Children in care left without dedicated social worker due to staff shortages

Allocation of social workers in Carlow/ Kilkenny/ South Tipperary described as ‘chaotic’

Problems with the allocation of social workers were highlighted in the Hiqa report but it also found that the ‘vast majority of children spoke positively’ about their experience of foster care. Photograph: iStock

Problems with the allocation of social workers were highlighted in the Hiqa report but it also found that the ‘vast majority of children spoke positively’ about their experience of foster care. Photograph: iStock

 

There is also an “ongoing challenge” for Tusla to recruit and retain a workforce that can deliver a high-quality, safe and equitable service to all children in foster care, the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa) has said.

This shortage is having an impact on some services, and inspectors found significant regional variations in the proportion of foster children assigned social workers.

A Hiqa report published on Tuesday details how more than a fifth of children in care in the Carlow/ Kilkenny/ South Tipperary area were not allocated a social worker specifically designated to take long term charge of their cases.

Inspectors found in May 2019 that social worker allocations in this area were “chaotic”, and children experienced frequent changeovers.

When inspectors returned in October 2020, however, they found the number of children without an assigned social worker had reduced from 72 to 30.

Speaking with inspectors in focus groups during 2019, staff in the area said they had lost confidence in the senior management team some time ago, although they welcomed the appointment of a new principal social worker.

It was noted that staff retention in this region was poor and there were ineffective measures in place to address the high turnover rates.

Across Dublin South West/ Kildare/ West Wicklow 19 per cent of children had no assigned social worker, while 18 per cent in the Mid West and 17 per cent in the Midlands had not been allocated one.

Six of the 17 service areas reviewed by Hiqa had ensured every child and young person had a designated Tusla worker.

The Tusla child and family agency has a duty to allocate a social worker to a child as soon as it identifies he or she needs to be admitted to care, the report notes.

‘Not good practice’

While acknowledging that failure to assign a child a dedicated social work was “not good practice”, Hiqa said that sometimes it was due to staff vacancies or extended leave for staff, meaning the “full allocation of all children in care was not possible”.

However, “vital” oversight required for unallocated children was “poor” in three service areas.

Some children had experienced several changes in social workers, while some had not yet met theirs.

“The significant message received from children in care was that when they had a long-term stable social worker they received a good service,” the inspectors said.

The “vast majority of children spoke positively” about their experience of foster care and the relationships they had made within the families, they added.

The significant deficits in foster care capacity in the Cork area had been flagged as a “major concern” in 2018. During the 2019 and 2020 visits, inspectors found that 35 children had not been assigned a placement.

The shortage of foster families led to some children remaining at risk at home or experiencing multiple placement moves.

Nationally, there are not enough foster carers within the Tusla system, despite “significant” recruitment drives, the report notes.

Improvements were noted in the Galway/Roscommon’s service for Traveller children. A revamp of services led to 61 per cent of Traveller children being cared for by Traveller foster families in May 2020, compared to just 3 per cent in 2014.

Hiqa said the “overarching” high compliance levels found across 13 of the 17 service areas in relation to their aftercare support is a “significant and welcome improvement”. The commitment to supporting children leaving care in these areas was “very evident”.

Tusla’s deputy chief executive, Kate Duggan, said the report shows there are still improvements to be made but efforts to provide a consistent and safe service have been recognised by Hiqa.

“Overall, our services have learned from previous inspections and have been consistently improving… There are still areas which require improvement, and these challenges are being addressed.”

There are currently 3,820 children in general foster care and a further 1,524 being fostered by relatives. Tusla said it is “always interested” in hearing from people considering fostering a child. A recent campaign for foster carers for separated children seeking international protection resulted in 614 enquiries, it said.