By: CARL O'BRIEN, Social Affairs Correspondent
Jan 3, 2009 / The Irish Times
A TOTAL of 19 children in State care were placed in facilities outside the jurisdiction during 2007 because there was nowhere suitable for them in Ireland, it has emerged.
Most of the children had severe behavioural or psychiatric problems and were placed in care centres in the UK, Sweden and the US at a cost of just under €2 million.
The majority of these children were previously in the care of the State in Ireland. However, these placements either broke down or were unable to meet the needs of the children in question.
The centres where they were accommodated include Boystown in Omaha, Nebraska, United States, which provides specialised treatment for at-risk children and Hassela Gotland in Sweden, which runs an island-based community rehabilitation programme.
Among the children being cared for abroad are a brain-damaged teenager incapable of independent living and another teenager with serious psychiatric problems. The practice of placing children in care abroad has been criticised by campaigners and some solicitors who say these services should be available in Ireland and that children should be placed as close to their families as possible.
However, the Health Service Executive (HSE) says any children placed abroad are a tiny proportion of more than 5,000 children in care, most of whom are in foster care.
It says that in very rare circumstances, officials are forced to look abroad to find specialised treatment programmes for children with difficult or challenging behaviour.
Other figures show that a total of just over 400 children were in residential care in Ireland during 2007. Of this, 110 were in private facilities rather than HSE-run units.
The cost of residential care in 2007 was about €135 million. In comparison, foster care placements cost €98 million, even though it accounted for almost 5,000 children. The figures are contained in a briefing note on child and family services prepared by the HSE. On the issue of sending children in care abroad, the HSE says its first preference is to offer care placements for children as close to their families or community as possible, but this needs to be balanced with whatever treatment options are available.
A spokesperson said health authorities were learning from examples of specialised care abroad and were beginning to establish new ways of providing support to young people at risk.
This includes a new form of "multi-dimensional foster care", which provides treatment for children with more complex or challenging behaviour.
However, the Irish Association for Young People in Care said it was concerned that sending at-risk children abroad could have a destabilising effect.
"I don't think it's right that children should have to travel these distances. Children who are placed in care abroad will find it much more difficult to reintegrate into their communities," said Jennifer Gargan, the association's director.
"There are 400 in residential care in Ireland. So 19 children, in that context, is quite a large number.
"We feel very strongly that all alternatives should be explored at an earlier stage, so the need to send a child abroad doesn't arise in the first place."
Other figures show there were more than 80 social work vacancies in community care areas around the State in the middle of 2007.