Poor services plus risk of trafficking and prostitution for missing children

Freedom of Information documents seen by Village show the health services know that children who go missing from their care end up in very risky situations. The health services are also worried about the quality of services they give them and the lack of resources allocated to these children



The HSE suspects that children who have gone missing from their care have subsequently ended up being trafficked or put into prostitution.

Internal HSE reports show that it is concerned about the vulnerability of unaccompanied minors seeking asylum under its care, the quality of service it gives them and the lack of resources allocated to these children.

Documents seen by Village under FOI show two internal reports carried out by the HSE into services for unaccompanied minors seeking asylum in the Southern Health Board (SHB) and the East Coast Area Health Board (ECAHB).

A recent ECAHB report, from 2005, says that it suspects that some of the children who have gone missing from its care are being used for trafficking or prostitution. "Some teenage girls are suspected to have been trafficked for prostitution. Research in other countries has identified a pattern of traffickers placing separated children in care until they are ready to move them on into illegal employment." It continues: "we cannot underestimate the vulnerability of this group in care."

Under a section entitled, "Current issues", it says there is a lack of appropriate placements for these children: "substantial resources are required for the provision of appropriate placement to reduce the risk of young people going missing from the service". It also says that gardaí have expressed concern about the lack of staff in hostels when they have gone to investigate the cases of missing children.

The SHB report from 2003 highlights the vulnerability of non-national children seeking asylum here: "In our experience many of these young people have required therapeutic intervention in relation to the post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anger management and the effects of stress. For the majority of these young people the social worker assigned to them... is the only significant adult in their lives." It also expresses concern about the service it is providing for the children: "we have increasing concerns about the adequacy of the service we provide to these young people".

Correspondence between the HSE Eastern region and the Department of Health and Children highlights the problems with funding for services for these children. The HSE wrote to the Department of Health and Children in March 2005 and said: "The most pressing issue in relation to the safety and welfare of this group is the continuing deficit of appropriate services, facilities and staff. You may recall as far back 2001 the urgent requests of the then ECAHB for additional resources. Unfortunately in the main such requests remained unanswered despite repeated submissions." In 2004 the ECAHB submitted a proposal to the Department for €7.3 million in additional funding, but it was turned down.

A year ago Village reported on 48 non-national children who had gone missing while under the care of the ECAHB in 2004. We reported that these children had been housed in private hostel accommodation with little supervision and no inspection by the Social Services Inspectorate (SSI); and when they went missing not all of them appeared on the Garda missing person's website. In the year since, some improvements have been made, eg the hostels have employed night staff to supervise the children, and the HSE has allocated 24-hour supervision to the 12- to 16-year-old group. But, despite this, children are still going missing.

Over 3,000 children seeking asylum in Ireland have come under State care since 2000. Two hundred and fifty have gone missing. In the first ten months of last year, 154 came into the care of the HSE Eastern region. Thirty-one went missing in the first seven months of 2005. Only 11 of these children have been found, yet not all of the 20 still missing appear on the Garda missing person's website. In 2005 14 unaccompanied minors seeking asylum came under the care of the HSE Southern region. Six of these went missing, and three were subsequently located.

Missing non-national children make up the majority of children that go missing in Ireland. At present there are 34 missing non-national children on the missing children's website, missingkids.ie

Twenty of these children went missing in 2005. It seems that 13 of these children were under the care of the HSE Eastern region and went missing from hostel accommodation (this cannot be confirmed by the gardaí or by the HSE as it does not discuss individual cases, but their accommodation address suggest that they were in hostel accommodation). According to the HSE Eastern region figures, there are 20 children still missing, who disappeared between January and August, yet there are only nine on the missingkids website that went missing from the Eastern region in that timeframe. On the Garda missing persons list there are only six.

It is not clear why there is a discrepancy between the numbers of children currently missing from State care and those on the Garda missing person's list. The HSE says it reports all missing children to gardaí, and gardaí refuse to discuss individual cases.

Although the HSE Eastern region has increased the level of supervision at the hostels in the last year, a failure to adequately vet all staff working at the hostels is putting the children at risk. Additionally, the hostels they are accommodated in are not inspected by the SSI, which inspects all residential units accommodating Irish children in State care. The SSI has expressed concern at this.

In its 2003 Annual Report, the SSI recommended that the hostels "should comply with inspection requirements and should be inspected and registered as are all other children's residential centres." Its 2004 report states: "apart from the advancement of separating children aged less than 17 years from those aged 17 and over, there was little evidence of progress being made regarding the standards."

The HSE inspected one of the hostels with the hope of registering it in the future so that it comes under the remit of the SSI. However, the SSI does not feel that this hostel meets the requirements for registration yet. Its 2004 Annual Report said: "From an account of the staffing situation alone, it would seem that his hostel would not meet the National Standards for the purpose of registration".

Talks between the Department of Health and the HSE are to begin soon with the aim of placing the hostels under the remit of the SSI. The HSE also said it hopes to vet all staff at the hostels in the future.

There are additional problems once the children have gone missing from their hostel accommodation. Their cases do not get the same kind of publicity as when Irish children go missing. One of the reasons for this is that the HSE is acting as guardian to the children and it does not seek the same kind of publicity as parents of Irish children do. Another reason is that the Garda feel the need to protect the confidentiality of a child in care and are therefore reluctant to release information on the child.

Village asked the HSE Eastern region why there is a lack of publicity when these children go missing. They said: "The HSE and the gardaí work closely on the issue of missing children and, where it is believed it may be of assistance in a particular case, a decision is made to include the case in public campaigns. In these cases a joint decision is taken."p