A child in Tusla's foster care service was not visited by a social worker for over three years, according to the Health Information and Quality Authority.

An inspection report of foster care in the north city area of Dublin showed there were at least 63 children overdue a statutory visit at the end of March this year.

There were four further cases whereby "it was unclear if they had an up-to-date visit" and almost all of these cases were the responsibility of one office.

Data provided by the service in advance of the inspection showed there were 422 children in foster care, with 277 placed in general foster care and 145 placed in relative foster care.

According to this data there were 287 foster care households managed by Tusla's service area, according to HIQA.

Managers told inspectors there were six social work and three senior social work practitioner posts vacant on children in care teams.

Information provided by the area also showed high levels of staff turnover.

It became apparent through a review of files that there were significant periods where children in care were not visited in line with statutory requirements.

As a result, inspectors looked at 20 children's files to review the frequency and quality of statutory visits.

Children were visited in line with regulations in only eight (40%) of the 20 files reviewed by inspectors.

In one further case, the child was visited by a social care worker, in the absence of a social worker.

In the remaining 11 cases (55%), children were not visited in line with regulations.

Seven of these cases were escalated to managers as visits were significantly overdue at the time of inspection.

Visits to children in their homes had been restricted during Covid-19 and in lieu of this, social workers relied on phone and video calls to contact children.

However, the report noted that Covid-19 restrictions did not account for the gaps in statutory visits found by inspectors on the files reviewed as part of this inspection.

In one case, the child was seen outside of their placement nine months prior to the inspection, but
inspectors found the last statutory visit to the child in their foster home took place in January 2019 - three years and two months prior to the inspection.

In a second case, the last video call recorded was one year and five months prior to the inspection and
the last time the child was visited by a social worker pre-dated this.

In a third case reviewed by inspectors, the child was visited the week before the inspection but there was a 15-month gap since the child's previous visit.

HIQA said while the majority of supervision and support visits to foster carers were good quality, the lack of visits to children and foster carers meant that basic measures to ensure good safeguarding of children in care were not in place.

An urgent compliance plan was issued to the Area Manager after the inspection as a result of these risks.

HIQA has said that Tusla's Dublin North City area provided it with satisfactory assurances in relation to how the service was addressing these issues.

Dublin North East Regional Chief Officer Eilidh MacNab said she "fully acknowledged" that there were areas of practice that were not to the high standards expected.

Speaking on RTÉ's News at One, she said: "We are taking immediate action to address these issues from the inspection in March and we've had significant improvements."

She said that while Tusla cannot "stand over" the findings of the HIQA report, children were not in danger.

"It may well have been that the child has been seen but it hasn't been recorded. Equally it's important to say that there was no child at immediate risk in any of the cases discussed by HIQA.

"When there was concern regarding a child the response from Dublin Inner City was immediate.

"All 63 children now have an allocated social worker. The children identified as not having a statutory visit have been visited. How that happened we can't stand over. Equally there have been significant changes in oversight and governance."

Ms MacNab also acknowledged that retention and recruitment of staff is an ongoing concern.

"There are occasions whereby we don’t have enough staff but equally we have to ensure that we have contingency to ensure that children are seen. There has been unprecedented referrals to the department increasing year on year," she said, adding that the role of a social worker is "a very demanding job."

Vivian Guerin, Chairman of the Irish Association of Social Workers, said that social work is a challenging job and there is a turnover issue due to difficulties in social worker retention and studies showing that it can be especially hard to retain staff in certain areas

He said that a fundamental issue is that there are insufficient numbers of social workers on a per capita basis compared to other countries and that Ireland is "way below the numbers".

He said there are 5,000 social workers registered at the moment, providing critical service for society and Government, but he does not believe there is a national strategic plan or leadership.