Child protection workers ‘don’t shrug it off in the car on the way home’

Child protection workers ‘don’t shrug it off in the car on the way home’

When Paul Harrison was growing up in north Dublin, he could hear the Artane Boys Band rehearsing from the family’s back garden. His mother used to tell him the source of that music, the Artane industrial school run by the Christian Brothers, was where “the bad boys go” and, in moments of exasperation, threaten to send him there.

In reality, most of the boys resident in that school, numbering 700 in 1954, the year he was born, were committed there because of parental issues or outright destitution. They were the sort of children he was to encounter throughout a 40-year career in child protection.

Now he has written a memoir, Hanged If You Do ...Reflections from a Career in Child Protection (Orpen Press), to give the general public an insight into what social workers like him do.

Inevitably, perhaps, ghosts of sad cases haunt these pages. First up is the lifeless baby girl he held in a mortuary chapel, starting down at the bruised lump on her head. “I grieved for the baby I had known for each of the six months of her six months of life. And I worried for myself, guilty that I hadn’t foreseen this and troubled about the consequences. Someone had killed this child.”

A review of the case, which had never been considered high risk but rather a young, first-time mother needing support, concluded that the tragedy was unpredictable, “which was a let-off for me”, he writes. The woman’s boyfriend had been seen as an asset because he moved in with her before the birth and the couple seemed charmed at the baby’s arrival, never unduly stressed and then devastated at her death.

However, accounts by the mother and father of events leading up to the fatal injury differed. Then, just as gardaí were preparing to interview the father a few days later, he took the boat to Wales.

Harrison’s belief that public expectation of his profession is very high, unrealistically high, is reflected in the title of the book. “Social workers are expected to protect all of the children all of the time. That is definitely the milieu they work in,” he says over a cup of outdoor coffee. “There is no forgiveness for getting it wrong and, bearing in mind it is a risk business, it will go wrong sometimes.”

The independent oversight of the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) plays a valuable role in keeping services on the straight and narrow, he acknowledges. However, “Hiqa has to identify risks, social workers have to take them, that’s the difference.”

Harrison’s book also sums up the fundamental dilemma in child protection when, as he puts it, applying Solomon’s wisdom. “I had to determine, on the balance of probability, if the forcible removal of a child from his or her family was the lesser of two evils.

“The first was to leave the child in a dangerous situation, where their health or wellbeing was likely to be impaired. The second was to remove them from the danger, in the knowledge that this too would cause lasting psychological damage to the child and other family members.”

The rule of thumb he applied very early on, he says, was that it was not his job to make children happy but it was his job to make them safe. “The consequence of that is that they may still have a miserable childhood but they might as well have it at home, as be miserable in care, once they are safe. They may go hungry the odd time and they may not be as clean as the teacher might want them and all the rest of it, but their primary attachment is still going to be to their parents. You want to think twice before breaking that attachment.”

Outsiders may regard the removal of a child from wretched-looking circumstances and putting them into a comfortable foster family as a “magic wand”, he suggests, “but unfortunately the hurt lingers”. He also pays tribute to the extraordinary work of foster parents and the Irish Foster Care Association, founded in 1981, for the successful transformation of institutional State care into a family-based service.

Tony, who took his own life at the age of 18, was one case that caused Harrison to reflect on the adequacy of the State as parent. He had first met Tony 10 years previously, when the boy’s father had presented him at the office for a spell of “voluntary care” with the nuns.

The youngest of three children, Tony’s mother had died some years previously. Their father brought the family to the UK, where all the children ended up in care before he returned with them to Ireland while on the run from social services.

The eldest, aged 19 and tired of her feckless father, set up home in Dublin with her younger sister but there was no room for Tony. Instead, he settled very quickly into residential care where Harrison worked on a life story with him, to help him make sense of his childhood. “He was a bright child who had obviously had consistent schooling. He was clean and tidy and used to washing and dressing himself – hallmarks of an institutional upbringing.”

