Belfast Telegraph

Children's Ombudsman urges creation of child protection one-stop shops

The Children's Ombudsman has called for one-stop shops to be set up to guarantee the right response to emergency child protection cases.

Niall Muldoon called for social workers, gardai and therapy services to be based in the same building after a damning review of how state agencies work together when at-risk or troubled youngsters are removed from their families.

The audit by special rapporteur Geoffrey Shannon found evidence of serious failings into how children are cared for outside normal working hours and how data is recorded on the Garda's internal Pulse computer system.

The trawl of 5,400 cases from 2008 to 2015 was ordered by the Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan following the Children's Ombudsman's inquiry into the removal of two Roma children from their families in 2013 amid unfounded fears the youngsters had been abducted.

Mr Shannon's review found gardai are inadequately trained to deal with child protection issues.

It said there is poor and limited inter-agency co-ordination between Tusla - the Child and Family Agency and gardai.

It said some children are repeatedly removed from the same families, social work cover outside of normal working hours is inadequate and there are gaps in protection for children with behavioural problems.

Ombudsman Mr Muldoon made the call after Children's Minister Katherine Zappone vowed to do whatever is needed to improve child protections.

He said it is time for the Government and relevant agencies to consider the benefits of co-location.

"This would mean setting up a one-stop shop where everyone working on child protection including social workers, gardai and therapy services would be physically located in the same space, so they can quickly and collectively deal with issues," he said.

Mr Muldoon said similar systems, known as Child Advocacy Centres, are in place in parts of Scandinavia, the UK and in Canada.

The idea was first mooted in 2011.

"These services would be built around the child; considering their views and best interests," Mr Muldoon said.

"Interagency co-operation on this level would be extremely beneficial to children and would minimise the trauma experienced by children who currently have to interact with a number of agencies, and who are often interviewed a number of times on the same issue."

Ms Zappone is to meet Mr Shannon next week on the issues raised in his audit.

The minister said o ut-of-hours child protection services now operate nationwide.

In Dublin, Kildare, Wicklow and Cork city social workers are available to engage directly with the children concerned, she said.

In other parts of the country, social workers are on call to deal with garda queries and place children in emergency foster care.

Ms Zappone said gardai now also have full access to the Child Protection Notification system to check if a child is at ongoing risk of harm.

The minister also said Tusla and the gardai are set to agree a protocol on the use of emergency powers to remove a child from their family, which will include clear and extensive guidance on a range of issues in relation to children at risk.

This will address many of the issues raised in the report, Ms Zappone's office said.

Amid concerns of a dispute with Mr Shannon over how the audit was carried out, Tusla clarified that it was initially contacted by him when the review started but that none of its staff were interviewed.

"Tusla is committed to building on the existing relationships and joint approaches developed with all agencies and organisations," the agency said.

"An Garda Siochana is a crucial partner in the area of child protection and both agencies have distinct functions, powers, responsibilities and methods of working."

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