READING FOR CHILD
AND YOUTH CARE WORKERS
Police Clearance of Child and Youth Care Students in Ireland: Some Observations from an Educator’s Perspective
C. Niall McElwee, Editor, Irish Journal of Applied Social Studies, President, Irish Association of Social Care Educators
This article seeks to explore the issue of students on social care courses (Child and Youth Care) attempting to obtain criminal background checks or ‘clearance’ from the Irish police (called Garda Siochana in Gaelic) to work with vulnerable children and young people. It argues that the police will need to be more proactive than has been the case heretofore in terms of child protection and welfare and that both social care students and practitioners must continue to politicise this issue if it is to be resolved in the near future. It appears as if the issue of third-level student police clearance just will not go away. At present, the police are not obliged to provide students of social care with clearance whilst they are studying for their Certificates, Diplomas and Degrees, despite the fact that these students have access to some of the most marginalised and vulnerable populations in this country. This has led to an unsatisfactory situation between the established third-level providers of education and training and some social care agencies where students might ordinarily locate practicum experience in terms of allocating responsibility for this process.
The Irish Association of Social Care Educators has been collectively pursuing the issue of obtaining police clearance for some time now1. Mildred Fox, TD for Wicklow (an area in the south east of the country), made representations to the Minister for Justice in April 2000 after a formal communication on the matter by the aforementioned IASCE2. Despite this, we await action.
The New Landscape of Social Care Provision
The long-awaited 1991 Child Care Act has created a dynamic and new working landscape for child protection and welfare and the police have been given a central role as advocates in the arena of child protection and welfare in addition to their more traditional role of law enforcers. The public is now more enlightened with regard to child abuse and neglect and child protection and welfare and is less willing than in the past to simply allow the situation to remain unchanged. The Child and Youth Care practice organisations (Irish Association of Care Workers and Resident Managers’ Association) have also lobbied the relevant government departments for change across a number areas such as training, qualifications, registration and professional status (McElwee, 2000).
So, why the need for such an article? It comes out of a communication from the Director of one prominent residential social care agency providing care for young offenders who recently wrote to the Heads of Courses in the Irish Association of Social Care Educators sector advising them of his concerns in an era of increasing understanding of child sexual abuse3. Specifically, he has raised the issue of ‘unsuitable’ people gaining access to vulnerable children. In his circular to the Heads of Social Studies, the Director comments:
Of course, Keating is not the first Child and Youth Care professional to raise such concerns. One has only to remember back to the influential Kennedy Report (1970) which paved the way for the development of child care services and the later Task Force on Child Care Services (1980) to witness such concerns in the field from ‘experts’. Nonetheless, this is an important and timely topic for consideration as Keating is the first Director of a social care centre to formally pursue this matter with the Irish Association of Social Care Educators. I anticipate many more joining in this debate in the near future.
The (Initial) Response of the Police
The Irish Association of Social Care Educators contacted Garda Headquarters in Dublin in January 2000 outlining its concerns as educators of social care practitioners. The Association was informed that:
What is the Current Situation for the Police in the Irish Republic?
From 1994, the police were obliged to carry out background checks ‘in respect of full-time prospective employees in the health care area who would have substantial access to children or vulnerable young people’ (O’ Donaghue, 2000, italics my emphasis). This leaves students of social care courses in no-man’s land until either they graduate or their student status is recognised in itself. A number of potential legal problems remain unresolved for students, colleges and employers such as what happens if a college discovers that a student has a criminal prosecution in year two of a three-year course or should the colleges differentiate between prosecutions?
A comprehensive review of police ‘clearance’ arrangements has now been undertaken and an internal Working Group was established by the Gardai to look into an effective response from the Police. The Garda Commissioner has also established an ‘implementation group’. The current situation is that Garda Headquarters has recommended the establishment of a central vetting unit to process applications for Garda clearance, but remains unclear if applications by students going on placement will be considered (McHugh, 2000).
Is This Enough?
As with so many things in Irish life, an interim working solution has been found. Students are being advised by all of their Heads of Departments to apply for Garda clearance through the DATA Protection Act (1988) under section four. They are to give their full names, current address, date of birth and a request fee of £5. In this manner, we can partially overcome the issue — for the moment. One might be forgiven for thinking this might be enough, but I fear that it is not. The ‘suspicions’ of police are not included in this data bank at all, nor is written material on people (as distinct from computerised data). As with many systems, the computerised records require consistent updating. Thus, we are very limited in the currency of any information we can retrieve from data banks. In addition, when we do finally receive information on our students we are bound to encounter other problems. Some colleagues feel, for example, that a drink driving offence should not count against a student’s progress, whereas other colleagues feel that it should be taken most seriously by a course board as it might be an indication of weak moral character!
Should Police Clearance be the Role of the Police?
As with most organisations, the police are over-stretched and under-resourced when it comes to deployment of personnel. This is also a relatively new area for the Gardai to consider and moves them away from their more traditional duties and obligations in law enforcement. Perhaps the vetting process could better be done with trained civil servants (who themselves have had rigorous criminal background checks) based in a Garda office than by active qualified Gardai themselves. Perhaps an entirely separate agency should be created with a specific remit in this area. Another option is to seek out Gardai with a specific and articulated interest in child protection and welfare and the student Child and Youth Care community and deploy these persons in such a posting. We are all only too well aware that many unsuitable individuals are attracted into professions where they can have easy access to vulnerable children.
All of us involved in the field of child and youth care must continue to exert pressure on politicians, relevant personnel in the Government Departments and the police to ensure that this issue does not fall to the bottom of an admittedly overworked agenda. Students must be rigorously assessed and, as with graduate practitioners, monitored by the police and the colleges to ensure that they do not obtain a criminal record that would make them unsuitable for work with vulnerable populations. This is particularly important as more and more students are accessing further programmes of study in colleges spread throughout the country and, indeed, abroad. The professional Associations must be more demanding of our politicians and the colleges must insist on co-operation from the police on this matter.
The Irish Association of Social Care Educators was established to advocate
on behalf of educators, students and graduates in the field of child and
Irish Association of Social Care Educators. (2000). Internal Memorandum to members.
Keating, T. (2000). Letter to Irish Association of Social Care Educators. 6.6.00.
Kennedy Report . (1970). Dublin: Government Publications.
McElwee, C. N. (2000). To Travel Hopefully: Views from the Managers of Residential Child Care in Ireland. Waterford: RMA/Centre for Social Care Research.
McHugh, J. (2000). Personal Correspondence to Author.
O’ Donaghue, J. (2000). Communication to Mildred Fox, TD. 18.4.00
Task Force Report on Child Care Services. (1980). Dublin: Government Publications.
About the Author
C. Niall McElwee has been
lecturing and researching in the field of social care for a decade. He
is Director of Social Care Programmes at the Waterford Institute of
Technology, Academic Co-ordinator of the Centre for Social Care Research
at that college, founder and Editor of the Irish Journal of Applied
Social Studies and is currently President of the Irish Association of
Social Care Educators. He is the author of Children At Risk
(1996) and To Travel Hopefully: Views from the Managers of
Residential Child Care Units in Ireland (2000). He is also co-author
of a number of books including Prostitution in Waterford City: A
Contemporary Analysis (1997), Irish Society: A Reader in Applied
Social Studies (1997), Worthy Not Worthwhile: Choosing Careers in
Caring Occupations (2000). His forthcoming textbook is titled Five
Scenarios and Solutions for the Social Care Practitioner (2001).
He is also a frequent media commentator in the area of social issues and
has a consultancy practice based in County Kilkenny.