Short breaks and respite services for children with disabilities in Armagh and Newry once again had to be cancelled or postponed due to various pressures.
And there could be further disruption to services in the days ahead.
The situation – relating to Oaklands in Armagh and Carrickore in Newry – has again led to demands for a regional residential short break or respite centre.
It comes after previous occurrences led to face-to-face meetings with parents and politicians and assurances given that the situation was in hand.
But Mr McNulty now says that is not the case.
He said: “Carrickore and Oaklands provides specialist care for those children with the most challenging care needs. The care the children receive at both centres is compassionate and it is specialised, and is much needed by the families.
“The families love their children dearly, but sometimes that short break is needed so parents and often other family members can plan activities away from the family home.
“In recent weeks I have been contacted by parents who have advised they have had scheduled time in both centres cancelled. We’ve been here before and it just throws families’ often long-standing plans out the window.
“These short breaks in Oaklands or Carrickore are a vital part of the care packages for all of the families concerned.”
Mr McNulty blamed “pressures in the system” in the situation arising again.
He added: “There are some young people with very specialist needs and they must be catered for. The effort to try to cope with some young people’s needs has forced the Trust to partially close some facilities with staff redeployed to deal with pressures in the system.
“This is not good enough. I am in no way questioning the care necessary for every child, but there are major problems when the system is failing to cope when some young people’s care needs suddenly change. The impact means services for many families are cancelled across both facilities.
“In addition to this, the Southern Trust continue to struggle with workforce planning needs. Numerous posts are vacant and when staff sickness happens then the system grinds to a halt.”
The MLA said he had written to Trust chief executive Shane Devlin raising concerns.
“I fully acknowledge the work the Trust are doing,” he said. “They need more help from the Department centrally.
“I am pleased to have received assurances that progress is being made on the staffing issues and that the service will be restored in the time ahead. I am however still alarmed that this has happened yet again. These young people are our must vulnerable in our society, they need our care and our support as do their families and carers.
“There needs to be progress made on a regional short break service and it needs to be made without any further delays.”
In his response, Mr Devlin said “an emergency situation” had arisen in a family recently which resulted in Carrickore having to admit a young person unexpectedly to the short breaks unit for full time care on a short-term basis.
This had meant “short breaks provision for other children is being adversely affected, but for a limited period of time”.
Mr Devlin wrote: “Whilst the Trust has done a great deal of work over the last two years to extend our comprehensive range of support services for children with disabilities and their families, including a new residential care unit in Carrickore, Bluebell House, the three beds within this new full-time care service are already full. Staff are still being recruited, but securing the full complement needed has been impacted by the regional shortage of learning disability nurses.
“Bluebell House needs both Band 5 and Band 6 nurses because of the complexity of the children’s needs, and difficulties in being able to appoint to these posts has meant nurses from our short breaks services have had to provide the care needed by these children. Bluebell House is their home at present, and staffing it safely has to be prioritised, resulting in a reduced level of staff for short breaks.
“The remaining staff are now providing care for the young person recently admitted to the short breaks unit, with limited capacity to provide short breaks for other children.
“Staffing levels have also been adversely affected by high levels of extended sickness – some as a result of injuries through work – and by several maternity leaves. Again, the shortage of nurses regionally has meant it is very difficult to appoint cover for maternity leave and some of these positions remain vacant, also impacting on capacity.”
The chief executive said the Trust has made “extensive efforts” to increase staffing levels, even temporarily, through a range of means.
And he added: “Children’s Disability Services have now secured a short breaks foster care placement on a shared care basis for the young person referenced, and he has had a number of positive introductory visits to their home.
“A plan is in place for this to progress to three overnights per week from 25th March 2019, which will create some capacity within Carrickore.
“This should mean the need for Oaklands’ staff to help provide care for the young people in full-time placements in Carrickore will reduce, and Oaklands’ service should exponentially return to normal.
“Oaklands has continued to provide short breaks and the Fun Days service (3pm to 8pm) during the recent difficulties, but at a reduced level.
“However, the rota for a full overnight service has already been drawn up for week commencing 25th March, and the managers will be drafting the rota for the following two weeks early next week.
“It is likely that some Fun Days will unfortunately be cancelled but it is hoped that Oaklands full overnight and Fun Days service will resume mid-April. It should be noted this is dependent on the young person settling into his new placement, thus reducing staffing needed in Carrickore 3-4 nights per week.”
The Trust advertised, shortlisted, and will be interviewing for two of the outstanding permanent Band 6 learning disability nursing posts in Carrickore on April 1, and is “continuing to try to recruit to 3 vacant Band 5 positions. These new appointments, plus 1 Band 6 nurse and 1 Band 4 support worker returning from maternity leave at the beginning of May, plus 2 staff returning from long-term sick leave in May, should mean Carrickore will be able to resume increased provision of its short breaks service, as well as the full-time care needed for the other children. In the meantime, a reduced service will continue to be provided to those children with the highest level of need, as staffing levels permit.”
Mr Devlin said the Trust “fully appreciates the importance of short breaks for families of children and young people with disabilities, and we will continue trying to resolve the recent difficulties as quickly as possible”.