By John Molloy Date Posted: Tuesday, 8 June 2010   John Molloy is Irish. He is a qualified teacher and has an MSc in Child Protection and Welfare. He started as a teacher in a residential care setting in 1977 working in Special Education. Subsequently he worked in the Voluntary Sector in Emergency and Mainstream Care. He spent 17 years working with Irish Travellers in both residential and aftercare areas. Currently he is Director of Home Again, a voluntary organisation working in partnership with the Health Service Executive to provide residential placements for young people in the Dublin area. He is currently Chairperson of the Resident Manager’s Association and is an Executive member of Social Care Ireland.  


A personal reflection on the state of social care for children and young people in Ireland

I’ve always thought on looking at the history of Irish residential child care that any changes and developments in the latter have occurred in strange ways. Up until the 1970s most residential child care resources were run by the religious orders and contracted by the Department of Health or the Department of Education. Some of the bigger institutions like the special schools or detention centres were also run by the religious orders and funded on a per capita basis by the Department of Education. It was in these institutions that the worst of the abuse which the  Ryan Commission was concerned with took place. At the same time there were a number of voluntary sector organisations running smaller children’s homes. These were often non-Catholic or non-denominational. Sometimes these were funded on the basis of charitable public donations, by wealthy benefactors, or from funding obtained through the Church of Ireland or the Methodist Church. A small number of them were run by “spinster” style elderly ladies, who are still spoken  about – often fondly –  today.

My recollection is that throughout the 1970s there was an expectation that everything in Irish residential child  care and education would change. This expectation was no doubt influenced by decisions made in 1967 at the time of the foundation of the health boards and when local county councils ceased their involvement in supporting the funding of care services. This was a new grouping of health care providers.  In all eight health boards were established to cover the 26 counties. At first these began partly to fund the voluntary sector, but they did not develop new services directly. Some of the voluntary organisations were still relying on benefactors and donations throughout the 1970’s. The health boards’ reluctance at this time to develop services of their own may have been influenced by the generally held impression that the voluntary organisations appeared to have great wealth behind them.

At the same time research findings, highlighting the dangers of institutionalisation, were influential in leading to the closure of some of the bigger institutions. These were replaced by children’s homes more in keeping with the trend towards smaller group living provision.  Gradually as it became apparent that the state was intending to fund and develop its own services other problems began to emerge. Some of the voluntary organisations saw themselves losing their autonomy and their influence and decided to close. Others allowed the health boards take over their services ; often handing over valuable property to ensure the service continued. The number of voluntary sector organisations diminished dramatically. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s the health boards increasingly opened their own child  care resources throughout the country.

By the late 1990’s the two main sectors – the voluntary and the health board were the only services in place in mainstream social care. Education continued to run the special schools. As the health boards expanded the voluntary sector contracted. However the health boards were reluctant to take on the operation of all the services which had been previously provided by the voluntary sector. This created a void in the service and, during the late 1990s, resulted in the opening up of the private sector. Whereas the voluntary sector had negotiated budgets for the overall cost of the service, often bringing to the table resources that would match the funding provided by the state, the private sector charged the state for the service provided for each individual young person.  Some provided this on a non-profit making basis, while others were clearly in the profit making business. The private sector mushroomed not only because of the shortages of places available for children but also because of the reluctance of  the other two sectors to offer services for some of the more difficult cases.

The growth in the private sector continued throughout the Irish economy’s  “Celtic Tiger” years and came to a sudden stop with the recession. Today most children’s homes in mainstream care are provided directly by the HSE – the renamed health boards. It is difficult to provide an overall picture about the number and situation of the private sector services. They are spread all over the country, often providing services to young people a long way from their home community. One reason often put forward for this is the cost factor since rural house prices are lower than those in urban areas.

The voluntary sector has continued to shrink. In 2002 there were 14 voluntary organisations providing more than one service and today there are seven.

Just how much the overall situation has changed since the 1970s and the 1980s, is evidenced by the most recent count in South West Dublin where there were 11 mainstream residential services provided by the health boards and only one by the voluntary sector. There were at least seven private sector organisations in that area, although others were providing services to children from that area in areas well outside of the region.


How these changes have influenced the quality of residential child care provision

Looking for examples of good quality practice in residential child care in Ireland since the 1960s is difficult because everything has been overshadowed by the criticism of residential provision inherent in all that has emanated from the Ryan Commission and from the subsequent Murphy Report. Furthermore little or nothing of a positive nature seems to have been published elsewhere. A great deal of the written material – such as the Kennedy Report (1970)  –    has been focused on the need for reform but little is available which paints a picture of how or if that reform took place. After that we seem to enter the era of what might be termed ‘the abuse reports’. The first of these, The Hughes Report in 1986 looked into abuse at the Kincora Children’s Home in Northern Ireland.  In the Republic of Ireland the first  “Guidelines for the Reporting of Abuse” were published in 1977 at the same time as the closure of the old discredited institutions like Daingean and Letterfrack.

