Analysis: Children at risk as pressure grows on frontline social work services

Reports over safety and welfare of children have grown by 98% since 2007

After years of rhetoric by the State over cherishing the children of the nation, the Government has moved over recent years to introduce concrete measures to protect young people from harm. One of them is the new Children First Bill, which will legally oblige professionals and others working with young people to report child-protection concerns to social services.

It is a move which has been widely welcomed by campaigners and those involved in promoting children’s welfare.

Will our frontline services though be able to cope which what, inevitably, will lead to an increase in referrals? There are real reasons to be concerned. New figures show the volume of concerns over children at risk reported to social services has increased by some 98 per cent over the last seven years, up from 21,000 to 41,600 . Much of this is linked to increased awareness over child-protection issues and high-profile care scandals.

However budgets and staffing levels are nowhere near to reflecting these increased demands. The reality is services are likely to be under significant pressure over the years to come.

Even now, many cases are not getting the kind of rapid response they require. Latest figures, for example, show that some 9,000 reports of suspected abuse, neglect or welfare concerns – 3,500 of which are classified as “high priority cases” – are waiting to be allocated a social worker.

While social services say that all urgent cases are dealt with immediately, there are always risks when waiting lists are involved: the longer it takes to intervene in a case the higher the likelihood of a concern turning into a scandal.

“Cases can easily escalate and a family in difficulty very quickly can become a family in crisis,” says Donal O’Malley, chairman of the the Irish Association of Social Workers. “Early intervention and family support is crucial to avoid problems escalating . . . By not intervening early enough, there is a danger of awful things happening or children ending up in care.”

Once mandatory reporting is introduced, all indications are that the referrals may grow even more rapidly. In New South Wales in Australia – where mandatory reporting was introduced in 2000 – there was a six-fold increase in the volume of referrals.

The Child and Family Agency has said it is working on new ways of filtering referrals to ensure social services focus on those children in most serious danger. The less serious or welfare cases could be dealt with by community services. In addition, it maintains that the new agency will be more co-ordinated than services which until recently were provided under different State agencies .

This is the theory. In the meantime, many frontline social services are struggling to cope with heavy caseloads and scarce resources. The Health Information and Quality Authority, for example, has estimated that some social work teams are operating at 70 per cent of their intended staffing levels. This, it said recently, was having an inevitable impact on what child- protection teams are able to deliver.

If anything, pressure on frontline services appears to be growing. This week the Ombudsman for Children Emily Logan expressed concern that "safe social work" was not possible in parts of the country. While she said authorities had moved to address some of the issues she raised in a recent investigation, she expressed concern at how continued resource shortages would affect the sector.

She has a real point. The Child and Family Agency is saddled with legacy legal debts and is likely to run more than €20 million over budget by the end of the year. The State has proved all too good in the past at spouting rhetoric over cherishing the children of the nation, but the reality is it faces major challenges ahead in ensuring the most vulnerable among them are adequately protected.

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