Correspondences to Margaret.Nohilly@mic.ul.ie

Introduction

Outside of the home, children and young people spend the majority of the time in school. While many children leave and return to safe and protective home environments, for other children, their childhood is significantly damaged by abusive behaviour; be it sexual, physical, emotional or neglect, or in more serious cases a combination of many or all abuse types. While abuse happens both within and outside of the family home, generally the perpetrator is known to the child. Given the amount of time that children spend in school, and the trusting relationships that are built with teachers and school personnel, it is understandable that concerns and disclosures in relation to child protection will be uncovered in the school environment (McKee & Dillenberger, 2009). Given recent changes in legislation in Ireland, all teachers now have mandatory responsibilities in reporting child abuse to the Child and Family Agency (Government of Ireland, 2015). The Designated Liaison Person (DLP) is appointed by the Board of Management of each school and has overall responsibility for child protection for that school. Indeed, both the DLP and school staff are often the only voice for a vulnerable child whose abuse and suffering may not be seen or heard (Nohilly, 2019). This paper reviews the responsibilities of DLPs and teachers in reporting and managing child protection concerns. Findings of a survey completed with primary school DLPs are presented, illustrating that while there are supports available to them in their role, the challenges are numerous.

Teachers’ Responsibilities in Child Protection Work

Since the implementation of all sections of the Children First Act in 2015, all teachers registered with the Teaching Council are mandated persons for child protection. Mandated persons have two main legal responsibilities under the Act; to report the harm of children above a defined threshold to the Child and Family Agency and to assist the agency, if requested, in assessing a concern which has been the subject of a mandated report (Government of Ireland, 2015). While the responsibilities of teachers are very clear, historically teachers have been reluctant to engage with the child protection system (Nohilly, 2019). Buckley and McGarry (2010) highlight that the small amount of research evidence that exists in the Irish context indicates teachers’ commitments to fulfil their child protection obligations is fragile. A number of factors can impact on a teacher’s ability to identify and report abuse, including; the category of abuse presenting by the child, teachers’ lack of ability to identify symptoms of abuse, their concerns and fears about the negative consequences of reporting, and their feelings of anger and helplessness when they do report and a child continues to remain in difficult circumstances (Kenny, 2004; Walsh et al., 2006; O’ Dowd, 2008). The role of the Designated Liaison Person in supporting teachers and all school staff to meet their responsibilities regarding the identification and reporting of child abuse is therefore paramount.

The role of the Designated Liaison Person

“Both public and private organisations that are providing services to children should consider appointing a designated liaison person in keeping with best practice in child safeguarding” (Department of Children and Youth Affairs, 2017, p. 35). Given that the Department of Education and Skills (DES) Child Protection Procedures are based on the Children First national guidance, the appointment of a DLP for each school is a key responsibility of each Board of Management. Essentially, the DLP is the resource person and first point of contact for any member of school staff who has a child protection concern. Furthermore, they are the ‘liaison’ person with all organisations in relation to child protection matters including the Child and Family Agency and An Garda Síochána. The DES Procedures recommend that the role is undertaken by the school principal (Department of Education and Skills, 2017). This is a hugely demanding and responsible role and, of all of the tasks charged to the principal, possibly the one that causes them the most concern and challenge, as suggested by a study by the Irish National Teachers Organisation (INTO, 2008). Indeed, the role has likely become more demanding since all sections of the Children First Act were implemented in 2017. As teachers now have mandatory reporting responsibilities, this requires more from DLPs in terms of supporting staff and ensuring that the legislation and the requirements of the DES Procedures are adhered to. Amongst all of these administrative tasks is the compulsion to ensure that signs and symptoms of child abuse do not go unnoticed so that the most vulnerable children in the school are heard and are seen.

The Current Study

The current study sought to ascertain the experiences of DLPs in Irish primary schools, following the changes in legislation in 2017 and, in particular, the introduction of mandatory reporting of child protection for teachers. Ethical approval for the research was sought and granted by Mary Immaculate College of Education. The email addresses of all primary schools in Ireland for 2017/8 were sourced from the publicly available school database on the DES website. The survey was emailed to approximately 3,248 schools in March 2019. An information note accompanied the survey, outlining the purpose of the research and requesting that the survey be shared with the DLP of the school. Of the 3,248 emails, 27 were not delivered as the email addresses were incorrect or obsolete, resulting in 3,221 being delivered. Responses from 387 DLPs were received, reflecting a response rate of 12.01%. The respondents served in a variety of types of primary school and had varying years of experience in the role; from less than one year to over twenty. Not all of the questions were addressed by all respondents. The question which received the lowest response rate asked the respondents to identify any supports in carrying out DLP duties.

A fixed mixed methods design (Creswell & Plano Clarke, 2011) using a concurrent embedded approach (Creswell, 2010) was employed for this research in order to provide a comprehensive analysis of the research problem. The quantitative approach was the primary method (e.g. closed, fixed questions, rating scales, etc.) and the qualitative approach (e.g. open-ended questions inviting elaboration and explanation of meaning/experience) was the secondary method which was embedded within the quantitative approach. Hence, both closed and open questions formed part of the survey.