These large institutions were replaced with newly designed establishments which were split into three or four units, each with up to 16 beds, often with bedrooms for three or four children per room. The first of the new group homes for younger children was founded around that time at Madonna House but even that was soon to run foul of allegations when it became the focus of another scandal. There was a subsequent inquiry and a further report in 1996 describing abuse which had occurred there. It would seem that in all the different kinds of publications, residential care for young people was defined by the litany of reports and inquiries into child abuse in residential care settings.

Nonetheless there are examples of homes that built up strong reputations for being very good. One such home was Mount St. Vincent, in Limerick. It developed a reputation for its work with children and their families. In the 1980s, many of those interested in the Limerick developments went to visit “The Mount” to see what they could learn. What they found was a manager (Sr. Phyllis Moynihan, a member of the Daughters of Charity Order) who was strongly supported by Ger Crowley, a very enlightened local health board child care manager. The combination of these two driving personalities was the key to The Mount’s success. Unfortunately any success stories there are about residential child care in Ireland have tended to be reliant on the personality of one driving force. When that person retires or leaves the quality of the service has almost invariably diminished.

In the 1980s and the early 1990s Traveller Family Care took on a very positive role in working with traveller children, young people, and their families. Recognising that what they were previously doing was not working they developed a way of working with the travellers that not only recognised their different cultural background but also took on board the importance of recruiting traveller parents into “shared care arrangements.” This was a type of fostering that seemed to work within the traveller community. Traveller Family Care also developed a unique aftercare regime that worked well in a traveller context. Since there was no model for them to follow they had to be innovative in their ways of doing things, often using Maori and other aboriginal sources to seek solutions to the problems they faced.

The Amiens Street Children’s home built a strong reputation for working with young people in Dublin’s inner city within a local community context. Again, recognising the importance of the support of the local community, of family strengths, and stressing the significance of not removing children and young people from their home environment, Amiens Street has over the years remained consistently successful in its work.

The more I think about it, the more places I can think of, but I am very conscious that what I know of them is anecdotal –    through “the grapevine” – and I believe it is frustrating that there is not a place where successful practice can be recorded and collected. On the other hand I am aware that within the context of Irish social care  some have felt that it does not do to advertise your successes too much. The danger is that social workers getting to know the burgeoning reputation of a children’s home will often insist that their most difficult youngsters be inappropriately placed there.


The current situation of residential child care in Ireland : small can still be beautiful

Most recently, the publication of yet another report, the Murphy Report (2009) about clerical sexual abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese has further adumbrated the world of social care in Ireland but it seems to be dropping off the media radar more swiftly than other recent reports. The focus in the media coverage on this latest report was on the actions of the Catholic hierarchy in covering up what had happened, and the subsequent demand for resignations. There was no focus on how so many abusing priests had used their positions of trust in local communities to inveigle their way into the lives of so many with such horrific consequences. No one dared to suggest that we learn from this to look at other positions in the community which could be used for similar purposes. Perhaps the media and the rest of us have become exhausted by the whole business of child abuse and yet it is something that if we want to our children to be safe and protected in the future we cannot allow ourselves to be complacent about. I think that in Ireland some myths have built up about the influence of Christianity and Catholicism and what some claim to be the inappropriateness of their medieval thinking and governance.  My feeling is that we are dealing with processes which are much more human and primitive than any medieval thinking.

The two recent reports have led to a wave of anger towards the catholic church, its leaders, and the ordinary religious sisters, brothers and priests. The media have fed into this without any attempt at balance. In a country where services are run and often dominated by personalities, much of the progress in the provision of child care services in Ireland was driven by religious personalities. One only has to think of people like Fr. Michael Sweetman, Fr. Peter McVerry, Sr. Stan Kennedy, Bishop Des Williams; not just visionaries in our field, but at times the conscience for a society that needed to be reminded of its duty to our young.

Yet when I see the problems social care faces in other countries as they respond to problems using a purely  managerialist evidence based approach I am consoled that here in Ireland it is perhaps fortunate that we have care services that are “personality driven”  and parochial. We have our problems, but we also have a very personal way of working around them.



Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (Ryan Report) (2009)

Dublin Department of Justice Equality and Law Reform (2009) 

Report by Commission of Investigation into Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin  (Murphy Report)    Dublin Government of Ireland (1970)

Reformatory and Industrial Schools Systems Report.  (Kennedy Report)   Dublin   Stationery Office

Hughes, W.H. (1986) Report of the Inquiry into Children’s Homes and Hostels Belfast: HMSO


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