Six minors who were known to social services have died already this year due to suicide or accidents according to six reports published yesterday.
Since January, a further seven children have died due to natural causes, the reports, published by the National Review Panel, said.
In total, at least 24 children and young adults who were involved with social services have died in the past year and a half.
Natural causes were the main cause of death, with 12 deaths resulting from this. Three deaths were caused road traffic incidents and other incidents, including drug overdoses, the Irish Independent reports.
The reports suggested there serious pressure on social services such as delays in responding to neglect cases and heavy caseloads.
The figure of 13 deaths compares with 11 for the whole of 2011 and 22 in 2010.
Dr Helen Buckley, chairwoman of the panel, said health staff and gardai appeared to be underestimating the risks to children in families where there is evident neglect, rather than physical or sexual abuse.
Dr Buckley said many of the cases illustrated serious problems such as poor social work practice, lack of co-operation between State agencies, inadequate assessments and poor recording of information.
She added that she did not believe that hiring extra social workers would solve problems facing child protection services.
She said that investment in the kind of services needed by children and families, such as mental health, addiction services and family support was vital.
The six reports published yesterday pointed to some serious flaws in how the HSE cares for vulnerable clients. Among the issues highlighted were:
- A lack of policy, or implementation of existing policies, relating to assessments, supervision of individual cases and recording of information. In particular, there was a need to develop a policy on suicide prevention for adolescents at risk.
- A lack of a national, integrated policy for developing child and adolescent mental health and addiction services.
- Pressure on child protection services was very high and there were delays responding to referrals, along with waiting lists for allocation of work.
- Sometimes there was irregular contact with family members after cases were allocated. In addition, cases were sometimes closed too early, often as a result of pressure on social work teams.
The six reports concerned five deaths of young people and one serious incident concerning a young person. Three of the deaths were due to accidents, one was due to natural causes and one to suicide. The serious incident concerned an accident.
One of the young people, a toddler who died of natural causes, was in State care. The remaining five were known to the child protection services.
Of the teenagers who died, there was a common theme of involvement in drugs, alcohol and other risk-taking behaviour.
While there was no evidence that the tragedies were due to inaction of social services, there remained concerns about lack of co-operation between agencies to deal with drug and mental health issues, waiting lists and heavy workloads.
The six reports did not identify the children. None involved parental abuse. One of the young people, Adam, had been in his early teens. His case was referred to the HSE in late 2009 after he was the victim of an assault.
However his involvement with social services was minimal. Social workers described it as a "bottom drawer" case, which was not high priority.
Some months later he was involved in incidents of self-harm and attempted suicide. A close family member had recently taken his own life. During this time Adam stopped attending school regularly and was reported missing from home on at least two occasions.
“All of this information suggests Adam was a young person who needed support and treatment in respect of his mental health needs,” the National Review Panel report states. “The social work records also indicate that members of his family were looking for support in managing Adam’s behaviour.”
It took three months before Adam met a social worker. By this stage his grandmother said he was “out of control”. He admitted to using alcohol and headshop drugs, but would not take up a social worker’s suggestion that he attend counselling.
Over the following three months there is no record of any further social work involvement with the family. A planned family welfare conference did not take place.
When he was referred to child and adolescent mental health services by his GP, they concluded he did not have a major mental health problem. It was agreed with Adam and his mother that they go for bereavement counselling. By the time this letter was received by social services a month later, Adam had taken his own life.