Foster Care in Ireland and the dangers of Privatisation

This week the published an opinion piece by Patrick Costello TD. The article is available to view on their website here.

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Article Text:

AS THIS GOVERNMENT’S term began a broad alliance of civil society groups came together to campaign to save the Department of Children and Youth Affairs.

The campaign worked, the department kept its seat at the Cabinet table, a positive first step by the new government given the challenges the department faces. The new program for government states that this administration will “support the ongoing development of fostering services across the country”. 

This is a worthy goal and it is important to state it clearly, but it underplays the difficulties facing the services.

Foster carers are the backbone of state care, providing around 90% of all placements; they are very much on the front line of child protection. The harsh reality is that the system of foster care, and as a result, the state’s ability to protect children, is at risk of collapse. 

The Child Care Law Reporting Project in 2016 reported a case where Tusla social workers needed to take a child into care due to ongoing neglect, but they couldn’t as they didn’t have enough foster carers to offer a safe place.

This is not an isolated incident – with numbers of new carers being recruited falling, social work departments around the country struggle to find needed placements. How many other children have been left like this without making headlines?

Needless to say, the consequences of this failure are horrific. In June last year, the high court allowed a legal action to proceed against the state for what was described as “appalling failures” to protect a child from abuse.

At the centre of the case is a child who when two years old was deemed by a case conference to be at such high risk that she should be in care, but there were no suitable placements available and the child was left in a dangerous situation only coming into care years later after further horrific abuse. 

There are significant difficulties caused by limited resources in most child protection teams – lack of appropriate numbers of staff, lack of staff with experience caused by high turnover, and a lack of time to do the slow foundational work caused by a need to focus on crisis fire fighting.

The reality is that over the years more and more paperwork and bureaucratic oversight has been added to social workers, including fostering social workers. While this has been increasing the amount of work needed per case there has not been a reduction in cases held, leaving all social workers with a massively increased workload.

The demands of accountability mean paperwork gets prioritised and direct work suffers as a consequence. In the case of fostering a team, this includes recruitment, assessment and training of new foster carers as well as supporting existing families. The overall result of this situation in fostering teams is that there aren’t enough foster carers.

The problem with privatisation

To fill this gap in services Tusla uses private fostering providers. These private companies recruit and support their own foster carers and charge Tusla to place children in care in one of the agency’s families.

There has been slow but consistent growth in private foster care placements and an increase in the number of companies in this market. While these companies plug a gap in services, a gap that can leave children at risk, ultimately they lead to negative outcomes across the system. 

This is not a reflection on the excellent work done by foster families with private services, but a consequence of systemic issues.

The cost of Tusla foster care placement is €325 per week for a child under 12, and €352 for a child over 12, while the average weekly cost of a private foster care placement is €1000.

Tusla paying three times as much for a placement eats up its budget, draining its ability to pay for other services for families and pay for the much-needed staff. This, of course, creates the problems with recruitment described above, meaning the use of private agencies contributes to an increased need to use private agencies. 

Along with draining resources from Tusla, private agency placements present other difficulties. Local Tusla social work offices recruit carers from their area, leading to kids being placed closer to their own school, family and existing networks, all of which reduces some of the disruption that is caused by coming into care.

Private placements are not geographically tied and can be spread across the country, figures given by Tusla in response to a Parliamentary Question showed in 13% of Tusla foster placements the child was placed outside of their local area, compared to 75% of private foster placements.

This leads to greater disruption and trauma for children entering care through change of school, dislocation from families, sports clubs and the young person’s friends and networks of support.

Placements far removed from social workers local offices put considerable pressure on that most precious of social workers resources – time.

Urgent need for action

The first step in addressing a problem is to acknowledge there is one – Fostering in Ireland is in trouble. The challenge is that there is not one thing that can be done to “fix” fostering. A further challenge is that many of the problems are not unique to fostering alone but are widespread across social work in Ireland. There is in many areas a shortage of staff and high turnover of social workers.

The net result of this is that unallocated cases are often piling up and the work is focused on emergencies, and on fire fighting. This puts more stress on staff who are there and further fuels burnout and staff turnover, creating a cycle of dysfunction. 

Some of the challenges facing social workers have their roots outside of social work. The very real issues with waiting lists for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, for disability services, for supports services of all kinds leave social workers and families holding complex cases without the services they need.

While current foster carers and fostering social workers do excellent work in difficult circumstances fostering services need significant support at this time. The simple version is we need to recruit more foster carers. How we do that is the hard part. I will be working closely with my Green Party colleague Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman to do what we can and to make this a priority issue and know there will be others working on this.