More social workers will not keep children safe

Mon, Jun 14, 2010, 01:00

OPINION:Having an overloaded child protection system would be very dangerous for children at high risk, writes HELEN BUCKLEY

IN RESPONSE to recently exposed weaknesses in the State child protection services, children’s advocates have called for an increase in the number of social workers employed by the Health Service Executive (HSE. Yet, however worthy this aspiration may appear, it is based on two somewhat dubious premises – that the principal deficit in the system is a shortage of social workers, and that HSE social workers are best placed to address the problem of child abuse.

If there is a serious intention to deal effectively with vulnerable children, the Minster of State for Children and the Government should pause for thought before making a commitment that may turn out to be short-sighted and misguided.

Notwithstanding the fact that the HSE requires a minimum allocation of staff to carry out statutory functions such as planning for children in State care, focusing on this sector as the principal agents for child protection could be self-defeating.

There is international evidence that expanding the numbers of statutory social workers (as opposed to expanding the number of social workers in schools, health services, NGOs and community organisations) does not increase child safety and, in fact, decreases it.

In New South Wales, the numbers of social workers in the department of community services was doubled from 1,000 to 2,000 in 1999, following serious concerns about the quality of child protection services. The numbers of social workers per child prior to the staff increase were, proportionately speaking, similar to the current situation in Ireland and, therefore, make for a realistic comparison.

The expansion coincided with new legislation on mandatory reporting and resulted in much higher numbers of reports being made to the services. Centralised intake systems were set up to streamline the capacity of the services to respond. Despite these efforts, the effect of the new legislation and policies resulted in the system turning into an administrative nightmare.

The ability of services to respond was undermined and resulted in even higher thresholds for entry to the service, with large numbers of reports being eliminated without a proper response. This in turn meant that reports were re-referred over and over resulting in even greater chaos. Ten years later in 2009, following the disclosure of serious system failures, the New South Wales government set up a special commission which produced the Wood Inquiry report. This report, which examined the entire child protection system, acknowledged that the vulnerable children in NSW were actually less safe than previously.

As Prof Dorothy Scott, a highly respected contributor to government policy in Australia, pointed out: “An overloaded child protection system, like an overloaded casualty department in a hospital is very dangerous, for children at high risk, for children at some risk, for children at low risk, for children already in care, for other parts of the service network and for those who work in the child protection system.”

As a consequence, the NSW government and the federal government of Australia have introduced significant and quite different legal and policy reforms, which curtailed the number of social work positions in the statutory system and diverted them into services run by a range of different government departments.

Whether we care to acknowledge it or not, it is a well established fact that HSE social workers are regarded with fear and hostility in many communities, particularly those that are most deprived. This fact was evidenced by a report published by the office of the Minister of State for Children in 2008.

The negative image of HSE social workers, largely based on misinformation about their powers to remove children, challenges their ability to engage families in a non-coercive way. Research has also shown families respond better to interventions made within their communities and through services they are familiar with such as schools and local projects. This strongly demonstrates the need for social work and family support resources to be invested primarily at a community level.

We have evidence of poor levels of collaboration between services for children. Report after report has urged all children’s services, including teachers, health workers, gardaí and community organisations to work together to protect children. Expanding the number of HSE social workers promotes the notion that the responsibility for child protection lies solely with them. Given the discomfort experienced by most professionals when they encounter child abuse, the idea of simply “passing it on” by reporting it to the HSE is comforting as it relieves them of any further involvement. Developing the HSE as the dominant child protection service will dilute the perceived responsibility of other services to an even greater extent.

Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US have by now concluded that creating a “fat” statutory child protection system is not the answer, and is precisely the wrong direction to take. The most common model of reform in these countries is generically known as the “whole of government” approach where statutory responsibility to address child protection issues is allocated to all government departments providing child and family services.

In New South Wales, for example, a tiered service model has been introduced. Accordingly, only cases reaching a high threshold, namely “risk of significant harm” should be reported to the statutory “child protection” social work system. Decreasing the numbers this way allows the statutory service the capacity to work effectively.

To enable a response to be made to the other cases, where presenting concerns are less significant but have the potential to get worse, so-called wellbeing units staffed by professionals trained in social work, social care and psychology, have been established in the departments of health, justice and education. Staff within these services, and the agencies sponsored by them, refer their concerns through the units, who will triage the reports.

The units are statutorily obliged to respond to cases that do not reach the threshold for statutory child protection, and provide a range of services through their mainstream organisations. These include parenting programmes, after-schools and targeted educational programmes, behaviour management, youth work and diversion projects. A third tier of services, for families where children are vulnerable rather than at risk, is provided by non-statutory community and voluntary services, which are also staffed by trained social workers, social care workers, psychologists and work with vulnerable families. Ireland is not the only country to have been found wanting in terms of child protection, and we should take the opportunity to learn from the experiences of other jurisdictions who have managed to restore confidence in their services.


Dr Helen Buckley is a senior lecturer in the School of Social Work and Social Policy and course co-ordinator, postgraduate diploma in child protection and welfare at Trinity College Dublin. She is also a senior research fellow in the children’s research centre at TCD

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