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Unexplained disparities in care orders

Two-and-a-half times as many in South as in Dublin Mid Leinster

Children are more than twice as likely to end up in care in one region of the country as they are in another, official figures from the child and family agency Tusla have shown.

The records show that the number of children ending up subject to care orders is significantly above the national average in the HSE South region.

There were 614 care orders in the South during 2014 – which ended up higher than two of the other regions (Dublin Mid-Leinster and the West) even when combined.

Over half of those care orders, 320 in all, were in the city and county of Cork which meant that out of the 1,632 children to enter care in that year, almost one fifth were in Cork when the country makes up just 11% of the Irish population.

Statistically significant anomolies
Statistically significant anomolies

Detailed analysis of the figures on the basis of population aged under 17 bears out the stark difference in rates around the country.

On a national level, 142 children per 100,000 ended up in care during the course of 2014. However, the rate for the HSE South was significantly higher at 209 and the rate significantly lower in Dublin Mid Leinster where it was just 81.

The other two regions – HSE West and HSE Dublin North East – were closer to the national average and stood at 125 and 158 respectively.

Professor Pat Dolan, a childcare expert from NUI Galway, told Village that ultimately care orders should develop a consistency across the country but that “supply and demand” was still playing a major part.

He said:
“If you look back in the eighties, we really only discovered child sexual abuse and there was a massive increase in referrals after the Kilkenny incest case. Was there suddenly a proliferation of abuse of children? Or did we just become much more aware of referring it into the garda and social work systems?

There are trends in this. The other main factor has to do with availability of service. If you take residential care, the more children’s homes you build, the more you fill.

There is an issue of understanding this in terms of services available. The more [children the services] can see, the more these numbers will go up. If you have waiting lists, the numbers stay down – that doesn’t mean the cases aren’t there.

But if you buy a Panadol in Cork, it should be the same dosage as everywhere else. It should be the same in terms of service provision. It should be the same regardless of where you are but the one thing we know is that it’s not”.

Professor Dolan, who is Director of the Child and Family Research Centre in NUIG, said unusual spikes like this were not uncommon and that after high-profile cases of abuse referrals could suddenly rise.

Similarly, highly publicised cases of abuse in care settings could have the opposite effect and lead to a reduction in the number of children being placed.

He said that while poverty was a key factor – the country also tended to concentrate services of this type in areas that are more deprived.

He said; “What is the level of abuse in middle and upper class Dublin? It’s not policed as much from a social perspective. [So the question becomes] is there far more abuse in one area, or is it just that we are looking much more closely?

“It’s a problem and provision issue. In some areas, you have more social workers seeking care orders in some communities. It’s almost like a siege for them but you would wonder why this is the case in Cork”.

foxe-careNationally, 1,632 children were taken into care in 2014 with over two-thirds of those cases involving a voluntary admission.

There were 163 cases – around 10% of the total – involving emergency care orders and another 198  where interim care orders being used.

One case involving a detention order of the High Court was also recorded.

The figures – provided under FOI – were also listed according to age, with the largest number of cases, 231 in total, involving babies of twelve months or less.

Significantly, of those cases – over 100 involved some form of care order and only 130 were by voluntary admission. By comparison, of the 118 cases involving children of eight years of age, 100 of those were a voluntary admission where a parent had given consent.

In a statement, Tusla said:
“Children and young people are referred into [our] Child Protection and Welfare Services in each of its four regions (West, South, Dublin North East and Dublin Mid Leinster).

The rate of referrals is affected by a range of factors in each region including, but not limited to, population, demographics, deprivation levels, addiction issues and the level of supports available, e.g. family support services.

These can in turn be affected by the social and economic history of the region.

By Ken Foxe