This paper focuses on questions related to supports and challenges for DLPs namely: ‘Identify anything that supports you in carrying out your duties as DLP’ and ‘Identify any challenges you encounter in carrying out your duties as DLP’. Both questions allowed for an open-ended response where DLPs could elaborate on the particular supports and challenges encountered. Analysis of the qualitative data typically echoed Braun and Clarke’s (2006) thematic analysis where data was initially coded with sample data extracts, codes were sorted into potential themes, themes were reviewed using data extracts, and a thematic map was generated. The findings section presents a brief commentary of the supports identified in the role, and the challenges as noted by the respondents.

Findings: Supports and Challenges in the Role of DLP

Analysis of the responses in relation to the supports available to DLPs highlighted that the main supports available included; the ‘Children First’ national guidelines and Department of Education and Skills ‘Child Protection procedures’, support from staff members (the Deputy DLP was specifically referenced in a number of responses), training courses attended by the DLPs, support from other Principals and also from Networks including the Irish Primary Principal’s Network and the Catholic Primary School’s Management Association. Tusla social workers were also identified as supports to DLPs in their role and responses also indicated that experience in the role, coupled with knowledge of families were supportive factors. Table 1 provides a breakdown of the responses received from those who addressed the question and representative of the total number of survey participants.

Table 1

Supports available to the DLP in carrying out their duties

% of 309

% of total respondents

Deputy DLP

14.6

11.7

Tusla

27.8

22.4

Staff

21

16.9

Training

15.2

12.2

Guidelines

12.9

10.4

IPPN

8.4

6.8

BOM

10

8.1

Child protection guidelines and procedures

11

8.9

Knowledge/experience

3.5

2.8

CPSMA

6.1

4.9

Other- examples included advice from other DLPs, knowledge of families and the Home School Community Liaison Teacher (in DEIS schools)

20

16.1

A number of challenges to the role of DLP were identified, including; paperwork and administration, preparing the Child Protection Oversight Report, the time involved in undertaking the role, dealing with the Child and Family Agency, dealing with parents and families, lack of training for the role, making ‘judgement calls’ as DLP, the emotional toll and isolation of the role, the Board of Management and Department of Education and Skills inspections.

The particular challenges DLPs are dealing with can be illustrated by a sample of the qualitative responses:

“Paperwork. When you are dreading a Child Protection case more because of the paperwork that will ensue as opposed to the actual harm being done to the child, it says a lot. I know that comes across badly but the paperwork is stupid and takes time away from dealing with the issue”.

“Ensuring all other support personal have skill set necessary to carry out their duties if needed- no formal support from DES received in this regard for staff to negotiate, contextualise and to engage in a sense-making process (all training for staff was ad hoc on a system level basis- only as good as any individual school put in place)”.

“I'm not sure if they would all stick to the procedures if a disclosure was made. I do worry about this and confidentiality”.

“Speed of Tusla responses”.

“Knowledge of a family can cloud judgment i.e. over familiar with circumstances”.

“Small rural school/familiarity with all families/ reporter easily identifiable/ DLP lives locally”.

“Emotional weight of managing a difficult situation; making a judgement on whether something is a CP issue (e.g. child walking home to an empty house?)”.

“Having the strength to tackle the difficult issues at a local level. Knowing when to intervene”.

“Loneliness of the role; not having a team of others to confer with (even confidentially); the gravity and seriousness of child protection e.g. getting it wrong - the consequences for the child and/or the consequences for a family or the person reporting”.

The quantitative responses coupled with the qualitative data presents a broad and wide-ranging summary of the scale of the supports, but particularly the challenges of the role.

Discussion

While the study indicates that there are supports available to DLPs in their role, the challenges that are presented are significant. These include practical aspects, such as the requirements of oversight reporting and preparing for child protection inspections. The qualitative responses highlight the solitary and emotionally challenging nature of the role.

While the Department of Education and Skills have prepared templates available on the child protection section of their website, it is clear that training for DLPs and indeed all school staff is a compelling requirement that must be addressed. Training should address both the ‘implicit’ and ‘explicit’ barriers to reporting. Explicit barriers refer to building knowledge in relation to the child protection procedures and knowing the steps to follow so abuse can be detected or reported. This training is available, but presently the DES only sanction DLPs and Deputy DLPs to attend. Implicit barriers are far more complex to address as they relate to an individual’s belief system and wider cultural views of children, including their rights and child protection and this requires a deeper level of consideration (Bourke & Maunsell, 2016).

A range of training supports—from regular face-to-face training, on-line refresher courses and reporting templates—could go a long way to address both ‘implicit’ and ‘explicit’ barriers to reporting.

Training and space for reflection needs to be made available, not only for DLPs but for all school staff who are the eyes and ears for children who otherwise may ‘slip’ though the net unnoticed, all the while abuse prevails across their childhood. A structured support system for DLPs who navigate this complex and challenging role on a daily basis would also ensure greater supports for vulnerable children.