They say that the road’s never easy to a place worth going! Establishing a brand new Agency and championing reform at a time of financial restraint and recruitment restriction has been challenging. Finally, on 1 January, 2014, the Child and Family Agency became an independent legal entity, comprising the former Children & Family Services of the HSE, the Family Support Agency and the National Educational Welfare Board, as well as a range of services responding to domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.
Tusla, a dedicated state agency responsible for improving wellbeing and outcomes for children, represents the most comprehensive reform of services for the development, welfare and protection of children and the support of families ever undertaken in Ireland. It is an ambitious move which brings together some 4000 staff and an operational budget of approximately €609m.
Our name Tusla is a new word. It has its origins in the word tus (beginning) and la (day). It symbolises our desire to build on our varied past experiences to create a new future for our services and our service users. We want Tusla to be inclusive, forward thinking and, above all, on the side of children and families.
The establishment of a new agency represents an opportunity to think differently and, where appropriate, to behave differently. It calls for an approach which is responsive, inclusive and outward looking. I am confident that by harnessing the wisdom and insight of frontline staff, engaging closely with our partners and our communities; and respecting and responding to the needs of our clients, we will deliver on this opportunity and challenge and, over time, transform and significantly improve the service we provide to Ireland’s children and their communities.
It is my strongly held belief that all welfare services, including health and education, need to understand their role in a just society. The effectiveness of services is dependent on the effectiveness of society as a whole. If it takes ‘a whole village to rear a child’, then that society needs to be persuaded to prioritise its most vulnerable, even to be forced to do so through effective legislation when required. Society and services are interlinked and mutually dependent. Services can only be effective if they engage their communities across boundaries; society can only succeed if the needs of all its citizens are serviced.
It is important that all of us involved in service delivery promote the wellbeing of all citizens, young and old, to promote a way of life which is about life lived to the full and about a willingness to stretch the capacity of each individual. By valuing the contribution of all, we enable society to realise fully its collective potential, building a shared future through cooperation and participation.
Tusla actively promotes an approach to children’s services which requires all those delivering services to acknowledge a common commitment to the nurture of the nation’s children. This requires a strong commitment to interagency, multidisciplinary working—putting the needs of children and families at the heart of services. Too many times in the past, children have been failed because the emphasis on services was a narrow focus from the perspective of a professional, rather than a clear assessment of needs and an integrated delivery of service.
Today we require a model of service delivery for children and families which does not limit effectiveness to intervening in a crisis but, rather, promotes the universality of services involving family, playgroups, community centres, youth clubs and schools, etc. There is a need to develop practices and institutional structures to support this. Such a commitment requires resources. To deliver services against a backdrop of straitened financial circumstances and public service reform is not without its challenges. We must recognise these, while refusing to allow such challenges to become a mantra for inertia. In seeking an appropriate 21st century balance in the delivery of services, we do well to remember the 3 Rs of Rights, Responsibilities and Respect and must also recognise a further constraining 3RS—Restraint (of our financial circumstances), Recruitment (causing pressure on our workforce) and Reform (challenging within a health service itself in the process of great change). Standing still is not an option, nor can we be paralysed by the obstacles in our path to a better place for Ireland’s children. Resources are an issue, but they cannot be an excuse for inertia.
The services for which I have responsibility are rightly held up to the most rigorous scrutiny where there is failure. This is as it should be and I expect such scrutiny to be forensic, relentless and unforgiving. However, I also ask that recognition is given to the quality of the care provided by many dedicated, professional workers in the statutory and voluntary services and by committed foster families who ensure that children thrive and do well, not least as a consequence of their own resilience.
Under the Child and Family Act, 2013, the Child and Family Agency is charged with:
■ supporting and promoting the development, welfare and protection of children, and the effective functioning of families;
■ offering care and protection for children in circumstances where their parents have not been able, or are unlikely, to provide the care that a child needs. In order to discharge these responsibilities, the Agency is required to maintain and develop the services needed in order to deliver these supports to children and families, and provide certain services for the psychological welfare of children and their families;
■ responsibility for ensuring that every child in the state attends school or otherwise receives an education, and for providing education welfare services to support and monitor children’s attendance, participation and retention in education;
■ ensuring that the best interests of the child guides all decisions affecting individual children;
■ consulting children and families so that they help to shape the Agency’s policies and services;
■ strengthening interagency co-operation to ensure seamless services responsive to needs;
■ undertaking research relating to its functions, and providing information and advice to the Minister regarding those functions; and
From the beginning I have articulated a vision for an agency which is outward-looking; inclusive; evidence-based; supportive when appropriate, assertive when necessary. An Agency staffed by professionals who are clear in their values such as wisdom, integrity, compassion, justice, respect and courage and who are consistent in adherence to these values.
We cannot deliver a reformed service alone, but mindful of our limitations and our need to work as servants of engaged communities, inclusive schools, responsive health centres and responsible individuals we can certainly delivery services fit for purpose in 21st century Ireland.