Full speech transcript:
What I wish to raise as a Topical Issue matter is the issue of support for parents who are engaged with Tusla in respect of child protection concerns and whose children are in care. The reality is that this is a group of parents are often quite stigmatised and receive very little support.
Tusla will do its best to support a family to prevent a child coming into care but once a child comes into care, the child becomes the centre. We are told children’s welfare should be paramount. The child becomes the centre and the parents are frequently left behind. This causes several problems.
First, it undermines the parents fundamental rights. We have seen in a recent study from UCC which looked at the use of voluntary care agreements how parents can be left confused, bewildered and unsupported and this ultimately undermines the free and informed consent required for a voluntary care agreement and their own fundamental rights.
Furthermore, when a child comes into care, this is a horrendous process. It is often a necessary process but it is a process that engenders huge amounts of loss, anger, grief and bereavement, all of which is totally understandable. My experience has been that parents are left sitting with those feelings and they are not given supports. This creates hostility between them and the social workers which makes the social workers’ job harder, which puts more stress on them and, ultimately, the children lose out because parents are less able to engage with access, are less able to engage with reunification and are less able to engage meaningfully with the social work department.
Ultimately, this is about children’s rights. By providing these supports, we can meet children’s rights better. A parent who is supported to engage with the family safety plan, reunification and access, and who is able to process that loss and grief so that the child does not get caught in the crossfire between a suffering parent and the social workers where access becomes a front in the battle, ultimately supports those children.
There are some local support projects doing this, for instance, Clarecare which provides excellent and wide-ranging support, but we need something at a national level. I know this works for two reasons. All one needs to do is look at Clarecare and the work it does, but also at Empowering People in Care, EPIC. EPIC supports young people in care. It is an independent advocacy service for young people in care which could do so much more with proper resourcing. They support young people with a care history, some of whom are parents and some of whom are parents whose children are being taken into care.
I worked as a social worker taking a child into care from a parent who had a care history herself and she had an advocate from EPIC. That was a significant benefit. The case was not easy. It still had its difficulties but we had somebody there who could help the parent engage in the process, who could provide counselling supports for them, who could link them in further with other supports, and who could help them engage meaningfully with those in the social work department to make the process less traumatic. It helped them to engage in access after the fact that so that even though their child was in care, the trauma did not have to continue and they ultimately had a more stable placement supporting the rights of the child and supporting the child in care.
This is a much-needed service. There have been ad hoc attempts within Tusla and the HSE over the years which often have been met, not with outright hostility but certainly with a slowness or reluctance because the focus has been on the child. It is time we looked at the child in the context of his or her family even if that child is in care.
Regarding voluntary care agreements, a recent study by UCC highlighted some of the contentious issues and outlined options for reform. If it has not already done so, it would be useful if the Department engaged with the team in UCC that conducted this research and suggested these reforms.
I sent the Minister’s office some information. These independent advocacy services are important, and they are commonplace in other jurisdictions. In Ireland, they occasionally provide support for parents who are in care, but that is done on an ad hoc basis and if the parents happen to be part of those advocacy services already.
I am happy to engage with the Minister again. I appreciate he is not in a position to micromanage Mr. Gloster and the operations of Tusla, but he is in a position to show leadership to and influence Tusla. Strong support for parents’ rights as well as for parents in their journey through their children’s time in care ultimately supports the rights of their children as much as supporting the children while they are in care does. Frequently, children are left with a conflict in loyalties between their placement by Tusla in a home in which they can grow up safely and their family of origin, to whom they are still deeply connected. Anything that can support that connection while maintaining their safety supports children’s rights. It is a matter of parents’ rights and children’s rights. We need to lead strongly.