But the loss of Tony’s mother, combined with his father’s unreliability, had “left a stone in his heart”, Harrison observes. Although the prospect of going back to his father was remote, the informal care arrangement continued until the sudden death of the oldest sister in her sleep.

A care order was sought for both Tony and the younger sister, who joined him in the residential home. Then Harrison moved jobs “and, as often happens, the relationship with the children was severed and they had to start all over again with a new social worker”.

When Harrison heard Tony had turned 18 and left care , he intended to go and see him “but news of his death arrived before I did anything about it. I felt guilty – not that I hadn’t visited but because all those years in the care system had not equipped him, socially or personally, for life as an independent adult,” he writes. “The State removed him from his father but, in the end, had it done any better than he would have?”

Questioned about this, Harrison says there are still very few studies done on outcomes for the 5,000-6,000 children in care in this country. “How do we know it works?” he asks.

When he applied for social worker training in 1976, it was a job that was being shaped by the fallout in the UK from the killing of eight-year-old Maria Colwell by her stepfather three years previously. Despite involvement of social workers in the family’s life, a postmortem found the little girl had been significantly malnourished and underweight, indicating prolonged neglect.

This led to a big shift “from seeing people as deprived to seeing people as depraved, almost, and social work took on a policing role”. It was to be another decade before the realisation that helping people might improve their situation began to take hold.

Even with far greater efforts on support and prevention of families by both public services and voluntary organisations, he believes that social workers who go into statutory child protection “do a dirty job of society that is not without personal cost”.

After a traumatic intervention, “you don’t shrug it off in the car on the way home”. Sometimes he used to pause on his commute and try to “detox” before returning to embrace his own three children.

A quietly spoken man, sparing in his use of words, he recounts with an air of amusement that two of his adult children, after reading this book, have said “he can’t be all right”, in light of the experiences he writes about. An independent children’s services and social work adviser since his retirement from the public service in 2015, Harrison is still cautious about personal security, having worked with sexual abusers who would have not always appreciated his point of view.

Profound societal change in Ireland is reflected in Harrison’s four decades of work. It’s hard to fathom now that when he was starting out, non-accidental injury was the preoccupation and “the concept of sexual abuse was literally unheard of”.

His introduction to it as a social worker came when he was asked to prepare two sisters in care for returning to live with their widowed father. Days before the move, a senior colleague said, “just so you know, there was a bit of incest in that family at one stage”.

Nothing in the file referred to that and their older sisters, who were living elsewhere, assured him there were no safety concerns. Months later, it transpired that the father was “interfering” with the two younger children and they had to be removed from him again.

“The criminal aspect of what he had done never even crossed my mind,” says Harrison, who pays tribute to social work colleagues who led the way in exposing the issue in the 1980s, before the Department of Health even recognised sexual abuse as a category of abuse.

Reviews, from the Kilkenny Incest Investigation Report (1993), to the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (2009) that looked at the cruelties of institutional care in places such as Goldenbridge, Letterfrack and Artane, right up to this year’s report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes, have cast light on dark corners of recent social history.

“We have an outstanding record of retrospective judgment in this country,” he remarks. “As we criticise the mother and baby homes, there’s not a peep about the kids who are in direct provision, who in turn will sue the State. They are the Artane of today.

“The secret is to look at the present and say ‘why?’ and not the past and ask ‘why?’ It’s a lot harder.” He regards direct provision centres as this generation’s big child protection failure. “I think the brewing scandal is the kids growing up in those facilities that are hopelessly inadequate. You can’t rehearse childhood, you get one chance. For me that is society’s scandal of today, that is the one that gets me the most.”

In the late 1970s, pregnancy counselling was a bread and butter part of the job, typically involving the use of the mother and baby homes. “I think social workers, like everybody else, colluded with the secret and protected it. There is evidence to show that in the early days adoption would have been seen as a very successful outcome for all concerned.”

