Analysis: in the first six months of 2018, Tusla dealt with almost 19,000 children and young people but there is room for improvement and development

By John Canavan and Carmel DevaneyNUI Galway

Prevention and early intervention are ideas that have both a common-sense acceptance and a well-established evidence basis in medicine and health services. Research evidence on its role in social and educational services is also becoming more extensive and of a higher quality.

However, much less is known about its value in child protection and welfare services. With colleagues at the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre, we have produced internationally-leading research that demonstrates the role of prevention and early intervention in protecting children and supporting families.

One key message from this research is that it is possible to make a difference in the lives of children, young people and families by providing early help, particularly if it has three core characteristics. Firstly, it needs to be provided in a way that gives the power to children and parents to express what they think their issues are and what they think would be helpful to them. Secondly, it is timely, provided when and as the families need it. Thirdly, it is easily accessed in local centres or their own homes and at a time that works for them. 

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The UCFRC research tracked a major programme of Prevention, Early Intervention and Family Support (known as Partnership, Prevention and Family Support, PPFS) undertaken by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency from 2015 to 2018. The programme seeks to transform child and family services in Ireland by providing services which are provided when and where families need them, are responsive to the difficulties families are having and include the views of family members.

The programme has five distinct but complementary and interwoven components: Parenting Support and Parental Participation; Public Awareness (increasing awareness of where to access help among the general public); Children’s Participation (enhancing child and youth participation at all levels of their involvement with Tusla); Commissioning (the funding of services) and the development of the ‘Meitheal’ model

The Meitheal model is Tusla’s flagship programme for providing early help and is embedded within the organisation’s area-based approach to working with children, young people and their families. The model aims to ensure that the needs and strengths of children and their families are identified, understood and responded to in a timely way so they get the help and support needed.

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Our research shows that Tusla is getting better overall at providing early help. More widely, the culture and practice of Tusla is changing and it is becoming more preventative in focus and inclusive of parents and children. The research is showing that Meitheal is welcomed by families and is making a positive difference to their lives. Importantly Meitheal is improving outcomes for children and young people over time, particularly from the perspective of mothers. Maternal well-being was the most significant predictor of family outcomes suggesting that supporting mothers is key to supporting families.

Over time, this approach may help reduce the numbers of children and young people entering Tusla’s child protection system as families ask for and receive help at an earlier stage with any difficulties they are experiencing. The study also demonstrates good work by Tusla, benchmarked against international best practice, in listening to and including children, in its policies and the capacity of the front-line workers.

The research indicates promising results from Tusla’s work in supporting parents through its Parent Support Champions programme. While the public’s awareness of Tusla increased over the study, the research findings have shown that families turn to and depend on family and close friends in the main for help and support.

Minister Katherine Zappone must back Tusla in spirit and with resources to realise the early promise of the Partnership, Prevention and Family Support programme

As with all services, there is plenty of room for improvement and further development in the Partnership, Prevention and Family Support programme and our research highlights these areas. This programme does not contain a magic wand and will not solve all issues families face, but it is showing positive results which need to be continued. One key issue for Tusla is to find a way to communicate its fundamental, unequivocal responsibility to protect children, alongside its role in providing help to children and their parents as early as possible. 

Beyond this, the Minister for Children Youth and Family Affairs, Katherine Zappone and her department must back Tusla in spirit and with resources to realise the early promise of the PPFS programme. Tusla note that almost 19,000 children and young people received a family support service from January to June 2018. The minister needs to leverage the engagement of other departments and relevant agencies (such as Health, Education, Justice, and the HSE) to ensure all front-line professionals working to help those 19,000 children, young people and their families are doing so together. 

Dr John Canavan is Senior Lecturer and Associate Director of the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre at NUI GalwayDr Carmel Devaney is a Lecturer at the UNESCO Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