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By Carl O'Brien
July 28, 2009 / irishtimes.com
STATE AGENCIES and voluntary bodies which fail to report suspected cases of child abuse face losing public funding as part of a series of measures aimed at strengthening child protection services.
The measure to be announced by the Government today comes on foot of the recommendations of the Ryan report into child abuse in institutions.
At present there is no legal requirement on professionals working with children to report suspected abuse under Children First, the national guidelines published a decade ago for identifying and reporting child abuse.
The new move is intended to address major inconsistencies in the way these guidelines are implemented across the State by providing a greater incentive for organisations working with children to act on cases of suspected abuse.
It will not involve “mandatory reporting” of child abuse, which can involve the criminalisation of individuals who fail to report suspected child abuse.
Instead, public funding of services in both statutory and non-statutory services is likely to be conditional on the proper implementation of Children First guidelines, according to senior sources. Among the other recommendations likely to be announced today are:
- Independent inspections by the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) of all residential services for children, including hostels for separated children seeking asylum. These settings are not subject to national standards for children in care.
- Improved access to aftercare services for young adults leaving the care system.
- Improved access to counselling and mental health services for victims of institutional abuse.
- A new method of evaluating the extent to which childcare services meet the aims and objectives of the national childcare policy. At present this is performed by the Health Service Executive (HSE) through its annual reports into the adequacy of child and family services.
- Access to counselling and mental health services for victims of institutional abuse, as well as educational services, to alleviate disadvantages experienced by children in care.
- Family tracing services to assist individuals who were deprived of their family identities in the process of being placed in care.
The gaps and variations in the way the Children First guidelines are being implemented have been highlighted in numerous reports in recent years. A report commissioned by the Office of the Minister for Children last year found just 9 per cent of respondents felt the structures and bodies necessary for the successful operation of the Children First guidelines were in place.
Child welfare groups such as Barnardos and the Children’s Rights Alliance have been calling for the guidelines to be placed on a statutory footing for several years.
Dr Helen Buckley, senior lecturer at Trinity College Dublin’s school of social work and policy, said the key to improving the implementation of the guidelines will be building up the capacity of organisations working with children at risk.
“It’s more than just reporting. We need to build up the capacity of organisations to be able to recognise and process any child protection concerns they have in the most efficient way possible,” she said.
She said latest official figures indicate there is a high level of inaccuracy in reporting child abuse cases.
In 2006, for example, as many as half of the 20,000 reports of suspected child abuse in a single year were reclassified to child welfare cases, indicating that they did not require statutory intervention.
Of those remaining in the child abuse category, just over 20 per cent were ultimately confirmed as abuse