He was in and out of St Patrick’s on the Navan Road, where he saw a “quasi hospital regimen” and none of the brutality that reportedly went on there in earlier times. In blanket vilification of such homes, the complicity of wider society in banishing single pregnant women from their communities with no means of support is, he believes, overlooked.

“The nuns didn’t go out and procure these girls, they were sent to them.” He also feels strongly that because past actions are viewed through a contemporary prism, “people in this generation, my own children, cannot appreciate the scandal that was caused by an unmarried pregnancy and the calamity that caused for the young woman”.

Before the unmarried mother’s allowance was introduced in 1973, “you just could not support a child on your own as a single parent”. The uptake of adoption went down as uptake of the allowance went up. “There is absolutely no doubt that the people who were given the means, managed.”

In adoption circles, Ireland has moved from being a sending country to being a receiving one. “We sent our kids off to America and there was a big scandal and rightly so. We are importing children from America [now] and there isn’t a word spoken.”

The growth of intercountry adoption also presented social workers with the novelty of people demanding a service from them, ie their right to be assessed for suitability to adopt, rather than imposing a service. There was public anger not only about the length of time these assessments took to complete but also their intrusive nature.

“The media and political system were broadly supportive of that position and we were battling against the current in terms of trying to explain that adoption is actually a child-centred service, it is not a service for grown-ups.”

However, “it was a muddle because we were devising ways of managing this. Nobody is saying it was perfect.”

As director of childcare in the former Eastern Health Board, “the dilemma for me was, do I prioritise the kid with the broken arm in Tallaght Hospital or the one in the Romanian orphanage that is outside my jurisdiction? There was a limited amount of staff thrown at that in the first instance and significant delays in people waiting to be assessed.”

There is no hoo-ha today over the assessment process, says Harrison, who is on the board of the Adoption Authority of Ireland. “We have found a mutual equilibrium.”

He also sees “the reframing of homelessness” as fascinating. The focus on homeless children in the 1990s seemed to get swept off the table with the rise of the plight of homeless families. “You hear certain voluntary organisations talking about X number of homeless children and they’re not actually homeless, they’re with their family; it is the family that is homeless.

“The kids I was working with – the one kicked out of home and living in a utility hut in a flats complex at the age of 16, that’s homeless.

“If the families are intact and functioning, in terms of child protection it is a different level of risk altogether. Obviously, I am not minimising the dreadful condition of homeless families, I am just suggesting it is a different thing to homeless kids.”

Harrison was in his mid-30s when first promoted to a management job, heading a team of social workers in the community in Dublin northwest. His perspective changed as he became more conscious of the need to manage resources.

Social workers tend to think that every problem can be solved by more resources, he says. “They never look at their own efficiency and effectiveness, and they are still doing it. As a manager it was all about getting the most out of what you had. “I think I had 17 staff in a huge population and after nine years I had 19 staff. The same area today would probably have about 170 social workers, so there is no comparison.”

He describes his appointment in 2012 as director of policy and strategy in setting up the first State agency dedicated to the welfare and protection of children, Tusla, as a “fairy-tale ending” to his career. Separating childcare from the HSE was like an acrimonious divorce: “They got the money and we got the children.”

But the new management team was “highly motivated to do something different and good and well. To be accountable and to be transparent – all those things that the HSE was being criticised for not being.”

However, while the State system is much more efficient, he worries about the tendency now for over-regulation. He looks back at Tusla’s corporate plan for 2014-2017, in which he was centrally involved, and sees all that management speak “for what it really is – gobbledygook”.

In his career, child protection “started off as a punitive intervention, then it became a supportive intervention and now it has become an accountable intervention, where everything has to be counted. I think maybe we have thrown out the baby with the bath water.

“There is far too much emphasis on regulation and widget counting. We’re trying to shoehorn all that management speak into a human service and it doesn’t fit.”

Bureaucracy “goes against the grain” for social workers and there is plenty of evidence, he contends, that form filling, more than threats of violence or traumatic events, will cause them to leave the job.

“It is always the ‘how many?’ and ‘how much?’ and not ‘how well?’.”