Ministry for Children was to be completed that week, thus giving effect to one of the major commitments given by the new coalition government when it took up office on 10 March after a landslide victory in the general election.
Since taking up office the new Minister has tackled a number of major issues and there is a sense that, at last, there may be the political will to make progress where up to now there have been broken promises, obfuscation and prevarication.
Another area about which cautious optimism was expressed at the beginning of the year was that of statutory registration for social care workers which is seen as a vital and important additional safeguard toward protecting those in receipt of social care services. We had met the former Minister for Health and Children and got a sense that social care workers may be in the second tranche of professions to be registered.
A step further in this area was taken when new social work graduates, the first of the Health and Social Care Professionals twelve bodies, were registered in May. This sets in motion the whole registration process, the beginning of which has been long awaited. So there is hope there that was not evident at the beginning of 2011.
A further note of optimism was indicated at year’s beginning with the appointment of Mr Gordon Jeyes as National Director of Children and Family Services in the HSE (Health Service Executive) which is responsible by statute for the delivery of health and social services throughout Ireland. Mr Jeyes was previously the UK’s first Director of Children’s Services. The CURAM editorial welcomed this appointment and Mr Jeyes briefly outlined his vision for an effective service when he opened the Social Care Ireland conference on 10 March, the day Ireland’s new government took office.
The HSE has been heavily criticised for its large, unwieldy, bureaucratic structure to which child welfare and protection is seen simply as an adjunct. Children and family services have seldom been scandal or controversy free and Mr. Jeyes’s appointment was seen by many as an unenviable one in a sector that has defied reform. Fortuitously, his hand may have been strengthened when the new Minister for Children and Youth Affairs announced in March that child welfare and protection was to be removed from the HSE to within the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. While few would argue against this move it will, obviously, be judged on results.
Now to where we have come mid-year. On Wednesday 13 July last a report on the Catholic Diocese of Cloyne’s handling – or rather mishandling – of child abuse over a ten-year period to 2009 was published. The findings were damning and above all showed that the diocese, backed up by the Vatican, was not even implementing the Church’s own guidelines. This is the third of such reports into diocesan mishandling, some would say ‘criminal mishandling’, of child abuse. The Cloyne report has raised a predictable and justifiable church and state storm with one government parliamentarian calling for the expulsion of the Vatican’s ambassador (Papal Nuncio) from Ireland.
In response to the report in general the government acted swiftly with three legislative proposals. In what amounts to mandatory reporting by another name the non-disclosure of information about serious offences against a child will become a criminal offence with a penalty of up to five years in jail. The only exception will be if the victim asks that the information not be disclosed. This latter point has come in for some criticism insofar as many would argue that confidentiality cannot currently be guaranteed by those in receipt of child abuse allegations.
The second piece of legislation, in the pipeline for some time now, will be legislation allowing for the collection and exchange of soft and hard information. Calls for soft information began after the Soham case in the UK. We await with interest the delicate balances to be struck in this area to ensure that it does not become a charter for cranks, personal begrudgers and outright liars. The assurance is that the legislation will protect against such time-wasting and damaging possibilities.
The third move, long promised by previous governments, is placing the 1999 Children First Guidelines on a statutory footing. On the day the Cloyne report was published (13 July) the National Director of Children and Family Services, Gordon Jeyes, briefed executive members of Social Care Ireland on this. Two days later, on 15 July Minister Fitzgerald launched Children First: National Guidance for the Protection & Welfare of Children. This will be supported by a Child Protection and Welfare Practice Handbook to be published shortly by the Health Service Executive.
At the launch, Minister Fitzgerald referred to the Cloyne report and said that this was “a week where problems of the past were proven to exist in the present” and “where we learned that shame alone does not change behaviour.” She further said that the report from Cloyne “showed us that child abuse and endangerment is not something that happened back in the 50s or 60s or 70s or 80s.”
On radio later that day the Minister was at pains to point out that new legislation relating to the obligation to report abuse under pain of penalty is not mandatory reporting. She pointed to other jurisdictions where mandatory reporting has resulted in overloading the system there to protect children and a consequent diminution of the service to which they are entitled. Social workers, while welcoming the new proposals, were quick to point out that current and proposed resources could not meet what will be required under the proposed new system, which they claim will be mandatory reporting by another name.
At the launch the Minister reiterated that money ringfenced for the implementation of the Ryan Report (2009) recommendations would not be touched even under government austerity measures. Gordon Jeyes again said that “all staff in Children and Family Services have my unconditional support” while stressing that he was stringently pursuing the lifting of the moratorium on recruiting social care workers for community and residential settings. Nine aftercare workers are currently being recruited to work regionally. The Assistant Garda Commissioner, Derek Byrne, outlined the levels of support and integration which all involved can expect from the gardai.
The week of 11 July 2011in Ireland was a sad but significant week. Hopefully, it was a week reflective of the old adage that out of evil can come good. Certainly, the government’s commitment to children in that week, allied to the promise of a Children’s Rights referendum early in 2012, brought together a number of strands that the previous government appeared to be tinkering endlessly with and finding problems with any proposed solutions. This is of course not to say the implementation of all promised will not be fraught with some difficulties but a clear, unequivocal beginning has been made.
Some sceptics will point to so many other false dawns in the past when much was promised and little subsequently delivered. That scepticism may be understandable. Yet, if the government’s legislative response to what has gone wrong in the past is carried through, then we may be on a more clear, integrated, accountable path toward protecting vulnerable children.
This then is a new beginning. There will be difficulties. New legislation and constitutional change of themselves do not guarantee success and there are many examples of where this is the case. Those who work with children in the community or in residential centres in Ireland will face particular difficulties in a system which is more regulated and suffering from long shadows from the past and not so distant past. We cannot forget this. That particular cause and others, in the context of all that happened in the week of 18 July 2011 in Ireland, are ones to wait for another day.
Noel Howard is a former President of the IASCW (Irish Association of Social Care Workers). He edits the association’s publications. In 1973 he moved from a teaching career to work in the Irish juvenile justice system and retired in 2008.