Ultimately, the point of the pro-life activism is to protect children in the womb. So, as pro-life advocates, we have special reason to be concerned about the welfare and protection of vulnerable children more generally. That’s why it’s worth drawing attention to some news stories about Tusla and Coovagh House that have been written over the past few months. 

Tusla and backlogs 

On 23 August, the Irish Examiner published a story about an increase in referrals to Tusla. It also reported an increasing backlog: 

The monthly report also shows that 5,136 cases were awaiting allocation to a social worker at the end of May, 11% more than in April. However, the report said 73% (3,743) of cases awaiting allocation at the end of May were ‘active on duty’. 

‘This means that actions were undertaken by dedicated duty teams or rotating social workers on a duty roster to progress the protection and welfare of the cases. Examples of actions undertaken include telephone calls relating to the concern, visits to see children, completing initial assessments and child in care reviews or care plans.’

High priority cases account for 7% of cases awaiting allocation, with 372 cases awaiting allocation at the end of May 2022 categorised as high priority, 44 (13%) more than in April.

Tusla, or the Child and Family Agency, is a State agency specially ‘dedicated to improving wellbeing and outcomes for children’. It is charged with ‘supporting and promoting the development, welfare and protection of children, and the effective functioning of families’.  This means that, among other things, it is the body responsible for child protection and welfare services, providing care for children whose parents are unable to do so through foster or residential care. Given that these are obviously important tasks that are crucial but sometimes difficult to do well, it goes without saying that it is concerning that this body is overburdened with a backlog of cases. 

This isn’t a new, or an unforeseeable problem. Here’s an extract from an Irish Examiner article written almost a year ago: 

The Chief Social Worker in Tusla has said Ireland needs to recruit more people to the profession and has highlighted how the current level of social work provision in child protection here is far below that of other countries.

Gerard Brophy, Chief Social Worker in the Child and Family Agency told the annual UCC Social Work Conference also said Tusla was moving in a new direction after the ‘institutionalisation of women and children in 20th century Ireland’, which he said was ‘outwardly police [sic] while inwardly cruel and punishing’.

I suspect that, if, as a society, we really cared enough about doing so, we could provide vulnerable children with far better resources and support than this: we could, at the very least, reduce or eliminate the backlog. 

And I wonder, as people who care about the pro-life cause, is there anything we could do to make this happen? (And wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was, and we did it?) We often measure progress towards the creation of a truly pro-life society by counting victories and losses that happen in the legal and political realms, but if what we ultimately care about is the protection and welfare of children, there are plenty of other arenas to gain ground in. This might involve doing things that aren’t obviously identifiable as being ‘pro-life’ activism – pro-choice people want most of these things too, and there’s no reason not to cooperate. (Consensus about things that are good is good!) But that doesn’t make them any less important. 

Coovagh House

Even more recently, there have been some news stories about Coovagh House in Limerick.  The Examiner summarises the findings of a recent Hiqa report:

Hiqa has found children in a Special Care Unit in Limerick were not safe at the facility due to an escalation of incidents there, the physical decline of the building and challenges over adequate staffing. It also found that Tusla had failed to report allegations of abuse made by children or serious injuries to it.

For anyone who wants to directly read the report themselves, rather than filtered through the articles that have appeared in the media, it’s here. But the takeaway is described in mainstream papers. Reporting on the same story, the Irish Times says that 

Conditions at a Tusla-run secure residential centre posed ‘a significant risk to children’s safety and protection’ and led to some being harmed, a report published on Wednesday finds.

Staff and management at Coovagh House, a special care unit in Limerick for very vulnerable young people, acknowledged to inspectors from the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa), they ‘no longer had the capacity to safely provide a service’ and were at times so unable to manage the violence of some children they ‘required assistance from An Garda Síochána’.

The watchdog conducted an unannounced inspection of the facility over four days in June and found ‘the safety and welfare of children could not always be protected and promoted’.

Coovagh House provides secure care to young people with traumatic childhoods who present with risk-taking behaviours, including exploitation by adults/peers, drug and alcohol misuse, non-school attendance, violence and aggression.

It was found to be non-compliant with all eight regulations examined, including governance and management, protection, and positive behavioural support.

Again, these are articles in mainstream publications – we know enough about the situation to be able to know that something needs to be done – and again, I suspect that if we were willing to put more resources into these facilities, at least some of the problems faced by the staff and children at Coovagh House could have been avoided. They are understaffed. The buildings are in poor condition. According to the Irish Examiner

‘On a walk around of the premises, inspectors saw damage throughout the building resulting from an escalation in incidents involving damage to property, coupled with a general decline in the quality of the building over time.’

One child said ‘The place is a dump and it has to be fixed’, while others said ‘the place is a wreck’ and ‘half the doors are broken’.

The building had been divided into two individual living areas for single occupancy living and one child said ‘it is not a nice life’ and that they felt ‘punished for the behaviour of others’.

Another child said that they had missed a hospital appointment because there were not enough staff to take them to it, something that was confirmed by the person in charge.

Having skimmed through the report, there are more optimistic details to be found as well, which, understandably perhaps, are not mentioned in the news articles. 

‘Two children said that they benefitted from their programme of care and two children were not satisfied overall with their programme of care. Positively, some children told inspectors that the support they received was working well for them. Their comments included:

‘I have grown a lot here’, 

‘the help has made me think of things in a different way,’ 

‘I have been helped to work on the reasons why I am here.’ 

Or, also, 

Children described having nurturing relationships with either all or certain staff including managers. These relationships supported children to make progress in different areas of their lives. Children’s comments included; 

‘I don’t like this place but I do like the staff,’

‘staff are out straight, they all support you here.’

Inspectors observed children enjoying the company of staff and there was a warmth and fondness in their interactions. Staff conveyed a welcoming and positive energy. This was a prominent strength of the centre. External professionals commended staff’s commitment to children. They said that staff and managers had developed good working relationships with external professionals also and informed them of any incidents in the centre.

The buildings seem to have been woefully inadequate, and there were staffing issues. I’m no expert, or even a knowledgeable amateur, but these seem like problems that really could be solved – or at least remedied to some extent – simply by providing more resources. More from the rport:

On this inspection, inspectors found that there was not always sufficient staffing resources in place for the effective delivery of children’s programme of special care. Nine experienced staff had left the service in the previous six months, and these posts were filled on an interim or temporary contract basis by agency staff and student social care workers. Not all staff were experienced or qualified or had completed mandatory training. The level of mentoring, support and supervision required by new staff in the centre was challenged by capacity issues and the demands of the service being provided. […] 

Oversight and auditing processes in relation to the management of incidents, complaints and allegations concerning children in the centre were not effective. There were systems in place for managerial oversight and review of individual incidents and significant events in the centre but these were not always strong enough. For example, reviews of single incidents in the centre did not always have sufficient managerial input. […].

Inspectors found there were child protection and welfare concerns arising from incidents and complaints and allegations made by children, which were not subject to mandatory reporting. While staff responded to incidents to ensure the immediate safety of children, failure to follow national guidance for the protection and welfare of children meant that allegations of harm against children had not always been appropriately investigated. These gaps could not ensure the provider that children’s welfare was always promoted and safeguarded. 

The situation at Coovagh House may have been complex and involved a lot of variables, but as a member of the public it seems obvious to me that at least part of the problem is that as a society we haven’t bothered to put resources into ensuring that our most vulnerable children are cared for. The question is when and whether we’ll be willing to change that.