Children’s Ombudsman warns of pandemic knock-on impacts as complaints surge almost 80%


THE OMBUDSMAN FOR Children’s Office saw a 79% increase in complaints last year, with a large proportion relating to challenges faced by children and their families during the Covid-19 restrictions.

In 2021 there were 2,126 complaints made to the Ombudsman for Children’s Office, with 908 of these directly related to Covid-19 issues, according to the Ombudsman’s annual report.

These issues included restrictions in schools, uncertainty surrounding the Leaving Certificate, facemasks and supports for children with disabilities.

The largest number of complaints (787) came from Dublin, followed by Cork (340), Galway (319) and Limerick (319). Over half of the complaints in 2021 related to education, with 10% of those relating to bullying.

“Children are often recognised for their ability to learn, to adapt, to endure difficulties, to recover and to accept change,” Ombudsman for Children Dr Niall Muldoon said ahead of the publication of the report later this morning.

“But even the strongest of us have our limits and in 2021 even the most resilient child was tested.

In 2021 children, and indeed the public services providing for them, had to simply ‘get on with it’. Children were expected to make-do with the stop-start nature of school, they were expected to make friends behind masks, and they were expected to accept the cancelled plans, the curtailed experiences.

“The impact of the past two years can be clearly seen in the issues being raised with the OCO and I expect that there will be a knock-on effect for years to come.”

He said an investment in children’s futures and commitment from government is needed to ensure the State does not miss the opportunity to do things better.

Case studies

A number of case studies are highlighted in the report, including a 12-year-old girl who has dyslexia who faced a two-year delay in getting a laptop for her schoolwork. An application on her behalf when she was 10 years old was refused with no explanation or information on how to appeal the decision, the report notes.

The refusal had been communicated to her parents through a short, hand written note. The Ombudsman’s office said the girl’s diagnosis and the needs outlined in the application should have been enough for her to qualify for this assistive technology.

It was not until a second application was made, after she moved schools, that her laptop was approved. Her school principal told the Ombudsman that it had been more difficult for the child to reach her academic potential with no laptop, particularly during school closures. 

The report also included details of complaints about housing issues that were impacting on children.

In the case of a brother and sister, named as James Junior and Rosie in the report, the family had been living in emergency accommodation since 2018. Rosie had been born into emergency accommodation and due to a health issue at birth doctors wrote to the local authority expressing concern about the suitability of accommodation provided. 

“Unaddressed maintenance and repair issues at the emergency accommodation, including a hole in the ceiling which let rain in were other issues included in the complaint,” the report notes. 

The Ombudsman’s office engaged with the local authority, escalating communications to the Director of Operations level after initial questions went unanswered. In November last year the local authority identified a three bedroom house for the family. 

“When we last spoke to the family in January 2022 they were delighted with their home and how having their own place had improved their lives,” the report states.

James [the children’s father] spoke of improvements to his overall mental health and Patricia [the children’s mother] talked about less of a strain on the couple’s own relationship. Both went on to say that James Jnr and Rosie were ‘like different children’ and that they loved having their own room.

The report also highlighted a complaint from a foster carer, named as Anne, who expressed concern about three children aged between nine and 12 years old that she and her husband were caring for. 

These concerns included:

  • Sexualised behaviours
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Reckless self-endangerment
  • Violent outbursts
  • Destructive behaviours
  • Disclosures of neglect
  • Disclosures of alleged sexual abuse
  • Stealing from home/school/shops
  • Disclosures of being taught to steal
  • Flight risk
  • Self-harming
  • Incontinence and soiling when in a heightened state
  • Disclosures of being told to self-harm, act violently and steal by a birth family member
  • Reports of hearing voices
  • Cruelty to family pets

She reported that she had to “fight” for therapeutic services on behalf of the children and the foster carer said she had paid herself for play therapy for one of the children after he had been refused services by the HSE.

In her complaint she stated that in the five years since the children were first received into care, no service had been identified to address the trauma the children had experienced. 

The Ombudsman’s office engaged with Tusla and the social work team around the children. The report states that significant steps were taken to resolve issues and funding has been provided for one of the children to engage with a suitable trauma informed therapist. 

Tusla has confirmed it will complete a short-term specific intervention with the other two children, but this will not be provided on a longterm basis. This short-term service has yet to commence, the report notes.

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