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Tuesday, September 27, 2022

How do you report a welfare concern you have about a child?

There may be occasions when we might witness a worrying exchange between an adult and a child that doesn’t sit comfortably with us. 

Despite our concerns, we may choose to not get involved either because we don’t want to become a target of the adult’s anger and be told to mind our own business, or we may be concerned that our involvement may make things worse for the child. My guess is that in a large number of cases where we witness incidents like this, most of us will do nothing.

Our relationship with any sort of ‘whistle-blowing’ is poor in Ireland and we have some unhelpful associations with getting involved in other people’s business. However, it is our civic duty and moral responsibility to always inform someone if we have concerns that a child is at risk of abuse or neglect. 

The cost of ignoring these incidents is that the abuse is likely to result in ongoing harm to the child. 

Tusla

The representative body for child welfare concerns in Ireland is an organisation called Tusla, whose role is to assess all concerns that are reported to them.

Most people are unsure what situations merit contacting Tusla, but there is a list of situations available that outline what are ‘reasonable grounds’ for contacting them. You should contact Tusla if you have seen any examples of injuries or behaviours, that are consistent with abuse, or if you have concerns about possible sexual abuse or have witnessed any signs of emotional or physical neglect. 

You should also report any incidents where a child says to you that they have experienced abuse or any admission by an adult or another child of alleged abuse that they have committed. If you have any of these concerns you should contact the local duty social work service in your area.

There are two forms for reporting current and retrospective child protection concerns which have to be completed and submitted to Tusla to help the staff assess your concerns. You are encouraged to provide as much relevant information as you can about the child, his/her home circumstances and your grounds for concern to help the social workers to prioritise cases for attention.

Tusla is not always in a position to respond immediately to concerns, except where a child is in immediate danger. The time lag involved in assessing welfare concerns in families is a real worry and it is often the case that despite the evidence provided, the assessment outcome is that there is insufficient proof and so action cannot be taken.

This is the inherent problem with reporting concerns about children. Children are limited in terms of what they can articulate and many can be coerced into silence, making accurate assessments very difficult. But that shouldn’t mean that you don’t report it. 

If you are concerned about a child but unsure what you should do, you may find it useful to contact Tusla to discuss your concerns. They can advise you whether your concern meets the threshold for reporting.

Rights

Many people ask if it is possible to register your concerns anonymously, and while this is possible, it creates difficulties for Tusla to assess your concern. The reason for this is that Tusla must respect the rights of individuals to fair procedure and be aware of the possibility of malicious false reporting.

That said, the Protections for Persons Reporting Child Abuse Act 1998 protects you as the complainant, as long as the report is made in good faith. This means that even if you report a case of suspected child abuse and it proves unfounded, a plaintiff who took an action would have to prove that you had not acted reasonably and in good faith in making the report.

While Tusla will make every effort to examine such cases, it is a very complex area involving the accused’s constitutional rights to their good name, privacy and the right to earn a living, as well as the requirements of natural justice. Tusla must work within the Constitution, the law and the legal system to balance the conflicting rights of those involved. 

This may limit how much feedback Tusla can provide to you on the progress or outcome of the case. Tusla’s examination can be greatly improved if the alleged victim feels able to co-operate with Tusla in its assessment or investigation.

There was a whopping 73,069 referrals to Child Protection and Welfare Services in 2021. 

50% (36,784) of all referrals for 2021 were closed following the screening.  Of the referrals closed following a screening in 2021, 42% (15,297) were closed with no further action required, a further 40% (14,760) were closed as assessment/safety planning was already ongoing and 6% (2,287) were diverted to Tusla’s Prevention Partnership and Family Support (PPFS) services.

In my clinical experience, I have seen the impact of reporting from both sides. I have met with families who have undergone a rigorous assessment procedure as a result of malicious or manufactured reports and I have sat with children whose lives have been saved because of the willingness of a Garda, teacher or sports coach to act on their concerns. 

Personally, I would prefer to be accused of being over-cautious in my reporting of suspected abuse than being overly complacent. I would encourage anyone who has concerns about the welfare of a child to not assume that someone else will act on it. As is often the case, when everyone thinks everyone else is doing something, nothing gets done. 

Protecting the safety of children is not a choice it is a responsibility and therefore as adults, we need to take our role seriously and act accordingly.

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