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When it comes to the State’s must vulnerable children, we don’t seem to learn from our failures

The annual report from the Ombudsman for Children highlights the failure to tackle systemic gaps in the State’s obligations to vulnerable children

The annual report from the Ombudsman for Children (OCO), Dr Niall Muldoon, reveals a continuing failure of the State to address systemic problems concerning particularly vulnerable groups of children.

The office received 1,790 complaints in 2023, a slight reduction on 2022. As previously, education was the most complained about issue, representing 40 per cent of all cases. While some of these complaints related to issues where resources were involved, like access to school places and transport, others highlighted a failure to put in place protocols and systems to address shortcomings that have been repeatedly highlighted.

Our education system still does not deal comprehensively with the needs of children with a range of disabilities. The case of a non-verbal child with autism who was restrained in a wetsuit while in school revealed the fact that the Department of Education had not provided any guidance to schools on how to deal with situations where mechanical restraint might be needed. Following the intervention of the OCO, the school drafted a new Positive Behaviour Support and Restrictive Behaviour Policy, but the report states: “The school has informed us that it found drafting and ratifying this policy challenging in the absence of any guidelines from the DoE.”

In another case, a child whose behaviour was found challenging in school, and who was being assessed for ADHD, was refused a place in transition year because of his behaviour. In investigating this case, the Ombudsman’s office learned that the Department of Education had no national transparent policy available to parents and schools to guide allocation of transition year places, which are decided by schools locally.


The health service and Tusla together accounted for half of all the complaints received. Complaints about health included those about services within hospitals, Camhs, Children’s Disability Network teams and HSE-funded services for children. Many of the complaints related to issues highlighted in previous years. These included children being detained in hospital without any medical need because there was no suitable alternative, an issue raised in 2020 by the OCO following a complaint on behalf of a boy called Jack. Further, the Ombudsman pointed out that he had first raised the issue of delays in treating children with scoliosis in 2017, yet this had still not been resolved.

Some of the cases involving Tusla related to how complaints were dealt with, and Tusla addressed the concerns relating to these individuals. However, the Ombudsman specifically highlighted the continuing problems of children who are especially vulnerable due to their behaviour, mental health issues and disabilities. They need access to appropriate residential services that can provide the necessary therapy and, where possible, a pathway to safe and independent living.

The only secure service for such children is special care under the responsibility of Tusla, requiring a High Court order to detain a child for a short period, but, as the report points out, “despite the clear legislative framework directing that a child cannot stay in special care for more than nine months, many children are detained in these units far beyond this time frame due to a lack of step-down places,” in some cases up to two years.

The office conducted outreach visits to secure care units in 2023, where its staff saw children exhibiting institutionalised behaviours and behavioural regression as a result of the prolonged detention. “Staff told the OCO that the crisis of securing step-down placements was exacerbated by the increased privatisation of residential units, with 60 per cent of providers of this care being private. Staff in special care also told us that in some cases private providers of step-down services are reluctant to offer places to children in special care due to their risky or sometimes criminal behaviour.

“Many of these children may be in State care and are often the children living in ‘special emergency placements’ which simply should not be part of our care system. We have called for legislative changes to stop the placement of children in unregulated settings and focus on ensuring that we have a range of safe, caring placements for all children,” the report states.

The other side of the coin is that there are children desperately in need of a secure care place, but none is available because about half the beds are closed due to staffing issues, and some children who should no longer be there cannot be released due to lack of alternatives. Here the Ombudsman is repeating the concerns expressed by successive judges of the High Court hearing the applications, who have been calling for Government action to remedy the situation for a decade.

The remit of the Ombudsman for Children is to investigate complaints that the actions of a public body or organisation have negatively affected a child or children, and the great majority of the 1,790 complaints received in 2023 were resolved. However, it also has a remit to promote the rights of children and make recommendations to Government.

Successive reports have done so. But, as Dr Muldoon stated in presenting this report, many of the recommendations remain unimplemented years after being made. This is especially true when it comes to children with special needs due to disability, or who have mental health or behavioural problems arising from traumatic early childhoods.

Commenting on his 2023 report, Dr Muldoon said: “It is clear that the same issues are coming up again and again for children. This Office has investigated those issues and reported on them and made recommendations around them. Promises have then been made by the Government, and broken ... It seems that in the Ireland that we live in today, outrage, and there was plenty of that from both the Government and Opposition, does not equal action.” It can only be hoped that this will be rectified by the next government.

Carol Coulter is former legal affairs editor of The Irish Times and executive director of the Child Law Project. She writes here in a personal capacity